Obituaries: Wycliffe Johnson, Chris Connor, Jesse Fortune, Marie Knight, Erich Kunzel, Richard F. Cunningham Jr. and Fred Mills

Wycliffe Johnson, a keyboardist and producer known as “Steely” who helped steer Jamaican music for nearly two decades, died Sept. 1. He was 47.

Although Johnson was best-known for helping to produce numerous hits in Jamaica during the ’80s and ’90s, he first drew acclaim as a keyboardist on Sugar Minott’s 1978 album Ghetto-ology. As an 18-year-old, he played keyboards on Bob Marley’s recording of “Trench Town.”

Johnson then joined with Cleveland Browne, and the duo became known as “Steely & Clevie.” They went on to help transform dancehall — a rawer, more sparse variant of reggae — with their early embrace of digital studio technology.

Browne said that he and Johnson had been working on a tribute album of Jamaican reggae classics from the ’60s and ’70s, but it was put on hold in late 2008 because of Johnson’s declining health. Browne was unsure whether the album will ever be released.

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Chris Connor
, a smoky-voiced jazz vocalist who had numerous hits during a career that spanned more than 50 years, died of cancer Aug 29. She was 81.

She reached her greatest acclaim in the mid-1950s, recording several solo albums for both Bethlehem Records and Atlantic Records. After a period of semiretirement, Connor made a comeback in the mid-’70s. Her last public show came in 2004, when she performed on a New York club stage with noted jazz vocalist Anita O’Day.

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Jesse Fortune, a veteran Chicago blues singer who was most active in the 1950s and ’60s, died Aug. 31. He was 79.

Fortune, better known as the “Fortune Tellin’ Man,” was best known for his 1963 recording “Too Many Cooks,” which became a minor hit. He later worked with Otis Rush, Buddy Guy and Willie Dixon.

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Marie Knight, a gospel legend who came to prominence while touring with longtime musical partner Sister Rosetta Tharpe in the 1940s, died Aug. 30. She was 84.

In 1946, she began touring with Tharpe and the two became the most popular gospel artists of the 1940s with a string of hits, including “Didn’t It Rain,” “Up Above My Head,” and “Beams of Heaven.” The two toured frequently throughout the 1950s.

Knight began a comeback in 2002, working on a tribute to Tharpe. In 2007, her manager’s M.C. Records company released “Let Us Get Together,” her first full-length album in more than 25 years.

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Erich Kunzel
, the award-winning conductor who headed the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra since it was founded three decades ago, died Sept. 1 at the age of 74.

On July 4, Kunzel conducted a concert at the U.S. Capitol with Aretha Franklin. He had led the National Symphony on the Capitol lawn in nationally televised Memorial Day and Independence Day concerts since 1991.

Last year, he and the Cincinnati Pops performed in opening festivities for the Summer Olympics in Beijing. Kunzel also led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Pops in many performances.

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Richard F. Cunningham Jr., a New Jersey labor leader who helped found an organization for low-wage immigrant workers and started a punk-rock record label, died Sept. 4. He was 32.

Cunningham founded the label Happy Days Records in 2005 while still in college, naming the company after the popular 1970s sitcom whose lead character shared his name.

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University of Georgia music professor Fred Mills, who made numerous records as a trumpeter with the Canadian Brass quintet and also performed with the Houston Symphony Orchestra and the American Symphony Orchestra in New York, died Sept. 7 after a highway accident. He was 70.

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