Skip to main content

Obituaries for artists, innovators who died late March to mid-May 2012

Farewell to disco queen Donna Summer, singer Belita Woods, Bee Gees founding member Robin Gibb, banjo player Doug Dillard, go-go musician Chuck Brown, bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn of Booker T and the MG's, bluegrass artist Everett Lilly, Beastie Boys member Adam Yauch, guitarist Charles "Skip" Pitts, John Christopher Ethridge II, of Flying Burrito Brothers, banjo player Earl Scruggs and blues guitarist Eddie King

NEW YORK (AP) — Disco queen Donna Summer, 63, whose pulsing anthems such as “Last Dance” and “Bad Girls” became the soundtrack for a glittery age of sex, drugs, dance and flashy clothes, died May 17, 2012.

Summer came to prominence just as disco was burgeoning, and came to define the era with a string of No. 1 hits. Disco became as much defined by her sultry, sexual vocals — her bedroom moans and sighs — as the relentless, pulsing rhythms of the music itself.

Donna Summer

Released in 1975, “Love to Love You Baby” was a breakthrough hit for Summer. She had reservations about the lyrics — “Do it to me again and again” — but imagined herself as a movie star playing a part. So she agreed to sing, lying down on the studio floor, in darkness, and letting her imagination take over. Solo and multitracked, she whispered, groaned and crooned. Drums, bass, strings and keyboards answered her cries. She simulated climax so many times that the BBC kept count: 23, in 17 minutes.

Through the rest of the disco era she burned up the charts: She was the only artist to have three consecutive double-LPs hit No. 1: “Live and More,” “Bad Girls” and “On the Radio.” She was the first female artist with four No. 1 singles in a 13-month period, according to the Rock Hall of Fame, where she was a nominee this year but was passed over for induction.

Musically, Summer began to change in 1979 with “Hot Stuff,” which had a rock ’n’ roll beat. Unlike other stars of disco who faded as the music lost popularity, Summer segued to a pop-rock sound. She had one of her biggest hits in the 1980s with “She Works Hard for the Money,” which became an anthem for women’s rights. Her diverse sound helped her earn Grammy Awards in the dance, rock, R&B and inspirational categories.

Summer, whose real name was LaDonna Adrian Gaines, was born in 1948 in Boston. She was raised on gospel music and became the soloist in her church choir by age 10. Summer released her last album, “Crayons,” in 2008.


DETROIT (AP) — Former Parliament-Funkadelic and Brainstorm singer Belita Woods died of heart May 14, 2012, in Detroit. She was 63.

Woods was lead singer of Brainstorm, whose 1977 album, “Stormin’,” featured the disco hit, “Lovin’ Is Really My Game,” and the R&B hit, “This Must Be Heaven.” She toured with the Parliament-Funkadelic P-Funk All-Stars for two decades, beginning in 1992.


The Bee Gees. Publicity photo

The Bee Gees. Publicity photo.

LONDON (AP) — Robin Gibb, 62, a founding member of The Bee Gees, died May 20, 2012, following his long battle with cancer and intestinal surgery.

Robin Gibb, along with twin Maurice and older brother Barry, used soaring falsetto harmonies to power such hits as “Stayin’ Alive” and “Night Fever.” The band was best known for the influential “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack album that became one of the fastest selling albums of all time.

The brothers Gibb, born in England but raised in Australia, began their career in the musically rich 1960s, but it was their soundtrack for the 1977 movie “Saturday Night Fever” that sealed their success. The album’s signature sound — some called it “blue-eyed soul” — remains instantly recognizable more than 40 years after its release. The Gibbs spent much of the 1980s writing songs and producing records for other artists, working closely with top talents such as Barbra Streisand, Dionne Warwick, Diana Ross and Dolly Parton. They also continued touring and releasing their own records, both as a group and as individuals. The Bee Gees were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.


NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Doug Dillard, 75, a banjo player who helped shape rock ‘n’ roll and introduce the nation to bluegrass music during a popular run on “The Andy Griffith Show,” died May 16, 2012.

Dillard, his brother, Rodney, and two band mates moved west in 1962, where they discovered the burgeoning folk scene in Southern California and helped inspire the country rock movement. They were among the first to attempt to modernize bluegrass music, electrifying their instruments and experimenting with rock elements.

Dillard also helped introduce bluegrass to TV viewers as a member of the family band “The Darlings,” which made multiple appearances on “The Andy Griffith Show” in the mid-1960s. He split with the band in the late ‘60s and began a solo career.


WASHINGTON (AP) — Chuck Brown, who styled a unique mix of funk, soul and Latin party sounds to create go-go music, died May 16, 2012. He was 75.

Thanks to Brown and his deep, gravelly voice, go-go music was uniquely identified with Washington. Go-go was heavy on percussion with drummers as lead players, accented by guitar riffs, keyboards and horns. Sometimes they would play for two or three hours without stopping. In between tunes, Brown would keep the thunk of percussion going and talk to the crowd. Brown’s hit “Bustin’ Loose” with his group, the Soul Searchers, helped define go-go’s sound. It spent several weeks atop the R&B chart in 1979.

When he was younger, Brown spent some time in jail. While behind bars, he traded five cartons of cigarettes for his first guitar. After he was freed in 1962, Brown played with several bands and then formed the Soul Searchers. To comply with terms of his parole, they couldn’t play where alcohol was served, so they went to churches, recreation halls and youth centers. In 2005, he was named a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts.


Booker T and the MG's publicity photo

Booker T and the MG's. Publicity photo.

NEW YORK (AP) — Donald “Duck” Dunn, 70, the bassist who helped create the gritty Memphis soul sound at Stax Records in the 1960s as part of the legendary group Booker T. and the MGs, died May 13, 2012, while on tour in Tokyo.

Dunn was one of the most respected session musicians in the business. He worked (along with MGs bandmate Felix Cropper) with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd’s Blues Brothers as well as with Levon Helm, Eric Clapton, Neil Young and Bob Dylan.

Dunn was born in Memphis, Tenn., in 1941, and according to the biography on his official website, was nicknamed for the cartoon character by his father. His father, a candy maker, did not want him to be a musician. But by the time Dunn was in high school, he was in a band with Cropper.

Cropper left to become a session player at Stax. Dunn soon followed and joined the Stax house band, also known as Booker T. and the MGs. One of the first racially integrated soul groups, with two whites (Dunn on bass and Cropper on guitar) and two blacks (Booker T. Jones on organ and Al Jackson on drums), the group had its heyday in the 1960s as backup for various Stax artists. Dunn played on Redding’s “Respect” and “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,” Sam and Dave’s “Hold On I’m Coming” and Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour.” Booker T. and the MGs had its own hits, including “Hang ’Em High,” “Soul-Limbo,” and, before Dunn joined the band, the 1962 instrumental “Green Onions.” The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Dunn received a lifetime achievement Grammy in 2007.


BECKLEY, W. Va. (AP) — Everett Lilly, who along with his brother and a neighbor formed the internationally acclaimed bluegrass band Lilly Brothers and Don Stover, died May 8, 2012. He was 87.

Everett Lilly began performing professionally in 1938 with his brother, Bea, on Beckley radio station WJLS; the brothers later performed throughout the south with Stover. In the early 1950s, Everett Lilly played with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs for two years. The brothers and Stover, along with fiddler Tex Logan, moved to Boston in 1952 and stayed there until 1970, performing in bars and honky tonks as the Confederate Mountaineers.

The Lilly Brothers and Don Stover was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame in 2002.


The Beastie Boys. Publicity photo.

The Beastie Boys. Publicity photo.

NEW YORK (AP) — Adam Yauch, 47, the gravelly voiced Beastie Boys rapper and the most conscientious member of the seminal hip-hop group, died May 4, 2012. Yauch, aka MCA, had battled cancer of the parotid gland. He hadn’t performed in public since 2009 and was absent when the group was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in April.

The Brooklyn-born Yauch created the Beastie Boys with high school friend Michael “Mike D” Diamond. Originally conceived as a hardcore punk group, it soon became an unlikely hip-hop trio after Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz joined.

The group released its chart-topping debut “Licensed to Ill” in 1986, a raucous album led by the anthem “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!).” In the seven studio albums that followed, the Beastie Boys grew more musically ambitious. “Paul’s Boutique,” the band’s sonically layered 1989 follow up, was ranked the 156th greatest album ever by Rolling Stone magazine in 2003. The Beastie Boys later took up their own instruments — a rarity in hip-hop — on the album “Check Your Head” and subsequent releases.

Yauch also went under the pseudonym Nathanial Hornblower when working as a filmmaker. He directed numerous videos for the group, as well as the 2006 concert film “Awesome: I F**king Shot That!”


NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Charles “Skip” Pitts, the longtime Memphis guitar player for Isaac Hayes whose distinctive sound helped define soul and make “Shaft” cool, died May 1, 2012, following a battle with cancer. He was 65.

Pitts was responsible for the unforgettable wah-wah pedal guitar sound on Hayes’ “Theme from Shaft,” the ‘70s Blaxploitation film that remains memorable in American popular culture — mostly due to the enduring popularity of the song. He also was responsible the guitar line from The Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing.”

Schooled by neighbor Bo Diddley while growing up in Washington, D.C., Pitts first recorded when he was 15 and had a long, historic run in Memphis after moving there to join Hayes. He played with the deep-voiced soul singer for nearly four decades, worked as a session musician for Stax Records and logged time with many significant soul and blues acts, including Al Green, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, Rufus Thomas and Albert King.
Late in his career, he made appearances in movies like “Black Snake Moan,” to which he also contributed three soundtrack entries, and “Soul Men,” and performed on the score for “Hustle and Flow.”

Most recently he appeared on Green’s “I Can’t Stop” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Memphis Blues,” both of which were nominated for Grammy Awards. He released an album last fall with his band, The Bo-Keys.


MERIDIAN, Mississippi (AP) — John Christopher “Chris” Ethridge II, 65, a Mississippi-born musician, bassist and songwriter who was a founding member of the 1960s country-rock band “The Flying Burrito Brothers,” died of pancreatic cancer April 23, 2012.

Born and raised in Meridian, Ethridge moved to Los Angeles when he was 17. He collaborated with another seminal Southern music figure, Gram Parsons, on several projects, including the Flying Burrito Brothers and the International Submarine Band, and he co-wrote several of Parsons’ solo tunes.

Ethridge spent eight years on the road with Willie Nelson and can be heard on the country legend’s “Whiskey River.” With Joel Scott Hill and John Barbata, Ethridge recorded in the L.A. Getaway. In later years, Ethridge played with music luminaries including Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt and Ry Cooder, both as a session musician and touring player.


NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Pioneering banjo player Earl Scruggs, 88, died March 28, 2012.

The legacy he helped build with bandleader Bill Monroe, guitarist Lester Flatt and the rest of the Blue Grass Boys transformed a regional sound to a national passion.

Country music has evolved far beyond the classic sound Monroe and The Blue Grass Boys blasted out over the radio on The Grand Ole Opry on Dec. 8, 1945. Scruggs’ use of three fingers — in place of the limited clawhammer style once prevalent — elevated the banjo from a part of the rhythm section — or even a comedian’s prop — to a lead instrument. His string-bending and lead runs became known worldwide as “the Scruggs picking style.”

Flatt and Scruggs teamed as a bluegrass act after leaving Monroe from the late 1940s until breaking up in 1969 in a dispute over whether their music should experiment or stick to tradition. Flatt died in 1979.

They were best known for their 1949 recording “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” and “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” from “The Beverly Hillbillies.” TV series.


PEORIA, Ill. (AP) — Peoria blues guitarist Eddie King died March 14, 2012, after a lengthy illness. He was 73.

King was born Edward Milton in Alabama but moved to Chicago as a child and eventually played with blues greats like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Albert Collins. King also had his own band, Eddie King and the Kingsmen, and played guitar for blues singer Koko Taylor. He moved to Peoria in 1973.

King released albums both on his own and one with his son, Louis “Rumpy” Milton. GM