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Three to remember

Music | Watson, Cosey, and Welch left their mark on American music

Issue: "2012 Books Issue," July 14, 2012

Given man's threescore years and 10, it was inevitable that rock 'n' roll-era musicians would eventually start dying in ever-increasing numbers. Still, for a year in which listeners have bid farewell to Levon Helm, Earl Scruggs, Davy Jones, Donna Summer, Robin Gibb, and Whitney Houston, 2012 has the sad makings of a mortality watershed.

The Class of 2012's latest members-Doc Watson (89), Pete Cosey (68), and Bob Welch (66)-comprise as diverse a pop-music trio as anyone could imagine. Yet, in their ways, they serve as coordinates by which to map a uniquely American constellation in the pop-cultural firmament.

Watson came to be called "Doc" because of the nickname's Sherlock Holmesian echoes (and because his given name, Arthel, was deemed off-putting). During a career that encompassed 25 studio albums, four live albums, and eight Grammy Awards, he served not only as an acoustic guitar-playing pioneer but also as a one-man portal to every hoary tributary flowing into the folk and bluegrass rivers.

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And, more so than any other similarly afflicted musician, his blindness lent his workmanlike baritone a Homeric gravity appropriate to the archetypal lyrics that he sang.

Some of them were unabashedly gospel in nature-none more than these from his 1991 recording of his own composition, "Your Lone Journey": "God's given us years of happiness here. / Now we must part. / And as the angels come and call for you, / the pangs of grief tug at my heart." Seldom has any singer inadvertently captured the feelings of the fans he would someday leave behind more fittingly.

Pete Cosey left behind no solo recordings. But he was just as influential an electric guitarist as Watson was an acoustic one. In the minds of many, he ranks with Jimi Hendrix as a demonstrator par excellence of the guitar's expressive capacity.

His main contributions were the guitar solos on the freewheelingly improvisational, psychedelic funk that Miles Davis made throughout the 1970s, both onstage and off. His live playing can be heard on Agharta (1975), Pangaea (1975), and Dark Magus (1977), multiple-albums sets on which the average song was just under half an hour yet somehow seemed too short. Cosey's studio work with Davis kicks in at the 10-minute mark of "Maisyha," the second track on Davis' 1974 double album, Get Up With It, and it's worth the wait.

Admittedly, it's sometimes hard, if not impossible, to tell whether one is hearing Cosey or his fellow guitarists Reggie Lucas or Dominique Gaumont, in part because not missing the forest for the trees was the whole point. At other times, though, Cosey's leads are as unmistakable as the joyfulness of his noise. His legatees have enormous wah-wah-pedal-manipulating shoes to fill.

Bob Welch's claims to fame are his having helped Fleetwood Mac, as the group's first American, segue from one British blues band among many to a world-class hit machine, his three late-'70s solo hits ("Sentimental Lady," "Ebony Eyes," "Precious Love"), and his public expression of disappointment at having been left out of Fleetwood Mac's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

It's a shame about that last one. He quit Fleetwood Mac before it made the music for which it was being inducted. Case closed.

But an even bigger shame is that, recently condemned to life as an invalid, he decided to take his own life lest he overburden his care-taking wife. If she's anything like the women of which Welch wrote and sang, she would probably have considered the task a privilege.

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