The other day Hugh Masekela died. How dare he?! Just before that I was on-air in the middle of my show when it dawned on me how many times I used the title 'the late' to describe artistes. I'm an oldie kind of guy when it comes to music and I play a lot of music by artistes who are no longer with us.
It was a bit of a jolt when this realisation hit me and I began to reminisce about some of these late artistes, as one does. And all because of Hugh Masekela....Bra Hugh.
Donna Summer is no longer with us. A quite beautiful woman she was known as the Queen of Disco for awhile, and anyone who remembers her Bad Girls album wouldn't argue with that. I would claim that Hot Stuff (1979) is the quintessential disco song. Remember the dance in a queue from the movie The Full Monty? You need to listen to her She Works Hard For The Money album to enjoy her sheer versatility. The title track, the mid-tempo Tokyo, the ballad Love Has A Mind Of Its Own, and even a collaboration with Musical Youth, Unconditional Love. A deep album.
The singer I miss every single year is Luther Vandross. The fact that there is no album to look forward to every year is shattering. From his first work with the group Change (The Glow Of Love) to hits like Dance With My Father and There's Nothing Better Than Love, Luther was a voice like no other. Whether it was in his plump days or his skinny look his voice was off the scale. He used his voice like it was an instrument under his complete and absolute control. And I'm not even going to talk about his production work.
A man who made his instrument sound like Luther's voice was Grover Washington. Is this man the beginning of Smooth Jazz? A debatable point. But one listen to his The Best Is Yet To Come and Come Morning albums might sway you towards agreeing with that assertion. But Mister Magic will always be THE funky jazz track for me. That classic keyboard opening by Bob James and then the bass and drum coming in at the same time, and then the guitar riff, and then Grover's sax....oh man, it's better than sucking your thumb!
A Ghanaian artiste who was tragically taken from us too soon is Jon K. His work with Ben Brako on the Baya album was a turning point for funkified hi-life music in this country. I dare say neither of them ever hit those heights again. His solo work was just wonderful too. Find the instrumental track Sika and his ballad with Pauline Oduro, Waiting, for examples of what I mean. A true modern hi-life musician who would surely have gone on to finer achievements.
Teddy Pendergrass survived a bad car accident in 1982, with plenty of lurid headlines afterwards, and this in an age when social media as we know it now did not exist. And all because he could sing like every man would like to. That voice, so sexy, so intimate, and he was given all the right material too. Wow! He continued singing even after the accident when he was paralysed and in a wheelchair, and he still sounded like he was stealing your wife from right in front of you! When Somebody Loves You Back (the song for my wedding dance), Close The Door, and latterly the funky Joy, were Teddy P through and through.
It was on his first post-accident album, Love Language (1984), that I met Whitney Houston. The ballad Hold Me was her debut, a sugary sweet song with Teddy Pendergrass, before her solo album in 1985. The rest is history, but she left us I Wanna Dance With Somebody, How Will I Know, You Give Good Love, Miracle, and my favourite track, Lover For Life (a gorgeous soulful mid-tempo number from 1990 that just wriggled into your heart and stayed there forever; she sang it like she knew she was already your lover for life, but she wanted YOU to know!). Ebei, Whitney!
Were you a Beatles fan? I was still a toddler when they were huge, but I came to appreciate their music. I admired John Lennon the most after they broke up. I cannot listen to Imagine ("Imagine all the people living life in peace") and Woman without getting all emotional and teary. Woman especially, from the 1980 album Double Fantasy, is a simply divine pop ballad, designed to praise all women: ("After all I'm forever in your debt...I will try to express my inner feelings and thankfulness....for showing me the meaning of success....Please remember my life is in your hands....and woman, hold me close to your heart"). He had me at "Woman...."
And Marvin....the one and only Marvin Gaye. The man oozed class and sensuality and groove and Sexual Healing, whatever that was! Over the years of listening to Marvin I still think his duet with Diana Ross, You Are Everything (1973), is my favourite, closely followed by My Love Is Waiting (1982). So why did his father shoot him on April Fools Day, 1984? What a waste. I once saw an archive clip of an interview he gave on some show, and there were two female stars (white) on the same show, and they were looking at Marvin like he was a god! Eyes wide open, fixed grins, tongues hanging out! And he was speaking so languidly, so laid back, so Marvin!
The 80s gave us stars like no other I think, amongst them Rick James. And yet, when he came back to recording music before he died, I could still hear his funky 80s sound in the fresh music. The way he kept that pounding bass line and drum beat as the basis of all his songs, and even with the Mary Jane Girls, was too cool. Super Freak, Give It To Me Baby, and Busting Out, were all funk at it's funkiest.
Wasn't it in the 80s that a certain Prince came into his own? He was such a creative force that sometimes he just lost me. I still think I Wanna Be Your Lover from his first album is the best thing he ever did. Although....the very naughty Head, and Kiss, were favourites too. And for a time he was considered to be in direct competition with the one and only Michael Jackson.
Michael was on a different planet to all other artistes of his time as a solo performer, and he had the moves to prove it. Every performer worth his salt now has at least one move that can be traced to a Michael Jackson dance. Just watch the Thriller video one more time and tell me I'm wrong. And of course we can thank Michael for every crotch-grabbing dance move on the planet! But he could sing a bit, innit? Rock With You, Liberian Girl, Baby Be Mine, and Heal The World, are only a few of my favourites.
Does anyone remember Gwen Guthrie? She was a background singer for Roberta Flack, Luther Vandross, Aretha Franklin, and many others. She was also a songwriter. Then she broke out with her own album. She was American but was initially produced by reggae superstars Sly & Robbie. There were always a couple of tracks on her albums which were reggae-tinged. Listen to You're The One and Younger Than Me from 1983. Wonderful! But you will probably remember her best for Ain't Nothing Going On But The Rent from 1986. She was a big woman, and had a voice to match.
Going local again, I wonder how big Castro would have been if he was still with us. At his peak Sei Hor and Odo Pa were massive. Even an oldie like me could appreciate them and shake a leg or two when I heard them. The tragic and mysterious circumstances of his death have just added to the mystique of the man.
Speaking of tragic, has there been a more tragic passing than that of Bob Marley? I am totally biased so please don't get into an argument with me over this. The man and his music....oh baby! Where do I start? How can you die when you are 36 years old just when we are beginning to realise that Uprising is a true classic of the genre? Will we ever stop playing the Exodus album? Bad Card, Could You Be Loved, Zion Train, Redemption Song, Natural Mystic, Jamming, Waiting In Vain, Three Little Birds, and One Love. All these songs from those 2 albums! Bob Marley was not an artiste; he was a one-man runaway train of pure musical genius. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
I don't have the space to talk about George Howard (Steppin' Out), Al Jarreau (Distracted), Barry White (Can't Get Enough), and James Brown (I Feel Good). But I would like you to remember them anyway. Any song from these sadly missed artistes would light up a playlist anywhere, anytime, any device, any party.
Does their music get better with time because we know we are never going to hear from them again? Maybe....
The great thing about the arts is the fact that they are a lasting legacy. Great music leaves a lasting impression, innit? Every time you hear a song by an artiste that you loved, but who has passed on, you remember them, usually fondly.
So, Hugh Masekela, rest in perfect peace. After telling us to Bring Him Back Home you have taken the lead yourself. We will never stop Grazing In The Grass, going Uptownship, or looking for Ashiko. And every time the current occupant of my bed says Tonight, I know she is lying....but you were not.
I have a story about Bra Hugh. One fine Saturday afternoon in 2002 I was dozing in bed in Parakuo Estates in Dome, as one does after a bowl of fufu. I heard a choir of young voices seemingly rehearsing, but I thought I was dreaming. Then I heard an older voice admonishing the youth; the voice sounded familiar, but I thought I was dreaming. The youth kept on rehearsing. The familiar adult kept on admonishing. But I thought I was dreaming. Then a horn broke through the heat of a Saturday afternoon, but I thought I was dreaming. It sounded familiar. I must be dreaming.
I found out later, much later, that Hugh Masekela was rehearsing with the Winneba Youth Choir next door to our house! True story! The house belonged to the patron of the WYC, it was empty, and he had brought everyone there to rehearse for the evening's event. And I thought I was dreaming! What fufu can do to you!! Haba!!!
You can read more from Rami Baitie on blog.ramitalks.com