An unspoken theme runs through the mourning occasioned by the recent deaths of the jazz pianist Horace Silver (85), the pop lyricist Gerry Goffin (75), and the R&B singers Bobby Womack (70) and Bobby “Blue” Bland (83): namely, that we may not see their likes again—and that we may be worse off as a result.
Consider Horace Silver. Of jazz instrumentalists and singers there’s an abundance. But Brad Mehldau aside, it’s hard to name a jazz pianist under 50 capable of rivaling Silver’s impact as a musician, a composer, or a performer.
Besides recording and touring with various versions of his own quintet for decades, Silver also performed and/or recorded with Stan Getz, Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Sonny Stitt, Lester Young, J.J. Johnson, and Cannonball Adderley, somehow never succumbing to the chemical dependency then prevalent among such company.
And although he was usually categorized as a “hard bop” pioneer, Silver defined himself less narrowly. “I’m a jazz musician,” he wrote in his 2006 autobiography, Let’s Get to the Nitty Gritty, “[but] my musical influences include the blues, black gospel music, Latin music, symphonic music, Broadway show music, and folk music. In short, whatever appeals to me.”
What appealed to Silver also appealed to others. His composition “Señor Blues” has been covered by Ray Charles, Taj Mahal, George Shearing, David Sanborn, Ike Turner, and Quicksilver Messenger Service. And elements of his “Song for My Father” inspired and found their way into songs by Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind & Fire, and, most notably, Steely Dan (“Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”).
Silver’s secret was uniting the many strands of his vast oeuvre with a playful accessibility at odds with the avant-garde experimentation for which jazz was becoming notorious during the years of his ascent. The title of his final album of original material was Jazz … Has … a Sense of Humor (1999), but his output had already long made it obvious that he believed as much.
The death of the Brill Building alumnus Gerry Goffin symbolizes a different kind of loss. As the writing partner of Carole King (his first wife), Jack Keller, and Barry Mann, Goffin wrote the lyrics to over 50 Top 40 hits, eight of which reached No. 1.
But by the late 1960s, the division of labor requiring nonsinging songwriters and nonwriting singers had been rendered passé by Bob Dylan and The Beatles, whose performing of their own compositions redefined authenticity. Pithily crafted universal sentiments were replaced by self-expression whether the selves had anything worth expressing or not.
Professionally marooned, Goffin sank into philandering, drug abuse, and mental illness. He never fully recovered his momentum, placing only nine songs on the charts after 1968 and none after 1989. Meanwhile, a new kind of self-expression—rap—was ascendant. And if it didn’t kill the craft of pop songwriting, it certainly inflicted deep wounds.
It also devalued the rich, black-church-based style of singing at which Bobby Womack and Bobby “Blue” Bland excelled for half a century.
Between 1957 and 1974, Bland made 25 appearances on Billboard’s R&B Top 10, enlivening resonant blues tropes with his gravelly crooning and reaching a latter-day highlight in 1985 with “Member’s Only.” Womack, on the other hand, was as celebrated for his guitar playing and his songwriting as for his recordings, 12 of which made the R&B Top 10 between 1962 and 1985.
Once established, neither Bobby sang the gospel on which he’d been reared. But neither violated its spirit either, bravely fighting a—if not the—good fight with humility and grace.