In memoriam: 5 artists lost in 2016 and why we miss them

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Phife Dawg, Jean Shepard, Prince Buster, Buckwheat Zydeco, Don Buchla

L to R: Buckwheat Zydeco, Prince Buster, Phife Dawg, Jean Shepard, Don Buchla. Art: Roman Gokhman

It’s safe to say that 2016 has been something of an all-around dumpster fire, especially when it comes to the sheer volume of iconic artists we’ve lost. The list of familiar and life-changing voices who have left this mortal coil is an excruciatingly long one. David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Prince, Lemmy, George Michael, Merle Haggard, Glenn Frey of The Eagles, Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner, Leon Russell and Sharon Jones—none of these larger-than-life figures will be forgotten any time soon. But what about those artists who were equally impactful but seem to have been forgotten before their time due to the massive quantity of loss? Here are a few of the other important artists we lost in this sinking ship of a year.

Jean Shepard

The country music community mourned the Sept. 25 death of Jean Shepard, the honky-tonk singer and songwriter who helped pave the way for women in the country music industry.

Ollie Imogene “Jean” Shepard was born Nov. 21, 1933, in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma. She was first discovered in 1952, as a teenager playing bass in her all-girls band, the Melody Ranch Girls, by musician Hank Thompson. Shepard soon signed a record deal with Capitol Records, and in 1953 she teamed up with fellow Capitol artist  Ferlin Husky to cut “A Dear John Letter.” The song hit No. 1 on the Billboard Country Music Chart and launched Shepard to stardom.

It was her solo career that set Shepard apart, though, and her first solo release, Songs of a Love Affair in 1955, produced five hit singles. At the time, women in country music were almost always part of a family or group, or referred to as a band’s “girl singer.” Her songs marked her as an independent woman who wrote, not about standing by her man, but standing up to him, with titles like, “Many Happy Hangovers to You,” “I’ll Take the Dog” and “The Root of All Evil (Is a Man.)”

In a career that spanned 24 studio albums, Jean Shepard’s success blazed the trail for later country music mavericks like Patsy Cline and Dolly Parton. Shepard became one of only three women of that era to be invited to join the Grand Ole Opry, an honor she held for 60 consecutive years.

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Buckwheat Zydeco

Buckwheat Zydeco, the man responsible for putting the Louisiana Creole genre of music, Zydeco, on the map, died Sept. 24 of lung cancer.

Stanley Joseph Dural, Jr., born Nov. 14, 1947, in Lafayette, Louisiana, was dubbed Buckwheat after The Little Rascals character. His father played accordion for a traditional Creole band, but Dural favored the blues, R&B and funk, and started his career as a session organist for successful bluesmen like Joe Tex and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown in his early teens.

Through his father, Dural met the godfather of Zydeco music, Clifton Chenier, and in 1976 Chenier invited Dural to play the organ for his Red Hot Louisiana Band. After falling in love with zydeco music, a blend of blues, R&B and soul characterized by its use of the accordion, the washboard and brass instruments, Dural learned the accordion and formed his own band, Buckwheat Zydeco. He quickly made a name for himself on the live circuit, and in 1987, Buckwheat Zydeco signed to Island Records.

Dural’s band became the first of the zydeco genre ever to sign to a major label. Over the course of 30 years and 25 records, he shared the stage with musicians ranging from Eric Clapton to Willie Nelson, and was nominated for two Grammys.

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Phife Dawg

Fans were heartbroken to find out that Phife Dawg, of seminal rap group A Tribe Called Quest, died at his home in Contra Costa County, of complications from diabetes on March 22, just eight months before the group would release its first record in 18 years, We Got it From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service.

Born Malik Taylor on Nov. 20, 1970, Phife grew up in Queens, New York, with best friend and fellow ATCQ emcee, Q-Tip. The group would release five records before disbanding in 1998.

ATCQ gained a cult following for its creative sampling of jazz and other diverse sounds on its tracks. Contrary to the more aggressive and even violent themes of many contemporaries, ATCQ focused on positive, quirky and often sociopolitical lyrics.

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Prince Buster

Prince Buster was the king of ska, responsible for popularizing the genre, first in Jamaica and eventually worldwide. His death on Sept. 8, of complications from a 2009 stroke, has been deeply mourned by fans all over the world.

Born Cecil Bustamente Campbell on May, 24, 1938 in Kingston, Jamaica, he started his own record store and record label by the time he reached his early twenties. In his first recording session, he asked guitarist Jah Jerry to put emphasis on the afterbeat instead of the downbeat, and the “skank” sound that is so iconic in ska and reggae was born.

Prince Buster went on to produce and record thousands of songs, and his music earned acclaim in both Jamaica and England throughout the ’60s and ’70s. Campbell greatly influenced and shepherded the evolution of ska, from rocksteady to reggae and beyond.

“Buster was really the first king of Jamaican music,” wrote The Specials founder Jerry Dammers. “With the help of its second king, [he] made reggae probably the most popular music in the world.”

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Don Buchla

Don Buchla, a composer and early innovator of modular sound synthesizers, died of cancer on Sept. 14. While the name Buchla may be unfamiliar to many, those who recognize it know the man as a visionary.

Born April 19, 1937, Buchla developed one of the first modular synthesizers in 1963. It became known as the Electronic Music Box, or the Buchla Box. Unbeknownst to Buchla, Robert Moog was independently developing a modular synthesizer the same year. Buchla eschewed the keyboard design used by Moog for something less traditional. This is one reason Moog became more well-known and better credited for the invention.

“When there’s not a black-and-white keyboard, you get involved in many other aspects of the music, and it’s a far more experimental way,” Buchla said about his unorthodox design. “It’s appealing to fewer people, but it’s more exciting.”

Buchla was deeply involved in the California counterculture of the ’60s. He created the sound system used by the Grateful Dead. He also collaborated sonically with iconic author Ken Kesey to develop the sound system for Kesey and his Merry Pranksters “trip” cross-country, as documented in Tom Wolfe’s book, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”

Follow reporter Julie Parker at Twitter.com/jpwhatsername.

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