Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017: In Memoriams, Part One

As 2017 draws to a close, it is time to take a look back and remember some of the influential figures who passed away during the year.

Much like I did for 2016, I am going to do this in a series of posts because there were too many deaths to cover them all in just one. But before I get started I have to give a nod to...


Gordie Howe
When you consider how much I write about hockey, it's unfathomable that I published three "In Memoriam" posts for 2016 and failed to mention the man called Mr. Hockey. I have no idea how that happened, but at least now I'm making it right.

A native son of Saskatchewan, Gordie Howe was one of nine siblings, was nine days old when his family moved from the town of Floral to the city of Saskatoon, and wore number nine as a professional hockey player, most notably for the Detroit Red Wings... so when he passed away and the Wings held a public viewing at Joe Louis Arena, it of course ran from nine a.m. to nine p.m.

Professional sports are the domain of the young, which makes it hard to wrap your mind around what I'm about to say, but Howe's career was so long that he played in the NHL in parts of five different decades, with his first game taking place on October 16, 1946 and his last on April 11, 1980. He was even in the All Star Game in all five of those decades, and was 52 years old when he scored his final NHL goal in a playoff game between his Hartford Whalers and the Montreal Canadiens. The player who got the assist on that final goal happened to be his son Mark, and today they are both in the Hall of Fame.

The complete, all-around nature of his game is testified to by the fact that an in-game achievement is named after him: It is officially called a Gordie Howe Hat Trick when a player records a goal, assist, and fight all in one game. However it is interesting, and says something about Gordie Howe's composure, that he himself only had two Gordie Howe Hat Tricks over the course of his long career.

Mr. Hockey passed away on June 10, 2016 in Sylvania, Ohio, and his ashes were interred three months later in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. He is remembered as an icon in both Canada and the United States.


And now it is time to move on to people who died in 2017, and I might as well start with another Saskatchewan man who defied the usual laws of aging when it comes to sports...


Johnny Bower
The average NHL career ends when a player is 28. Johnny Bower, on the other hand, didn't even make it to the NHL until he was 29... then, after just one season with the New York Rangers (1953-54) he was sent back to the minors, and other than two games a couple seasons later he did not return to the NHL until he was picked up by the Toronto Maple Leafs at the age of 34... and then he became a star as the Leafs' starting goaltender, playing until he was 45 and backstopping them to four Stanley Cups and winning a pair of Vezina Trophies along the way.

Bower's .922 career save percentage is tied with Dominik Hasek as the highest of any goaltender in NHL history to have played more than 300 games. Interestingly, due mostly to his long pre-Toronto stints with the Cleveland Barons of the American Hockey League, Bower also ranks as the AHL's all-time winningest goalie, with 359 victories to his name.

He was born John William Kiszkan, but later changed his name to Johnny Bower because he thought it would be easier for sports journalists to spell and pronounce. In sports he defied not only the usual laws of aging, but also the usual laws of health when you consider that he played despite suffering from rheumatoid arthritis that made it extremely hard and painful for him to hold his goalie stick; the condition was so severe that it had previously caused him to be discharged from the Canadian Army after he joined it to fight the Nazis in World War II (he was a minor at the time, but was so eager to serve that he lied about his age).

Bower died of pneumonia the day after Christmas at the age of 93, leaving behind Nancy (his wife of 69 years) plus three children, eight grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.


Tom Petty
It caught everybody by surprise when a massive heart attack stilled the guitar-strumming hands and songwriting brain of Tom Petty at the age of 66. This Gainesville, Florida native first thought about becoming a musician when he was 10 years old and met Elvis Presley, and he became dead-set on it when he was 13 and saw the Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Petty grew up to become an internationally known star who sold millions of records; was inducted into the Rock and Roll of Fame; received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; performed the halftime show at Super Bowl XLII; and won a Gershwin Award and Golden Note Award in addition to Billboard's highest honor, the Century Award.

When Tom Petty was young he was big fan of the Byrds. This inspired him to often play Rickenbacker guitars, the preferred brand of Byrds' front man Roger McGuinn, and many of Petty's songs carry an echo of the Byrds' sound and style. Regardless, every one of the songs he penned was its own breed, from rockers like "Refugee" to easy-listeners like "Learning to Fly" to thumpers like "Saving Grace."

From his many albums with his signature band the Heartbreakers, to his solo work, to his duets with Stevie Nicks, to his pair of albums with the all-star outfit Traveling Wilburys, Tom Petty was a major contributor to the American songbook over the last four decades. And he was still going strong when his life suddenly came to an end.


Chuck Berry
His guitar licks were timeless and his stage presence ahead of its time, and the buoyant optimism of his lyrics was something other rock stars should think about giving a try.

I have said for years that it is Chuck Berry, not Elvis Presley, who should be called "the King of Rock." Unlike Elvis he wrote much of his own material, and his first big hit ("Maybellene") came out a year before Elvis's ("Heartbreak Hotel"), thus putting the lie to the notion that rock music needed a white performer to become popular with white audiences.

"Johnny B. Goode" remains one of the rock era's finest songs and its frenzied guitar intro is such a classic that axemen to this day feel compelled to try their hands at it. Berry's other tunes are similarly infectious, from "Roll Over Beethoven" to "Brown Eyed Handsome Man," though my favorite will always be "No Particular Place to Go" with its depiction of a teenager's bumbling attempt at, um, romance: "Ridin' along in my autmobile / my baby beside me at the wheel / I stole a kiss at the turn of a mile / my curiosity runnin' wild ... All the way home I held a grudge / for the safety belt that wouldn't budge / cruisin' and playin' the radio / with no particular place to go."

To be sure, Berry was a mixed bag. Although married to one woman for the last 68 of his 90 years, which is laudable, during that time he also spent a year and a half in prison in the early 1960's for having sex with a minor; and in the 1990's he agreed to a legal settlement with 59 women who accused him of installing a hidden video camera in the women's room of a restaurant he owned (he denied having the camera installed or using it to film illicit videos, but did admit to its existence).

He was no saint, but whatever else he might have been, Chuck Berry was an original without whom our nation's post-war music and pop culture would not have been the same.


Mary Tyler Moore
It's not that there were no female leads on TV sitcoms prior to The Mary Tyler Moore Show debuting in 1970 -- I Love Lucy and Bewitched both predated it -- but there was something markedly different when it came to the show about a Minneapolis news producer.

Yes, it bucked tradition by being about an unmarried career woman and having its plots involve topics rarely mentioned on TV programs of the time (sexuality, infertility, divorce, addiction), but the most markedly different thing about it was how integral the lead actress was to the whole shebang. Just like only Andy Griffith could properly portray Sheriff Andy Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show, only Mary Tyler Moore could properly portray Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Of course, her career spanned well beyond that one series that ran from 1970 to 1977. Moore had previously played a key supporting role on The Dick Van Dyke Show from 1961 to 1966, and on the big screen she would later win a Golden Globe and get an Oscar nomination for her performance in Ordinary People. She received several Tony and Drama Desk nominations for her on-stage work, winning a Tony for her turn in Whose Life is it Anyway?

In her private life Moore was an animal lover and ASPCA donor who had Type I diabetes and battled alcoholism, and she discussed all of those things openly. Although once a professed liberal, her political views shifted a she aged, and in her later years she described herself as a Fox News-watching libertarian. Mary Tyler Moore died in January and was laid to rest in Fairfield, Connecticut.


Gregg Allman
His music was a stew of blues, Southern rock, and rhythm-and-blues with dashes of country and jazz. That's something that can't be said for the majority of people who have made millions of dollars in the music business and remained relevant for decades.

Greg Allman is best known for his work with the Allman Brothers Band, which he founded with his older sibling Duane and which proved to be one of the most successful bands of the 1970's despite Duane dying in a motorcycle crash in 1971. Gregg wrote many of the band's songs, including the classics "Whipping Post," "Midnight Rider," and "Melissa," and his bluesy vocals were as integral to their sound as they were to the solo albums he later recorded.

Allman's 2012 autobiography My Cross to Bear discussed his struggles with alcohol and drugs and his later-in-life embrace of Christian spirituality. And, it contained this particularly telling line: "Music is my life's blood. I love music, I love to play good music, and I love to play music for people who appreciate it. And when it's all said and done, I'll go to my grave and my brother will greet me, saying, 'Nice work, little brother -- you did all right.' I must have said this a million times, but if I died today, I have had me a blast."

He died in May of liver cancer, and was buried next to Duane in Rose Hill Cemetery in Macon, Georgia -- the same cemetery where they used to go at night and write songs when they were young.


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