The entertainment world will never be—or look—the same again. Here, locals share memories of some of the great talents we lost this year.
Editor’s note: This list was made before the deaths this week of George Michael, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds.
I didn’t really know him. We weren’t friends and I never touched him (though I wanted to), but David Bowie touched me—mind, heart and soul. He was the soundtrack of my teens and then my 20s, the musical background of my life with my boyfriend, and then husband.
We didn’t really fit in, my husband and I. He was a long-haired musician, and I was a rebel with a thousand causes. We were in a small town in Virginia that leaned to the right. Bowie gave us permission, in his lyrics, dress and actions, to be ourselves. To embrace being different. We reveled in it, spewing out his lyrics like we were chanting religion. We saw him twice in concert—saved and saved until we had enough money to buy tickets. I wore a white T-shirt that had an Aladdin Sane flash down the front, completely hand-beaded by me—each bead a prayer to the man who made us feel like heroes. He was (and still is) mine.
On the day he died, a big part of me went with him. I’m still reeling from the shock of it, but I always knew he was only visiting.
Jann White, artist
The loss of Prince Rogers Nelson marks the end of an era in the music industry. Prince was the last master of 20th-century popular music and performance. This tradition included many great multi-talents like Cab Calloway, T-Bone Walker and James Brown. Prince was able to master all of the facets of performance, such as superlative singing, dancing, audience interaction, showmanship and soul. He was also a spectacular songwriter/guitarist, arguably one of music’s best guitarists. But Prince’s greatest contribution was his music business acumen that allowed him to eventually own and control the fruits of his prodigious labors. 2016 took numerous talents from our realm, but Prince is the one for whom I felt the most loss…like a close family member.
Jamal Millner, musician
Leonard Cohen was the dark soul of our half of the century. Our sins. Our redemption. Our light and shadow. A million candles burning for the help that never came. I first found him in Robert Altman’s mournful, muddy, opium-soaked McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Then, there was his retreat into monastic Zen Buddhism and reinvention as a moody, gravelly god of frank pessimism. He was our man at closing time, dancing to the end of love from Manhattan to Berlin. He was our dark hope and our hallelujah. But everybody knows the good guys lost. In 2016, that’s how it goes.
Brian Wimer, executive director of IX Art Park
Certainly there was passion from us at the Satellite Ballroom, very excited, enthusiastically jumping at the opportunity for a show with Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings (every time), just as there was when talking it up with customers at Plan 9 or with anyone who would listen. The band was incredibly tight, studied and together. The Dap-Kings were enough for a show unto themselves, but when Sharon hit the stage, we were putty. It was over. Hyperbole is warranted.
However, the true beauty in her performance was the democracy. We were part of the show. Sharon made sure the show was a party for everyone. Her gifts were extraordinary as a singer; her charisma was hard to chart as a performer. It was a true joy to work six shows with them, the last one being May 29, 2014, as part of her triumphant return from cancer before the relapse and almost 10 years since our first show with them.
Danny Shea, Starr Hill Presents promotion and booking
We often think of a boisterous, “I am the greatest!” Muhammad Ali when we remember him. He told himself and the world this statement to hold himself up under the weight of many challenges; whether it was Joe Frazier, the U.S. government, racism or Parkinson’s.
We know, however, that the power of his presence was steeped in his conviction that there was something greater than himself. Muhammad’s choices were rooted in this faith and the love he shared with everyone around him no matter what religion, race or socioeconomic status. When I was a child he would read passages of the Koran to me knowing that I was not a Muslim but always talking about how to treat oneself and others. The readings, but more importantly his actions, embody his principles of unity. Muhammad was larger than life. We all lost an inspiration and a teacher.
Jennifer Tweel Kelly, Muhammad Ali family friend
When Dr. Ralph Stanley died, we lost a national treasure. There is no other way to put it. He had a wealth of knowledge of times gone by and was representative of a golden age of music that can never be repeated. He was one of the pillars upon which the genre of bluegrass was built. I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with him, but the time I did spend with him, he made me feel comfortable. He welcomed me into his home and willingly shared memories of his long and well-lived life. He was an inspiration. He was a giant, and all of us Americana/country musicians stand in his shadow.
Jim Waive, musician
In her five years on “The Brady Bunch,” Florence Henderson played the mom we’re supposed to want: preternaturally calm, dippily sincere, 100 percent happy making her home. Meanwhile, in real life she went on a date with the actor who played her oldest son, was a devotee of hypnotherapy thanks to her second husband and, at 76, took fifth place on “Dancing With the Stars.” Florence could front with those shagtastic golden locks and perfect white teeth, but while she was serious about a career that spanned six decades, she never took herself too seriously. Truth is stranger, and way more fun, than fiction.
Miller Susen, actress and mom
Earl Hamner, gentleman, storyteller, citizen of the world, has moved on. We will miss his warm, Chesapeake accent, assuring us that all is right with the world, telling stories of the people he knows, in the land he loved, a most humble and generous soul. When things seem most bleak, the opening lines of The Homecoming come to mind: “It was a night of miracles, of great changes…Anything is possible if you believe it can be.” Thank you, Earl!
Boomie Pedersen, artistic director of The Hamner Theater
I was 12 years old and obsessed with the 1991 film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, my introduction to Alan Rickman. I watched it every weekend, the VHS tape soon ruined. A storyteller, Rickman prized the trust of his audience. He became such a perfect conduit of wild imagination, from Galaxy Quest to the Harry Potter films, that we believed him. Rickman courted us as the dry-humored romantic. His projects My Name is Rachel Corrie in 2005 and A Little Chaos in 2014 celebrated the voice of women. We lost a truth-teller of the human spirit, adamant for our participation.
Christian Anderson, actress
In 2015, LOCKN’ had the privilege of pairing Leon Russell with Tedeschi Trucks, Dave Mason, Chris Robinson and others, and reuniting him with 17 of the 23 original 1971 Mad Dogs & Englishmen members. Leon was failing—the wheelchair, the cane, the skin pallor—but the voice and the mastery of his piano was intact. He thanked me for getting Joe Cocker’s rep to agree to a Mad Dogs & Englishmen reunion and not throwing in the towel when Joe died. I said, “That’s ridiculous, we both know Derek Trucks carried the water,” because Derek had.
The rehearsal days felt like a happy high school reunion: Clearly these were old friends, and masters of their craft who’d been through a lot together. The show was landmark, and afterward Leon told me to thank my mom for letting me see the Mad Dogs movie as a kid. The last thing I told him was, “Rita Coolidge just hugged me.” He raised an eyebrow, then smiled and said, “She hugged me too.” Farewell to a master piano player and songwriter, the man in the hat, the ringleader, a superstar.
Dave Frey, LOCKN’ Festival co-founder
Years ago, while waiting backstage at the Grand Ole Opry for a music awards show to start, I watched as a very quiet, stoic and kind man walked through the back door. He went down a hallway of Rebas and Garths and Shanias and mother-daughter Judds and whatever high-hair, faux-country star was standing there, and took his seat in the audience. I wondered why Merle Haggard chose not to go through the red carpet gauntlet of press and publicity.
Then it dawned on me: He earned the right to walk in the back door. Simply put, Merle Haggard was one of the greatest voices and songwriters of any genre in my lifetime. His gift in connecting to the common man was through brutal honesty in what he wrote about: a decent job, the love of family, kindness to all regardless of class and race. Merle’s legacy lives on in the brilliance of Sturgill Simpson, the raw power of Margo Price, the brilliant songwriting of Jason Isbell and through Vince Gill continuing the tradition of the Bakersfield Sound. There will never be an artist more prolific in song and with such beauty of voice than Merle Haggard.
Marybeth Aungier, LOCKN’ associate