Artists have tons of subjects to write about — everything from love and cars to sex and drugs. But some of their best songs pay tribute to the other musicians they called friends, colleagues and influences. Our list of Tribute Songs includes rock ‘n’ roll royalty as well as a couple of names that could have been bigger if they weren’t cut down in their prime.
Jackson Browne wrote ‘Of Missing Persons’ as a letter to Inara George, an indie-rock singer-songwriter who was four years old when her dad, Little Feat frontman Lowell George, died of heart failure at age 34 in 1979. Browne and George kicked around the Los Angeles scene together during the ’70s, co-writing some songs over the years.
Bernie Leadon’s tribute to his old Flying Burrito Brothers bandmate Gram Parsons was released on the Eagles’ third album, ‘On the Border,’ a year after the country-rock icon’s fatal overdose in 1973. Leadon makes references to Parsons’ songs as well as to his tragic death in one of his most moving compositions.
Like Elton John‘s ‘Empty Garden’ (see elsewhere on our list of Tribute Songs), George Harrison’s ‘All Those Years Ago’ honors his old friend John Lennon. But Harrison chooses a more nostalgic path to honor his former bandmate, looking back on their crazy, hectic time as world-dominating Beatles in the ’60s. It’s touching, but it’s also celebratory.
‘Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)’
Elton John’s 1982 tribute to his old friend John Lennon (see George Harrison’s ‘All Those Years Ago’ on our list of Tribute Songs for another track about the Beatle) was released a little more than a year after Lennon died. ‘Empty Garden’ takes a somber approach to the subject, singing through the heartbreak, “I’ve been knocking but no one answers / And I’ve been knocking most all the day … / Johnny, can’t you come out to play?“
Neil Young wrote ‘The Needle and the Damage Done’ in 1970 when Danny Whitten, the guitarist in his backup band Crazy Horse, was still alive. But Young knew it was only a matter of time before drugs would claim the life of his friend. Not long after the song, a concert favorite, finally found its way on the 1972 album ‘Harvest,’ Whitten died of an overdose.