Immediately after Michael Jackson’s untimely passing, an outpouring of grief erupted in communities around the world, perhaps no more so than in the entertainment industry. Musicians like 50 Cent, The Game, and Usher responded not only with mournful messages, but with songs paying tribute to him as well. Singers honoring people who touched their lives in one way or another through song is nothing new; it’s a way to pay homage to their friends and mentors the best way they know how. And with the impact that these celebrities had on the world around them, a tribute song seems like the perfect way to celebrate their influential lives.
“All Those Years Ago,” George Harrison
Though Ringo, Paul, and George are featured on this track, the tribute to their friend and band mate, John Lennon, was recorded under Harrison’s name because he’s the one who wrote the lyrics. The song was recorded earlier, but after Lennon’s death, Harrison altered it to include lines like, “You had control of our smiles and our tears all those years ago” in remembrance of him.
“I’ll Be Missing You,” Faith Evans and Puff Daddy
Few people were affected more by Biggie Smalls’ murder than his ex-wife Faith Evans and Puff Daddy (known as P. Diddy now), his manager and best friend. They used the Police song, “Every Breath You Take,” as the background melody and sang about the fallen rapper.
“Night Shift,” The Commodores
When I first heard this song, I thought it was an ode to late-night lovin’ and dismissed it as cheesy, but my friend informed me it was actually a tribute to Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson, both of whom died tragically—the former from a gun shot wound, the latter while in a coma after a heart attack—the year before the song was released.
“Angel of Harlem,” U2
The Angel of Harlem Bono and company speak of is actually Billie Holiday (also known as Lady Day), one of the most famous and renowned jazz singers to date. The lyrics talk about Holiday and the jazz scene itself, including references to a New York radio station
“Man on the Moon,” R.E.M.
This song is on one of R.E.M’s biggest and most popular albums, Automatic for the People. Singer Michael Stipe often cites Andy Kaufman as one of his influences and wrote this song to commemorate his life and passing. The song’s title was also used for the Kaufman biopic, Man on the Moon, which starred Jim Carrey.
“Rock and Roll Heaven,” The Righteous Brothers
The Righteous Brothers sing about a number of musicians who lost their lives too early in the game—Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, and Bobby Darin. A particularly memorable line is, “If there’s a rock n’ roll heaven, well, you know they’ve got a hell of a band.”
“Porcelain Monkey,” Warren Zevon
There’ve been countless songs written or performed in honor of Elvis Presley, though with lyrics like, “He threw it away from a porcelain monkey, gave it all up for a figurine. He traded it in for a night in Las Vegas and his face on velveteen,” Zevon’s version is less celebratory and more honest than most others.
“Candle in the Wind,” Elton John
He originally wrote this in honor of Marilyn Monroe, saying, “Goodbye, Norma Jean” in the first line of the song. Then when Princess Diana died in 1997, he re-wrote the lyrics and changed the opening line to “Goodbye, England’s Rose.” Elton John also honored John Lennon with the song, “Empty Garden.”
“American Pie,” Don McLean
McLean wrote this song in response to the deaths of Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson due to a plane crash. The loss of such legends was momentous and deeply felt by everyone, which is why the date of the crash is often called “The Day the Music Died.”
“Old Friend,” Waylon Jennings
When Jennings sang, “Was it really years ago? It seems like only yesterday the last time I saw you laugh at me and fly away,” he was talking about his good friend, Buddy Holly. Jennings was actually supposed to be on that famous last flight, but he ended up giving up his seat to The Big Bopper.
Losing people who touched so many lives in so many different ways is never easy to express. Luckily for us, these talented musicians found a way to channel grief and loss into something universal and beautiful. Even if we can’t find the words to express how the deaths of legends like Michael Jackson or Buddy Holly has affected us, at least there are songs we can sing along to that do it for us.