The Year in Music: Neil Peart, Eddie Van Halen, Little Richard among the music greats we lost

The music world said goodbye to many major artists in 2020, among them two rock musicians who emerged in the 1970s that many rank among the greatest and most influential to play their chosen instruments, as well as a rock ‘n’ roll pioneer who was considered one of the most dynamic performers of all time.

2020 began on a somber note when Rush drummer Neal Peart died on January 7 at age 67 after a three-and-a-half-year battle with brain cancer. Peart’s illness had been kept secret until his band mates — singer/bassist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson — announced his passing on January 10.

Peart, who joined the Canadian prog-rock group after the release of their 1974 self-titled debut, had long been lauded as one of rock’s most influential drummers. He also became the band’s primary lyricist. Neil’s powerful and technically proficient playing and his literate lyrics influenced by fantasy, sci-fi, mythology and philosophy, helped Rush become a hugely popular band.

The group was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, and the band called it quits after completing a 40th anniversary tour in 2015. Shortly after the trek ended, Peart announced his retirement from music.

Eddie Van Halen, one of the greatest guitar heroes of his era, died at age 65 on October 6 from complications of cancer, although his immediate cause of death was listed as a stroke. Eddie and his brother, drummer Alex Van Halen, co-founded their namesake band, bringing in charismatic frontman David Lee Roth and bassist/backing vocalist Michael Anthony in 1974 to round out the group’s classic lineup.

Eddie quickly became known for his fluid, fast and inventive playing. He was particularly known for his signature “finger-tapping” technique; while he didn’t invent it, he ultimately became its best-known purveyor.

Eddie co-wrote all of Van Halen’s original songs, and the band enjoyed massive success both with Roth, who left the group in 1985, and with David’s replacement, Sammy Hagar.

Roth rejoined Van Halen in 2006, and Eddie’s son, Wolfgang, replaced Anthony on bass that year. Van Halen was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. The band continued to tour until 2015, but Eddie, who was first treated for cancer in 2000, experienced declining health during his final years and there was no further activity from the group.

Between Peart’s and Van Halen’s passing, on May 9, we lost one of the last living founding father’s of rock ‘n’ roll, Little Richard, who died of bone cancer at age 87. Born Richard Penniman in Macon, Georgia, the singer, songwriter and piano player was famous for his flamboyant and high-energy performances, and a singing style punctuated with screams and yells.

Little Richard’s classic early hits included “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Good Golly Miss Molly” and “Lucille.” He went on to influence countless artists in various genres, including James Brown, The Beatles, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Tina Turner, Elton John and Michael Jackson.  In 1986, Richard became one of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s original class of inductees.

Among the other notable rock artists who died in 2020 were lauded country-pop superstar Kenny Rogers, pop/soul singer-songwriter Bill Withers, founding Fleetwood Mac frontman and guitarist Peter Green, Southern-rock and country great Charlie Daniels, singer/songwriter Mac Davis, ’70s pop icon Helen Reddy, longtime Quiet Riot drummer Frankie Banali, and Outfield frontman Tony Lewis.

In addition, the COVID-19 virus took its toll on the music community, with artists who died of the disease including John Prine, original Four Seasons member Tommy DeVitoFountains of Wayne‘s Adam Schlesinger, Molly Hatchet‘s Steve Holland, and reggae great Toots Hibbert.

Here’s a list of many of the music figures who died in 2020, in chronological order:

Marty Grebb — January 1 — Multi-instrumentalist, producer and arranger who was a member of the Chicago pop-rock band The Buckinghams from 1966 to 1968. Died at age 74.

Neal Peart — January 7 — Longtime drummer and main lyricist of legendary Canadian prog-rock trio Rush. Died of brain cancer at age 67.

Steve Martin Caro — January 14 — Lead singer of the 1960s baroque pop group The Left Banke, best-known for the 1966 hit “Walk Away Renee. Died of heart disease at age 71.

Chris Darrow — January 15 — Multi-instrumentalist who had stints as a member of Kaleidoscope and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Died at age 75 of complications from a stroke.

Robert Parker — January 19 — R&B singer best-known for his 1966 hit “Barefootin’.” Died at age 89 of natural causes.

Bob Nave — January 28 — Keyboardist for 1960s psychedelic-pop band The Lemon Pipers, who had a #1 hit in 1968 with “Green Tambourine.” Died at age 75.

Andy Gill — February 1 — Lead guitarist for influential U.K. post-punk band Gang of Four. Also produced album for a number of artists, including Red Hot Chili Peppers and Killing Joke. Died of pneumonia at age 64.

Ivan Král — February 2 — Czech-born guitarist and songwriter, played with the Patti Smith Group from 1975 to 1979, co-wrote Smith’s often-covered song “Dancin’ Barefoot.” Died of cancer at age 71.

Joseph Shabalala — February 10 — South African singer and musician who founded and led the choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which famously collaborated with Paul Simon on his Grammy-winning 1986 album Graceland. Died at age 79.

David Roback — February 25 — Guitarist, songwriter and singer who played with Mazzy Star, The Rain Parade and Opal. Died of cancer at age 61.

Mike Somerville — February 28 — Played guitar with Illinois-based rock band Head East. Died at age 67.

Barbara Martin — March 4 — An original member of The Supremes, sang with the group from 1960 to 1962. Died at age 76.

Keith Olsen — March 9 — Musician and acclaimed producer and engineer. Played bass with the late-1960s garage-rock band The Music Machine, and later worked on albums by such artists as Fleetwood Mac, The Grateful Dead, Foreigner, Pat Benatar and Rick Springfield. Died of a heart attack at age 74.

Phil Phillips — March 14 — Singer and songwriter best known for his 1959 hit “Sea of Love,” which he co-wrote and which was famously covered in 1984 by Robert Plant and his side project The Honeydrippers. Died at age 94.

Kenny Rogers — March 20 — Singer, songwriter, musician, actor, record producer and entrepreneur. He initialy found success in the late 1960s as lead singer of the pop-rock group The First Edition before going on to superstardom as a solo country artist in the 1970s. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2013. Died of natural causes at age 81.

Jerry Slick — March 20 — Drummer of 1960s psychedelic band The Great Society, which also featured his then-wife, future Jefferson Airplane singer Grace Slick. Died of cancer at age 80.

Manu Dibango — March 24 — African jazz and funk saxophonist, best known for the 1973 top-40 hit “Soul Makossa.” Died at age 86 after contracting the COVID-19 virus.

Bill Rieflin — March 24 — Rock drummer who played with Ministry, R.E.M., King Crimson and other groups. Died at age 59 after a long battle with cancer.

Alan Merrill — March 29 — Singer/guitarist for the 1970s band The Arrows. Co-wrote “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” for his group, and the song later became a #1 hit for Joan Jett & the Blackhearts. Died at age 69 of the COVID-19 virus.

Bill Withers — March 30 — Soul/R&B singer-songwriter best known for such enduring hits as “Lean on Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame 2015. Died at age 81 of heart complications.

Adam Schlesinger — April 1 — Singer, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter who played with the alternative-rock act Fountains of Wayne. Also wrote music for various films and TV shows, and produced recordings by The Monkees and other artists. Died at age 52 of the COVID-19 virus.

John Prine — April 7 — Grammy-winning folk and country singer-songwriter. Died at age 73 from complications of the COVID-19 virus.

Steve Farmer — April 7 — Rhythm guitarist of Ted Nugent‘s early band The Amboy Dukes from 1967 to 1970. Died at age 70.

Matthew Seligman — April 17 — Founding bassist of influential U.K. alternative-rock band The Soft Boys, also played with such artists as Thomas Dolby, David Bowie and The Thompson Twins. Died at age 64 due to complications of the COVID-19 virus.

Ian Whitcomb — April 19 — British entertainer, singer-songwriter, producer and actor. Had a top-10 hit in 1965 with “You Turn Me On.” Died at age 78 from complications of a stroke.

Bobby Lewis — April 28 — R&B singer, best-known for his chart-toppng 1961 hit “Tossin’ and Turnin’.” Died at age 95 after contracting pneumonia.

Millie Small — May 5 — Jamaican singer who had a #2 hit in 1964 with “My Boy Lollipop,” the first song by an artist from her country to reach the singles charts in the U.S. and U.K. Died at age 73 after suffering a stroke.

Hillard “Sweet Pea” Atkinson — May 5 — Was (Not Was) singer, who contributed lead vocals to the group’s 1987 hits “Walk the Dinosaur” and “Spy in the House of Love.” Died at age 74 of a heart attack.

Brian Howe — May 6 — Lead singer of Bad Company from 1986 to 1994. Also sang on Ted Nugent’s 1984 album Penetrator. Died at age 66 of cardiac arrest.

Mark Barkan — May 8 — Veteran songwriter who wrote songs Lesley Gore, Manfred Mann, Elvis Presley, Rod Stewart, Connie Francis, Dusty Springfield, The Archies and many others. Also co-wrote “The Tra La La Song,” the theme of the popluar children’s show The Banana Splits. Died at age 85.

Little Richard — May 9 — Born Richard Penniman, the singer/songwriter/piano player was considered one of the founding fathers of rock ‘n’ roll and among its most dynamic performers. In 1986, became one of the first artists to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Died at age 87 of bone cancer.

Betty Wright — May 10 — Soul/R&B singer who scored a #6 Billboard Hot 100 hit in 1971 with “Clean Up Woman.” Died at age 66 of cancer.

Moon Martin — May 11 — Singer/songwriter who wrote the the Robert Palmer hit “Bad Case of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor)” and scored a top-40 hit of his own in 1979 with “Rolene.” Died at age 74 of natural causes.

Derek Lawrence — May 13 — Producer who worked on early albums by Deep Purple and Wishbone Ash. Died at age 78.

Phil May — May 15 — Founding frontman of veteran U.K. band The Pretty Things. Died at age 75 of complications following hip surgery.

Al Rex — May 24 — Original bass player for rock ‘n’ roll pioneers Bill Haley & His Comets. Died at age 91 of pneumonia.

Steve Priest — June 4 — Original bassist of U.K. pop-rock group The Sweet. Died at age 72.

Rupert Hine — June 5 — Veteran producer who worked on albums by many well-known artists, including Rush, Tina Turner, The Fixx, Howard Jones, Stevie Nicks, Chris DeBurgh and Thompson Twins. Died at age 72.

Bonnie Pointer — June 8 — Original member of The Pointer Sisters, who co-wrote the sibling act’s hit “Fairytale,” and went on to have some success as a solo artist after leaving the group in 1977. Died at age 69 of cardiopulmonary arrest.

Pete Carr — June 27 — Guitarist for famed Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section collective of session musicians, contributed to recordings by dozens of famous artists, including Joan Baez, Bob Seger, Joe Cocker, Boz Scaggs, Paul Simon, The Staple Singers, Rod Stewart, Barbra Streisand and more. Died at age 70.

Tom Finn — June 27 — Founding bassist and backing singer of the 1960s baroque-pop act The Left Banke. Died at age 71.

Benny Mardones — June 29 — Singer-songwriter who scored a top-20 hit two times during the 1980s with the soulful ballad “Into the Night.” Died at age 73 from complications of Parkinson’s disease.

Max Crook — July 1 — Co-wrote and played keyboard solo on Del Shannon‘s classic 1961 hit “Runaway.” Died at age 83.

Charlie Daniels — July 6 — Southern-rock and country singer, songwriter, fiddle player and guitarist best-known for his namesake band’s 1979 crossover hit, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” Daniels also worked as a session musician, and contributed to recordings by Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, the Marshall Tucker Band and many more. Died at age 83 of a stroke.

Judy Dyble — July 6 — Singer, original member of U.K. folk-rock band Fairport Convention. Died at age 71 of lung cancer.

Emmitt Rhodes — July 19 — Frontman of 1960s psychedelic pop-rock band The Merry-Go-Round and solo singer-songwriter. Died at age 70.

Peter Green — July 25 — Influential U.K. blues-rock guitarist, singer and songwriter who co-founded Fleetwood Mac after playing with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. Among the well-known songs Green wrote are “Black Magic Woman,” “Oh Well” and “Albatross.” Died at age 73.

Steve Holland — August 2 — Founding Molly Hatchet guitarist, played with the group from 1971 to 1984. Died at age 66 of pneumonia after contracting COVID-19.

Jan Savage — August 5 — Lead guitarist and backing vocalist for the garage-rock band The Seeds, best-known for their 1966 hit “Pushin’ Too Hard.” Died at age 77.

Wayne Fontana — August 6 — British Invasion singer who, with his band The Mindbenders, scored a #1 hit in 1965 with “The Game of Love.” Died at age 74 of cancer.

Martin Birch — August 9 — Record producer and engineer who worked on albums by rock heavyweights including Fleetwood Mac, Deep Purple, Rainbow, Black Sabbath, Whitesnake, Blue Öyster Cult and Iron Maiden. Died at age 71.

Trini Lopez — August 11 — Singer and actor who scored pop hits in 1963 and 1965, respectively, with the folk tunes “If I Had a Hammer” and “Lemon Tree.” Died at age 83 from complications of COVID-19.

Jack Sherman — August 18 — Early Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist. Died at age 64 of a heart attack.

Frankie Banali — August 20 — Longtime drummer for Quiet Riot, and also played and recorded with a variety of other well-known artists, including W.A.S.P. and Billy Idol. Died at age 68 of pancreatic cancer.

Ian Mitchell — September 1 — One-time guitarist for the 1970s Scottish pop-rock band The Bay City Rollers. Died at age 62.

Bruce Williamson — September 6 — Sang with The Temptations from 2006 to 2015. Died at age 49 from complications of COVID-19.

Ronald Bell — September 9 — Founding member of Kool & the Gang. Multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, arranger and producer for the band. Died at age 68.

Toots Hibbert — September 11 — Frontman and songwriter for influential reggae and ska band Toots & the Maytals. Died at age 77 from complications of COVID-19.

Edna Wright — September 12 — Lead singer of the female R&B trio the Honey Cone, who scred a #1 hit in 1971 with “Want Ads.” Wright was the younger sister of girl group legend Darlene Love. Died at age 76.

Pamela Hutchinson — September 18 — Member of the female R&B group The Emotions, who scored a #1 hit in 1977 with “Best of My Love” and reached the top 10 in 1979 with the Earth, Wind & Fire collaboration “Boogie Wonderland.” Died at age 61.

Tommy DeVito — September 20 — Founding guitarist and singer with The Four Seasons. Inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame with the group in 1990. Died at age 92 after contracting the COVID-19 virus.

Roy Head — September 21 — Texas blue-eyed soul singer who with his band The Traits scored a #2 hit in 1965 with “Treat Her Right.” Died at age 79 of a heart attack.

Mark Stone — September 26 — Original bassist of Van Halen, played with the group from 1972 to 1974. Died of cancer.

Mac Davis — September 29 — Singer, songwriter and actor. Songwriting credits include Elvis Presley’s “In the Ghetto,” Bobby Goldsboro‘s “Watching Scotty Grow” and the oft-covered “I Believe in Music.” Had a chart-topping solo hit in 1972 with “Baby, Don’t Get Hooked on Me.” Died at age 78 of complications from heart surgery.

Helen Reddy — September 29 — Hitmaking Australian singer and actress best-known for her 1971 chart-topping female-empowerment anthem “I Am Woman.” Died at age 78 from Addison’s disease.

Eddie Van Halen — October 6 — Lead guitarist, songwriter and sometimes keyboardist for legendary rock band Van Halen. Inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame with the group in 2007. Died at age 65 from complications of cancer.

Johnny Nash — October 6 — Texas-born singer-songwriter, best known for his chart-topping reggae-influenced 1972 hit “I Can See Clearly Now.” Died at age 80 of natural causes.

Spencer Davis — October 19 — Leader and guitarist of the popular 1960s British beat band The Spencer Davis Group. Died at age 81 while being treated for pneumonia.

Tony Lewis — October 19 — Lead singer and bassist of the 1980s U.K. pop-rock band The Outfield. Died at age 62.

Jerry Jeff Walker — October 23 — Country music singer and songwriter best known for writing the 1968 song “Mr. Bojangles.” Was also a member of the late-’60s psychedelic folk-rock group Circus Maximus. Died at age 78 of throat cancer.

Len Barry — November 5 — Lead singer of the Philadelphia doo-wop group The Dovells, who, after leaving the band, found solo success with the 1965 smash “1-2-3.” Died at age 78 of bone marrow cancer.

Bones Hillman — November 7 — Bassist for Midnight Oil, who joined the band in 1987. Died at age 62 of cancer.

Jim Tucker — November 12 — Founding rhythm guitarist for The Turtles, played with the band from 1965 to 1968. Died at age 74.

Chad Stuart — December 20 — One half of the British folk-rock duo Chad & Jeremy, best known for their 1964 hit “A Summer Song.” Died at age 79 of pneumonia.

Leslie West — December 22 — Singer and lead guitarist of the hard-rock band Mountain, best known for their 1970 hit “Mississippi Queen.” Died at age 75 after suffering cardiac arrest.

Alto Reed — December 30 — Longtime sax player for Bob Seger‘s Silver Bullet Band. Died at age 72 of colon cancer.

By Matt Friedlander
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