From Pop Smoke to Neil Peart: Honoring Musicians Lost in 2020


Thunderhead, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Wallace Roney, right, the virtuoso jazz trumpeter at the Jazz Jamboree in 1994 with members of the Wallace Roney Quintet.

A year that has been full of loss, angst and grief for many, not least of which felt by music-lovers, needs some positive energy. Instead of lamenting the departure of names and sounds dear to the American soundscape, let’s celebrate the impact their lives had on the cultures they influenced so greatly. What better way to do this than re-listening to the work of artists who helped define and push the boundaries of musical genres? The list of artists featured below was drawn from a Billboard photo in-memoriam that covered various genres and sounds, but is by no means comprehensive. Feel free to scroll through their up-to-date list to revisit favorite musicians that may not appear here. My hope is that by reading through these artists’ contributions to their respective fields, folks will be inspired to plug in headphones, turn up stereos and put on records to bring a little music into their day.

Pop Smoke

Real name Bashar Barakah Jackson, Pop Smoke was rising to become a powerhouse of the rap scene. His music was heavily influenced by the UK drill sound. Smoke’s style of hip-hop became a bridge between the two countries’ rap communities. He released his debut EP Meet the Woo on July 26, 2019, and signed with Republic Records to create a second EP, Meet the Woo 2, on Feb. 7, 2020. Smoke’s signature gritty Brooklyn sound made appearances on tracks and at concerts beside artists like Travis Scott and Migos, and was recording his first full-length album Reach For the Stars Aim For the Moon–released earlier this year–when he was killed during a home invasion in February. 

John Prine

John Prine had a hand in molding the modern country and roots music genres. (Eric Frommer via Flicker. CC BY-SA 2.0)

Considered a songwriting legend, Prine’s voice and lyrics helped shape the sound of modern roots music. His music told the stories of the working man, writing many of his famous songs while employed as a mailman in Maywood, IL, and recording his first album in 1971. The album, self-titled John Prine, produced by Atlantic Records, would change the landscape of the growing Americana genre. Prine followed it with another hit album, Diamonds in the Rough, in 1972, and began a rise to national songwriting acclaim. A two-time Grammy winner and member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, John Prine has been covered by the likes of Johnny Cash, John Baez and other icons of the country/roots genre. Songs like “Angel From Montgomery” and “Sam Stone” marked the success of Prine’s early career, and with the release of the 2018 album The Tree of Forgiveness, which spiked to number five on the Billboard album chart, Prine left a legacy decorated with emotional hits.

Wallace Roney

While not widely known, Roney was an enormous presence in the jazz community and a key figure in the 1980’s Young Lion’s movement, which aimed to bring jazz back to its mid-century sound. A virtuosic trumpeter, he was the only pupil that jazz giant Miles Davis ever mentored. Critics accused Roney of remaining in Davis’ shadow in the early stages of his career, but his 1987 debut album Verses showcased Roney’s style as a combination of funk, hip-hop and Afro-Caribbean sounds, a unique blend that clearly distinguished him from his mentor. Roney recorded close to 20 full albums in a career that included the delivery of a Grammy-winning performance in a 1994 concert dedicated to Miles Davis.

Pamela Hutchinson

Hutchinson was a member of the famous all-female group The Emotions, which gained popularity in the Chicago area until they hit it big with Stax Records, recording the album So I Can Love You in 1969. After the Emotions split with Stax producers Isaac Hayes and David Porter in 1975, they began to collaborate with other artists. Working with Earth, Wind and Fire’s Maurice White brought a string of hits, including number one Billboard single “Best of My Love” and the ever-groovy “Boogie Wonderland.” Pamela, along with the trio’s two surviving members Wanda Hutchinson and Sheila Hutchinson, helped the Emotions to a prominent place in both the R&B and Disco genres. 

Bill Withers

Bill Withers’ music remains a staple of the R&B and soul sound. (CC BY 2.0)

Bona-fide soul icon Bill Withers began his rise to fame with the release of his 1971 album Just As I Am and never looked back. The album put R&B listeners on notice, earning Withers his first Grammy with “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Two more would follow with 1981’s “Just the Two of Us” and 1982’s re-release of “Lean on Me.” The original recording of “Lean on Me,” his most popular track, appeared on his highly acclaimed sophomore album, Still Bill (1982), which has been lauded as a “stone-soul masterpiece” by Rolling Stone magazine. Withers’ music has been played at presidential inaugurations, featured in movies (notably Looking For Mr. Goodbar and Jerry Maguire) and covered by huge numbers of artists, including Michael Jackson, Jay-Z, Willie Nelson, Tupac Shakur and Paul McCartney. Withers was honored with inductions into the Songwriters Hall of Fame (2005) and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (2015) in addition to the other awards his music won.

Neil Peart

Neil Peart, drummer for Rush, behind one his famously large drum kits. (Aoberg, CC BY-NC 2.0)

Arguably the best drummer of all time, Peart was the primary lyricist for the Canadian rock band Rush, which was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013. Alongside his bandmates Alex Lifeson (guitar and vocals) and Geddy Lee (bass, keyboards, and vocals), Peart produced some of the most intricate and popular rock music of the ’70s and ’80s. Peart joined Rush after the release of their first album, self-titled, in 1974, and produced the complex and clinical drumming that helped define the group’s sound. Soon, Peart was being held in the same esteem as his idol, Kieth Moon. Rush quickly became essential to the realm of classic rock, recording 19 fantastic studio albums before eventually touring for a final time in 2015. Peart was and still will be remembered as one of the greatest to ever do it.

This writer, as well as the entire musical community, is mourning the loss of Eddie Van Halen on Tuesday, Oct. 6. He will be missed.