NorthStar looks back and honors these extraordinary people we lost in 2017….
By Susan M. Miller
Della Reese (b. July 6, 1931; Detroit, Michigan), 86, singer, actress and minister, began singing in church, was discovered at thirteen by gospel great Mahalia Jackson and sang with her group.
From there, her bright and varied career led her to a recording contract in 1953, “Don’t You Know,” a hit song in 1959, Della, a television talk show of her own in 1969, dramatic roles on many popular television shows, and in the 1980’s ordination in the Unity Church. In 1994, she appeared as a principle in the popular dramatic series Touched by an Angel, which aired until 2003. The show featured three angels who were dispatched to earth to help people in need. The show was cancelled after it debuted, but a massive write-in campaign by fans swayed CBS to reinstate the series, which gained viewership and ran for eight more seasons. Reese sang the show’s theme song, “Walk with Me.” Reese died in Los Angeles. No cause of death was reported.
Earle Hyman (b. October 11, 1926; Rocky Mount, North Carolina), 91, was a stage, television and screen actor, who debuted on Broadway at seventeen and soon thereafter became a member of the American Negro Theater. He performed in the United States and Europe, gaining award-worthy recognition for his stage roles in this country, London and
Norway. Hyman owned property in Norway, spoke fluent Norwegian and performed in Ibsen plays and other productions on the Oslo stage, speaking the language. In 1980, he won a Tony for best actor for his role in Edward Albee’s The Lady from Dubuque.
He also appeared in television and film adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, was featured in two different roles during two different periods in the television soap opera, The Edge of Night, and lent his voice to television’s animated show, Thundercats. His was a familiar face on The Cosby Show, where he played Russell Huxtable, Bill Cosby’s father, a role that earned him a 1986 Emmy nomination. Hyman died in Englewood, New Jersey, while in residence at Lillian Booth Actors home, his last home.
Antoine Dominique “Fats” Domino Jr. (b. February 26, 1928; New Orleans, Louisiana), 89, boogie-woogie artist, mastered the piano as an adolescent and played with a band in New Orleans bars, where he was dubbed “Fats,” in part because of his prodigious appetite. Though he eventually recorded with more than a half dozen companies during his career, a 1949 contract with the Imperial label led to his recording “Junkers Blues.” The song
was so popular that it was entered into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2015. Three years after recording “Junkers Blues,” “Fats” recorded “Ain’t That a Shame,” a crossover hit, which earned him solid footing in pop music. He eventually recorded 37 Top 40 singles. His 1949 recording of “The Fat Man” is generally known to be the first rock and roll recording to sell more than 1 million copies.
“The Fat Man”and his 1956 recording of “Blueberry Hill” were also entered into the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 1986 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the following year, he received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded him the National Medal of Arts. “Fats” moved to the New Orleans suburbs in 2005 after surviving the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. He died of natural causes in his home there.
Robert Guillaume (b. November 30, 1927; St. Louis, Missouri), 89, grew up in poverty, was raised with his siblings by his grandmother, attended college and served in the Army before taking to the Broadway stage, appearing in Purlie and an all-black revival of Guys and Dolls. Though Guillaume returned to the stage at different points throughout his career, he is best known to the public for his television roles.
Notably, he played Benson, an acerbic butler, in Soap from 1977 to 1979, and he played the same character in a spinoff series, Benson, from 1979 to 1986. He won Emmys in 1979 and 1985 for his role in each show, becoming the first African-American actor to win best actor in a comedy series. His distinctive voice was the voice of Rafiki in the acclaimed animated film The Lion King. He was the principle in three television shows that followed his years portraying Benson, The Robert Guillaume Show (1989), Pacific Station (1991), and Sports Night (1998-2000), but no one of them caught on with the viewing audience. Guillaume died in his home in Los Angeles, having lost a 25-year battle with prostate cancer.
Mychael Knight (b. April 11, 1978; Nuremberg, Germany), 39, fashion designer and television’s Project Runway finalist, was born in Germany, grew up in Montgomery,
Alabama, and attended high school in Washingtonville, New York. He earned a degree in apparel design from Georgia Southern University and began his career in fashion in 2001 when he interned at Wilburn Exclusives in Atlanta. As an established designer, Knight competed in the third season of Project Runway, won the fan favorite award for that season and ultimately placed fourth in the overall competition. In 2007, he launched his own fashion line, which bore his name and was featured on BET’s Rip the Runway. His designs were featured on the runway at New York’s Fashion Week in Spring 2012. Knight died in Atlanta while hospitalized for treatment of severe IBS.
Charles Bradley (b. November 5, 1948; Gainesville, Florida), 68, soul singer, served in the Marines, worked as a cook and lived in many places and was homeless in many places before settling in California in 1977. He worked odd jobs during the day and performed at night under the stage name “Screaming Eagle of Soul.” He relocated to New York in 1996 to reunite with his mother and made his living as a James Brown imitator, performing in clubs and using the name Black Velvet. He was discovered by a founder of Daptone Records and secured a contract with them in 2002. The label released a number of his singles, including “Take It As It Comes.” In 2011, ten of these singles were released collectively as his debut album, No Time for Dreaming. The following year, filmmaker Poull Brien directed a documentary of Bradley’s life, Soul of America. Bradley’s second album, Victim of Love, was released in 2013, followed by his third album, released in 2016, Changes. Bradley died in New York City, succumbing to stomach cancer.
Nelsan Ellis (b. November 30, 1977; Harvey, Illinois), 39, was a screen and television actor
and playwright, who attended Julliard and wrote while there a semi-autobiographical play, titled Ugly. The play, based in part on the domestic violence Ellis’s sister suffered with her husband who shot her in 2002, was produced and led to Ellis winning the Lincoln Center’s Martin E. Segal Award. Ellis was best known to the viewing public as the character Lafayette Reynolds in the HBO cable series True Blood. He won a 2008 Satellite Award from the International Press Academy for best-supporting actor for the role. He portrayed Bobby Byrd in the 2014 film biography of James Brown, Get on Up. Struggling with alcohol addiction, Ellis died of heart failure, secondary to alcohol withdrawal syndrome, while hospitalized for care in New York City.
Prodigy (b. November 2, 1974; Hempstead, Long Island, New York), 42, named Albert
Johnson at birth, was a rapper, entrepreneur and author, was born into a prominent and musical family. Notably, his mother, performing as Frances Collins, was a member of the 1960s R&B girl group The Crystals. Prodigy’s grandfather, Budd Johnson, was a renowned bebop saxophonist, and his great-great-great grandfather, William Jefferson White, founded Morehouse College in 1867. In the early 1990s, Prodigy formed the hip-hop duo Mobb Deep with his friend, Kejuan Muchita, known as “Havoc;” they released their debut album, Juvenile Hell, in 1993. Their second album, The Infamous (1995), was regarded as an album that set a new standard for excellence in the hip-hop genre. The duo released three more albums, and in 2000, Prodigy came out with a solo album, H.N.I.C. and a follow-up album, H.N.I.C, Part 2, in 2008. Convicted on gun-possession and marijuana-possession charges, Prodigy served a three-year prison sentence and was released in 2011. That same year, his memoir, My Infamous Life: The Autobiography of Mobb Deep’s Prodigy, co-written with Laura Checkoway, was published. In 2014, Prodigy and Havoc released their eighth album, The Infamous Mobb Deep. Prodigy died of accidental choking while hospitalized in Las Vegas for treatment of acute complications associated with sickle-cell disease, an illness with which he had been diagnosed at birth.
Christopher “Big Black” Boykin (b. January 13, 1972; Raleigh, Mississippi), 45, was a
musician, skateboarder and bodyguard, who became a television personality when he and his best friend, professional skateboarder Rob Dyrdeck, co-starred in the MTV reality show, Rob and Big, which aired for three seasons, premiering in 2006 and ending in 2008. In 2007, he launched his own line of clothing, Big Black, featuring T-shirts that were printed with his catchphrase, “Do work.” Boykin appeared in Dyrdeck’s follow-up reality show, Fantasy Factory, and also played a role in three episodes in another of Dyrdeck’s MTV productions, Ridiculousness. Boykin died of a heart attack in Plano, Texas.
Cuba Gooding Sr. (b. April 27, 1944; New York City, New York), 72, singer and actor, joined the group The Main Ingredient as a back-up singer and shortly thereafter became the group’s lead singer, after the group’ original lead singer died suddenly in 1971. The group’s biggest hit, “Everybody Plays the Fool,” made so much money that Gooding was able to move from the Bronx to Los Angeles. In 1977, Gooding left the group for a career as a solo artist.
Two of his singles, “Mind Pleaser” (1978) and “Happiness Is Just Around the Bend” (1983) hit the R&B charts. He released two solo albums for Motown, which gained modest attention. In 1979, Gooding returned to The Main Ingredient, but left again to sing solo again. He released two more solo albums, one in 1993 and one in 2004. Because Gooding’s body was found in his parked car in Woodland Hills, California, his death was investigated. It was ultimately determined that he died of natural causes. Gooding was the father of Oscar-winning actor Cuba Gooding Jr.
Charlie Murphy (b. July 12, 1959; Brooklyn, New York City, New York), 57, actor, comedian and writer, enjoyed a varied career in entertainment. Murphy acted in minor roles in many films during the 1980s and early 1990s; he also coordinated the performances of K-9 Posse, a hip-hop group. He wrote a few of the group’s songs. Murphy is best known as a writer and cast member on Chappelle’s Show, a Comedy Central series, which aired from 2003 to 2006. During 2010-2011, Murphy performed solo on Comedy Central and was a featured artist in 1000 Ways to Die and the TBS sitcom Are We There Yet? Murphy died of leukemia in New York City. He was the older brother of comedian and actor Eddie Murphy.
Joan Elise “Joni” Sledge (b. September 13, 1956; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 60, singer, songwriter, producer and actress, Sledge sang in church and was trained as a singer by her grandmother, Viola Williams, who was a celebrated operatic soprano. She was one of four
sisters who came together in Philadelphia in 1971 to create the music group Sister Sledge. They toured the east coast of the U. S., gaining increasing attention. Their biggest hit at the time was “He’s the Greatest Dancer.” Sister Sledge recorded their first album, Circle of Love in 1975 and their most-memorable album in 1979, We Are Family, featuring their hit song of the same title. They also gained a strong following in Europe. In 1996, Sledge wrote the song “Brother, Brother, Stop,” hoping to help stop the gun violence she witnessed in Los Angeles. Sledge was found dead in her home in Phoenix, Arizona. Though she suffered from no known illnesses, her death was deemed the result of natural causes.
Derek Walcott (b. January 23, 1930; Castries, St. Lucia, West Indies), 87, painter, poet and playwright, was born to creative parents, who encouraged him to express himself artistically.
Walcott was trained first as a painter. His work was hung in New York galleries later in his life, after he had established himself as a literary lion. In 1953, Walcott left St. Lucia for Trinidad; there he worked as a teacher, journalist and critic. In 1959 he founded the Trinidad Theater Workshop. His first volume of poems, In a Green Night: Poems 1948-1960, published in 1962, gained immediate international attention. Walcott’s play, Dream on Monkey Mountain, was published in 1970, produced on NBC television, later performed by the Negro Ensemble Company and awarded an Obie for “Best Foreign Play.” Recruited to teach by Boston University, Walcott moved to the United States, founded the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre in 1981 and was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. He taught in Boston for two decades, writing and publishing poetry regularly. Walcott’s masterpiece, his book-length epic poem, Omeros, published in 1990, is his version of the Iliad. In 1992, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, becoming the second Caribbean writer to be so honored. Walcott’s later poetry collections include White Egrets, published in 2010, which won the T. S. Eliot Prize. A documentary film, featuring Walcott’s life, his poetry and his birthplace of St. Lucia, Poetry Is an Island, was released in 2013 by Dutch filmmaker, Ida Does. Walcott taught poetry at the University of Essex from 2010 to 2013. Frequently described as flirtatious, Walcott’s academic career was plagued by charges of sexual harassment, brought by women he had taught at Harvard and at Boston University. These charges and others brought were settled privately. Walcott traveled extensively, dividing his time predominately between St. Lucia, Boston and New York, living and working for a time in each place. He died in his home in Cap Estate, St. Lucia, where he was honored with a state funeral.
Charles “Chuck” Berry (b. October 18, 1926; St. Louis, Missouri), 90, was a giant of American music. He was a singer, songwriter, musician and one of the earliest and most influential rock and roll artists. Berry began performing with his guitar in high school. His early career was marred by a three-year stint in reform school, where he was sent following a conviction for armed robbery. He was released from confinement at 21, and he secured work at an automotive plant, married, then worked at turns as a janitor, carpenter and beautician to support his family. At night he played the blues, R&B songs and country tunes in St. Louis clubs, already wowing audiences with his showmanship and developing guitar techniques and riffs that were emulated years later by famous rock and roll artists, including Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. In 1955, Berry recorded an adaptation of the song “Ida Red,” made popular years earlier by Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys. Berry’s rocking version was called “Maybellene;” it sold more than a million copies and shot to the top spot on Billboard’s chart. The following year, Berry recorded “Roll Over Beethoven,” and his career caught fire. He was touring everywhere, the hottest ticket in popular music. He turned out hit after hit from 1957 to 1959. Everyone was listening to “School Days,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and “Johnny B. Goode.” His career was halted when in 1959, he was convicted under the Mann Act, having been charged with conducting a sexual relationship with a fourteen year-old Apache girl who he transported across state lines to work in one of his clubs. Berry served one and a half years in prison. When he was released from prison in 1963, he learned that his most-famous songs were being covered by British rock musicians, which kept his music at the forefront of the music industry. Berry returned to touring and giving concerts, most of which were sold out. In 1979, Berry’s career stalled again when he was charged with income tax evasion and sentenced to four months in prison and required to perform 1,000 hours of community service. He met this requirement by giving free concerts. During the 1970s and 1980s, Berry continued to tour across the country, performing in as many as 100 concerts a year. Legal issues plagued him once again when he was charged with videotaping women without their knowledge or consent, making sexual overtures to a minor-age girl and possessing marijuana. Though the child-abuse charges against him were dropped and his jail sentence was suspended, he was sentenced to two years of probation and ordered to make monetary donations to certain established community organizations. He complied with these demands. He continued to tour frequently and widely, traveling to multiple venues in Europe, where he enjoyed a strong following. When he wasn’t touring, and when he finally slowed his pace, he played on a regular basis at Blueberry Hill, a restaurant and bar in St. Louis. He continued to play there weekly until 2014. On his 90th birthday, Berry released a new album, Chuck. It had been 38 years since he last recorded an album. Berry died in his home in Wentzville, Missouri, following a heart attack.
Alwin “Al” Jarreau (b. March 12, 1940; Milwaukee, Wisconsin), 76, was a singer and musician whose career in music soared and never faltered. A college graduate with a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling, Jarreau sang in clubs at night, connecting early on with George Duke, playing as part of a newly formed trio in San Francisco. In 1967, he met and
began working with Julio Martinez, an acoustic jazz guitarist. Together, they headlined at a swank club in Sausalito, and Jarreau dedicated himself to a full-time career in music. He was soon appearing on popular television shows, including shows hosted by Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin and David Frost. By 1975, he was recording with Warner Bros. Records and released his first album, We Got By. A second album, Glow, followed, and in 1978, he released Look to the Rainbow, which won a Grammy that year for best jazz vocal performance. His most-recognized album, Breakin’ Away, which included one of his greatest hit songs, “We’re in This Love Together,” was released in 1981 and earned Jarreau a second Grammy in 1982 for best male vocal performance. He was to win five more Grammy Awards during his career.
He toured extensively and recorded often for most of the rest of his life. He recorded a total of sixteen studio albums and was considered a consummate live performer. He died in Los Angeles while hospitalized for exhaustion, having publically announced his retirement the previous week.