Disco diva Donna Summer (nee LaDonna Gaines) passed away yesterday at age 63, due to complications related to cancer. Summer was a five-time Grammy winner whose heyday in the ’70s resulted in many hits. Born in 1948 in Boston, Summer began singing gospel, sang in a rock band, and eventually moved to New York at age 18 where she joined a touring show of the Broadway show Hair. She moved to Europe for three years where she met Giorgio Moroder with whom she earned her first hit for the 17-minute “Love to Love You Baby.” (A shorter version was released in 1975 and peaked at #2 on the Billboard charts.) As disco became mainstream, Summer had a long string of hits and was able to continue her popularity even as that style fell from favor. Her most recent album Crayons came out in 2008 and she continued performing until the time of her death.
Bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn died while on tour in Tokyo. Dunn was born in 1941 in Memphis and became a member of the house band (a.k.a. Booker T and the MGs) at the Stax record company. The MGs were one of the first racially integrated soul groups and had hits under their own name as well as a long list of hits backing up artists such as Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Isaac Hayes, and the Staples Singers. Dunn went on to appear in the Blues Brothers movie. He recorded and performed with artists including Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Rod Stewart, Stevie Nicks, and Tom Petty and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award in 2007.
Charles “Skip” Pitts, another Stax veteran, passed away recently. Pitts was perhaps best known for his signature wah-wah guitar work on “Theme from Shaft” by Isaac Hayes as well as for his guitar work on “It’s Your Thing” by The Isley Brothers. Born in Washington, D.C., Pitts learned to play guitar after getting tips from his neighbor Bo Diddley. He met and played with many artists in D.C., and first recorded at age 15 with Gene Chandler. He joined The Midnight Movers, who backed the Isley Brothers, then in 1971 began working with Hayes, collaborating with him through 2008. He also played many sessions for Stax with Albert King, Thye Bo-Keys, Al Green, and many more. He was one of the most sampled guitarists of all time, with his riffs used by many hip-hop artists, including Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Beastie Boys, Massive Attack, and more.
We lost Levon Helm recently after a battle with cancer. Best known for his vocals and drumming with The Band, Helm was also a successful solo artist and performed and recorded with many other artists. He was born Mark Lavon Helm in 1940 in Arkansas, and decided to become a musician after seeing Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys at age six. Helm joined Ronnie Hawkins’ band, The Hawks, right out of high school. The band relocated to Canada and had several hits; eventually the group’s lineup evolved to comprise Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson. The group parted ways with Hawkins and started touring on their own, then became Bob Dylan’s backup band and appeared with him on his ill-received electric performances early on. Dylan withdrew from public life and The Hawks signed a recording contract where the group was simply listed as “The Band.” The Band enjoyed great popularity until their final performance in 1976, documented as The Last Waltz, considered by some the greatest rock-and-roll film ever made. After the breakup of The Band, Helm began his solo career and worked as a multi-instrumentalist with other artists such as Ringo Starr and many more. He continued performing and recording through 2011, with his most recent album, Ramble at the Ryman, released in May of that year. He passed away on April 19 after battling cancer for nearly 15 years.