A great poet once wrote that April is the cruelest month, and it certainly wasn’t very kind when Gil Noble joined the ancestors. Noble, 80, was a pioneering broadcaster and the host of the popular “Like It Is” show on WABC-TV for more than 40 years.
February didn’t begin too well either, with the death of Don Cornelius, the noted creator and host of “Soul Train,” the long-running TV show that featured just about every major performer in the entertainment business. He was 75.
If Whitney Houston wasn’t on “Soul Train,” she was on just about every other radio and television show, along with starring in several films. She, too, was a fatality in February, but unlike Noble and Cornelius, she was only 48 when her promising, already magnificently successful career came to a tragic close.
Last year had hardly begun when Etta James died in January. Like Houston’s signature song “I Will Always Love You,” which was played interminably after her death, “At Last” has made James immortal. She was 74, and almost to the end of her fabulous but troubled life, her voice was still capable of caressing any genre she chose.
On the day Cornelius passed away, Feb. 1, Sherman Hemsley was celebrating his birthday, but it would be the last for the enormously gifted comedian and actor, who died in July. Like James, he was 74. Hemsley is perhaps best known for his role as George Jefferson on the television series “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons.”
In July, if you wanted your lemonade chilled and sweet with a scrumptious soul food meal, Sylvia’s was, and still is, the place to go in Harlem, but by then, the gracious hostess was no longer available. Sylvia Woods, 86, left a cortege of hungry admirers behind, though her restaurant and her talented progeny are still there to make sure the Queen of Soul Food’s legacy remained intact.
Al Freeman Jr. brought a searing intensity to many of his roles, particularly in plays by James Baldwin and Amiri Baraka, and none more gripping and riveting as his portrayal of Clay in Baraka’s (LeRoi Jones) “Dutchman.” Freeman was 78 when he died in August.
Former Olympic decathlon champion Milt Campbell was also 78 when he died in November. Campbell may not have been as celebrated as other decathlon champions, but for many years he held the record for accumulating the highest score.
Amassing high scores and big numbers on the radio was the pioneering Hal Jackson’s trademark, and no one did it better or longer than he did. Jackson was 96 when he died in May, but there were many springs in which the sound of his voice was one for all seasons.
Whenever you heard “The Last Dance” by Donna Summer, you knew the party was over, and life ended for her in May. She was only 63. Her song was the virtual anthem of the disco era, and she, along with Gloria Gaynor, reigned supreme as the divas.
Very few boxing trainers earned or reached the level of acclaim of Emmanuel Steward. Among his greatest fighters were Tommy Hearns and Lennox Lewis, and each won because they explicitly followed his ring strategy. Steward, a Detroit legend for his days at the Kronk Center, died in Chicago in October. He was 68.
Jan Carew was a fighter too–a freedom fighter with a formidable arsenal of words and intelligence for his foes. Though born in Guyana, Carew made the world his home, and his many books and essays personified his politics and cultural acumen. He was 82.
On a warm Sunday in June, the esteemed author Rosa Guy, 89, made her transition. “Bird at My Window,” her first novel, immediately established her as a writer of warmth, compassion and vision. The number of acclaimed writers at her wake and funeral in Harlem was a testament to her prowess and fame.
There were a number of notable deaths in the world of doo-wop, including “Speedo,” whose real name was Earl Carroll. This eponymous title typified the popularity of his group, the Cadillacs. Carroll was 75 when he died in November. Within days of Carroll’s departure we also lost Cleve Duncan, 77, the lead singer of the Penguins, and all you needed was one note from “Earth Angel” to know the power and loveliness of Duncan’s voice.
And to close out the three stars departing the scene in November was Major Harris, 65, who was with the Delfonics when they scored with their top-selling “La-La-La (Means I Love You).” Harris gained additional fame with his recording of his 1975 hit “Love Won’t Let Me Wait.”
Each year, we lose at least a handful of important civil rights leaders, and the death of Lawrence Guyot was a tremendous setback. Perhaps not as famous as many of those on the ramparts, Guyot was nonetheless a pivotal figure during the early days of the movement and made his presence felt often behind the scenes, particularly during the Freedom Summer of 1964 in Mississippi. He also died in November at 73.
There were also some grievous losses on the legal front with the deaths of attorney Joseph Fleming and Judge Theodore Jones. Fleming, 61, was an accomplished lawyer whose career was often overshadowed by the distinguished clients he represented such as Malcolm X’s family, Gil Noble, et al. Jones, 68, possessed one of the finest legal minds in the nation, and he wasn’t shy about displaying his wherewithal at the New York Court of Appeals. He passed in November, and Fleming in September.
Just as the year was coming to a close in December, we lost vocalist Fontella Bass and poet Jayne Cortez. Bass, 72, soared to the top of the charts in 1965 with “Rescue Me,” which she co-composed. Cortez, 76, was an award-winning poet with a dynamic presence in front of a band, matching their fire with her fusillade of dramatic metaphors. These two departures place a sad cap on the year, but like those who departed before them, they are not easily forgotten and each has left behind some treasured memory, something we can celebrate, praise, read or forever listen to.