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13 Tributes to Musicians by Musicians

Nothing brings out the best in a songwriter like eulogizing one of their fellows. Here are 13 tributes to musicians by musicians.

1. Don McLean - American Pie (found on American Pie, 1971) 
Though it expands to provide a brief history of rock 'n' roll, at its heart "American Pie" is a tribute to Richie Valens, Buddy Holly and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson. McLean makes it personal, recalling his own reaction to the plane crash that killed the three stars: "But February made me shiver / With every paper I'd deliver / Bad news on the doorstep / I couldn't take one more step." 

2. Righteous Brothers - "Rock & Roll Heaven" (found on Give It To The People, 1974 and Reunion, 1990) 
Kind of a cheesy song talking about how heaven's "got a hell of a band." But, it's also the most direct and all-encompassing tribute on the list. Bonus points for incorporating lyrics and song titles from the musicians. PLUS, there are two different versions. The original 1974 song gave shout-outs to Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Jim Morrison, Jim Croce, and Bobby Darin. An updated 1990 version cold-heartedly leaves those six behind in favor of Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Roy Oribison, Jackie Wilson, Ricky Nelson, Marvin Gaye, Dennis Wilson, Sam Cooke, Mama Cass and Stevie Ray Vaughn. Phew! 

3. Elton John - "Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)" (found on Jump Up!, 1982) 
Elton is no stranger to tributes, but he and Bernie did their best work when mourning John Lennon. The song strangely but effectively compares him to a gardener ("some say he farmed his best in younger years / But he'd have said that roots grow stronger, if only he could hear"). The chorus, where Elton calls out for his friend and gets no reply, always gives me chills. 

4. Paul Simon - "The Late Great Johnny Ace" (found on Hearts and Bones, 1983) 
Paul uses the common name to mourn the titular '50s R & B singer, John F. Kennedy and John Lennon. The final verse, where he remembers the night Lennon was shot, is supremely effective thanks to its simplicity and lack of sentimentality. 

5. Diana Ross - "Missing You" (found on Swept Away, 1984) 
Marvin Gaye, shot dead by his father in 1984, is the subject of this Lionel Richie-written and produced tune. Commercially savvy in that it could easily be a plea to a lover who has gone away (no one wants to be bummed out by their hit songs), the video tells the real story (and includes some shots of Temptations and Supremes members who have passed on).

6. The Commodores - "Nightshift" (found on Nightshift, 1985)
Not to be outdone by former bandmate Richie, the Commodores also did a tribute to Marvin Gaye, and threw in Jackie Wilson - who'd also passed away in 1984 - for good measure. The song made it all the way to #3 on the charts, beating "Missing You"'s #10 peak.

7. George Jones - "The King is Gone (And So Are You)" (found on One Woman Man, 1989) 
Like "Missing You," "The King is Gone" doubles as a metaphor for lost love. However, this one is not so much about Elvis as it is about a man who takes solace in drinking an entire bottle of whiskey shaped like Elvis. 

8. R.E.M. - "Let Me In" (found on Monster, 1994) 
"Let Me In" is a tribute, both lyrically and musically, to Kurt Cobain. Through a sludgy drone of guitars, Michael Stipe offers up oblique lyrics with small bits of clarity that show his true intentions: "I had a mind to try and stop you." 

9. Richie Rich - "Do G's Get To Go To Heaven" (found on Seasoned Veteran, 1996) 
Richie Rich pays tribute to Tupac less by addressing the latter's death and more by offering homage to his introspective style. Save the opening line, the lyrics don't even mention Tupac. Instead, Rich contemplates his own mortality and morality. 

10. U2 - "Stuck In a Moment You Can't Get Out Of "(found on All That You Can't Leave Behind, 2000) 
"Stuck..." takes the form of a pep talk to a friend who's in a bad spot. Though not directly addressed in the lyrics, Bono has revealed that the song is about INXS singer Michael Hutchence, who died in 1997 under cloudy circumstances. Maybe it's simplistic to reduce the mental turmoil of someone contemplating suicide into a lack of foresight, but the song seems more sympathetic than accusing. 

11. Ringo Starr & Eric Clapton - "Never Without You" (found on Ringo Rama, 2003) George Harrison's two friends get together on this charming little tune. Ringo offers up sweet remembrances ("You played a beautiful melody / And it keeps on haunting me") and Clapton provides Harrison-esque slide guitar accompaniment. 

12. Ben Folds - "Late" (found on Songs For Silverman, 2005) I love tributes that are written directly to their subjects. In this one, Folds talks to his friend Elliot Smith, who committed suicide in 2003, with reflections affecting ("The songs you wrote got me through a lot / Just wanna tell you that") and unflinching ("Someone came and washed away your hard-earned peace of mind"). 

13. Rhett Miller - "The Believer" (found on The Believer, 2006) Another song written for and to Elliot Smith, also similarly direct about the depression that he faced ("Had to be hard to keep hating yourself / When these people are so well-behaved"). The end of the song is a fitting mix of post-death platitudes and personal loss: "You won't get nervous / You won't come down / You won't feel helpless / You won't be around anymore."


Graham said…
So there is no Michael Jackson?! Doesn't everyone agree that he was one of the biggest pop icons in modern history? Come on, he sold a hundred million records worldwide. Please consider his extraordinary career.
Paul V. Allen said…
I'm a big fan of Michael's music, but when I wrote this entry he was still alive.

And this particular piece was about tribute songs. Surprisingly, there are no MJ tribute songs, at least that I've heard.
Lisa said…
Yeah, I agree with Graham! In my opinion, Michael Jackson is very reasonable to include in the list above. Michael Jackson is the King of Pop in the world. And I love all her songs. And by the way, some names that you mentioned in the list are pretty good in my opinion.

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