Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler, teacher, scientist; Published author & Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published August 7th 2020
Continuing after death is possible
Death is a part of life. It is unfortunate and those of us left behind have to simply cope with the loss and get on with our lives, keeping the memories at heart. I was only 10 when my own father died and that was close to 40 years ago; it is hard, but we get on with life.
However, when a famous musician dies, there is something else that is left – a volume of recorded music. That is something we can put on to jump-start the memories. And, often, after an artist dies, there are songs that are released that the artist did not get a chance to release while alive, especially concert recordings. The legend grows; the fans stay true.
Tombe de Jim Morrison
However, sometimes the artists leave incomplete works, most often if they die unexpectedly, or know they are dying. It is then up to their band-mates or producers to complete these works, to create a piece worthy of inclusion in a band's canon. That is what this list is about.
Therefore, this list is not just songs released after the death of a person, but when the actual recording of the song was finished after the death of the musician (so no 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' by Joy Division). This means that there are no live releases, even if overdubs were later done in a studio. It also means no remixes unless there was a degree of extra recording of the music.
There is also a lack of hip-hop/rap in this list, because the standard rule that I have to like the song also applies. Plus one song per artist. In some cases (like Jeff Buckley) I could not ascertain if something was finished after death or not, or what was actually finished after death, so I played it safe there.
So… ten songs where the songs were completed and then released after the death of an important member of said band, or the solo artist themselves passed away.
'Peggy Sue Got Married' by Buddy Holly (1959)
After his death in a plane crash, studio musicians added backing vocals and instruments to a number of home recordings of just Holly and his guitar. This track is my favourite of those. Interestingly, it was not Holly's backing band The Crickets that added the instrumentation, but session musicians. I am not sure why. It is a shame they were not there, but the song is still a good one.
'(Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Day' by Otis Redding (1967)
Most of the song had been recorded by Redding before his untimely death in a place crash, but producer and guitarist Steve Cropper finished mixing it, adding the sound effects and doing overdubs in the month following the accident before its release. Apparently the whistling at the end was a holding pattern because Redding forgot the words, and was going to record them later; as it was, it has become an iconic part of the song.
'Me And Bobby McGee' by Janis Joplin (1971)
Joplin's death from an accidental drug overdose robbed the world of a powerful singer. She had recorded nearly all the vocals for her album Pearl before her death, but none of the songs had been completed. The Full Tilt Boogie Band then went into the studio and did what they hoped would be the songs the way she wanted. This song was one Joplin had been performing live for some time (it is a Kris Kristofferson original), so the band knew what she wanted and how to do it, and it shows.
'Walk Away' by Del Shannon (1991)
Shannon's 1990 death came as he was undergoing the start a career resurgence. He was in the middle of recording an album when he passed away, and so Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty and many others (Shannon was being touted as Roy Orbison's replacement in The Traveling Wilburys) completed it for him, and Rock On! was released. It is a really strong album, all things considered, and this is my favourite track from it.
'I Drove All Night' by Roy Orbison (1992)
Orbison died in 1988 and a couple of months later his album Mystery Girl was released. Three years later came the album King Of Hearts, made up of unreleased tracks and tracks built from demos and incomplete recordings, finished in the studio. This track is one of the latter. The first released version was by Cyndi Lauper, and, really, I like them both equally. But Orbison's voice is so incredible.
'Free As A Bird' by The Beatles (1995)
Following John Lennon's death, the rest of the band recorded their parts of this track over a home demo recording Lennon's widow Yoko Ono found, for the Anthology series (along with another track, but I prefer this one). In fact, this song is a strong addition to The Beatles' catalogue, and it does not feel out of place at all listening to it.
'I Was Born To Love You' by Queen (1995)
The album Made In Heaven was released four years after front-man's Freddie Mercury's death. He knew he was dying and managed to lay down some vocal tracks before he passed away. The remaining members of Queen took older songs, these vocal tracks and other bits and pieces and re-recorded them and added new instrumentation to create a fine final album. This track was from a Mercury solo album, and with the Queen instrumentation, it is a much stronger track.
'A Little Less Conversation' by Elvis Presley v JXL (2002)
While a remix, new backing instrumentation was also recorded to turn a deep cut film song into a dance hit; some sources I've read indicate that Presley's voice was all they kept from the 1968 original. The original song is okay, but the modern backing made it impossible not to dance to. The Presley estate gave initial permission for this remix for a television advertising campaign, apparently.
'If You Could Read My Mind' by Johnny Cash (2006)
When Johnny Cash died, he left enough unfinished work for two more albums in the American Recordings… series. Producer Rick Rubin completed the recording of the tracks involved, and this song comes from the fifth volume and is my personal favourite track from that one. He takes the Gordon Lightfoot track and adds a sense of world-weariness only a man who knows he has not got a lot of time left can put into a song. The six albums in the series are magnificent; I am so glad Cash got the finale he deserved.
'Life In A Northern Town' by Zoot (2018)
A few years after the death of Darryl Cotton in 2012 (from liver cancer), the other members of Zoot came together to put together a career-spanning anthology (Archaeology). While doing this, Rick Springfield discovered that Cotton had recorded a version of this song, something he had also done. So, they stripped back everything except the vocals, and made it the first new Zoot recording in decades. Originally by The Dream Academy, Zoot do a great cover here.
I think what this list shows is that with care and a genuine love for the artist in question, these posthumous recordings can be as good as the works done when the artist was still alive. These do not feel like cash-ins, but as though the people behind finishing the songs wanted to maintain the legacy of the artist. And, as a music lover, I am glad they did.