December 10, 1967 I was eleven years old and spinning around on a rotating chair on my grandmother’s front porch. It was just after dark and I had the radio on to my favorite station, WVOK in Birmingham. A DJ cut into a song and said he had just received news that Otis Redding had died in a plane crash.
I stopped spinning.
In my eleven years I had only experienced death on TV and the radio. The day John Kennedy died was important because we were sent home from school and had to watch the news on TV. We were not forced to watch it but everyone I knew just had to watch. I saw the footage of Lee Harvey Oswald being killed by Jack Ruby moments after it happened. These were not people we knew, they were like action figures – part of our imagination. Otis was different. We knew his songs, his voice and, even as an eleven-year old kid, I knew he was important. My mom, dad and grandmother even liked him. That’s important. They hated Bob Dylan.
All through the seventies, eighties, nineties and into the oughts, I have had to face the passing of friends, family and artists who meant so much to me. You grieve and move on.
This has been an especially difficult year for people I know and love in the music, film and literature world. I was blessed to be a friend to Phoebe Snow and know how much love she had in her heart for her daughter and all of her friends and fans; Gill Scott-Heron had a message to present but tainted it with drugs to combat his personal pain – he was the only person I have ever watched smoke crack. Looking back, that was his way of dealing with his pain.
When I learned of Clarence Clemons’ passing I could not help but think of the first night in 1976 when I saw him with Bruce and the band. His smile and his happiness with performing was such a part of the show – and everyone knew it. His only hit with our mutual friend Jackson Browne says it all, “You’re A Friend of Mine.”
We were all blessed to have known him.