Best of 2023: Musical Artists We Lost This Year

2023, you didn't do right by us. In fact, you were much harsher than your previous counterparts in your culling of beloved musicians. Never discriminatory, you took singers and songwriters from across the musical spectrum. Your reach extended across the global community too. It’s always a bittersweet wrap-up when remembering these musical influences that have passed. I feel the roll call was too large this year, however. 

Losses were felt most keenly this year, but especially in genres near and dear to me. Genres so ingrained in my musical DNA that I structured trivia events around them in 2023. The yacht rock community was especially hard hit, as well as those who favor listening to holiday carols this time of year. And sometimes these losses blurred the lines and transcended both communities. 

On the first day of 2023, we lost Fred White, Hall of Fame drummer for Earth, Wind, and Fire. He played drums on the very Yachty “After the Love Has Gone”. The EWF family also lost another member on May 23, former guitarist Sheldon Reynolds. I had the enjoyment of witnessing their infectious grooves this past August when they opened for Lionel Ritchie at the United Center. It’s nice to know that this band from Chicago is still going strong. In fact, they will be touring in the upcoming year with another famous Chicago band, Chicago! 

David Crosby, a senior officer on the yacht, was lost to the music world on January 19. You would be hard pressed to find a more accomplished or influential singer/songwriter in the world music landscape. As a founding member of both The Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the hits piled up. The Byrds helped usher in folk music as a top 40 force in the mid-60s with hits like “Mr. Tambourine Man”, "Turn! Turn! Turn!" and "Eight Miles High". Crosby’s harmonies continued in so many CSN (&Y) classics like "Teach Your Children", "Our House" and “Ohio”. In my opinion, CSN’s fourth album, Daylight Again, buoyed by the songs "Wasted on the Way" and "Southern Cross", solidified CSN and Crosby as certified yacht rockers. 

The Atlanta Rhythm Section were rocking the yacht early in the seventies, giving us the top ten hits “So in to You” and “Imaginary Lover”. Co-Founder Dean Daughtry passed on January 26 of natural causes. On March 14, Bobby Caldwell died but left behind the yacht rock classic "What You Won't Do for Love", a song covered and sampled by such hit makers as Michael Bolton, Boyz II Men, and Tupac. 

Canadian songwriter Gordon Lightfoot died on May 1 at the age of 84. Along with his number one hit “Sundown”, Lightfoot wrote the instantly recognizable hits "Carefree Highway", "If You Could Read My Mind" and "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald". After his passing, the bell of The Mariners' Church in Detroit tolled 30 times: 29 times for the Edmund Fitzgerald victims and once for Lightfoot.  

The Eagles have always been a lightning rod in terms of their inclusion on the Yacht Rock pantheon. Randy Meisner, co-founder of The Eagles and co-writer of their first million selling single, "Take It to the Limit", passed away on July 26th. Despite this long-standing argument, I feel there is room for him, The Eagles and his other well-known band, Poco.  

The Dream Weaver himself, Gary Wright, died on September 4. He was a founding member of the British band Spooky Tooth but gained much more traction as a solo performer. He was also a session keyboardist, working on most of George Harrison’s studio albums and on Ringo Starr’s #4 hit “It Don’t Come Easy”. His two hits from the Dream Weaver album, the self-titled first single and the second single, “Love Is Alive”, both reached #2 and are staples on my own yacht rock playlist. Along with his 1981 hit “Really Wanna Know You”. 

For fans of Christmas and holiday carols, this was no holly jolly year in terms of artists we lost. Although Charlie Thomas was not a member of the Drifters when that soulful group recorded their unique version of White Christmas, he was a big voice in the Ben E. King iteration of the Drifters, singing lead or backup on such classics as “There Goes My Baby", "Sweets for My Sweet" and "When My Little Girl Is Smiling". 

Harry Belafonte, one of the most influential and transcendent voices on the global stage took his last bow on April 25, leaving behind a legacy of music, acting, and activism that touched the lives of millions. The artist with the first ever million selling album, Calypso, Belafonte was a globe trotter. He was born in New York, spent his formative years in Jamaica, and served in the US Navy in World War II. Belafonte would pick up gigs as a singer to pay for acting classes he was enrolled in, alongside such luminaries as Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis and his long-time pal Sidney Poitier. His early love of folk music started his climb to musical success but when he began melding that with his Jamaican roots, the iconic Calypso was born. The hits were many. The acting roles were many. The human rights causes were many. His 1958 album To Wish You a Merry Christmas, is in heavy rotation with me this time of year.  Though not on this album, Belafonte’s treatment of “Mary’s Boy Child” is exquisite in its arrangement and timing. I had the privilege of seeing him perform twice at Ravinia. I will never forget being enthralled by his gravelly-voiced stories before he flipped some kind of switch and crooned his classic hits with the smoothness of a rich Jamaican rum. My Christmas setlist and, indeed, my life’s setlist feel the loss of Belafonte quite deeply. 

Singer and actor Ed Ames passed away on May 21. His rendition of “Do You Hear what I Hear” is on par with Bing Crosby’s own version. His vocalization on “Away in a Manger” is as deeply reflective as any carol out there. Roger Whitaker, another baritone, was a global success with over 50 million albums sold worldwide. Included in that count are a few Christmas albums, yielding the evocative “Ding Dong Merrily on High” and “The Rocking Carol”. He passed away on September 13. 

Yet another of those timeless voices to leave us this year, on July 21 to be exact, was the legendary Tony Bennett. Not many singers are worthy of that title but legendary just seems to fit this icon that was able to reach and resonate with all generations. His early successes with “Because of You”, “Rags to Riches”, and “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” were just the beginnings of a career that racked up 20 Grammy awards, Kennedy Center honors, and a Guinness World Record for the oldest person to reach number one on the album chart at 88 years and 342 days. But his success was bittersweet. After enjoying huge popularity, he had difficulty keeping up with his contemporaries in the 60s and 70s, refusing to adapt his songbook to more pop-centric offerings. His decreasing popularity led to a cocaine overdose in 1979. But he rebounded magnificently, leaving behind a Las Vegas lifestyle for a more down to earth return to playing smaller clubs and theaters. His son Danny started booking him on more TV shows, putting him in front of diverse audiences. He would frequently be seen on Letterman or Conan or even The Simpsons. He also collaborated with younger performers, including Christina Aguilera and Lady Gaga, the latter with which he won the 2015 Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album. His voice resonated perfectly with the Christmas season, and I enjoy listening to Snowfall: The Tony Bennett Christmas Album during this time of the year. 

Accomplished pianist George Winston passed away on June 4. He will be long remembered for his triple-platinum album December.  This poignant offering is not only a Christmas staple, but also a hypnotic mood lifter for any day of the year. His other passion was Hawaiian slack-key guitar. Winston founded Dancing Cat Records in 1983 and used this platform to help other slack-key artists gain notoriety and success, including my all-time favorite slack-key guitarist, Keola Beamer. The most recent Christmas related death this year occurred on November 30 with the passing of Shane MacGowan of The Pogues. A prominent Celtic punk-rock band, The Pogues will always be enshrined in the happily irreverent wing of Christmas classics with “Fairytale of New York”. Sung as a duet with the late great Kirsty MacColl, this song is regularly voted as the favorite (or favourite!) Christmas song in the UK and Ireland. 

So, yes, those are monumental losses for any calendar year. But for specific, very niche-y, genres, those losses are ruinous. Of course, the losses were felt in so many other genres. And the losses were in most cases shocking. Please refer to my earlier posts this year to learn about the lives of Tina Turner, Sinéad O'Connor, and Jimmy Buffett. Ah, Buffett, now there’s a personality that arguably transcended yacht rock and Christmas music. 

Eight-time Grammy winner Jeff Beck passed away on January 10. Named a top five guitarist by Rolling Stone magazine, Beck was influenced by legends like Les Paul, Ravi Shankar, and Lonnie Mack, and in turn became an influencer to countless guitar heroes. He was a volatile presence, being fired by the Yardbirds for his no-shows and temper flare ups. He did not have the most commercially well-known discography, but he collaborated with a veritable who’s who of rock royalty. On one of his most famous recordings, “Beck’s Bolero”, he roped in fellow rockers Jimmy Page, Keith Moon, John Paul Jones, and Nicky Hopkins. One of my favorite Beck recordings is his version of “People Get Ready” with former bandmate Rod Stewart. And speaking of busting boundaries, Beck’s version of “Amazing Grace” on the album Merry Axemas: A Guitar Christmas is both virtuosic and simple at the same time. Pure genius. 

Robbie Bachman, founding member and drummer of Canadian hit makers Bachman-Turner Overdrive died on January 12. His percussion drove the band to success with five top 40 albums and six top forty singles. Later, on April 29, his brother and (also) co-founder of BTO, Tim Bachman passed away. They are survived by their brother, and co-founder as well, Randy Bachman. 

Another Canadian legend, Robbie Robertson passed away on August 9. Before becoming the Band, Robertson played in Levon and the Hawks. They reluctantly interviewed with Bob Dylan and ultimately became Dylan’s touring band. As the Hawks began finding their own unique sound, they parted with Dylan. Their string of hits validated this break. “The Weight” launched them on their journey. Not commercially successful at first, it eventually became a rock staple due to its cover-ability, especially by the likes of Aretha Franklin. It has been incorporated into countless movie soundtracks, most famously Easy Rider in 1969. Robertson played guitar on tracks for the likes of Ringo Starr, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, and Eric Clapton. He also scored many Martin Scorsese movies, the last one being Killers of the Flower Moon. 

This was a tough list to narrow down. I am saddened that I didn’t mention so many more worthy artists that were lost in 2023. Like guitarist Gary Rossington of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Or songwriting machine Burt Bacharach, who wrote 73 top 40 hits. Or Denny Laine, co-founder of not only The Moody Blues, but also Wings. All musical standouts who will be sorely missed. May they all rest in peace. And may 2024 do better by us. 

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