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Blues Artists That Died In 2012


While we're always saddened by the passing of blues talents that leave behind a lifetime of great music and mourning fans, 2012 took its share of legends, including Etta James, Johnny Otis, and Louisiana Red, among too many others, young and old. We honor these bluesmen and women, obscure and well-known alike, with this list of blues artists that died in 2012.

Johnnie Bassett

Johnnie Bassett
Photo courtesy Sly Dog Records

Blues guitarist Johnnie Bassett, a staple of the thriving Detroit blues scene for decades, passed away on Saturday night, August 4, 2012 after a brief battle with cancer. Bassett was 76 years old. During the late 1950s and through the '80s, Bassett was known primarily as a sideman, playing with the Bluenotes as a session musician for Detroit's Fortune Records, later backing the Miracles during a stint with Chess Records. Through his lengthy career, Bassett played alongside such artists as John Lee Hooker, Lowell Fulson, Tina Turner, and others. Bassett emerged as a singer and bandleader during the 1990s, releasing five albums before his death, and was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Detroit Blues Society in 1994.

Michael "Iron Man" Burks

Michael 'Iron Man' Burks
Photo courtesy Alligator Records

Blues guitarist Michael "Iron Man" Burks passed away on Sunday, May 6, 2012 from an apparent heart attack after returning to the states from a European tour and collapsing at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Burks was 52 years old. Raised in a musical family, Burks first picked up a guitar at the age of two. By the age of five, he was learning to play songs from his father's record collection and by his early teens, Burks was fronting his own band as well as backing many of the blues and R&B talents that performed at his family's juke-joint. Burks released his self-produced debut album in 1997 and signed with Alligator Records for a handful of recordings, including his posthumous Show of Strength album. Burks earned his "Iron Man" nickname by delivering hours-long, physically-demanding performances night after night, his soulful vocals matched by a fierce, unique guitar style that would leave audiences breathless.

Cody Burnside

Cody Burnside
Photo courtesy of the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic

Cody Burnside, the grandson of North Mississippi Hill Country blues legend R.L. Burnside and brother of acclaimed blues drummer Cedric Burnside, passed away on Wednesday, October 17, 2012 of unconfirmed causes. Cody was the epitome of what Chris Thomas King called the "21st century hip-hop blues," a skilled rapper who appeared on the North Mississippi Allstars' 2003 album Polaris as well as on John-Alex Mason's 2011 album Juke Joint Thunderclap. With Cedric and uncle Garry Burnside, Cody helped form the Cedric Burnside Project, which mixed up blues, funk, and R&B grooves with hip-hop vocals. He was also a fixture at the annual North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic.

Nick Curran

Nick Curran
Photo courtesy Delta Groove Music

Roots 'n' blues guitarist Nick Curran succumbed to cancer on Saturday, October 6, 2012 after a lengthy battle with the disease; Curran was 35 years old. Curran launched his musical career as a touring sideman with rockabilly legend Ronnie Dawson, and later joined Texas rockabilly singer Kim Lenz's band the Jaguars, where he would spend two years and record the singer's 1999 album The One and Only. He spent three years with the Fabulous Thunderbirds circa 2004-2007, forming his band the Lowlifes in 2008 to pursue his vision of rockin' roots 'n' blues. Curran and the Lowlifes released a single critically-acclaimed album, 2010's Reform School Girl, on Eclecto Groove Records.

Donald "Duck" Dunn

Donald 'Duck' Dunn
Photo from the Frank Diggs Collection, courtesy Getty Images

Memphis soul and Stax Records legend Donald "Duck" Dunn passed away in his sleep on Sunday morning, May 13, 2012 while in Tokyo, Japan for a series of shows. Dunn was 70 years old. Dunn was a member of the Stax Records' house band Booker T & the MGs, his fluid bass lines providing the heavy bottom end sound that was one of the band's hallmarks. Aside from their own chart hits like "Green Onions," the MGs backed up a literal "who's who" of 1960s-era R&B and soul stars, including Rufus Thomas, Wilson Pickett, and Otis Redding, among others, including bluesman Albert King. Through the years, Dunn brought his unique bass sound to recordings by artists as varied as Eric Clapton, Tom Petty, Freddie King, Muddy Waters, Neil Young, Jerry Lee Lewis, and many more.

Kay Kay Greenwade

Kay Kay Greenwade
Photo courtesy Catfood Records

Blues singer Kay Kay Greenwade passed away on Monday, July 9, 2012 after a long illness. Greenwade was 56 years old. A life-long resident of Odessa, Texas, Greenwade began singing gospel music in the church. Her band Kay Kay and the Rays was a long-time fixture on the Odessa music scene. Soul great Johnny Rawls produced the band's second album, 2001's Texas Justice, but after the release of 2003's acclaimed Big Bad Girl album, family tragedies would break up Kay Kay and the Rays. The band's inspired mix of blues, soul, funk, gospel, and R&B lived on, however, and the fifteen-song The Best of Kay Kay and the Rays album, drawing from the band's three studio discs, was released by Catfood Records in November 2011.

Levon Helm

Levon Helm
Photo courtesy Vanguard Records

Roots-rock legend Levon Helm passed away on Thursday, April 19, 2012 after a lengthy battle with throat cancer. Helm was 71 years old. Helm taught himself guitar at the age of eight, but later switched over to drums. His first professional gig was with rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins, relocating from Memphis to Toronto where he would recruit the musicians who would later become known as The Band. After a stint backing up Bob Dylan, the Band would release better than a half dozen classic albums during the 1960s and '70s. Helm launched his solo career after the Band's break-up, releasing a number of albums until his death, winning three Grammy® Awards. While not strictly a blues singer, Levon Helm always displayed a weary, soulful sound to his vocals, influenced by the blues and R&B music he heard on the radio growing up in Arkansas.

Bugs Henderson

Bugs Henderson
Photo courtesy Bugs Henderson

Texas blues guitarist Bugs Henderson died on Thursday, March 8, 2012 after a short fight with cancer; he was 68 years old. Raised in Tyler, Texas, Henderson first picked up a guitar at the age of six; by the time he was a teen, he was working in a record store and sneaking out of the house at night to catch live music. By the end of the 1960s, Henderson was playing music full-time as the house guitarist at Robin Hood Studios in Tyler. Encouraged by his mentor – legendary blues guitarist Freddie King – Henderson moved to Dallas, Texas and formed the Bugs Henderson Group. The band released its debut album At Last in 1978 and would go on to release better than a dozen albums over the next three decades. Henderson's inspired musical mix of blues, rock, jazz, and funk vaulted him from club dates to high-profile gigs opening for acts like the Allman Brothers Band, B.B. King, and Eric Clapton, among others.

Etta James

Etta James
Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez, courtesy Getty Images

R&B legend Etta James passing away on Friday morning, January 20, 2012 from leukemia. James was 73 years old and had been suffering from a host of health issues over the past couple of years. After recording a string of hits for Modern Records in the mid-1950s, James toured as part of the Johnny Otis Band. James left Modern in 1960 to sign with Chess Records, the company with which she is most firmly identified and where she stayed until 1978. With Chess, James chalked up a number of classic R&B hits, including the eternal "At Last," "I'd Rather Go Blind," and "Tell Mama," influencing a generation of singers coming up behind her, including talents like Janis Joplin, Bonnie Raitt, Shemekia Copeland, and others. After Chess folded, James continued to tour and record until her illness sidelined her in 2009. A six time Grammy® winner and an inductee into the Blues and Rock & Roll Hall of Fames, we'll never hear another voice like Etta's again.

Eddie King

Eddie King
Photo courtesy Eddie King

Chicago blues guitarist Eddie King passed away on Wednesday, March 14, 2012 after a lengthy illness with a Parkinson's-like disorder. King was 73 years old. King moved to Chicago as a teen in the early 1950s and became enamored of the city's thriving blues scene. By 1960, known as "Little" Eddie King, the young guitarist had earned his place among a second generation of Chicago bluesmen. In the early 1960s, King worked with producer Willie Dixon and played on several Sonny Boy Williamson recordings. The guitarist is best known as the lead guitarist in Koko Taylor's band, a job he had for better than 20 years. King recorded sporadically through the years, releasing a handful of solo albums. In his later years, he struggled with a rare form of palsy that robbed him of his ability to play the guitar, but which didn't deter him from performing as a blues singer as late as 2010.

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