On the Stairway to Heaven: Notable Deaths in May 2020

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We offer a final salute to these contributors to rock & pop music of the 60s, 70s and 80s – the BEST music ever made – who died during May 2020:

May 05

Millie Small / (Millicent Dolly May Small ) → Jamaican one hit wonder “blue beat” reggae/ska singer with the first international ska hit, “My Boy Lollipop” (#2, UK #2, 1964), followed with several singles and albums but never repeated the success of her one shot of fame, left the industry in the 70s and largely dropped out of sight, died following a stroke on 5/5/2020, age 73.

Sweet Pea Atkinson / (Hillard Atkinson) → Co-lead vocalist in soul-funk-pop Was (Not Was) on all of their 80s albums (plus the 2008 reunion LP, Boo!) and their signature hit, “Walk The Dinosaur” (#7, 1987), later participated in other Don (Weiss) Was and David (Fagenson) Was projects, issued a solo album, toured with Lyle Lovett for 10 years, and sang vocals for Elton John, Brian Wilson, Jackson Browne, A.J. Croce and many others, died following a heart attack on 5/5/2020, age 74.


May 06

Brian Howe / (Brian Anthony Howe) → Lead vocalist for various London rock bands in the early 80s, then auditioned for and was awarded the lead vocalist spot in hard rock Ted Nugent‘s band, stayed until 1986 when he joined Bad Company as songwriter and vocalist for a four-album run during the band’s resurgence through the early 90s, left the band in 1994 and released three solo albums and toured until his death following a heart attack on 5/6/2020, age 66.


May 07

Dave Greenfield / (David Paul Greenfield) → Keyboardist for 45 years for venerable punk rockers The Stranglers, played on 23 UK Top 40 singles from 1977 to 2006, including “Golden Brown” (UK #2, 1982) and “All Day And All Of The Night” (UK #7, 1988), and on all 33 of the band’s albums, his underlying progressive rock sensibilities on the organ played a large role in elevating the band above their punk rivals for nearly five decades, died from complications of the COVID-19 virus on 5/7/2020, age 71.

Andre Harrell / (Andre O’Neal Harrell) → Early rapper turned highly-influential music label executive, generally credited with creating the bridge between street-tough hip hop and smooth R&B, first with Def Jam Records and from 1986 as founder and CEO of Uptown Records, signed and launched the careers of Sean “Diddy” Combs, Mary J. Blige and others, served as CEO for Motown Records for two years in the 90s and as Vice Chairman of Combs‘s Revolt music enterprise from 2013 until his death from complications of unspecified heart problems on 5/7/2020, age 59.


May 09

Little Richard / (Richard Wayne Penniman) → Permanent member of rock music’s pantheon, immeasurably important pianist, songwriter, bandleader and one of a very small handful of top artists who truly pioneered rock ‘n’ roll music in the 50s and pre-Beatles 60s, and by extension, multiple genres of popular music in the second half of the 20th Century, combined melodic R&B, blues and gospel with a frenetic, piano-pounding, shrill-voiced flamboyancy not heard elsewhere beyond the immortal “Tutti Frutti” (#21, R&B #2, 1956) and now-standard “Long Tall Sally” (#13, R&B #1, 1956), plus 15 other R&B Top 20 singles in the 50s, thereafter spent 50 years shifting between evangelism and reluctantly touring as a rock icon, died from bone cancer on 5/9/2020, age 8


May 10

Betty Wright / (Bessie Regina Norris) → Grammy-winning R&B/soul, Miami funk and quiet storm vocalist who began recording singles while a young teen, including “Clean Up Woman” (#6, R&B #2, 1972) at age 17, enjoyed a string of minor hits through the 70s and into the 90s plus a long career singing back-up, writing and producing for a wide range of artists, including Stevie Wonder, Gloria Estefan, Peter Tosh, Jennifer Lopez, Joss Stone and Tom Jones, among others, among many others, and mentoring disco, funk and rap singers in South Florida until her death from endometrial cancer on 5/10/2020, age 66.


May 13

Derek Lawrence / (Derek John Lawrence) → Rock music record producer with a 20-year career overseeing content and production for major acts, including Jethro Tull‘s first single “Sunshine Day” (1968) and Deep Purple‘s first three albums in the 60s, four albums for Wishbone Ash and two each for Flash and Kiss in the 70s , and heavy metal bands Fist and Quartz, plus Brit soul group Hot Chocolate in the 80s, died from unspecified causes on 5/13/2020, age 78.


May 14

Jorge Santana / (Guillermo Jorge Santana) → Guitarist, bandleader and younger brother of Latin rock superstar Carlos Santana, joined R&B/horn-rock Malibus in the late 60s and helped transform the band into influential, smooth Chicano rock Malo (“Suavecito,” #18, AC #8, 1972), went solo in 1976 and issued five albums in his name over 35 years, plus one with Latin rock supergroup Fania All-Stars, one as a sideman to his brother, and one in full collaboration (Santana Brothers, 1994), continued to tour with Malo on the oldies circuit until dying from natural causes on 5/14/2020, age 68.


May 15

Phil May / (Philip Arthur Dennis Wadey) → Co-founder and only constant member of raunchy blues-rock/proto-punk The Pretty Things, lesser known contemporaries of The Rolling Stones and Yardbirds, fronted the band through R&B and psych-rock in the 60s to hard rock in the 70s and punk in the 80 but never achieved the commercial success of “Don’t Bring Me Down” (UK #10, 1964) and two other Top 40 hits in the UK, wrote the lyrics for the concept album S. F. Sorrow (1968), considered by many the first rock opera, retired from the band in 2018 and died from emphysema and complications following hip surgery on 5/15/2020, age 75.


May 16

Astrid Kirchherr → German artist who befriended and photographed The Beatles in Hamburg in 1960 when they were a youthful bar band playing seedy nightclubs, widely credited for transforming them from the late-50s greaser look to the mod, iconic suits and “mop-top” hairstyle in their early years of superstardom, became engaged to “Fifth Beatle” Stu Sutcliffe until his death in 1962 and continued to shoot images of the band and other groups until the late 60s, her photos hung in art galleries internationally and sold at music conventions for decades, died from a brief bout with cancer on 5/16/2020, age 81.


May 17

Lucky Peterson / (Judge Kenneth Peterson) → Blues, gospel, soul and blues-rock child prodigy pianist and guitarist who released his first album, Our Future (1970) at age 5 and appeared on TV music variety programs multiple times by the time he was 9, as an adult issued over 30 mostly acclaimed albums, the last in 2019 (50 – Just Warming Up!), died after a short, undisclosed illness on 5/17/2020, age 55.


May 24

Al Rex / (Albert Floyd Piccirilli) → Bassist in rockabilly Bill Haley & His Comets on nine Top 20 singles in the mid-50s, including the rock ‘n’ roll anthem “Rock Around The Clock” (#1, 1955) and “See You Later Alligator” (#6, 1956), left to form is own band in 1960 and found limited success, dropped out of music thereafter and died from undisclosed causes on 5/24/2020, age 91.


May 25

Bucky Baxter / (William Baxter) → Alternative country and country-rock pedal steel guitarist best known for playing in Steve Earle‘s backing band, The Dukes in the 80s and in Bob Dylan‘s road band on the Never Ending Tour for nearly 750 shows in the 90s, also issued a lone solo album, Most Likely, No Problem (1999) and did session work for R.E.M., Ben Folds and others, died from unspecified causes on 5/25/2020, age 65.


May 28

Bob Kulick / (Robert J. Kulick) → Rock guitarist and record producer, was passed over for Ace Frehley after auditioning for the fourth spot in then-forming glam rock Kiss, but played uncredited on four of the band’s albums in the 70s and 80s while building a career as a go-to session and touring guitarist for Lou Reed, Meat Loaf, Michael Bolton, Diana Ross and others, also produced Metallic Attack: The Ultimate Tribute (2004) honoring slash metal band Metallica, issued a lone solo album in 1973, Skeletons In The Closet, died from undisclosed causes on 5/28/2020, age 70.