From The A.V. Club:
1. Emmylou Harris, “Boulder To Birmingham” (1975)
When Gram Parsons died of an overdose in 1973, he’d only known Emmylou Harris for about a year. Still, in that time, they’d formed a magical personal and professional relationship, with Parsons getting most of the credit for introducing Harris to real country music. Still in mourning, Harris harnessed her country croon into a 1975 memorial track about Parsons, “Boulder To Birmingham.” The first of the songs she would sing about dealing with the Flying Burrito Brother’s death, “Boulder To Birmingham” finds Harris trying to reconcile the fact that Parsons died relatively young, saying that she would “walk all the way from Boulder to Birmingham / If I thought I could see, I could see your face.”
2. Kiss, “God Gave Rock And Roll To You II” (1991)
“God Gave Rock and Roll To You“ was written by the British band Argent, but Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley of Kiss updated the song in reaction to the illness and eventual death of their drummer Eric Carr. Carr had been diagnosed with heart cancer, and was too weak to get behind the kit by the time of the recording. He did contribute backing vocals to the track (specifically the lines, “To everyone, he gave his song to be sung”), making it both a moving tribute and a swan song for the drummer of Kiss’ “unmasked” era. By tweaking the song and dedicating it to Carr, Kiss turned a lesser-known hit from the ’70s into a testament to the people their band had touched, including their own members.
3. Puff Daddy, “I’ll Be Missing You” (1997)
Sean Combs and The Notorious B.I.G. were never bandmates in the strictest sense, but their close musical partnership lead to the rise of Combs’ Bad Boy Records and, eventually, his career as Puff Daddy/P. Diddy/etc. When Biggie was gunned down in 1997, Combs revamped his planned first album,No Way Out, transforming the Police hit “Every Breath You Take” into “I‘ll Be Missing You” as a farewell to his friend and partner. He’s assisted by Biggie’s widow, Faith Evans, who sings the hook, and R&B group 112. Unafraid to wear his heart on his sleeve, in the song’s intro Combs tells his departed friend, “It’s like I feel empty inside without you being here.” Although it’s pretty depressing, “I’ll Be Missing You” became one of the biggest selling singles of all time.
4. The Who, “Old Red Wine” (2004)
Although The Who’s John Entwistle died in embarrassing circumstances, the remaining members of the band managed to write a song about the end of his life without trampling his memory. “Old Red Wine,” honoring the bassist’s love of that particular drink, describes his last moments in typical Who fashion: “They say you turned in / While the sun still shined / That gorgeous girl with you / Was highly primed.” Instead of mourning his loss, Pete Townshend gives his old friend a pat on the back for having fun as he died, before going on to say that they’ll have to catch a drink sometime in the afterlife. Roger Daltrey echoes the sentiment in the final refrain, “Let it breathe,” which asks Entwistle to give the wine a moment to aerate while his bandmates come to join him.
5. Paul McCartney, “Here Today” (1982)
6. George Harrison, “All Those Years Ago” (1981)
7. Ringo Starr, “Never Without You” (2003)
Being a Beatle must have been a real trip. Only those four guys knew what it was like to be in the center of that pop earthquake for 10 years and to, even now, be considered some of rock’s biggest geniuses. When fellow Beatles died, the others have offered intense mourning, privately and publicly. When John Lennon was shot in 1980, both Paul McCartney and George Harrison quickly turned around remembrance songs, and when Harrison died of cancer in 2001, Ringo Starr penned a track in his honor.
Harrison’s “All Those Years Ago” was originally recorded in November of 1980, right before Lennon’s death. Following the shooting, it was re-recorded with new lyrics. Not-so-subtly referencing tracks like “All You Need Is Love” and “Imagine,” “All Those Years Ago” details how the young Harrison had idolized the elder Lennon, noting that Lennon taught him “how to give” and “point[ed] the way to the truth.”
McCartney’s “Here Today” came in 1982 on Tug Of War. While the sparse acoustic ballad is far from his best material, the plaintive one-sided conversation with Lennon is nonetheless tear-jerking.
Fast-forward 21 years to 2003, when Starr’s “Never Without You” was released on the solo LP Ringo Rama. Featuring guitar work from fellow Harrison pal Eric Clapton, “Never Without You” is an ode to the late Beatle, mentioning tracks he wrote like “All Things Must Pass” and “Within You Without You.” It’s not a subtle cut, with the always heavy-handed Starr singing about “crazy days and reckless nights, limousines and bright spotlights,” but it’s sweet all the same when he sings, “Your song will play on without you / And this world won’t forget about you.”
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