The celebration of a dead celebrity is one of my favorite thematic forms in pop music and today we’re going to listen to a small sampling that runs through most genres. Some of them are genuine tributes and some less sincere.
This first track is Gillian Welch’s “Elvis Presley Blues” from the 2001 album Time (The Revelator). It was ranked #2 on our “Top Ten Songs About Elvis” ages ago, falling behind “Elvis is Everywhere” by Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper. There are a lot of tributes to Elvis Presley, but he is not the #1 subject of dead celebrity songs.
Our guess is that honor would go to Hank Williams. We have a whole section of entire albums dedicated to Hank Sr. in our shop. Some classic include the Waylon Jennings standard “I Don’t Think Hank Done it This Way” and Johnny Paycheck’s “Help Me Hank I’m Fallin’.” An obscure favorite of ours in Robert Earl Keen’s bizarre “The Great Hank.”
Our own in-house record label released an album by Whiskey Jeff and the Beer Back Band which includes a tribute to Hank!
One of the earliest and most sincere tributes to hank was recorded soon after his death by Ernest Tubb.
“A Tribute to a King” by William Bell is an excellent follow-up to the Ernest Tubb track because each are exemplary within their respective genres. William Bell’s tribute to Otis Redding is great southern soul and our the best track on this playlist. Otis Redding is another frequent subject of tribute songs.
Not all songs about dead celebrities mourn their passing – Millions of Dead Cops spit on the grave of movie star John Wayne with this vitriolic attack. Its kind of hard to tell how much of John Wayne’s legacy is the interpretation of his admirers and how much was actually John Wayne. Was John Wayne a nazi? No. Is it difficult to reconcile some of the things he said? Yes. MDC took it too far with this track, but it remains a highlight of their first record.
Bauhaus’ first single, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” pioneered gothic rock, but also drew from from the dub influence common in UK pop at the time. The epic tune captures the enduring fascination with Lugosi, whose 1931 performance as Dracula seared the image of vampirism into the American psyche.
REM’s super-hit “Man on the Moon” was certainly the most successful tribute to a dead celebrity since “Candle in the Wind,” and unlike most pervasive radio hits of the mid-90s its aged pretty well. This is still a really great song. And Automatic for the People contained a second tribute to a dead celebrity, by the way – “Monty Got a Raw Deal” memorializes actor Montgomery Cliff, who really did get a pretty raw deal.
The members of Bauhaus would probably enjoy Nick Lowe’s gory tribute to silent film actress Marie Provost, who died at the age of forty in 1937. Nick Lowe takes a liberty with the sad circumstances of her death, however, as she did die along in her apartment but was not in fact eaten by her dachshund. Police concluded the dog nibbled at her leg in an effort to rouse her.
Kids in the Hall star Bruce McCollough probably summed it up in “Vigil”, from his obnoxious but surprisingly listenable debut musical performance, Shame-Based Man.
This may be an unusual place to end our collection of tributes to dead celebrities – After all, what about “Candle in the Wind”, and how can any collection be complete without “American Pie”? You’ve already heard them enough and unlike “Man on the Moon” they’ve gotten to be tired old radio standards. we usually change the station when we hear those tired 70s tropes.
This collection has also entirely omitted jazz, even though jazz artists reliably remember their predecessors. We think Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” (Dedicated to Lester Young) is among his finest melodies, and Duke Ellington’s album And His Mother Called Him Bill is a heartbreaking tribute to the recently-deceased Billy Strayhorn that is beyond comparison. Mingus also wrote a piece about Charlie Parker called “If Charlie Parker Had Been a Gun-Slinger There’d be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats”.
[Yes, the image you see at the top of this post is Michael Jackson at James Brown’s funeral.]