In Memoriam: The Ones We Lost in 2011

We remember the heroes in black politics, music, TV and sports who passed away this year.

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    Gladys Horton

    Horton was a founding member and lead singer of the Marvelettes, the first girl group signed to Berry Gordy’s fledgling label, Motown Records. The group’s 1961 hit “Please Mr. Postman” gave Motown its first No. 1 song and paved the way for the label’s other girl groups — the Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas. Horton died of complications from a stroke Jan. 26 at age 65.

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    Nate Dogg

    Before Akon or Rihanna, Dogg was the original hip-hop collaborator. But more than that, Dogg’s smooth baritone gave voice to West Coast rap’s signature sound. Born Nathaniel Dwayne Hale, he performed with some of hip-hop’s hottest acts including Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Ludacris. “Regulate,” his hit with Warren G, became a hip-hop classic. He died of complications from a stroke March 15 at age 41.

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    Manning Marable

    Marable, a leading scholar of black studies, challenged long-held notions about one of the civil rights movement’s most revered leaders in the epic biography, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. Marable, who died days before the book’s release, spent more than 10 years researching and writing the almost 600-page tome. Marable suffered from sarcoidosis and had undergone a double-lung transplant in 2010. He died April 1 at age 60.

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    Phoebe Snow

    The singer-songwriter, who performed across many genres — pop, soul and jazz — was best known for her 1974 hit “Poetry Man.” Her bluesy rendition of the theme song to A Different World can be heard in the show’s first season. As noted in the Associated Press obit, some assumed that she was black, but she was actually born to Jewish parents. She died of complications from a stroke April 26 at age 60.

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    Gil Scott-Heron

    Though Scott-Heron bristled at the idea that his spoken-word style was a foundational blueprint for hip-hop, there’s no denying his impact on the black political movement of the ’60s and ’70s. Tracks like “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” eloquently questioned the impact of mass media, while “Whitey on the Moon” highlighted the conflicting priorities of black and white America. He died May 27 at age 62.

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    Clarice Taylor

    Taylor is best remembered as Heathcliff Huxtable’s lovable mother, Anna, on The Cosby Show. She began her career in Harlem’s American Negro Theatre, and in 1967 she was a founding member of the Negro Ensemble Company. She broke into TV with a recurring role on Sesame Street. She appeared in minor roles in Play Misty for Me and Sommersby. She died of congestive heart failure on May 30 at age 93.

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    Elmer 'Geronimo' Pratt

    Black Panther leader Pratt spent 27 years behind bars for a murder he said he didn’t commit. His case came to represent the extreme attempts by law-enforcement officials to neutralize the black power movement. His sentence would eventually be vacated, and he would receive a $4.5 million settlement in a wrongful-imprisonment suit. Pratt, who was godfather to rapper Tupac Shakur, died June 2 at age 63.

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    Clarence Clemons

    Clemons, saxophonist for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, was one of rock’s most well-known sidemen. On record, his R&B-infused style was the heart and soul of the band. Onstage, Clemons was larger than life; it was easy to see why Springsteen dubbed him “Big Man.” His iconic solo on “Jungleland” was often a concert highlight. He died of complications of a stroke on June 18 at age 69.

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    John Mackey

    In his 10 years in the NFL, Mackey helped redefine the tight end position, combining speed with power. In 1992 he was the second tight end inducted into the Hall of Fame (Mike Ditka was first). In his postgame life, he fought for players’ rights as union president; later he became a symbol of football’s possible long-term effects when he developed early-onset dementia. He died July 6 at age 69.

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    Amy Winehouse

    Listening to Winehouse’s debut, Frank, one can hear a self-assured teenager paying homage to her heroes — Ella, Sarah, Dinah. When the retro-soul diva released her brilliant second album, Back to Black — with its prescient single, “Rehab” — in 2006, her personal demons were already apparent. Her posthumous third album, Lioness, reminds us of what we lost. Winehouse died of acute alcohol poisoning on July 23 at age 27.

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    Butch Lewis

    Boxing promoter and manager Lewis, who appeared at bouts in his signature outfit — a tuxedo with no shirt — represented brothers Leon and Michael Spinks and worked with Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali and sometime-rival Don King. He helped Michael Spinks earn $13.5 million for lasting 91 seconds in the ring with Mike Tyson in 1988. Lewis died of a heart attack on July 23 at age 65.

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    Dorothy Brunson

    Brunson, who was born in Georgia and raised in Harlem, was the first black woman to own a radio and TV station when she purchased WEBB-AM in Baltimore in 1979 and WGTW-TV in Philadelphia in 1986. She died of ovarian cancer on July 31 at age 72.

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    Bubba Smith

    Charles Aaron Smith was a two-time Pro Bowl defensive end in the NFL in the ’60s and ’70s, but he would become more well-known to a younger generation as the intimidating officer Moses Hightower in the first six Police Academy movies in the ’80s. He was also famous for a series of Miller Lite commercials. He died of acute drug intoxication on Aug. 3. He was 66.

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    Nick Ashford

    Ashford and wife Valerie Simpson penned some of Motown’s most popular hits, including “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” They left Motown in 1973 to embark on a performing career. While their own songs failed to reach the heights of the ones they wrote for others, their biggest hit, “Solid,” would become their anthem. He died of throat cancer on Aug. 22 at age 70.

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    Troy Davis

    His execution by lethal injection for the murder of an off-duty police officer in 1989 reignited the debate over the death penalty. With scant physical evidence, Davis was convicted mainly on the testimony of eyewitnesses (several recanted). Davis maintained his innocence to the end, telling the victim’s family, “I did not shoot your family member. But I am so sorry for your loss.” He died Sept. 21 at age 42.

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    Vesta Williams

    The R&B singer had hits with singles “Special” and “Congratulations” in the ’80s. She began her career as a backup singer for Gladys Knight, Chaka Khan and Anita Baker. She also had a recurring role in the TV series Sister, Sister. At one point she lost more than 100 pounds, going from a size 26 to size 6. She died Sept. 22 from a possible drug overdose. She was 53.

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    Wangari Maathai

    The Kenyan environmentalist and political activist was the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, in 2004. In 1977 she started the Green Belt Movement, a program that helped reforest her country and helped poor women earn an income. Eventually more than 30 million trees would be planted throughout Africa. She died of cancer on Sept. 25 at age 71.

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    Jessy Dixon

    The singer-songwriter helped propel gospel into the mainstream and gained wider acclaim when he collaborated with Paul Simon in the 1970s. He had his biggest hit in 1993 with “I Am Redeemed,” which stayed on the gospel-music charts for five years. His songs have been performed by Diana Ross, Cher and Natalie Cole. He died on Sept. 26. He was 73.

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    Sylvia Robinson

    Robinson was a visionary producer who gave hip-hop its first hit with “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang. She also produced “The Message,” one of the first rap songs to explore urban life, which opened the door for socially conscious acts like Public Enemy and KRS-One. She died of congestive heart failure at age 75 on Sept. 29.

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    NY University

    Derrick Bell

    Bell was a legal scholar and the first black tenured professor at Harvard Law School. Bell often used parables to make his case. His short story “The Space Traders” (pdf) tells the tale of alien visitors who promise to give the United States riches to resolve debt and methods to clean its environment. In exchange, every African American would be sent into outer space. He died of carcinoid cancer on Oct. 5 at age 80.

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    The Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth

    Though the civil rights icon was bombed, beaten and jailed many times, Shuttlesworth remained unbowed in his fight for racial equality. He was one of the four founding ministers, along with Martin Luther King Jr., of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957. He was a fiery and confrontational leader who helped organize some of the movement’s most significant demonstrations in Alabama. Shuttlesworth died on Oct. 5 at age 89.

     

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    Joe Frazier

    His epic battles with Muhammad Ali — including “The Fight of the Century” and the “Thrilla in Manila” — may have defined his career, but Frazier’s punishing style made a mark on the boxing world. Born the youngest of 12 in South Carolina, Frazier had a hardscrabble childhood that seemed to prepare him for the ring. While being chased by the family hog, he fell and broke his left arm. He was never able to straighten it properly, but he learned to throw a devastating left hook. He died of liver cancer on Nov. 7 at the age of 67.

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    Ben Rose/WireImage for AKOO Clothing

    Heavy D

    His playful personality and smooth dance moves made Heavy D an unlikely sex symbol, dubbed the Overweight Lover. The rapper, born Dwight Errington Myers, rose to prominence in the ’80s and ’90s with such hits as “We Got Our Own Thang” and “Nuttin’ But Love,” songs that served as a counterweight to the growing influence of gangsta rap. He died Nov. 8 at age 44.

     

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    Patrice O’Neal

    The brass, confrontational comedian was a rising star who wasn’t afraid to take on any topic — race, sexual harassment, even his own health issues. Recently, on the Opie and Anthony radio show, where O’Neal was a regular, Chris Rock described him as “the comedic Len Bias. We were all getting ready to work for Patrice O’Neal.” He died of complications of a stroke on Nov. 29 at age 41.

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    Cesária Évora

    You didn’t need to understand Évora to feel her music. Even though she sang in a type of Creole from her native Cape Verde in West Africa, her songs were filled with a mournful longing reminiscent of Nina Simone or Billie Holiday. Known as the “Barefoot Diva” because she performed without shoes, Évora had announced her retirement in September after a series of health problems, including a stroke. She died Dec. 17 at 70.