Obituaries: Quebec Singer Mélanie Renaud, Saxophone Legend David Sanborn

This week we also acknowledge the passing of English keyboardist John Hawken and soul/ska singer Jimmy James of The Vagabonds.

Mélanie Renaud

Mélanie Renaud

Courtesy photo

Mélanie Renaud, a Quebec singer, died on May 14, at age 42, from ovarian cancer.

The Haiti-born artist, who was adopted by Quebecois parents when she was eight months old, was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer more than seven years ago.

Beginning as a backing singer in the hip-hop group Rainmen, Renaud, at 18, collaborated with Éric Lapointe as a backing vocalist on the hit song "Mon Ange."

In 2000, her first album Ma Liberté was released, of which she wrote most of the lyrics. In 2002, the album won the French-speaking album of the year prize at the Canadian Independent Music Awards and later in the year, she won the Félix prize for Revelation of the year at the ADISQ gala, for the song "J'm'en Veux."


She also performed in the theater in the musicals Les Dix Commandements and Notre-Lady of Paris and released four more albums,Mélanie Renaud (2005), Feux d’Artifice (2008), What's Going On (2012) and Fil de fer (2017).


David Sanborn, a multi-Grammy-winning beloved jazz and pop saxophonist who is credited on songs for Stevie Wonder, David Bowie and many more, died on May 12, at age 78. He had been dealing with prostate cancer since 2018.

A Billboard obituary reports that "Sanborn played alongside some of rock’s most iconic figures, both in the studio and onstage. Most notably, he toured with Wonder and played on his 1972 album, Talking Book. He also performed on Bowie’s classic, “Young Americans,” and toured with the late star.

Sanborn recorded with musicians including B.B. King, Paul Simon, Cat Stevens, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Chaka Khan, Ron Carter, George Benson, Kenny Loggins, The Eagles, Aretha Franklin, Billy Joel, Roger Water, Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger and more.

As an artist, Sanborn put 17 albums on the Billboard 200, including Double Vision, a 1986 collab with Bob James that remained on the chart for 64 weeks, and five other albums that each logged more than six months on the chart. He reached the top 10 on Top Jazz Albums with a dozen albums, including four that climbed as high as No. 2.


During his career, Sanborn won six Grammy Awards in a wide range of genres. He won best jazz fusion performance twice, best R&B instrumental performance twice, best pop instrumental performance once and best contemporary jazz performance once.

Outside of recording music, Sanborn hosted a syndicated radio program, The Jazz Show, as well as a podcast called As We Speak., and a YouTube series called Sanborn Sessions.

John Christopher Hawken, an English keyboard player, best known as a member of The Nashville Teens, Renaissance and the Strawbs, died on May 15, age 84, of melanoma.

Hawken trained in classical piano from the age of 5 until 18. The first of his bands to have an impact were The Nashville Teens, best known for their hit version of "Tobacco Road" in 1964. Hawken moved on late in 1968, and was invited to join the just-formed prog rock band Renaissance.

The band's self-titled debut album was released in October 1969, followed by an American tour in early 1970. After major lineup changes, Hawken formed a new version of the band, prior to leaving shortly after to join Spooky Tooth. He toured briefly with them prior to the group splitting, then worked as a session player and in the group Third World War.


After a short spell with Vinegar Joe, Hawken joined the Strawbs in 1973. At his audition, Dave Cousins introduced Hawken to the mellotron. During Hawken's tenure with the band they released two albums, Hero and Heroine and Ghosts. In late 1975, Hawken left the band after disagreements over the more commercial direction that the other members wanted to go in.


In 1976, Hawken and the other original Renaissance members began to work on a reunited under the name Illusion. The group recorded two albums, Out of the Mist and Illusion, before disbanding in 1979. In 2001, Hawken was part of another reunion as Renaissance Illusion, which released the album Through the Fire.

In 2004 the Hero and Heroine Strawbs line-up reunited, and undertook a number of tours both in the US and Europe, recording two new albums: Deja Fou and The Broken Hearted Bride.

In October 2011, Hawken came out of retirement to perform with Jim McCarty and Jann Klose at Hugh's Room in Toronto and This Ain't Hollywood in Hamilton for two Chamber Pop Summits. In 2019, he joined the Strawbs for their 50th anniversary show.

The promoter of that 2011 Hamilton show, Lou Molinaro, came away impressed with Hawken. He tells Billboard Canada that "I felt so grateful to speak with him about his incredible musical career. The one thing I remember vividly about his visit to This Ain't Hollywood was how grateful he was to hear that people were fans of his work and musical involvements. Such a nice guy and a very talented musician. His performance with Illusion stole the show. "

Jimmy (Michael) James, a Jamaican-born soul and ska singer best known for his live performances with his band the Vagabonds in the 60s and 70s, died on May 14, at age 83.

A Billboard obituary reports that "Early in his career, James recorded songs for producers including Clement Dodd and Lindon Pottinger, the latter of which produced the early and original version of his signature hit, 'Come to Me Softly.' His 1962 recording of that song became a Jamaican hit – it later reached No 44 in the US R&B charts when a re-recorded version was issued there."


The Jamaican dance band The Vagabonds were formed in 1960, and the group relocated to the United Kingdom at the height of the British Invasion in 1964. Throughout their time together, the group played alongside fellow legends including The Who, Rod Stewart and Jimi Hendrix. They released six studio albums together: 1966’s The New Religion, 1968’s This Is Jimmy James and the Vagabonds, 1968’s Open Up Your Soul, 1975’s You Don’t Stand a Chance If You Can’t Dance, 1976’s Now and 1977’s Life.

A Guardian obituary stated that Jimmy James and The Vagabonds "focused on live performances, releasing a Live at the Marquee Club recording in late 1966. In 1968, their persistence paid off when they scored their first UK Top 40 chart placing with a rocksteady version of Neil Diamond’s Red Red Wine (UB40’s later cover, employing a similar arrangement, went to No. 1 in the UK and the US in the 80s).

"James had two U.K. hits in 1976, with 'I’ll Go Where Your Music Takes Me' (No. 23) and 'Now Is the Time' (No. 5), but James’ greatest impact remained in his live performances, where he would dance up a storm while singing in his mellifluous tenor voice. Across the decades he regularly headlined at soul and 60s music festivals, a consummate entertainer."


Allison Russell accepting the Billboard Canada Women in Music Breakthrough Artist of the Year award
Marc Thususka Photography

Allison Russell accepting the Billboard Canada Women in Music Breakthrough Artist of the Year award

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