Only the good die young

One of Billy Joel’s biggest hits was called “Only the good die young.” It actually was controversial in the Catholic Church, when he sang “you Catholic girls start much too late.” But, taking the title a little differently, there is a long list of very talented performers who left us way to early. The following is by no means a complete list, but illustrates the loss of music never written or sung.

Ritchie Valens died at the age of 17 after the start of a bright future. He had three huge hits under his belt, including a rock-n-roll version of the Mexican song “La Bamba.” Valens’ real name was Ricky Valenueza.

Buddy Holly died at the age of 22 on the same plane crash with Valens and the Big Bopper. This spawned the song “American Pie” by Don McLean when he sang of the “day the music died.” Holly was a meteoric talent and some say would have been bigger than Elvis, primarily because he wrote his own music. Before he died, he had a solid dozen big hits.

The class of age 27 deaths is profound. Jim Morrison of The Doors died at that age. He was the enigmatic leader that wowed the female audience. The Doors had a significant number of hits with very interesting lyrics. Morrison, though, did his health no service with his excessive alcohol and drug use which led to some rocky stage performances.

Jimi Hendrix died at age 27 as well. Hendrix was regarded by many as the greatest rock-n-roll guitarist ever. He matched his unique abilities playing a right handed guitar upside down as a lefty, with lyrics that matched the psychedelic age. He also does the best cover of a Bob Dylan song called “All along the watchtower.”

Janis Joplin was another talent that died at age 27. Her voice was spectacular and she put every pound and inch of her body into belting out her songs. I remember Dick Cavett interviewing her after one of her songs and she was still catching her breath. She was influenced by Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Etta James and Aretha Franklin.

Kurt Cobain also died at age 27. He led a grunge rock movement from the Northwest that was gaining huge footing. It would have been interesting to see where his music went in the future.

Hank Williams died mysteriously at age 29. He was one of the more prolific country song writers, with many of his songs crossing over into more national appeal. If you ever have a couple of hours, watch “The Hank Williams Story,” with George Hamilton playing Williams.

Patsy Cline died in a plane crash at the age of 30. Her voice and style took country music more mainstream. While there is a movie on her career, I love how Beverly D’Angelo played her in “Coal Miners Daugher” about her good friend Loretta Lynn. Her version of Willie Nelson’s “Crazy” is legendary.

Jim Croce also died in a plan crash at age 30. Croce was a prolific song writer and talent who wrote every day music for the every day person. His wordsmithing and guitar driven music was a classic match. It should be noted the great guitar work was played by Croce and Maury Meuhleisen, who also died in the crash. If you ever get a CD of Croce’s greatest hits, you need to get a package set, as it will need two.

Cass Elliott of The Mamas and the Papas died at age 32. She was the lead voice on most of their biggest hits and her vocal talents could blend with a variety of music. I saw her and legendary crooner Andy Williams sing two different songs in harmony on his show.

Stevie Ray Vaughan, the great blues guitarist, died at the age of 35. The story goes he and Eric Clapton switched places on a helicopter ride from a guitar festival. We would have lost a talent either way. Vaughan still does not get the notoriety he deserves as he could match Hendrix and other blues legends. It should be noted, he gave homage to these legends when he played with them.

Harry Chapin died in a car accident at age 38. He was on his way to a benefit concert. If you are not familiar with his work, he was one of the best storytellers in song. Plus, he would talk with the audience between songs making them live more. People know “Cats in the Cradle,” but do check out “Mr. Tanner” and “A Better Place to Be.”

The final three need no introduction and deserve their own post – John Lennon was killed at the age 40, Elvis Presley died at the age of 42 and Marvin Gaye died at age 44. Three of the most legendary talents could have offered so much more.

If I left off someone, please add them in a comment. If you are not familiar with any of these performers, please check them out. You will not be sorry. If you are familiar, please revisit your past. Only the good die young.

More than American Pie – a Tribute to Don McLean

When you hear the name Don McLean, your first thought is likely his magnum opus “American Pie.” That song was voted the 5th best song of the 20th century and is truly a classic. Yet, McLean produced a significant body of work that is often gets overshadowed by that song’s huge success. My wife and I had the pleasure of seeing McLean perform in a theatre venue which was perfect for his style of singing and it was truly an enchanting evening. His voice is underestimated, so he can make his wonderful words and music come to life.

Here is a small sampling before we get to his main event. I have several favorites, but let me start with  “And I love you so” about how his life becomes complete when he meets his love:

The people ask me how
How I’ve lived till now
I tell them I don’t know

I guess they understand
How lonely life has been
But life began again

The day you took my hand

Probably his second most popular song is his tribute to Vincent van Gogh, called “Vincent” or more commonly known as “Starry Starry Night.” McLean’s melancholy singing and strategic pauses make this song both haunting and compelling.

And now I understand
What you tried to say to me
How you suffered for your sanity
How you tried to set them free

They would not listen
They did not know how
Perhaps they’ll listen now

Another favorite is a reflective and sad song about the emptiness when his lover finally leaves hims. It is called “Empty Chairs.”

Morning comes and morning goes with no regret
And evening brings the memories I can’t forget
Empty rooms that echo as I climb the stairs
And empty clothes that drape and fall on empty chairs

And I wonder if you know
That I never understood
That although you said you’d go
Until you did I never thought you would

McLean began as a folk singer in the 1960s and was mentored by Pete Seeger. He also knew Jim Croce before he left Villanova University after four months (he did complete his college degree at Iona). So, he spent a lot of time in small venues along the Hudson River and was able to hone his craft. I mentioned his voice. He did a cover of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” and it became a number one hit record internationally before it was brought back to the US. To sing that song, you must have some vocal chops. And, he truly does Roy proud. Another great song of his is “Castles In The Air” and here is a taste:

And if she asks you why,
you can tell her that I told you
That I’m tired of castles in the air.
I’ve got a dream I want the world to share
And castle walls just lead me to despair.

But, any tribute to McLean would have to include “American Pie.” When we saw him, Madonna had just done a cover of the song, so he referenced he would get to that Madonna song later. He references so much musical history in the song beginning with day the music died when the plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper crashed. I particularly like one of the final stanzas where it is believed he references Janis Joplin.

I met a girl who sang the Blues, and I asked her for some happy news
She just smiled and turned away
I went down to the sacred store where I’d heard the music years before, but…
The man there said the music wouldn’t play
And, in the streets the children screamed, the lover’s cried, and the poets dreamed, but…
Not a word was spoken – the church bells all were broken
And, the three men I admire most: the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost, they…
Caught the last train for the coast the day the music died

You would think I would close with that classic, but I have personal observation which may not be correct, but I like it anyway. Let me run it by you. He has a wonderful song lamenting George Reeves who played Superman on TV. It actually destroyed his career and he could no longer get good acting roles and for some reason was alleged to have committed suicide. My thesis is McLean had such overwhelming success with “American Pie” that he did not want to only be remembered for that song, hence his fascination with Reeves. Here is a glimpse of the song “Superman’s Ghost.”

I don’t want to be like old George Reeves
Stuck in a Superman role
I’ve got a long way to go in my career
And some day my fame will make it clear
That I had to be a Superman

Don McLean, you may not be a Superman, but you are an American treasure and much more than the writer and singer of “American Pie.” Yes, that is one fine song, but so are the above and many others. Thanks for sharing your words, music and voice with us.