The recent release of my Love Right project has made me reflect on the many others who have used music to paid tribute to those who have departed, whether loved ones or heroes and whether musicians or not. This list centers on those in the middle of this Venn diagram – musicians paying tribute to fellow musicians who were also their friends, and doing so with music created for that purpose.
This rules out things like Jimmy Greene’s recent work (which isn’t a tribute to a musician but is a model for any artist looking to courageously use art to remember a lost loved one), “Free Bird” (which was repurposed as a Duane Allman tribute after it had already been written), Bill Evans’ rendition of Danny Boy (an incredibly emotional tribute to Scott LaFaro, but not his own composition), and the voluminous catalogue of tributes to musicians based on their inspiration and not close personal relationships (from Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” for Lester Young to Don McLean’s “American Pie” to my own “Now!” for Max Roach). This particular confluence of elements is so embedded in my last few years’ work that I won’t expound on it here, but will simply invite you to check out some of this music if you find the notion to be potent and/or just want to hear ten great songs.
1 ) “I Remember Clifford” by Benny Golson
At least in the jazz world, few deaths have rocked the community as Clifford Brown’s did – he was so young, so brilliant, and so widely beloved. Benny Golson’s tribute has become such a standard part of the repertoire that one could play this beautiful ballad without even thinking about its substance, but that substance adds even another vital layer. Not surprisingly, it became a particularly fruitful vehicle for emotionally potent tributes from fellow trumpet players, beginning with its first recording, by Donald Byrd, with Lee Morgan, Dizzy Gillespie (my personal go-to, for no quantifiable reason, if I had to pick one), Kenny Dorham, and Art Farmer following suit within less than two years.
2 ) “Big Bird” by Eddie Floyd
This hard-grooving and incredibly potent song was written soon after the tragic death of Floyd’s friend and Stax label-mate Otis Redding. As much as I dig Floyd’s other music (if you’re not hip to him, you’ve likely at least heard “Knock On Wood”), I honestly have no idea how it is that this song not only isn’t better-known now but wasn’t even a big hit at the time. The presence of Redding’s friends from Booker T. and the MGs on the track provides another layer of intensity both musically and emotionally.
3 ) “Phineas” by Donald Brown
Donald Brown is a tremendous pianist and composer and stands now as the living keeper of the flame of the Memphis piano lineage, where he and his friends and peers James Williams and Mulgrew Miller and their elder Harold Mabern developed and disseminated the legacy of the great Phineas Newborn, Jr., one of my own most central influences. Donald recorded this on his gorgeous (and currently out of print) Sources of Inspiration album a few months after Phineas’ passing in 1989, revisiting it twice in 1997, on his great solo piano record The Classic Introvert and as a sideman on Larry McClellan’s Movin’ Up.
4 ) “Under A Raging Moon” by Roger Daltrey
This song was actually written by Julia Downes and John Parr (yes, the “St. Elmo’s Fire” guy) for Roger as a several years after the fact tribute to the latter’s friend and longtime bandmate in The Who, Keith Moon. Roger’s recording of it is perhaps best known for the series of guest drummers who take solos one after another as the song’s bridge (including Stewart Copeland, Carl Palmer, Roger Taylor, Zak Starkey, and others), but I have a particular soft spot for the song itself, which musically harkens back to the fire of classic early-70s Who.
5 ) “Lament for Booker” by Freddie Hubbard
Booker Little’s trumpet playing was truly remarkable and his voice as a composer was quite distinct (and, indeed, had a huge developmental impact on my writing). Like Phineas Newborn, Jr., his fellow Memphis musician, he is one of the great underrated artists in the jazz lexicon, but the musicians knew. The original version of this utterly gorgeous song on “Hub-Tones” maintains a serious vibe throughout, thanks to sensitive playing from Herbie Hancock, James Spaulding’s flute on the melody, and of course Freddie’s own ability to deliver a heart-stopping ballad.
6 ) “Missing You” by Diana Ross
If one didn’t know better, one could think this was an ordinary lost-love song, and it functions perfectly well on that level as well. However, this song (not to be confused with John Waite’s hit pop song of the same era) was composed by Lionel Richie for Diana Ross as a lament for their recently-felled friend Marvin Gaye and the pathos of that is as disarming as the song is catchy.
7 ) “Ah George, We Hardly Knew You” by Don Pullen
Seldom have there been two musicians as compatible as pianist Don Pullen and saxophonist George Adams, who recorded over a dozen albums as co-bandleaders after their meaningful stint together in Charles Mingus’ band. It is not surprising, then, that Don’s gorgeous tribute to his fallen comrade would pack an emotional wallop, aided by the soulful saxophone playing of Carlos Ward both on the Ode to Life album from 1993 and the subsequent live album recorded a few months thereafter.
8 ) “Empty Garden” by Elton John
This is not the most famous Elton John tribute to a deceased famous person, of course. But with all due respect to lovers of “Candle In the Wind,” this is the one that always did it for me. His tribute to his friend John Lennon was a staple of my early days as an MTV viewer, and even then I was aware (somehow – presumably someone told me or talked about it on-air) of the backstory and the weight it added to the song.
9 ) “Make Me Feel Like It’s Raining” by Joe Locke
If you’re following along this list, I hope you like moody jazz ballads. If so, you’re in luck, because here is yet another, with both pen and mallets deployed as sensitively as you would expect from Joe Locke as he turns a quote from his friend and mentor Bobby Hutcherson into a touching soundscape. And as a bonus, the album (2018’s Subtle Disguise) closes with “A Little More Each Day,” the with-lyrics iteration of the song, delivered as an intimate and potent performance with Joe on piano and featuring vocalist Alina Engibaryan.
10 ) “2000 Miles” by Pretenders
Sadly, songs in tribute to bandmates lost to drugs are not a rare commodity in rock music, and sometimes this is addressed fairly directly, as in examples by Neil Young (“Needle and the Damage Done”) and Robbie Robertson (“Fallen Angel” for Richard Manuel). Those are great songs, but I tend to prefer the vibe of a tender lament, as in Chrissie Hynde’s tribute to the Pretenders’ original guitarist, James Honeyman-Scott. I always enjoyed this song, though the depth of its emotional potency was revealed to me on another level a couple years ago via Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem’s beautiful cover recording.