Final Goodbyes of 2012

As the year comes to a close, it’s fitting to remember those who’ve gone but can’t, or shouldn’t be, forgotten.

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Daniel Inouye – Like many Japanese-Americans of his generation, he was reviled, discriminated against, locked away into concentration camps, looked down upon. And like many, to prove his loyalty to his country, he went to war. In Inouye’s case, he suffered, soldiered on and became an honest-to-God American, Medal-of-Honor-winning hero. The story goes that he went into a San Francisco barber shop on his way home, still wearing the uniform of an Army captain (with one sleeve pinned up because he’d lost an arm in the Italian campaign) and the barber refused to cut his hair because he was Japanese. A mark of shame on my hometown. Inouye became the first Asian-American member of the House, and first in the Senate. He died as the most senior member of Congress. He was steadfast in his principles and admired for his humanity.

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Johnny Otis – Brilliant and revolutionary bandleader, showman, musician, developer of talent. ‘Hand Jive’ anyone?

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Etta James – A singer who can get you up dancing and break your heart at the same time. Coincidentally, one of Johnny Otis’ great discoveries.

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Joe Paterno – His players practically worshiped him but his reputation will be forever linked and, therefore, sullied by his connection to a sexual abuse scandal centered around a former assistant.

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Earl Scruggs – A giant. A legend. A pioneer. A person who, defying all odds, brought soulfulness to the banjo.

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Dick Clark – Forget the new year’s eve caricature he became. He broke ground and he sincerely loved teenagers and their music.

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Levon Helm – Listen to him sing. Read his lyrics. You can’t mistake him for anybody else.

Legendary musician Levon Helms dies

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Mike Wallace – The number-one case in point for this axiom: fearless journalists piss powerful people off.

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Maurice Sendak – He turned a very uncertain and unhappy childhood into art adored by millions of children and adults alike.

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Carlos Fuentes – Great writer of brutally honest fiction.

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Doc Watson – Changed the lives of thousands of musicians and maybe millions of fans with his clear and honest singing about the lives of real people.

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Rodney King – Beaten by LA cops, who were filmed doing it. All holy hell broke loose when they were acquitted. Then, in all sincerity, Rodney King asked his townsfolk to get along and stop killing each other. For his efforts, he was turned into a national joke. He deserved better.

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Andy Griffith – On popular TV shows for, like, 50 years but he still died an underestimated and underappreciated actor.

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Ernest Borgnine – Played honest-to-God working-class American men with gravity and honesty. They don’t make guys like him or movies like that anymore, to our great loss.

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Kitty Wells – Raw and honest voice. A trailblazer for women in music. Ran her own life and her own career her way. Also a beautiful, generous and gracious human being.

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Sally Ride – Terms like “role model” and “hero” get thrown around like nickels these days. I just wish kids knew less about people like Britney Spears and Lindsey Lohan and a whole lot more about people like Sally Ride.

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Neil Armstrong – The first line of every single obituary of Neil Armstrong? He was the first man to set foot on the moon. Do you need a second sentence? Every one my age or older remembers the precise moment.

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George McGovern – A war hero who wanted to end the useless and wasteful Vietnam War. As a result, he was chewed up by the Nixon campaign machine and made to look weak, unmanly. He told the truth.

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Margaret DuPont – Graceful, smart, tough as nails. Was she the first American female sports star? Many owe her a great debt of gratitude for making the model many now trade upon.

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Marvin Miller – Created major league baseball as we now know it. Helped players stand up to the organized servitude that was baseball. Hated by many. Hated.

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Hector Camacho – Grew up tough in Spanish Harlem. Became successful, rich, famous. Never lost the chip on his shoulder or need to live wild. Ended bad, as it had to, by a bullet to the head.

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Dave Brubeck – His iconic ‘Take Five’ may be the most recognized jazz song of all time. His bands were tight. His piano was beautiful. He represented his era well.

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Ravi Shankar – Classically-trained. Spiritual. A bridge between very different cultures.

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So Long, Dick

For some of my readers, this will come as news. Before the ubiquity of online social media, Google, YouTube, NetFlix, and iTunes, you pretty much had to rely on local radio and, to a much lesser extent, television for introduction to new music. Or maybe, if you were really lucky (as I was – thanks, Melecio), connected and knowledgable friends.

The rest of America relied on Dick Clark and/or Don Cornelius. (You can read my thoughts about the passing of Don Cornelius here.) Clark’s show started as a local affair in Philadelphia; it grew to become Bandstand, then, as it went national, American Bandstand. From the start, a couple of things were obvious: (1) Dick Clark was and was always going to be the adult in the mix – this was no ersatz kid – and (2) he loved music and musicians.

He seemed genuinely happy interviewing the kids who danced on the show and wore the latest fashions (My God, the crushes I had on Bandstand’s cast members.). Clark dug deeply into what they liked about what they’d just heard. American Bandstand, courtesy of the host’s earnestness, must have been gold for the research departments of the nation’s advertising agencies.

Over the years, Dick Clark presented a dizzying array of artists. Maybe not always the best artists, although that can be debated, but the variety was both odd and amazing. Reading the list induces incredulity. Here’s a (very) partial list:

Sam Cooke, Bill Haley and the Comets, Chuck Berry, The Supremes, Fats Domino, Till Tuesday, The Jackson Five, The Beastie Boys, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Sonny and Cher, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Don McClean, The Temptations, ELO, Jethro Tull, The Young Rascals, Culture Club, James Brown…

Clark became the butt of jokes and a hollow self-parody of his better self at some point, then, in part due to a severe stroke, was seen only as the wooden television presenter of New Year’s Eve. It was a crappy public end to a long and storied career dedicated to something as great as popular music.

May Dick Clark rest in eternal musical peace.