In Memoriam 2016: People We Lost This Year
Death is never easy, and 2016 was a year that continued to prove that point as we experienced the loss of so many of our brightest lights. The shock of David Bowie's death in January, two days after he released his latest album, reverberated across generations, but it would turn out to be only the beginning of legendary talents that left this planet. It continued into the last week of this year when George Michael and Carrie Fisher died, making this year feel especially brutal as it wrapped up. It can feel odd to experience grief at a high-profile death – someone who you may have never met in person but who you communed with through songs, images or pivotal cultural touchstones. But we did ache as they were subtracted from our world. Here, is a remembrance of some of their lives and legacies.
David Bowie, the legendary singer-songwriter and actor, died on January 10th after a long battle with cancer. He was 69.
Two days before his death, the singer put out ★ (pronounced "Blackstar"), this time on his birthday on January 8th. The record reflected the ever-evolving artist's interest in jazz and hip-hop. "We were listening to a lot of Kendrick Lamar," producer Tony Visconti told Rolling Stone of the recording sessions. "We wound up with nothing like that, but we loved the fact Kendrick was so open-minded and he didn't do a straight-up hip-hop record. He threw everything on there, and that's exactly what we wanted to do. The goal, in many, many ways, was to avoid rock & roll."
As Iggy Pop explained in a tribute: "He appreciated oddballs — people who looked different and spoke in a certain way. He had a very strong curiosity and had very absolute aesthetic values."
Alan Rickman, the British actor who portrayed likable villains in films like Die Hard and the Harry Potter series died on January 14th due to cancer. He was 69.
"Alan Rickman is undoubtedly one of the greatest actors I will ever work with," Daniel Radcliffe wrote. "He is also one of the loyalest and most supportive people I've ever met in the film industry. Alan was extremely kind, generous, self-deprecating and funny. And certain things obviously became even funnier when delivered in his unmistakable double-bass. Film sets and theatre stages are all far poorer for the loss of this great actor and man."
Glenn Frey, the Eagles guitarist and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, died on January 18th. He was 67.
As Don Henley wrote of Frey: "He was like a brother to me; we were family, and like most families, there was some dysfunction. But, the bond we forged 45 years ago was never broken, even during the 14 years that the Eagles were dissolved. We were two young men who made the pilgrimage to Los Angeles with the same dream: to make our mark in the music industry — and with perseverance, a deep love of music, our alliance with other great musicians and our manager, Irving Azoff, we built something that has lasted longer than anyone could have dreamed. But, Glenn was the one who started it all. He was the spark plug, the man with the plan."
"He had an encyclopedic knowledge of popular music and a work ethic that wouldn't quit. He was funny, bullheaded, mercurial, generous, deeply talented and driven. He loved is wife and kids more than anything. We are all in a state of shock, disbelief and profound sorrow. We brought our two-year History of the Eagles Tour to a triumphant close at the end of July and now he is gone. I'm not sure I believe in fate, but I know that crossing paths with Glenn Lewis Frey in 1970 changed my life forever, and it eventually had an impact on the lives of millions of other people all over the planet. It will be very strange going forward in a world without him in it. But, I will be grateful, every day, that he was in my life. Rest in peace, my brother. You did what you set out to do, and then some."
Earth, Wind and Fire vocalist and co-founder Maurice White died in his sleep in Los Angeles on February 4th. He was 74.
The singer had been battling Parkinson's disease since 1992. His health had reportedly deteriorated in recent months. Because of the disease, he had not toured with the pioneering soul and R&B group since 1994. He nevertheless remained active on the business side of the group.
"My brother, hero and best friend Maurice White passed away peacefully last night in his sleep," White's brother and bandmate Verdine wrote in a statement. "While the world has lost another great musician and legend, our family asks that our privacy is respected as we start what will be a very difficult and life changing transition in our lives. Thank you for your prayers and well wishes."
BMX legend Dave Mirra died on February 4th. He committed suicide at the age of 41.
Mirra was the best his sport had ever seen: He won a then record 24 medals at the X Games, had a video game named after him and a hosting gig on MTV. Other than Tony Hawk and Shaun White, no extreme sports star had ever been bigger.
After his death, Hawk tweeted: "Goodbye Dave Mirra, a true pioneer, icon and legend. Thank you for the memories… we are heartbroken."
Vanity, a singer who collaborated with Prince, fronted the group Vanity 6 and courted controversy, died on February 15th in Fremont, California. She was 57.
Vanity 6's Prince-composed 1982 single, the funky, synthy "Nasty Girl," reached the top spot of Billboard's dance chart and the Top 10 of the R&B chart. As a solo artist, she scored more pop hits in the mid-Eighties, including "Pretty Mess," "Mechanical Emotion" and "Under the Influence." She also attracted controversy for her lecherous image, notably earning a place on the Parents Music Resource Center's "Filthy 15" for "Strap on 'Robbie Baby'" in 1985.
In an interview with Rolling Stone last year, Vanity expressed remorse for her wild ways. "I don't listen to my old music of Vanity's unless I have to hear it playing in a mall or something place like that," she said. "I sing to Jesus for Jesus now. This gives me pure joy … worship! I apologize profusely to those I have offended deeply a million times over."
"I just cannot believe Vanity is gone. She was such a vibrant human being," Motown founder Berry Gordy said in a statement. "Working with her on Berry Gordy's The Last Dragon, I found her to be a talented natural beauty, inside and out. It was an incredible experience. I will miss her."
Joey Martin Feek, of the award-winning husband-and-wife singing duo Joey + Rory, died on March 4th. She was 40 years old.
On June 15th, 2002, country singers Rory Feek and Joey Martin were married in tiny Mt. Pleasant, Tennessee, about 30 minutes from the farmhouse where the couple lived, south of Nashville. This year, Rory celebrated the anniversary without his bride by his side and, in an emotional blog post, Feek explained that while he was never good at giving gifts to his wife, he created a special gift in her memory – a film titled To Joey, With Love – which he released this year.
George Martin, who produced much of the Beatles' classic catalog, died on March 8th. He was 90.
Over the decades, many people have claimed to be the "fifth Beatle." But the only person who can credibly hold that title was Martin. The producer not only signed the Beatles to their first record contract in 1962 but went on to work extensively with them on the vast majority of music they recorded over the next eight years, from "Love Me Do" to the majestic suite that wrapped up Abbey Road.
Keith Emerson, founding member and keyboardist of Emerson, Lake and Palmer and a prog rock legend, died on March 11th. He was 71. Police found Emerson with a single gunshot wound to the head, and Santa Monica police confirmed that Emerson died by suicide; an autopsy report later ruled that Emerson had committed suicide, the Associated Press reports. "We regret to announce that Keith Emerson died last night at his home in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, aged 71. We ask that the family's privacy and grief be respected," the band wrote.
"I am deeply saddened to learn of the passing of my good friend and brother-in-music, Keith Emerson," Palmer wrote in a statement. "Keith was a gentle soul whose love for music and passion for his performance as a keyboard player will remain unmatched for many years to come. He was a pioneer and an innovator whose musical genius touched all of us in the worlds of rock, classical and jazz. I will always remember his warm smile, good sense of humor, compelling showmanship and dedication to his musical craft. I am very lucky to have known him and to have made the music we did together."
Malik Taylor, the rapper known as Phife Dawg whose nimble, clever rhymes helped launch A Tribe Called Quest to both commercial and critical success, died on March 22nd at the age of 45 from complications resulting from diabetes.
"He brought the street to A Tribe Called Quest," said the group's former manager Chris Lighty in Beats, Rhymes & Life. "If Q-Tip was esoteric and on Pluto, Phife would bring them back to the moon so that it was in the realm of human understanding."
Garry Shandling, star of The Larry Sanders Show and It's Garry Shandling's Show, died of a blood clot in his heart on March 24th. He was 66.
"R.I.P. Garry Shandling," Albert Brooks wrote on Twitter. "I am so saddened to hear this. [He was] brilliantly funny and such a great guy. He will be so missed."
Ricky Gervais described him as "one of the most influential comedians of a generation."
Merle Haggard, who over six decades composed and performed one of the greatest repertoires in country music, capturing the American condition with his stories of the poor, the lost, the working class, heartbroken and hard-living, died at his home in the San Joaquin Valley, California, on April 6th after a battle with pneumonia. He was 79.
In American and country music, few artists loomed larger. Haggard's career spanned 38 Number One country hits, and his rough hard-edged style influenced country and rock & roll artists from Waylon Jennings and Gram Parsons to Jamey Johnson and Eric Church. As a songwriter, Willie Nelson called him "one of the best."
"Merle Haggard has always been as deep as deep gets," Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone in 2009. "Totally himself. Herculean. Even too big for Mount Rushmore. No superficiality about him whatsoever. He definitely transcends the country genre. If Merle had been around Sun Studio in Memphis in the Fifties, Sam Phillips would have turned him into a rock & roll star, one of the best."
Joanie Laurer, the former WWE star known as Chyna, died on April 20th night at the age of 46.
Famous to a generation of wrestling fans for her run during WWE's "Attitude Era," Laurer redefined the possibilities for female performers as Chyna, a strong, silent enforcer billed as "The Ninth Wonder of the World." By stepping inside the ring, working an unapologetically strong style and achieving honors that had previously seemed impossible, she inspired a generation of women to do the same.
Prince, the legendary and innovative musician and actor, died on April 21st at the age of 57.
As Questlove explained in a moving tribute: "Prince was singular in his music. He was his own genre. That same singularity extended to everything. He went the other way in life, too."
Earlier this year, he announced that he had begun work on his memoirs. "We're starting right at the beginning from my first memory, and hopefully we can move all the way to the Super Bowl," he told a crowd at a private concert in New York City. "We just started, we're going as quick as we can, working tirelessly." The book was tentatively titled The Beautiful Ones.
Guy Clark, the Texas troubadour who blended high wit with pure poetry and turned it into timeless, vibrantly visual songs like "Desperados Waiting for a Train" and "L.A Freeway," died on May 17 at the age of 74.
Clark was nominated for numerous Grammy awards, though he would joke that he always lost to Bob Dylan. His luck changed with My Favorite Picture of You, which turned out to be his last album, took home the award in 2014. By then, a past struggle with cancer had ravaged him system as had the toll of hard living — equally so the death of his wife in 2012.
Muhammad Ali, the heavyweight boxing champion whose brash yet playful public persona, innovative fighting style and outspoken political stances made him one of the most widely recognized and admired Americans in the world, died on June 3rd. He was 74.
From nearly the start of his career, Ali was embedded in American popular culture. He recorded a version of Ben E. King's "Stand By Me" in 1963, and a year later Bob Dylan boasted comically of his ability to whup the champ on "I Shall be Free No. 10." There were few celebrities the impossibly photogenic Ali wouldn't strike some comic pose with, and few who passed up the chance to be in the frame with him. When they first came to the U.S. the Beatles made a point of meeting him — and hamming it up for the cameras together.
"It's a sad day for life, man. I loved Muhammad Ali, he was my friend. Ali will never die," Don King, who promoted some of Ali's biggest fights, said. "Like Martin Luther King his spirit will live on, he stood for the world."
Street-fighting legend Kevin "Kimbo Slice" Ferguson died at age 42 on June 6th.
Slice was a well-known badass that went from street brawler to MMA fighter – one of the most famous competitors the sport has ever seen. His name caught fire in the mid-2000s due to the massive popularity of YouTube videos where he participated in backyard bareknuckle fights against fellow brawlers in his hometown of Miami. Before long, Slice became an Internet sensation.
"A fight starts by word of mouth," Kimbo told Rolling Stone in 2006. "A guy is a badass in his neighborhood, and then people that know people make it happen. It's braggin' rights."
Anton Yelchin, the actor who portrayed Chekov in the rebooted Star Trek series and star of films like Like Crazy and Green Room, died on June 19th in a fatal traffic collision, his publicist confirmed to the Associated Press. Yelchin was 27.
Yelchin was perhaps best known for portraying Pavel Chekov in J.J. Abrams' Star Trek in 2009 and Star Trek Into Darkness in 2013. Yelchin reprised the role for this past summer's Star Trek Beyond.
"Anton Yelchin was one of my best friends. Can't say anything that conveys what this feels like," actress Kat Dennings tweeted. Anna Kendrick wrote, "This is unreal. Anton Yelchin is such a talent. Such a huge loss."
Bernie Worrell, keyboardist for Parliament/Funkadelic and Talking Heads and a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, died on June 24th following a battle with cancer. He was 72.
"This is a huge loss," George Clinton said in a statement. "The world of music will never be the same. Bernie’s influence and contribution – not just to Funk but also Rock and Hip Hop – will forever be felt. Bernie was a close and personal friend and this is a time of sadness for me personally. P-Funk stands with his family and fans alike in mourning this loss. The world is a little bit darker and a little less funky without Bernie in it."
Alan Vega, singer in the influential protopunk duo Suicide, died peacefully in his sleep on July 16th. He was 78.
As his family wrote: "Alan was not only relentlessly creative, writing music and painting until the end, he was also startlingly unique. Along with Martin Rev, in the early 1970s, they formed the two person avant band known as Suicide. Almost immediately, their incredible and unclassifiable music went against every possible grain. Their confrontational live performances, light-years before Punk Rock, are the stuff of legend. Their first, self-titled album is one of the single most challenging and noteworthy achievements in American music. Alan Vega was the quintessential artist on every imaginable level. His entire life was devoted to outputting what his vision commanded of him."
Gene Wilder, the comedian known to a generation as Willy Wonka and an icon thanks to his works with Mel Brooks on The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, died from complications due to Alzheimer's Disease on August 23rd. He was 83.
"Gene Wilder – One of the truly great talents of our time. He blessed every film we did with his magic & he blessed me with his friendship," Brooks tweeted following news of Wilder's death.
"Oh, Gene, it's too soon! It's too soon," Wilder's Young Frankenstein co-star Cloris Leachman said in a statement to Rolling Stone. "Gene was in a class by himself. I looked up to him yet on the set he was just one of us. I remember when we were shooting Young Frankenstein there was a scene where I had to get the group up the stairs immediately. I had to say, 'Shtay close to zee candles' and turn toward him. As I turned around I could see his face was in two pieces. We had to do our scenes 14 times over because he'd be laughing so hard. Alas…alas… So dear Gene I vill say, Goodnight."
Alexis Arquette, transgender actress and member of the Arquette acting family, died on the morning of September 11th following a lengthy illness. She was 47.
"Our brother Robert, who became our brother Alexis, who became our sister Alexis, who became our brother Alexis, passed this morning September 11, at 12:32 am," her brother Richmond Arquette wrote. "He was surrounded by all of his brothers and sisters, one of his nieces and several other loved ones. We were playing music for him and he passed during David Bowie's Starman. As per his wishes, we cheered at the moment that he transitioned to another dimension."
The sister of actors Rosanna, Patricia and, two years later, David Arquette, Arquette's first role came as a 12-year-old in the Tubes' "She's a Beauty" video. Arquette's film career included small roles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Pulp Fiction (as the gunman who miraculously failed to shoot Vincent Vega and Jules at close range) and Threesome.
Arquette was also known for playing George, a Boy George wannabe, in the 1998 Adam Sandler film The Wedding Singer. The Culture Club singer tweeted: "R.I.P my sister Alexis Arquette. Another Another bright light gone out far too soon. Love to the family and all that loved Alexis."
Arnold Palmer, known simply as "the King," who had 95 professional wins, four victories at the Masters, a U.S. Open and three PGA Championships, died at the age of 87 on September 23rd.
There are few athletes of his or any other time so beloved even beyond the sport they played. Some might be more familiar with the drink the Arnold Palmer, the lemonade and iced tea drink that bears his name, and his company has been selling its own version since 2001. The fact that a man who played a game like golf could connect with anybody, from people who only enough time to hit the links maybe once a month to big-money CEOs, and who brought his sport to new heights, means his legacy will live on for a very long time to come.
Although many consider golf elitist, Palmer was always humble and open. "I'm flattered by the fact that people want to talk to me or shake hands with me or get an autograph," he told Esquire in 2014. "I feel flattered that they want that. And I try to do all I can to accommodate."
Dylan Rieder, a renowned professional skateboarder and model died on October 12th due to complications from leukemia. He was 28. Known for his effortless and graceful style, strength and memorable video appearances, Rieder influenced a generation of skateboarders.
"Dylan Rieder. One of the most talented and brave men," Ozzy Osbourne tweeted, along with a picture of the two of them together. "I feel blessed to have known you. Rest in peace Dylan. My love and condolences to his family."
Pete Burns, lead singer of the Eighties goth new wave band Dead or Alive and their smash "You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)," died on October 23rd after suffering cardiac arrest. He was 57.
The androgynous Burns, who began cross-dressing as a six-year-old, emerged in the late Seventies as a member of the goth band Nightmares in Wax, which released their lone EP Birth of a Nation, highlighted by the single "Black Leather," in 1979 before adopting the name Dead or Alive.
Boy George, who weathered comparisons both musically and stylistically to Burns, tweeted of the Dead or Alive singer, "Tearful about the passing of @PeteBurnsICON he was one of our great true eccentrics and such a big part of my life! Wow. Hard to believe!"
Leonard Cohen, the hugely influential singer and songwriter whose work spanned nearly 50 years, died on November 7th at the age of 82.
"My father passed away peacefully at his home in Los Angeles with the knowledge that he had completed what he felt was one of his greatest records," Cohen's son Adam wrote in a statement to Rolling Stone. "He was writing up until his last moments with his unique brand of humor."
"I never had the sense that there was an end," Cohen said in 1992. "That there was a retirement or that there was a jackpot."
Leon Russell, renowned multi-instrumentalist and songwriter who collaborated with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, the Rolling Stones and Elton John over the course of 50 years in the music industry, died on November 13th. He was 74.
Elton John, who collaborated with Russell on 2010's The Union, paid tribute to the musician on Instagram. "My darling Leon Russell passed away last night. He was a mentor, inspiration and so kind to me," John wrote. "Thank God we caught up with each other and made The Union. He got his reputation back and felt fulfilled. I loved him and always will."
Sharon Jones, the fiery soul singer who spent decades in obscurity before becoming a Grammy-nominated soul and funk vocalist with her longtime backing band the Dap-Kings, died on November 18th of pancreatic cancer. She was 60.
"I'm not trying to ride anybody’s coattails," the singer said in 2008. "I'm just doing my thing and people are coming to us."
Florence Henderson, the actress who portrayed matriarch Carol Brady on the Seventies sitcom The Brady Bunch, died on November 24th, Thanksgiving Day, in Los Angeles from heart failure. She was 82.
Henderson's agent Kayla Pressman added, "Florence was the most vibrant and caring woman I have ever known. She never had an unkind word about anyone. She was a wonderful mother and was so proud of her 4 children and 5 grandchildren."
Greg Lake, a singer and multi-instrumentalist who helped propel prog rock into the mainstream as a member of Emerson, Lake and Palmer and King Crimson, died December 7th. His manager told the BBC he had recently had "a long and stubborn battle with cancer"; the news came nine months after the death of his bandmate, Keith Emerson. He was 69.
"It is with great sadness that I must now say goodbye to my friend and fellow bandmate, Greg Lake," Carl Palmer wrote in a statement. "Greg's soaring voice and skill as a musician will be remembered by all who knew his music and recordings he made with ELP and King Crimson. I have fond memories of those great years we had in the 1970s and many memorable shows we performed together. Having lost Keith this year as well has made this particularly hard for all of us. As Greg sang at the end of Pictures at an Exhibition, 'death is life.' His music can now live forever in the hearts of all who loved him."
George Michael, the soulful British heartthrob who became a star in the Eighties as half of Wham! before earning critical acclaim as a solo artist, died on Christmas morning at his home in Goring in Oxfordshire, England. The cause of death was heart failure, and he was 53.
"I am in deep shock," Elton John wrote on Instagram. "I have lost a beloved friend – the kindest, most generous soul and a brilliant artist. My heart goes out to his family and all of his fans."
Carrie Fisher, the iconic actress who portrayed Princess Leia in the Star Wars series, died December 27th, following a massive heart attack. She was 60. Then a day later, her mother, veteran actress Debbie Reynolds, died at the age of 84.
"Carrie was one-of-a-kind, brilliant, original," Harrison Ford, who played Han Solo alongside Fisher, added in a statement. "Funny and emotionally fearless. She lived her life, bravely. My thoughts are with her daughter Billie, her mother Debbie, her brother Todd and her many friends. We will all miss her."