In Memoriam: a tribute to the musicians who left us in 2021

To the remarkable artists who passed away this year, farewell and thank you.

To the remarkable artists who passed away this year, farewell and thank you

Rest well, DMX and Curtis 'Shingoose' Jonnie. (DMX photo courtesy of Getty Images/ Curtis 'Shingoose' Jonnie photo by Arthur Usherson)

In 2021, we said goodbye to trailblazing artists who broke through barriers and binaries, changing music for everyone who followed. We celebrated the legacies of Broadway giants and broadcasting pioneers. We mourned those gone too soon and made playlists in memory of the musicians whose songs helped make us who we are. 

The multiplicity of global pandemics and emergencies — coronavirus, overdose crisis, anti-Black and anti-Indigenous violence, food and housing insecurity, and climate disaster, to name a few — are devastating, and most of us have never been lonelier. 

But grief is a shared note.

A lyric from Leonard Cohen's "Anthem" is quoted frequently: "There is a crack, a crack in everything/ That's how the light gets in." It's quoted because it's perfect, but it misses the first two lines, the relevance of which continues to deepen year after year. 

Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering,
There is a crack, a crack in everything,
That's how the light gets in

"Ring the bells that still can ring" is still the best we can do in 2021. Some incredible musicians, composers, and industry people left us this year. Let's stand still together for a little bit and pay tribute not just to what they gave us while they were here, but what they leave us to discover over and over and over again.

Michael Fonfara

Aug. 11, 1946, to Jan. 8, 2021

"Michael was an early inspiration of mine, since I saw him at the Hawks Nest teen nightclub in Toronto in about 1966, with Jon and Lee and The Checkmates. I never forgot it. I got to tell Michael that when we played side by side a few summers ago. I sat in on his gig with the Downchild Blues Band when they played outdoors on Bloor Street at Toronto Jazzfest. He was sweet as pie, and a gas on organ! I asked him about the funk instrumental Apricot Brandy, which he co-wrote with Danny Weis and which has become an R&B standard. 'How do you play it right?,' I wanted to know. A few weeks later, he emailed me my answer in a video of him playing it, breaking it down for me. Sometimes, you meet your heroes and they're princes. Thanks, Michael. Shred in peace."

— Paul Shaffer (via FYI Music News)

Marsha Zazula

April 21, 1952, to Jan. 10, 2021
Record label co-founder

"No man can ask for a partner like Marsha Zazula: someone who would stand by your side, support you and believe in you to the extent of losing everything in order to make those dreams come true. She was a mother and mentor to many, and a role model as a woman breaking the glass ceiling in an industry run by men. She had balls, beauty, brains and vision."

— Jon Zazula (via NME)

Curtis 'Shingoose' Jonnie

Oct. 26, 1946, to Jan. 12, 2021
Folk musician, singer-songwriter

"My dad is a trailblazer. He was singing songs about resistance, colonization and the future of our people and finding that through laughter and music and love."

— Nahanni Shingoose (via CBC)

Sylvain Sylvain

Feb. 14, 1951, to Jan. 13, 2021
Musician, guitarist, singer-songwriter

"He was such a passionate performer. He was very positive all the time. He was very important for that band and their success. You know what I mean by 'success.' Not so much the charts and all that bullshit. It was what we were creating. He was integral to that … If it hadn't been for him, the band would have sounded crappy. He knew what he was doing and he could play the guitar. He came up with really great rhythms. He was very accomplished. He was a natural player. He loved playing."

— David Johansen (via Rolling Stone)

Phil Spector

Dec. 26, 1939, to Jan. 16, 2021
Music producer, songwriter


Sept. 17, 1986, to Jan. 30, 2021
Music producer, singer-songwriter, DJ 

Mary Wilson

March 6, 1944, to Feb. 8, 2021
Singer, actor, author

Chick Corea

June 12, 1941, to Feb. 9, 2021
Jazz composer, keyboardist, musician, bandleader

"One of the hardest things about the passing of Chick Corea is to think of him in the past tense. Throughout his 79 years on earth, Chick remained so very alive. His warm and generous life force came through in every note he played and in every space he left silent. I was always — and still am — astounded by just how prolific and multifarious his career was, how much music he composed, how much piano he played, and how centred, joyful, and open he seemed to be through it all. His imagination was boundless and he was, no doubt, a creative genius. Whatever he musically dreamt up, he would bring to fruition, and as a fan I was always looking forward to hearing whatever his next project was going to be."

— Renee Rosnes (via Jazz Times)

Raymond Lévesque

Oct. 7, 1928, to Feb. 15, 2021

Sylvia Murphy

Sept. 24, 1931, to Feb. 24, 2021

Bunny Wailer

April 10, 1947, to March 2, 2021
Reggae musician and singer-songwriter (the Wailers)

"Bunny and I were schoolmates from kindergarten and just last night I was editing a chapter about him for my book, so it was shocking to wake up to this sad news. The three founding members of the legendary Wailers are now together in Zion, and, as they sang on 'Rasta Man Chant,' 'one bright morning when my work is over, I'll fly away home.'"

— Copeland Forbes (via NPR)

Paul Humphrey

Sept. 22, 1959, to April 4, 2021
Singer-songwriter (Blue Peter), sound designer


Dec. 18, 1970, to April 9, 2021
Rapper, songwriter, actor

Michel Louvain

July 12, 1937, to April 14, 2021
Singer, television and radio host

Jim Steinman

Nov. 1, 1947, to April 19, 2021
Composer, songwriter, musician, producer

"I've always been with Jim and Jim has always been with me. We belonged heart and soul to each other. We didn't know each other. We were each other."

Meat Loaf (via Rolling Stone)

Bob Lanois

April 4, 1948, to April 19, 2021
Musician, producer, sound engineer, photographer

Alix Dobkin

Aug. 16, 1940, to May 19, 2021
Singer-songwriter, author, activist 

"There are only two responses to freedom. One is trying to control everything. The other is to be creative and take risks."

Alix Dobkin (via The Buckeye Flame)

Patrick Sky

Oct. 2, 1940, to May 26, 2021
Singer-songwriter, instrumentalist

"A lot of musicians came to New York in the early to mid Sixties. Some were good, some were very good. Most were eager and willing to learn. Pat was already formed. He knew ballads and blues. His songs were literate and well-crafted."

Terri Thai (via Rolling Stone)

Johnny Solinger

Aug. 7, 1965, to June 26, 2021
Singer, songwriter (Skid Row)

Louis Andriessen

June 6, 1939, to July 1, 2021
Composer, pianist, teacher

"Andriessen, a towering international figure, has always come up with radical solutions, freely mixing jazz, minimalism, electronics.… His influence on composers of the next generation, including many in Britain, is vast." 

Fiona Maddocks (via The Guardian)

Biz Markie

April 8, 1964, to July 16, 2021
Rapper, singer-songwriter, producer

"If you needed him, he was there. He was a cultural icon without us exaggerating that. He was a trendsetter. He was a humanitarian. He was somebody who deserved all of the accolades he gets and more because he was us."

Rev. Al Sharpton (via The Sun)

Jerry Granelli

Dec. 30, 1940, to July 20, 2021
Jazz musician, drummer, teacher

"He was really a child prodigy. So he had an immense natural talent for it, however you want to codify whatever that is, and then a father and family structure that drove him to be better, and just a deep inner desire to somehow master this thing. Of course, as we all know, there is no real "there" there. There's no place you get to where you're good enough. The people who feel they're good enough are not the people like my father. He never felt he was good enough. I witnessed it my entire life. He never stopped. He always was practicing, when he had the time. He always was playing. It was just the language of our household. There was always music. There were always instruments."

J. Anthony Granelli (via CBC's As it Happens)

Joey Jordison

April 26, 1975, to July 26, 2021
Musician, drummer, guitarist (Slipknot, Murderdolls)

"It didn't happen overnight, because we had to work so hard for it but… it happened overnight! We went on Ozzfest, and three weeks into it we'd sold 150,000 records. Every time we played, everybody — every f--king band, Black Sabbath included — was out there watching us. And we're out for blood, we f--king hate everybody, just 'F--k you!' That's always been the Slipknot mentality. We love a lot of other bands, we love a lot of different music, but when it comes to us playing, we just don't care. It's your ass. People think it's arrogant, and it is. We believe in our craft. We believe in Slipknot." 

Joey Jordison (via LouderSound)

Dusty Hill

May 19, 1949, to July 28, 2021
Musician, bassist (ZZ Top)

Joseph 'JoJo' Bennett 

July 13, 1940, to Aug. 3, 2021
Reggae pioneer, teacher (Sattalites)

"He's easily one of our favourite sons, and fathers and godfathers of reggae music ... I call him the Big Canadian Reggae Lion." 

Julian King

Nanci Griffith 

July 6, 1953, to Aug. 13, 2021
Singer-songwriter, guitarist 

R. Murray Schafer 

July 18, 1933, to Aug. 14, 2021
Composer, acoustic ecologist 

"The loss of Schafer represents the loss of our greatest composer, one whose creative spirit knew no bounds."

David Jaeger

Don Everly 

Feb. 1, 1937, to Aug. 21, 2021
Musician, vocalist, songwriter
(the Everly Brothers)

"So sad to hear about the passing of Don Everly. The music of the Everly Brothers helped me form my love for entertainment. First class of inductees to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, their blend of harmony was special and unique. RIP." 

Lee Greenwood

Micki Grant 

June 30, 1929, to Aug. 22, 2021
Singer, actor, writer, composer

"I was the first female to do the score of a Broadway musical, and I was the first female to do the book, music, and lyrics. The music was never done by the female. Some of the biggest names you know: Comden and Green did the lyrics, Bernstein did the music. But I always did the music and the lyrics. My major contribution — I guess Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope was the first time you had a Black musical competing for the Tony Award and almost winning it. If Stephen Sondheim hadn't come in two weeks before [with A Little Night Music], we were about to win the Tony. You really have to ask other people about my major contribution. My major contribution would be what other people think and what they tell you."

Micki Grant (via American Theatre)

Brian Travers 

Feb. 7, 1959, to Aug. 22, 2021
UB40 co-founder and co-songwriter, saxophonist

Charlie Watts 

June 2, 1941, to Aug. 24, 2021
Drummer (the Rolling Stones) 

"The thing about Charlie was that he was always there, always played beautifully and was always willing to discuss what to do about it — how he could make it better. He held the band together for so long, musically, because he was the rock the rest of it was built around.… The thing he brought was this beautiful sense of swing and swerve that most bands wish they could have. We had some really nice conversations in the last couple of years about how all this happened with the band. It's a huge loss to us all. It's very, very hard."

Mick Jagger (via Rolling Stone)

Lee 'Scratch' Perry 

March 20, 1936, to Aug. 29, 2021
Reggae and dub pioneer, producer, singer-songwriter

George Wein 

Oct. 3, 1925, to Sept. 13, 2021
Pianist and festival co-founder (Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals)

"He not only invented the idea of a modern-day music festival and made the careers of numerous music icons, but his investment in music appreciation is to me what makes him the biggest icon of them all. George has an undeniable gift for making things happen. As a result, he has perhaps done more to preserve jazz than any other individual. He was my mentor and, more importantly, my friend and I will miss him dearly."

Jay Sweet (via Variety)

Allan Slaight 

July 19, 1931, to Sept 19, 2021
Broadcaster, rock radio pioneer, philanthropist, author 

"He spent a lifetime working ... to help Canadian music and make it better…. Everyone in music in Canada owes Al Slaight, especially me. He and his associates started pushing rock 'n' roll before anybody else in Canada."

Ronnie Hawkins (via CBC)

Paddy Moloney 

Aug. 1, 1938, to Oct. 12, 2021
Musician, composer, producer (the Chieftains)

"It [the tin whistle] gives you great insight into instruments and formation of scales and that kind of stuff. But also the other beauty of this little tin whistle is that once you get over the mechanics of it, you can really get into improvisation and you can start to see the music and out it comes."

Paddy Moloney (via NPR)

Terrence 'Astro' Wilson 

June 24, 1957, to Nov. 6, 2021
UB40 co-founder, vocalist

"We're still on our same mission, which is to popularize reggae music around the world. We're all pleased the genre is now an international language everybody understands. It's played around the world, and not everybody has English as their first language. They don't necessarily understand what's being said, but everybody understands a good bass line and a drum beat. I think a bass line can say more than 1,000 words ever could." 

Terrence "Astro" Wilson (via The New York Times)

Ronnie Wilson 

April 7, 1948, to Nov. 2, 2021
The Gap Band co-founder, musician, songwriter

"Ronnie Wilson was a genius with creating, producing, and playing the flugelhorn, trumpet, keyboards, and singing music, from childhood to his early seventies. He will be truly missed!" 

Linda Boulware-Wilson

Mick Rock 

Nov. 21, 1948, to Nov. 18, 2021
Rock photographer

"I am not in the business of documenting or revealing personalities. I am in the business of freezing shadows and bottling auras."

Mick Rock (via The New York Times)

Rosalie Trombley 

1939 to Nov. 23, 2021
Radio broadcasting pioneer

Stephen Sondheim 

March 22, 1930, to Nov. 26, 2021
Composer, songwriter, lyricist

Greg Tate 

Oct. 14, 1957, to Dec. 7, 2021
Writer, musician, producer

"Greg Tate has created so many critics and held open such essential realms. It's easy to reach for him, to want to be like him. There's further learning in that impulse to do as he taught: Tate always pointed the brilliance back to the Black subject, the Black communal, and the wealth of Black knowledge that kept him in pursuit. He didn't create worlds; he invited us into them with a sincere wit and infectious cool. Those worlds are still standing, even if, now, there's one less seeker."

Tirhakah Love (via Vulture)

Michael Nesmith 

Dec. 30, 1942, to Dec. 10, 2021
Musician, producer, singer-songwriter

Vicente Fernández 

Feb. 17, 1940, to Dec. 12, 2021
Singer, musician, actor, producer

Don Palmer 

April 9, 1939, to Dec. 17, 2021
Saxophonist, musician, teacher

"He lived every single day of his life with love, with everything. It was love of music. It was love of his students. It was love of life.... When you hear people talk about his impact — of course, his music is important — but he had such an impact on his students as people, because he just wanted to share that love of music, but he also just wanted to cultivate that love in others."

— Leanna Palmer (via CBC)

Renée Martel 

June 26, 1947, to Dec. 18, 2021