Four Music Greats Pass


This was a particularly sad week for the musical world. We lost four greats: Chuck Brown, the godfather of Go-Go; country-rock pioneer Doug Dillard; supreme disco diva Donna Summer; and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who did more to promote art song than anyone else in the recording era.

Chuck Brown was the most innovative of them, and the funkiest. Born in 1936, he paid his dues as a guitarist in various R&B bands in the '60s. His funk band The Soul Searchers made two classic albums for Sussex, We the People (1972) and Salt of the Earth (1974). "Ashley's Roachclip" on the latter includes a drum break that became one of the sampled breaks in hip-hop; "Blow Your Whistle" from the same LP is also much-sampled.

It's debatable when Go-Go originated as a separate style; originally, it denoted merely party music or a dance club. But in live performance, in Brown's home territory in and around Washington D.C., not stopping between songs became popular, with percussion breaks providing continuity. Not for nothing was there a chant that went, "Ain't no party like a Chuck Brown party, because a Chuck Brown party don't stop." To do this, additional drummers were added, often using percussion associated with Latin music such as congas, tom-toms, and cowbells. Some characteristic rhythms evolved that, mixed with fat funk bass lines and horn riffs, came to be a recognizable style also named Go-Go.

It was a style that was easy to mix with other styles, and Brown was particularly fond of welding Go-Go beats to old-school jazz and blues tunes such as "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" and "Stormy Monday," as well as to whatever R&B songs were popular at the time. While Brown didn't invent Go-Go -- nobody did single-handedly -- his bands were among the prime movers in the development of the style, and he was one of the few to reach a national audience with it. And when the style broke through in the '80s, it was because Island Records honcho Chris Blackwell heard Brown's "We Need Some Money" and started signing bands from the D.C. scene.

Brown had recently had pneumonia and heart problems; he died on Wednesday, May 16, of massive organ failure.

Banjo player Doug Dillard (born in 1937) might seem less iconic than the others covered here, but on the country-rock scene he was just as an important figure. Born in 1937, he and his brother Rod formed the bluegrass band The Dillards, which among other things was known for being the band The Darlings on The Andy Griffith Show.

The band formed in 1960, moved to Los Angeles in 1962, got signed by Elektra Records and released its first album in 1963, and went electric in 1964, unusual for bluegrass even now and positively scandalous back then -- but proved quite influential on the L.A. folk scene. And in case you're wondering, yes, they went electric before Dylan did. In 1967 Doug again touched the mainstream when he played banjo on the Monkees' Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd. LP. When Gene Clark (after he'd left the Byrds) joined with the Gosdin Brothers, Doug was part of the band, and then when Doug left the Dillards, he and Gene formed Dillard & Clark. Their debut, The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark, included future Eagles guitarist Bernie Leadon (his song "Train Leaves Here This Morning," co-written with Clark, is one of the highlights of Fantastic Expeditionand is on the Eagles' debut as well), their drummer was another ex-Byrd, Michael Clarke, and Byrds bassist Chris Hillman contributed as well alongside an all-star crew of L.A. country musicians. Fantastic Expedition ranks as one of the greatest country-rock albums. They made one more album before parting ways; Dillard had a moderately successful solo career. On Wednesday, May 16, he died of a lung infection in a Nashville hospital.

Donna Summer was born LaDonna Adrian Gaines in Boston in 1948. Her big break came when she moved to Germany for a production of the musical Hair. By itself, that and the other musicals she sang in were not significant, but her relocation was, because it led to her 1973 introduction to producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte when she was working as a demo/background singer. After a few small European hits, they ended up riding the crest of the disco wave with their 1975 song "Love to Love You Baby," the popularity of which (#2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart) helped transform disco from a club phenomenon into a mainstream trend. 

Their 1977 collaboration "I Feel Love" took disco into a futuristic sound that was more European, but quickly proved to have universal appeal. It may not have charted as high (#6), but -- especially in its famous 17-minute remix -- it was more iconic. Just as memorable was the team's monumental update of the Jimmy Webb song "MacArthur Park," which in their hands achieved an ecstatic majesty no other version has matched. Where many disco acts came up short on staying power, Summer's impressive run of hits (singles and albums) earned her the title "The Queen of Disco," with 35 hits across more than three decades.

Summer died at her Florida home on Thursday, May 17, of cancer.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was born in Berlin in 1925. Though he had to serve in the Wehrmacht in World War II while still a teenager, he merely tended horses, and spent as much time as a prisoner of war as he did on the front. He certainly had no love for the Nazis, who starved to death his infirm brother. After the war, his career took off. His specialty was lieder (German art song), with his performances of Schubert's great cycles Die schöne Müllerin (The Pretty Miller's Daughter) and Winterreise (Winter Journey) especially admired; the latter was performed at his New York debut in 1955.

However, his repertoire was extremely broad, embracing opera, oratorio, and a huge percentage of the song literature, and ranged from the Baroque to modern composers. When Benjamin Britten premiered his War Requiem, he hand-picked Fischer-Dieskau as one of the three soloists. The last opera he sang was Aribert Reimann's Lear, which the composer had written at Fischer-Dieskau's suggestion. Though his lyric baritone voice was a bit light for opera, he compensated with his discerning delivery of the text.

This attention to the words of what he sang was his trademark. It became a cliché to refer to his style as "intelligent," a characterization he fought against, as I discovered when I interviewed him, but it became a cliché precisely because it was true. Perhaps he would have preferred to be called a great vocal actor; it amounted to the same thing. Some critics (including this one) preferred the more natural presentation of his countryman Hans Hotter, who kept his acting below the surface of his performance and enunciated less fastidiously (especially compared to Fischer-Dieskau's tendency in later years, after the beautiful tone of his youth had dimmed), but the sheer breadth of Fischer-Dieskau's service to the lieder repertory is so important that he can still with utter validity be named, as he so often was, the greatest lieder singer.

DFD, as he was known, retired from singing in 1992, switching to conducting. He died on Friday, May 18, at home, aged 87.  - Steve Holtje

steve-holtjeMr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer. Early this month he edited and mixed the recording of his song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach, which can be heard here.