Remember last year, when the grim reaper saved up many of its deepest cuts for the final months?
In the last weeks of 2016, we lost (among others) George Michael, Carrie Fisher and her mom Debbie Reynolds. It was like the year was saving up some of its biggest wallops, delivering them on the way out the door. I have a terrible feeling that we’re headed for the same thing this year, if the increasing rate of notable deaths is anything to go by.
The two most related to the topic of this column this week were Malcolm Young and Mel Tillis. We’ll start with Young, the mastermind behind some of the most iconic rock and roll riffs of all time. With his brother Angus, Malcolm Young formed AC/DC in 1973, and shepherded the band through the next 40 years. Though Angus was always the more flashy and visible Young brother, it was Malcolm who truly led the group, writing or co-writing all of AC/DC’s iconic stompers.
I have always liked AC/DC, even if they’re the poster children for finding one thing and doing it over and over again. Their one thing was sleazy, ballsy rock and roll, and they perfected it. They’re responsible for some of the most famous ringing guitar lines of all time, including the stutter-stop awesome of “Back in Black,” the thunderous “For Those About to Rock,” and of course the nimble “Thunderstruck.” They’re one of the few bands I can name whose hits are 100 percent representative – the deeper cuts and catalog numbers are more of the same. There’s something to be said for that, especially when you know that’s what you’re doing. Malcolm Young staked out his territory and did it very well for decades.
Young took a leave of absence from the band in 2014, suffering from dementia, and died on Nov. 18 at the age of 64.
While Malcolm Young spent most of his career happily ceding the spotlight to the flashier members of his band, Mel Tillis was always front and center. The country legend began his career in the ‘50s, writing songs for the likes of Webb Pierce and Brenda Lee and recording his own albums. He had a string of hits in the 1970s cemented his place in the country music pantheon, including “I Ain’t Never” and “Good Woman Blues.”
Tillis remained popular through the ‘80s, both on his own and as a songwriter for Randy Travis and Ricky Skaggs, among others. In his later years he joined with Waylon Jennings, Bobby Bare and Jerry Reed in the Old Dogs, a hilarious supergroup that sang Shel Silverstein songs about growing old. He was inducted into the Grand Old Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame in the same year, 2007.
Tillis had been battling various illnesses for more than a year. He died on Nov. 19 at the age of 85.
I’d also like to mention Della Reese here. The venerated actress did have a long-running singing career, scoring a hit in 1959 and Grammy nominations later in life. (She made 28 albums! I had no idea before looking her up.) But I know her from her various roles in film and television, particularly Touched by an Angel, that weird quasi-religious ‘90s sensation. Reese was a long-running presence on television, and I was always interested when her name would pop up. Heck, she was B.A. Baracus’ mother in an episode of The A-Team that I still remember pretty vividly. I always enjoyed her work.
Reese died on Nov. 19 as well, at the age of 86.
* * * * *
Of course, all that is a lead-in for talking about another well-respected black woman singer, Miss Sharon Jones.
I can’t even explain how sad I was to learn of Sharon Jones’ death. It was almost exactly a year ago that we lost her to cancer and a related stroke. One of the great regrets of my last 10 years is never getting to see Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings live. I became aware of them only about seven years ago, thanks to my friend Jeff Elbel, who played their great 100 Days 100 Nights album for me. Here was a truly authentic old-school horn-driven soul outfit, and at its center, a voice that could shake mountains.
Naturally, I bought everything I could find. Hers is a discography without any weak points, and that remained true straight to the end. Last year’s Christmas record, It’s a Holiday Soul Party, is a treat, and now, a year after she left us, we have the final Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings album, Soul of a Woman. I’m beyond pleased to report that it’s just as good as anything she’s done.
The band, of course, is hot as always. The Dap-Kings are just a great soul band, and here they are joined by a veritable army of horn and string players. You might be worried that with all those players jockeying for the spotlight, Jones might be drowned out. Nothing could be further from the truth, thankfully. The record opens with a one-two punch – the civil rights anthem “Matter of Time” and the shimmying not-quite-reunion song “Sail On” – and they’re both awesome. Jones nails the swagger of “Sail On,” easily dominating the proceedings, her voice soaring alongside the vintage-sounding trumpets.
Much of the rest of Soul, true to its title, is made up of slow, soulful ballads, and Jones shines on this material. The strummy ‘70s goodness of “Come and Be a Winner” is an absolute delight, and the tricky time signature of “Pass Me By” allows Jones to sway with the melody. “Searching for a New Day” is hopeful and fun, while “These Tears” is pensive and heartbreaking. “Girl (You Got to Forgive Him)” is a massive production, full of horns and strings and tympanis, but Jones is in full control of it.
And on the last song on her last record, she branches out into new territory, enlisting the Universal Church of God Choir for a plaintive gospel song she wrote herself, titled “Call on God.” It seems like it would be out of her wheelhouse, but she’s awesome on it, pouring deep feeling into every line. Every time I listen to this, I miss her more. Her loss leaves a deep hole in the music world, and in my world as well. Having one last visit with her is a treat, particularly one that captures everything that was so great about her in one tidy package.
Goodnight, Miss Jones. And thanks for everything.
* * * * *
That’ll do it for this week. Next week, Bjork and the Gallagher Brothers. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.