Unfortunately, while I was on my March and April hiatus from holiday, many great artists left the mortal coil without a decent write-up here. Apologies all around. All of these artists (except Huey Meaux, perhaps) are worthy of (and no doubt elsewhere received) much longer and more detailed tributes.
PINETOP PERKINS (1913 - 2011)
Born Joseph William Perkins in Belzoni, Mississippi in 1913, Perkins career spanned generations and included time spent playing with virtually all of the great Blues men of the 20th century--from Robert Nighthawk to BB King--as well as a cameo in the John Belushi and Dan Akroyd film "The Blues Brothers". He was one of the last of the Delta musicians known to have been a friend of Robert Johnson.
Perkins started as a guitarist, but an arm injury sustained in a bar fight forced him to switch to piano. He came to be called Pinetop as "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie" (written by Pinetop Smith) became a staple at his shows. Pinetop Perkins was thought of as a sideman for much of his career. But, following a stint with the Legendary Blues Band (and especially following his declaration of "retirement"), Pinetop thrived as a feature performer in his seventies, eighties and nineties. Pinetop's first solo album was 1988's "After Hours". His most recent album--a Grammy winning effort--was 2010's "Joined At The Hip" with Willie "Big Eyes" Smith. At the time of his death, Pinetop had about 20 live shows booked for 2011.
While I'm not entirely certain that the version of "Merry Christmas Baby" above is Pinetop's only contribution to the world of Christmas music (the man played and recorded for over 80 years, afterall), it is an excellent Pinetop Perkins take on the familiar Blues chestnut.
BILL PITCOCK (1952 - 2011)
Completely self-taught, Pitcock started with his father's dance band in 1964. After playing with a string of local Tulsa bands, Pitcock joined Dwight Twilley's power-pop band in 1971, continuing to work with Twilley for the next 40 years. Pitcock did manage to find a little time to play with Tulsa's Mystery Band in the eighties and nineties and to release his lone solo album, "Play What You Mean", in 2009.
You can hear the distinctive guitar of Bill Pitcock on the Dwight Twilley holiday album "Have A Twilley Christmas".
HAZEL DICKENS (1935 - 2011)
One of 11 children of a West Virginia coal mining family, Dickens became active in the Washington/Baltimore area during the Folk revival of the 50s and 60s. She teamed up with Alice Gerrard (wife of Mike Seeger) to record 4 albums and tour through the sixties and seventies. Hazel & Alice were a powerful and deeply traditional duo at a time when female bluegrass acts were unheard of, and they earned the respect of bluegrass fans everywhere, as well as from their male counterparts.
When Hazel & Alice split up, Dickens began singing more socially conscious music drawn from her own life's experiences. Songs like "Don't Put Her Down; You Helped Put Her There" spoke to the oppression of women, while "Coal Tattoo" and "They'll Never Keep Us Down" became staples of the labor movement. Dickens and her music appeared in the films Harlan County USA, Matewan and Songcatcher. In 1994, she received the International Bluegrass Music Association's Merit Award and was later inducted into their Hall of Honor. Hazel is also an inductee of the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame.
You can catch this American icon in a Christmas mood on Hungry For Music's 2001 release "A Holiday Feast: Volume VI", teaming up with Dudley Connell on "Blue Christmas". The song was also later included on "Creme de La Creme"--a compilation of the best tracks from the Holiday Feast series.
HUEY P. MEAUX (1929 - 2011)
Huey P. Meaux was born the son of a poor sharecropping family in rural Louisiana. Following a childhood of shucking rice, Meaux opened a barber shop where he worked by day. By night, Meaux was a disc jockey at KPAC in Beaumont, Texas. It was clear to everyone, Huey included, that Meaux lacked the talent to sing or play in a band. But he did display an ear for lyrics and music. He would parlay that ear into a string of hits through the sixties and seventies, many of which could fairly be described as Swamp Pop.
Meaux wrote and produced (or was otherwise involved with) a number of huge hit records, ranging from Barbara Lynn's "You'll Lose A Good Thing", to "She's About A Mover" by The Sir Douglas Quintet, to Freddy Fender's "Before The Next Teardrop Falls", to Rockin' Sidney's "My Toot Toot". He worked with the first all-Mexican band ever to appear on American Bandstand, Sunny and the Sunliners, and promoted a group called the Triumphs--led by a young B.J. Thomas--to the national charts with a cover of Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry".
Meaux more than washed away all of his contributions to music, however, with his history of child molestation. Meaux was first convicted of a Mann Act violation in 1966. In 1996, Meaux pled guilty to sexual assault on a child, child pornography and drug possession (as well as a charge of jumping bail). Sentenced to 15 years, Meaux was released in 2007.
Meaux wrote a handful of Christmas songs, none of them widely known or widely available. Jim Donley's mournful 1962 single, "Santa, Don't Pass Me By", carries a Meaux writing credit as does a 1981 record by Tommy McClain, "(Just Wait Till Christmas) They'll All Call Me Daddy". The 1963 release of Donley's Christmas single included another Meaux credited song on the flip--"Santa's Alley". In the 70s, Meaux recorded his own holiday 45, "Christmas, A Day I Can't Forget". It would appear that none of these has ever been issued on CD.
POLY STYRENE (1957 - 2011)
Born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said in 1957, Poly was raised by her mother, a legal secretary. Her father, a Somali aristocrat, was not in the picture. At 18, the young woman left home, with virtually no resources, and hitchhiked from one music festival to another. A Sex Pistols performance on her birthday in 1975 inspired her to form X-Ray Spex.
The band X-Ray Spex was like a shooting star. For all intents and purposes, their output consisted of 5 singles and one album, 1978's "Germ Free Adolescents". Yet these recordings are still regarded today as some of the finest and purest punk records ever made. Poly left the group for a bit following a diagnosis of schizophrenia (wrong, as it turned out), returned briefly, then left again to become involved with the Hare Krishna movement. Without their lead vocalist and song writer, X-Ray Spex was done. The band staged numerous reunions over the years and Poly released a number of solo projects as well. Most of Poly's solo work was on the other end of the scale from X-Ray Spex, tending towards jazzy dance-pop and New Age.
Gradually, Poly worked her way back to the punk scene. In 2009, Poly lent her vocals to Goldblade's Christmas single "City Of Christmas Ghosts". In 2010, she released her own reggae-infused "Black Christmas" as a free download. Poly's final album, the remarkable "Generation Indigo", was released in March 2011.
Earlier this year, Poly Styrene was diagnosed with breast cancer which, by the time of the diagnosis, had already spread to her spine and lungs. She continued to promote the new album and remained upbeat. "It's been a roller coaster ride," she told the UK Guardian, "but I wouldn't change a thing."
PHOEBE SNOW (1950 - 2011)
Phoebe Snow was born Phoebe Ann Laub in New York City in 1950 and raised in Teaneck, New Jersey. Though she remembered being most drawn to Gospel R&B in her formative years (e.g. Tremaine Hawkins, Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, Aretha) Phoebe grew up in a home where music, ranging from deep southern Blues to Broadway show tunes, played constantly. So, although Snow emerged from New York's seventies folk scene, she was constantly exploring and combining elements and genres, Phoebe's wide octave range contributing greatly to her musical versatility.
Playing New York's The Bitter End in 1972, Phoebe so impressed Shelter Records' Denny Cordell that he not only signed her to the label but also produced her debut album, "Phoebe Snow". Released in 1974, "Phoebe Snow" didn't instantly burn up the charts, but rather simmered slowly to a boil. The single "Poetry Man" bubbled under, gathering airplay and sales stealthily, until it finally hit the charts early in 1975. Eventually, the song rose to #5. Phoebe next hit the singles chart in the summer of '75 on a duet with Paul Simon, "Gone At Last". She appeared on Saturday Night Live and got the cover of Rolling Stone as well as a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist (losing out to Marvin Hamlisch). But Phoebe's life was about to take another dramatic turn.
In December 1975, Phoebe gave birth to a baby girl, Valerie Rose. Valerie Rose was born with hydrocephalus, a severe brain disorder. Doctors told Phoebe her daughter was unlikely to live more than a few years and they encouraged her to surrender Valerie to institutional care. But Phoebe resisted, vowing to raise her daughter at home. "My life was her," Snow told The San Francisco Chronicle in 2008, "completely about her, from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to bed at night." Musician husband Phil Kearns soon left and Phoebe's resistance to touring (so that she could be with her daughter at home) was just one of the reasons she and Sheltar Records had a falling out that resulted in lawsuits. Phoebe's musical career always took a back seat to Valerie and Snow never repeated the chart success of her debut. But Valerie lived to be 31, passing away in 2007, and Phoebe never regretted her choices.
Along the way, Phoebe managed several albums that were artistically brilliant if not commercially successful. Phoebe's 1976 release for Columbia, "Second Childhood", is considered her tour de force. She sang jingles for Stouffers, General Foods ("Celebrate the moments of your life"), Hallmark, etc., because they paid well. She sang for President Bill Clinton at the White House in 1999 and she sang for Howard Stern on his birthday shows and at his 2008 wedding. Phoebe's most recent album of original material was 2003's "Natural Wonder". A Live album was released in 2008 and Phoebe had planned to record a new album in 2010 before she suffered a brain hemorrhage, in January of that year, which left her in a coma.
Phoebe's lone contribution to the music of the holiday season, so far as I know, is her 1995 rendition of "Merry Christmas Baby" (not the Charles Brown song) for the out of print charity compilation "Winter, Fire & Snow".