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Obituaries for Johnny Preston, Suze Rotolo, Grady Chapman and more

Farewell to musicians and innovators including Johnny Preston, Lamar Fike, Sir George Shearing, Suze Rotolo, Marvin Sease, Monte Owens, Eddie Kirkland, Grady Chapman, Peter Alexander and Maria Elena Walsh

BEAUMONT, Texas (AP) — Pop singer Johnny Preston, 71, who in 1960 had the chart-topping hit “Running Bear,” has died.

His son, Scott Preston, said the singer died March 4, 2011, at Baptist Beaumont Hospital. He had bypass surgery late last year and suffered from lingering health problems.

He was born Johnny Preston Courville and spent most of his life in Port Arthur, Texas. He first performed in the Lamar University group The Shades in 1957 and was brought to the attention of Mercury Records by disc jockey/singer J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson.

Richardson wrote and produced “Running Bear,” which became a million-seller for Preston the year after Richardson died in the same plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens. Preston followed up with another hit, “Cradle of Love.”


DALLAS (AP) — Lamar Fike, a member of Elvis Presley’s famed inner circle called the “Memphis Mafia” who had a long career in the music industry, has died. He was 75.

Fike, who was suffering from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, died Jan. 21, 2011, at an Arlington hospital, said his son, James Fike.

Elvis’ stepbrother, David Stanley, was a toddler when he first met Fike. He said Fike was “like a father figure to me.”

“He did everything first-class. He was very brilliant. He had a tremendous presence. When he walked in a room, he lit it up,” Stanley said.

Fike was born in Cleveland, Miss., on Nov. 11, 1935. James Fike said his father held various roles with Presley, including as a lighting director, bodyguard and managing Presley’s music publishing group. After Presley’s death in 1977, James Fike said that his father continued to work as an entrepreneur in the music business in Nashville, Tenn., in music publishing, managing artists and brokering music and memorabilia deals. Fike was among five members of the group dubbed the “Memphis Mafia” who incorporated the name in the early 1990s.


NEW YORK (AP) — Jazz pianist Sir George Shearing, who wrote the standard “Lullaby of Birdland” and headed a famed quintet bearing his name, died Feb. 14, 2011. He was 91.

Dale Sheets, Shearing’s longtime manager, said the pianist, blind since birth, died of congestive heart failure.

Shearing was already hugely popular in his native England when he came to the United States in 1947. The George Shearing Quintet’s first big hit was “September in the Rain,” in 1949. He wrote “Lullaby of Birdland” in 1952, naming it for the famous New York jazz club. Among the luminaries with whom Shearing worked were Nat “King” Cole, Mel Torme, Peggy Lee and Sarah Vaughan.

He remained active well into his 80s until he was injured in a fall in his New York home in 2004.


NEW YORK (AP) — Suze Rotolo, the girl pictured walking arm-in-arm down a snowy Greenwich Village street with Bob Dylan on the cover of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” died of lung cancer Feb. 25, 2011. She was 67.

Rotolo was just 17 when one of the 20th century’s greatest poets and musicians became smitten. She was Dylan’s girlfriend for three years and is credited with inspiring Dylan to inject politics into his music. Rotolo wrote in her book, “A Freewheelin’ Good Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties,” she never was paid for the album cover and it didn’t occur to her to ask. She later became an artist and teacher in New York.

Rotolo, who remained an activist all her life, is also believed to be the subject of a number of legendary Dylan songs, including “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” “Boots of Spanish Leather” and “Tomorrow Is a Long Time.”

Rotolo, who was born in the New York City borough of Queens, was raised in a left-wing household. She was working for the Congress of Racial Equality when she met Dylan and is credited with teaching him about the Civil Rights movement.

Rotolo later married film editor Enzo Bartoccioli; they had a son, Luca Bartoccioli. In recent years she worked in a medium called book art, which she said was a “reinterpretation of the book as an art object.” She also taught a book arts workshop at the Parsons School of Design in New York City.


VICKSBURG, Miss. (AP) — Marvin Sease, a blues and soul singer known for his 1980s hit “Candy Licker,” has died after a lengthy illness. He was 64. James Jefferson, owner of Jefferson Funeral Home in Vicksburg, Mississippi, says Sease died Feb. 8, 2011, at River Region Medical Center.

Sease was born in Blacksville, South Carolina. Brett Bonner, editor of Living Blues Magazine, says Sease started in gospel music in South Carolina before moving to New York and eventually playing rhythm and blues. Bonner says after “Candy Licker” was released in the late 1980s, Sease became popular for his live performances in the South. Bonner says many of Sease’s songs were too dirty for airplay.


Monteith P. “Monte” Owens, a first tenor and guitarist who recorded and performed with The Mello Moods and Solitaires in the 1950s and early 1960s on a host of vocal group harmony classics, including “Where Are You,” “Walking Along” and “The Angels Sang,” died March 3, 2011, at a skilled nursing facility in the Bronx, N.Y., after a long illness. He was 75.

Born March 31, 1936, Owens and his Bronx neighborhood friends, lead singer Ray “Buddy” Wooten, bass Jimmy “Bip” Bethea, and tenors Alvin “Bobby” Baylor, and Bobby “Little Schubie” Williams formed The Mello Moods in 1949 and scored a national hit with their 1951 debut release, “Where Are You,” which hit No. 7 on Billboard’s R&B chart in February 1952. On stage, Owens frequently led the group on the R&B chestnut, “Bewildered.”

The Mello Moods appeared at the Apollo and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The singers recorded three additional singles for Red Robin and Prestige Records in 1952-53, including “I Couldn’t Sleep A Wink Last Night,” “Call On Me” and “I’m Lost,” before going their separate ways.

In 1953, Owens briefly sang and played with The Cavaliers, a Brooklyn group that later evolved into the Fi-Tones, but he was best known for his work with The Solitaires. Baylor brought his fellow Mello Moods Owens and Williams into The Solitaires prior to the group’s first recording session in 1954. A skilled guitarist who also possessed a clear first tenor, Owens played and or sang on “Blue Valentine,” “Please Remember My Heart,” “South Of The Border,” “Ghost of A Chance,” “Later For You Baby,” “The Angels Sang,” “Walking Along,” “Please Kiss This Letter,” “Helpless” and others. Owens participated in all of The Solitaires’ Old Town releases except one —“Walkin’ and Talkin’”/“No More Sorrows” — often arranged their material and served as musical director in concert appearances following the departure of Williams in 1956. His soaring high tenor anchored the background harmony in the group’s signature ballad, “The Angels Sang.”

In later years, Owens led his own band in Bronx area clubs and also played with Jimmy Castor. After suffering a series of strokes, Monte Owens retired on a disability from the U.S. Postal Service in the early 1990s. During his tenure with The Solitaires, Owens brought a number of gifted artists into the group, including Cecil Holmes and lead singer Milton Love, who replaced the Army-bound Herman Dunham in 1955.

— Todd Baptista


CRYSTAL RIVER, Fla. (AP) — Eddie Kirkland, 88, known as the “Gypsy of the Blues,” was killed in a car crash in Florida Feb. 27, 2011.

Kirkland was traveling on U.S. Highway 98 in Crystal River, north of Tampa, when he tried to make a U-turn in front of a bus, the Florida Highway Patrol said. The bus, which was traveling northwest, pushed Kirkland’s Ford Taurus about 200 yards before the vehicles stopped. Kirkland was flown to Tampa General Hospital, where he later died. No one on the bus was injured.

According to his website, Kirkland, who lived in Macon, Ga., performed Feb. 26 at the Dunedin Brewery in Dunedin, the final stop in a four-city swing through Florida.

Born in Jamaica, and raised in Alabama, Kirkland eventually moved to Indiana before he settled in Detroit. He polished his blues sound and toured for 7-1/2 years with John Lee Hooker. He moved to Georgia, became a bandleader for Otis Redding and performed with a variety of artists, including Little Richard, Ben King, Ruth Brown and Little Johnnie Taylor.


Grady Chapman, whose expressive high tenor lead graced a host of rhythm and blues vocal group harmony records by The Robins during the mid-1950s, died Jan. 4, 2011, at a Los Angeles hospital, according to the singer’s daughter, Tania. The 81-year-old’s death was attributed to congestive heart failure.

Born in Greenville, S.C., Oct. 1, 1929, Chapman came to the West Coast as a youngster and joined the already established Robins in 1952. Discovered by Johnny Otis, The Robins had begun recording in 1949 and appeared on a handful of labels, including Excelsior, Aladdin, Score, Savoy, Regent, Modern and RPM and recorded under their own name, pseudonyms including the Four Bluebirds and the Nic-Nacs, and backing other artists, including Little Esther and Mickey Champion.

Chapman first recorded with the Robins — Ulysses “Bobby” Nunn, Terrell “Ty” Leonard, and Billy and Roy Richard — in Hollywood for RCA-Victor on Jan. 21, 1953. Over the course of three sessions held between January and September, Chapman fronted The Robins on the haunting “My Heart’s The Biggest Fool” and “How Would You Know,” the humorous “Ten Days in Jail” and the soulful “Oh Why.” The group even masqueraded under The Drifters name, waxing an obscure single for Crown: “The World Is Changing.” Chapman also was on “Double Crossin’ Baby,” issued on Crown in 1954 by The Robbins (sic).

Chapman was in and out of The Robins for much of 1954, going afoul of the law — by his own admission — and recording with another group, Grady Chapman and The Suedes (“Don’t Blooper”), for Money Records. The Robins added tenor Carl Gardner, who initially shared lead vocal chores with Chapman when the act signed with Leiber and Stoller’s Spark label; Gardner led “If Teardrops Were Kisses” and Chapman fronted “I Love Paris” and “Whadaya Want?”

Chapman rejoined The Robins, who signed on with disc jockey Gene Norman’s Whippet label. The group recorded a number of R&B and pop-flavored sides in 1956-57, including “Cherry Lips,” “Since I First Met You” and “That Old Black Magic.”

Around March 1957, Chapman’s initial solo effort, “My Love Will Never Die”/“The Smiling Gondolier,” was issued on Zephyr. With Chapman still in the fold, The Robins moved to Imperial’s Knight subsidiary in 1958 for “A Quarter To Twelve.” By year’s end, Chapman went solo full-time, leaving Bobby Sheen, 17, as lead vocalist.

A 1958 solo disc on Knight, “Say You Will Be Mine”/“Starlight, Starbright,” was followed by two 1959 Imperial 45s, including “Tell Me That You Care.” Three additional singles were recorded and issued on Mercury in 1960-61, but Chapman never built a strong solo career. From 1963 to 1966, he toured in The Coasters Mark II with Bobby Nunn, Bobby Sheen and Billy Richards Jr. After the members went their separate ways, Chapman and Nunn formed their own touring unit. At various times, he performed as the leader or a member of Grady Chapman’s Coasters, The Bobby Nunn Tribute Coasters Group, The Word Famous Coasters and The Fabulous Coasters. Chapman often was joined by ex-Coasters alumni. At various times from the 1970s to the 2000s, Chapman shared the stage with Billy Richards Jr.; Jerome Evans, Randy Jones and Bobby Sheen. Chapman resurrected The Robins, and did so on numerous occasions.

In fall 1993, while he was recovering from throat cancer treatment, Coasters founder and lead singer Carl Gardner asked Chapman to take his place in the group until he was well enough to return to the stage, which Chapman did with pleasure.

“We were very saddened to learn of the passing of Grady Chapman,” Carl Gardner, 82, and his wife, Veta, said in a joint statement. “We worked together in both The Robins and the Coasters and remained friends over these many years. We send our deepest sympathies to his family. Grady, we will miss you.”

— Todd Baptista


VIENNA (AP) — Peter Alexander, the Austrian actor, singer and entertainer who symbolized the return of laughter, lightheartedness and the economic upswing after World War II died Feb. 11, 2011. He was 84.

Since the 1950s, Alexander appeared in some 50 film comedies and recorded more than 120 records. He was also a regular on TV for decades. Known as “Peter the Great” by his fans, his name was synonymous with Austrian charm and wit. In recent years, Alexander — born in the Austrian capital on June 30, 1926, as Peter Alexander Ferdinand Maximilian Neumayer — led a reclusive lifestyle but still remained a person of public interest.


LONDON (AP) — Opera star Dame Margaret Price, considered one of the world’s leading sopranos, died of heart failure Jan. 28, 2011, at her home in Wales. She was 69.

The famed soprano, known for her exquisite renditions of Mozart’s complicated music, rose to prominence after her debut as Cherubino in Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” at the Welsh National Opera in 1962. Over the course of her career, Price was honored in many countries, received honorary degrees from top universities and was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in 1993. She also appeared on numerous records and performed for television.


BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Maria Elena Walsh, an Argentinian writer, poet and singer who entertained generations of children with whimsical songs and books, died Jan. 10, 2011, of heart failure. She was 80. Walsh had been suffering from several chronic diseases before she died at a clinic in the capital, said Ricardo Pereira, spokesman of the Argentine Society of Writers and Composers.

Her songs, celebrated by folk singer Mercedes Sosa and Spanish crooner Joan Manuel Serrat, traveled across the Spanish-speaking world, inspiring children to sing along.

Born on Feb. 1, 1930, Walsh published her first poem when she was 15, and soon traveled to the U.S. and Europe, writing and performing.

She returned to Argentina in 1970 as a famous personality, and she was one of the few to openly challenge the 1976-83 military dictatorship, with songs such as “Oracion a la Justicia” (Prayer for Justice) and “Venceremos,’’ a Spanish version of the U.S. civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.’’

By 1979, she wrote an open letter published in the newspaper Clarin that directly criticized the military regime’s censorship, comparing Argentina to a preschool of cowering children with broken pencils. It was republished in 1993 in "Desventuras en el Pais-Jardin-de-Infantes’’ (Misadventures in the Preschool Country). Walsh wrote more than 40 books in all, including works for adults, TV scripts and plays.

Even among themes apparently intended for children, Argentines found political messages, such as in the song "El Pais del Nomeacuerdo’’ (The Country of Idontremember), which was later used as the theme song for "The Official Story,’’ the Argentine film that won the 1985 Academy Award for best foreign language film.

In a rare 2008 interview with the newspaper Pagina12, Walsh said she hoped to be remembered as someone who tried to bring joy to others.

"I never thought it was necessary to add a moral to the end of a song, nor tell the children to behave themselves. I was never interested in taking on the job of a mother,’’ she said.