Categotry Archives: Musicians

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Big Joe Burrell

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Categories: Musicians

Big Joe Burrell, a larger-than-life blues singer and saxophonist, died on Feb. 2 from complications following abdominal surgery. He was 80.
One of seven children, Burrell spent his early years in Port Huron, Mich., listening to his mother sing and his father play the guitar, harmonica and piano. At 10, the boy’s mother borrowed $5 from her boss in order to buy him a saxophone. The request was granted and changed his life.
For the next six decades, Burrell sang and played jazz, rock and blues on his sax. He dropped out of high school in the ninth grade to pursue a music career, and was already working gigs at local clubs when World War II called him into the service. Burrell joined the U.S. Army in 1943 and played in the military’s show band, then spent two years battling tuberculosis — a condition that temporarily hindered his ability to play.
After recovering from the disease, Burrell moved to Toledo, Ohio, and formed the Red Tops Organ Trio. At a dance in Akron, the band opened for legendary blues guitarist B.B. King. King loved Burrell’s big sax sound, and immediately invited him to join his band. Burrell agreed and spent the next two years touring the United States. When Count Basie heard him play, he also invited Burrell to join with his orchestra in New York City. Through Basie, Burrell landed a job backing The Miller Sisters as they toured Bermuda, the Bahamas and Europe.
Burrell spent the next decade living in Toronto and playing in a jazz band with Big John Little. He was en route to New York in 1976 when he stumbled upon the burgeoning music scene in Burlington, Vt. For the next 30 years, Burrell became a fixture in the area, and even received a key to the city from the mayor.
His informal jam sessions at the now-defunct Hunt’s club drew standing room only audiences. With guitarist Paul Asbell, keyboardist Chuck Eller, bassist Tony Markellis and drummer Russ Lawton, Burrell formed the Unknown Blues Band, a group that performed in clubs and jazz festivals all over New England and released the albums “Live at Hunt’s” and “Every Time I Hear That Mellow Saxophone.”
One person who heard the gregarious saxophonist perform was Trey Anastasio, a University of Vermont student and guitarist who later formed the touring rock band Phish. Once he became a successful musician in his own right, Anastasio invited Burrell to open for Phish and play in a solo project he formed.
Until his death, Burrell played a gig every Thursday night at the Halvorson’s Upstreet Café. He also performed benefit concerts for the Multicultural Center of Greater Burlington, Women Helping Battered Women and the Flynn Center Endowment Fund. His autobiography, “We Call Him ‘Big’ Joe! Big Horn, Big Soul, Big Man: A Musician’s Odyssey,” was published in 2002.

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Lamont Bentley

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Categories: Actors, Hollywood, Musicians

lbentley.jpgArtimus Lamont Bentley, an up-and-coming actor who was best known for playing Hakeem Campbell on the UPN comedy “Moesha,” died on Jan. 19 in a car accident. He was 31.

The Milwaukee native was in his teens when he moved to Los Angeles with his mother, Loyce, an aspiring singer. Bentley’s knack for making people laugh during his mother’s auditions inspired him to build a show business career of his own.

Bentley first worked in commercials, hawking Starburst candies in television ads and encouraging teen fathers to take responsibility for their offspring in a public service announcement. He then made numerous guest appearances on TV shows, such as “The Client,” “The Sentinel,” “Soul Food,” “Clueless” and “NYPD Blue.” Bentley got his big break in 1996 when he was hired to star opposite R&B singer Brandy on the sitcom “Moesha.” His latest project was the short independent film “Shards.”

Outside of acting, Bentley had an interest in rap music. In recent years, he and his partner Tyson formed the unsigned hip-hop duo, Uprise. Sisters in Style magazine once named Bentley one of the top 20 African-American “hunks” in the entertainment industry. The mayor of Milwaukee also honored him with a “Lamont Bentley Day.”

Early Wednesday morning, Bentley was traveling by himself on the 118 Freeway near Simi Valley, Calif. His Mercedes-Benz exited the highway, ran a stop sign, blew through a chain link fence and rolled down an embankment. Bentley was ejected from the vehicle and into traffic where five cars struck him. Test results showed no drugs or alcohol in his system.

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Jimmy Griffin

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Categories: Musicians

James Arthur Griffin, an Academy Award-winning singer/songwriter and guitarist who was also a founding member of several soft rock and country bands, died on Jan. 11 from complications of cancer. He was 61.

Born in Cincinnati and reared in Memphis, Griffin moved to Hollywood, Calif., in 1962, with hopes of breaking into the music business. He released a solo debut (“Summer Holiday”) and several pop singles, then joined forces with keyboardist/vocalist David Gates and guitarist/vocalist Robb Royer to form the soft rock group Bread.

Bread released a self-titled debut in 1968, but it failed to attract much attention. The band’s sophomore release, “On the Waters,” went gold and featured the chart-topper “Make It With You.” Several hits followed, including “If,” “Mother Freedom,” “Baby I’m-a Want You” and “Everything I Own.” In 1973, Griffin left the band due to creative differences with Gates. He rejoined three years later, but more fighting ensued, and Bread soon disbanded amidst rancor and lawsuits.

Although Gates penned most of Bread’s hit songs, Griffin was a talented songwriter in his own right. He wrote the county song “Who’s Gonna Know,” which became a hit for Conway Twitty, and shared a 1970 Oscar for best original song with Royer and Fred Karlin. The trio co-wrote “For All We Know” for the film, “Lovers and Other Strangers.” The song was also a Top 5 hit for The Carpenters.

Griffin later released a second solo album (“James Griffin”) and formed the country band Black Tie with former Eagles’ bassist Randy Meisner and singer Billy Swan. He and the country band, the Remingtons, scored a Top 10 single in 1992 with “A Long Time Ago.”

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Spencer Dryden

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Categories: Musicians

sdryden.jpgSpencer Dryden, a former drummer for the rock band Jefferson Airplane, died on Jan. 10 of cancer. He was 66.
Although he was born in New York, Dryden was raised in Los Angeles. The son of Broadway actor Wheeler Dryden and ballet dancer Alice Dryden, Spencer was also Charlie Chaplin’s nephew. He picked up the drums as a teenager and eventually sat in with bands at southern California jazz clubs.
After Dryden graduated from the Army and Navy Academy in Carlsbad, Calif., he switched from jazz to rock n’ roll. To make a living, Dryden offered rim shots to comedians in L.A. nightclubs and gave the exotic dancers at Hollywood strip clubs a rhythm to follow. Session drummer Earl Palmer heard Dryden’s performance at the Pink Pussycat and recommended him to the manager of Jefferson Airplane.
Dryden joined the band in 1966, replacing Skip Spence, who later formed the rock group, Moby Grape. As Airplane’s drummer, Dryden performed at Woodstock, Monterey and Altamont, and recorded “Surrealistic Pillow,” the band’s most famous album, which included the hits “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit.” He also dated Airplane’s lead singer Grace Slick. A year after they broke up, Dryden married groupie Sally Mann, and Slick served as the matron of honor. Dryden was fired from the band a few weeks after the 1970 wedding. He and Mann divorced three years later.
Dryden spent the 1970s in the country rock band New Riders of the Purple Sage before becoming the group’s manager. From 1982 to 1995, he played with the Dinosaurs, a Bay Area group of psychedelic rock veterans. For his work with Jefferson Airplane, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.
In recent years, Dryden fell on hard times. He lost all of his personal belongings in 2003 when his home burned down. He underwent two hip replacements and heart surgery, then was diagnosed with cancer in 2004. To help with his medical bills and living expenses, friends put together an eBay auction and a benefit concert, featuring performances by Grateful Dead vocalist Bob Weir and singer Warren Haynes of The Allman Brothers and Gov’t Mule. These events raised nearly $36,000.
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Son Seals

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Categories: Musicians

sseals.jpgFrank “Son” Seals not only sang the blues, he lived them. A car accident in 1995 severely injured his left hand. Two years later, he was shot in the face during a domestic dispute. A lifelong diabetic, part of Seals’ left leg was amputated in 1999. More recently, his motor home was destroyed by fire and his custom-made guitar was stolen.
Despite these troubles, the gravelly-voiced singer/songwriter and guitarist toured all over the country and in Europe. He shared the stage with B.B. King, Johnny Winter and the jam band, Phish. Robert Palmer, writing for The New York Times once described Seals as “the most exciting young blues guitarist and singer in years.”
Seals was taught to play the guitar by his father, a former minstrel show performer and juke joint operator. However, the Arkansas native entered the music business in the late 1960s as a drummer, accompanying artists such as Earl Hooker and Albert King.
Seals moved to Chicago in 1971 and found regular work performing in South Side clubs. He released his debut album, “The Son Seals Blues Band,” in 1973 with Alligator Records, a premier blues label. Rolling Stone magazine called his sophomore effort, “Midnight Son,” one of the most significant blues albums of the 1970s. He recorded seven more albums for Alligator and two for other labels; his final album, “Lettin’ Go,” was released in 2000.
Seals won three W.C. Handy Blues Awards and received a Grammy nomination in 1980 for his work on the live compilation “Blues Deluxe.” In the 1990s, he performed at the White House for President Bill Clinton.
Seals died on Dec. 20 of complications from diabetes. He was 62.
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