In Case You Miss(ed) Them

Robert Craft (right), conductor/music journalist who became Stravinsky’s assistant, biographer, commentator for the last three American decades of the composer’s life, died recently at age 92.

With Thanksgiving recently past and New Year’s rushing rapidly forward, it's the time of year when columnists (and bloggers) with no better ideas turn to “Things We're Thankful For” and obituary surveys. Being the cheery, glass-half-full kind of guy my readers and editors know me to be, I’m going to focus mostly upon the latter.

But first, here’s something I actually am a bit thankful for: the fact that the small town where my 94-year-old father lives, all of 25 miles from the state capitol, finally got digital (HD) television on its small cable network. Fifteen years in, small cable operators are still protected by an exception clause to the FCC’s “must carry” rule; it exempted providers with fewer than some number of subscribers (1,500 sticks in my mind, but might’ve been 3,000). I don’t know if this expired or if my dad’s town outgrew it, or if the operator (TDS) finally noticed that there was money to be made in rural set-tops, DVRs, and HD Duck Dynasty. Whatever, I’m grateful. It’s mostly too late for the old man, who like many Americans still, has never shown the least indication of preferring (or even discerning) HD versus SD programs. But at least now when I’m up there, I can see the damned ball.

There were the usual number of musical deaths in 2015—B.B. King, Ornette Coleman, Chris Squire, Phil Woods, Ben E. King: even, Jack Ely. Jack Who? Bass-player/singer for The Kingsmen, Ely achieved true immortality by delivering the everlastingly unintelligible—to even the F.B.I.—lead on “Louie, Louie.” Seriously, will “Louie, Louie” ever be forgotten?

Two of the less noted deaths had particular resonance for me. Robert Craft passed away three weeks ago at age 92; I’d no clue he was still alive. Craft was the wünderkind conductor/music journalist who became Stravinsky’s assistant, biographer, commentator—some said “surrogate son;” some said “puppeteer”—for the last three, American decades of the composer’s life. As a young teenager I devoured one of Craft’s several Stravinsky-centric memoirs, which opened up the multiple realms of music beyond, the “Rite” and the “Firebird,” that the composer created and so became for a year or two a devoted Stravinskiian. This in turn lead to further discoveries in 20th century music in general, and ultimately to the studies in composition and theory that, through paths too torturous yet uninteresting to retell here, ultimately washed me up onto the shores of journalism where you find me languishing today.

Cynthia Robinson, original member of Sly and the Family Stone, died in 2015.

Who else died musically in 2015? Cynthia Robinson, that’s who. An original member of Sly and the Family Stone (and of preceding group Sly and the Stoners…), trumpeter/vocalist Robinson is the voice shrilly enjoining us to “Dance to the music! Get on up and dance to the funky music!” at the opening of the song (and album) that put Sly and company on the scene. Forget the band's short-lived glory days and rapid disintegration, mostly due to its leader’s erratic, drug-addled behavior: Sly and family, at the time (1968) were utterly, game-changingly epic. The band was multi-racial: a “black” band with a white sax and even a white drummer. It was multi-genre, fusing soul, R&B, and white rock into the new mosaic of funk. Perhaps even more revolutionary, it was multi-gendered; Robinson, and Sly Stone (Stewart)’s keyboards-playing sister Rose weren’t backup singers or go-go dancers, but core musicians of a band that re-wrote the rules for pop, rock, soul, and R&B, and that in their heyday slew audiences like no outfit since James Brown’s.

Without Sly, and Cynthia (the couple later had a daughter), and without bassist Larry Graham (Cynthia’s cousin), who invented the “slap-bass” style of playing that underpins much of R&B/funk/jazz music from that day to this, the musical terrain would be very different today. There would have been no Michael Jackson; no Miles’ “Bitch’s Brew”; no Prince; no Beyoncé or Kanye or perhaps even rap altogether (the Family is one of its most-sampled classic sources).

At least, not as we know them today. Dance to the music, indeed.

dmineard's picture

My headphones don't work. This is perfect.

Stephencha's picture

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