Tim Van Schmidt
This article began with Toots Hibbert. Hibbert, the vocalist, and mainstay of the roots reggae band Toots and the Maytals, died this year in September.
Hearing of his death reminded me of the very short conversation I had with him some years ago. I was trying to hook up with him for an interview and my contact gave me a phone number at a recording studio in Jamaica. I called at the appointed time, somebody answered and turned the phone over to Hibbert who only said “The red light is on, man!” meaning, of course, that his recording session was in progress.
It was only a moment, but memorable.
Throughout this year, I have been aware of other deaths in the music world, including John Prine, Charlie Daniels, Little Richard, and many others. My memory of talking to Hibbert while “the red light was on” prompted me to think of my memories of some of these other lost musicians of 2020.
For example, I connected with the late Joseph Shabalala by phone from South Africa for an interview. Shabalala was the head man for the a cappella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who was catapulted to worldwide fame thanks to recording with Paul Simon on his seminal world music album, “Graceland.” All you have to do is listen to the tune “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” to hear the group’s distinctive contribution to Simon’s music.
More than just a few words, my interview with Shabalala not only touched on making music with Simon but also went into the spiritual realm. Shabalala told me that angels often visited him in his sleep and taught him how to make his music.
I interviewed the great late Texas singer-songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker several times and he told me about running his own music company during the dawn of the Internet, thereby circumventing the usual detrimental shenanigans of the music business in general.
But my deepest memory of Walker, responsible for writing the song “Mr. Bojangles,” was standing out in the rain to hear him play one night at Mishawaka, an evening he remembered well and was blown away by because of the tenacity of his Colorado fans.
I never interviewed John Prine — but I saw him play multiple times. The first time was the best. It was at a theater-in-the-round in Phoenix with a revolving stage. For his encore that night, he brought on the opening act — Steve Goodman, another top-notch singer-songwriter — and the two literally played back-to-back while the stage moved around.
I only saw Little Richard once — at an oldies show at Fiddler’s Green in Denver. He and his big showband played his hits, but most memorable about the evening was how, in between songs, he practically howled about a bad toothache that needed attention.
I met the great jazz pianist McCoy Tyner, from the John Coltrane group, backstage after a concert in Santa Barbara. I was blown away by seeing the great blues show band guitarist Charlie Baty and his band, Little Charlie and the Nightcats, one night at a little, now a long-gone club in Fort Collins called Boomers. And I got to experience the instrumental sensitivity and intensity of pianist Lyle Mays — and the rest of the Pat Metheny Group — from a front-row seat at the Lincoln Center.
Very recently, on a trip to San Luis Obispo, California, I got to sit down and chat with photographer Baron Wolman, not a musician, but famous in the music world as the first photographer for Rolling Stone magazine. He covered everything during those exciting rock years of the 1960s, including Woodstock.
My memories are personal and other avid music fans could no doubt mirror my own remembrances with their own. And that is why it is so shocking to hear about the loss of cultural figures like popular musicians — their loss brings up the memories of the things we enjoyed and now are gone.
Here is a partial list of the musicians we lost in 2020, along with the dates they died and how old they were:
Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne) 4/1 52
Al Rex (Bill Haley & His Comets) 5/25 91
Andy Gill (Gang of Four) 2/1 64
Barbara Martin (Supremes) 3/4 76
Baron Wolman (Rolling Stone photographer) 11/2 83
Betty Wright (“Tonight Is the Night”) 5/10 66
Bill Rieflin (Ministry) 3/24 59
Bill Withers (“Lean on Me”) 3/30 81
Bob Kulick (Kiss) 5/28 70
Bob Shane (Kingston Trio) 1/26 85
Bones Hillman (Midnight Oil) 11/7 62
Bonnie Pointer (Pointer Sisters) 6/8 69
Brian Howe (Bad Company) 5/6 66
Bruce Williamson (Temptations) 9/6 49
Charlie Baty (Little Charlie & the Nightcats) 3/6 66
Charlie Daniels (“The Devil Went Down to Georgia”) 7/6 83
Dave Greenfield (Stranglers) 5/3 71
Eddie Van Halen (Van Halen) 10/6 65
Ellis Marsalis Jr. (Jazz patriarch) 4/1 85
Florian Schneider (Kraftwerk) 4/21 73
Hal Ketchum (“Small Town Saturday Night”) 11/23 67
Harold Reid (Statler Brothers) 4/24 80
Helen Reddy (“I Am Woman”) 9/29 78
Ian Whitcomb (“You Turn Me On”) 4/19 78
Jack Sherman (Red Hot Chili Peppers) 8/18 64
Jorge Santana (Malo) 5/14 68
Josh Pappé (Dirty Rotten Imbeciles) 2/1 53
Frankie Banali (Quiet Riot) 8/20 68
Jerry Jeff Walker (“Mr. Bojangles”) 10/23 78
Jimmy Cobb (Miles Davis) 5/24 91
Joseph Shabalala (Ladysmith Black Mambazo) 2/11 79
John Prine (“Hello in There”) 4/7 73
Johnny Nash (“I Can See Clearly Now”) 10/6 80
Julian Bream (Classical guitarist) 8/14 87
Justin Townes Earle (“Harlem River Blues”) 8/20 38
Kenny Rogers (“The Gambler”) 3/20 81
Little Richard (“Good Golly Miss Molly”) 5/9 87
Lyle Mays (Pat Metheny Group) 2/10 66
Mac Davis (“Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me”) 9/29 78
Malik B (Roots) 7/29 47
Manu Dibango (African saxophonist) 3/24 86
McCoy Tyner (John Coltrane) 3/6 81
Millie Small (“My Boy Lollipop”) 5/5 73
Neil Peart (Rush) 1/7 67
Peter Green (Fleetwood Mac) 7/25 73
Ronald Khalis Bell (Kool and the Gang) 11/6 49
Rupert Hine (Producer Fixx) 6/4 72
Spencer Davis (“Keep On Running”) 10/19 81
Todd Nance (Widespread Panic) 8/19 57
Tommy DeVito (Four Seasons) 9/21 92
Toots Hibbert (Toots and the Maytals) 9/11 77
Trini Lopez (“Lemon Tree”) 8/11 83
Tim Van Schmidt is a writer and photographer based in Fort Collins. Check out his interview with Joseph Shabalala and many others on his YouTube channel at “Time Capsules by Tim Van Schmidt.”