Notable African-Americans we lost in 2009

SLIDESHOW - As 2009 comes to an end, we take a moment to reflect on several public figures who have passed during the past year...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

As 2009 comes to a close, we take a moment to reflect on several public figures who have passed during the past year. We are grateful for the immeasurable imprints they’ve left on our culture, mind and hearts. May we continue to pay it forward.

Ben Ali (1927-2009)

A native of Trinidad borne from parents of Indian descent, immigrant Mahaboob Ben Ali opened up Ben’s Chili Bowl in the District of Columbia in 1958. Fast forward five decades later, and the chili, burger and hot dog eatery has become a nationally recognized landmark, with everyone from Bill Cosby to President Barack Obama stopping by to sample the goods. Ali eventually turned the business over to two of his three sons and also became a motivational speaker. The Chili Bowl continues to spearhead community events and has opened an additional more upscale restaurant, Ben’s Next Door.

Rashied Ali (1935-2009)

A purveyor of the free jazz scene in the 1960s, Ali (born Robert Patterson) played with John and Alice Coltrane as a drummer who was distinguished, according to, for his “rhythmically irregular, textural, hyperactive approach” to playing. Ali later went on to become a bandleader with the Rashied Ali Quintet and opened up his own performance space, Ali’s Alley, that hosted avant-garde jazz acts. His later recordings included the critically lauded Touchin’ on Trane and Prima Materia’s Meditations.

Baatin (1974-2009)

A Detroit rapper and member of the alt-hip-hop group Slum Village, Baatin, born Titus Glover, has a biting rap style on the act’s biggest song, “Tainted Love”; he reminded folks to stay true to heart when offered the chance to be part of the glitz of mainstream rap. Leaving the group for a time and suffering from severe mental health issues and drug use, Baatin later recovered, started to tour as a solo performer and was reunited with Village for the album Villa Manifesto.

Estelle Bennett (1944-2009)

A founding member of the ‘60s’ girl group The Ronettes, Bennett sang on what would become enduring pop classics — “Be My Baby,” “The Best Part of Breakin’ Up,” and “Walking in the Rain.” A woman with a flair for fashion who helped cement the group’s signature sky-high hair look, Bennett also suffered from mental health issues after the group’s breakup in the mid-’60s. Bennett was later inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.

Michael Jackson (1958-2009)

The entire world felt the repercussions of Jackson’s unexpected death in June. Jackson was a pop artist of unparalleled achievement whose legacy makes the phrase “international megastar” seem inadequate. He won hearts as the lead singer of the Jackson Five with his brothers and the hits “ABC,” “The Love You Save,” and “Dancing Machine,” among others. Later, his 1979 adult debut album Off The Wall was a soul/dance genre-defining gem. Three years later, he released the album Thriller, which became the biggest selling album of all time. With several more albums released over the past two and a half decades, Jackson created everything from stellar booty shakers (“Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing),” “Remember the Time”) to love aphrodisiacs (“I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” “You Are Not Alone,” “Butterflies”) to poignant meditations on our place in the world (“Human Nature,” “Man in the Mirror.”)

Following his death, a slew of celebrations around his music were had throughout the world, reminding us that, even with all of the controversy that surrounded his life, that there was never any question of the love we had for his work. He inspired us to never stop until we get enough.

E. Lynn Harris (1955-2009)

A major star of the publishing world, Harris is known for writing a series of groundbreaking novels — Invisible Life, Just As I Am, I Say a Little Prayer, among others — that used the commercial fiction idiom to explore the idea of black men loving both women and men. He had a huge, devout fan base with millions of copies of his books in print. In his 2004 memoir ‘What Becomes of the Brokenhearted,’ he also openly discussed his struggles with depression. Harris will be remembered not only for his riveting soap-operatic reads and sexy packaging, but for daring to help millions of African-Americans to take on a more comprehensive view of sexuality.

Alaina Reed-Amini (1946-2009)

We fell in love with Reed-Amini on Sesame Street in the ‘70s and ‘80s as the braided photographer Olivia, that orb of sunshine whose vocals made us sway. And then we got to know her in a different way on the sitcom 227 as thoughtful, kind neighbor and landlady Rose. Having also appeared on stage in Chicago and Hair and in films such as Death Becomes Here and Cruel Intentions, Reed-Amini was a versatile, heart-warming, charming performer.

Naomi Sims (1948-2009)

A statuesque, dignified beauty who came to New York City from Pittsburgh, Sims was a trailblazing, nearly 6-foot tall model who was the first African-American woman to grace the cover of a mainstream women’s magazine — Ladies Home Journal in 1968. She hung out with Andy Warhol and the Studio 54 crowd, yet maintained a business acumen that allowed her to develop her own line of wigs and beauty products. During her later years she withdrew from the public eye, and it was during this time that she started to speak about her experiences and struggles with bipolar disorder.

Percy Sutton (1920-2009)

One of the greatest black entrepreneurs and activists of our day, Sutton entered politics in the 1950s and was a member of the New York State Assembly, eventually becoming Manhattan borough president and the highest ranking African-American official in New York City for more than a decade. He was also an attorney who represented Malcolm X and took part in the Southern Freedom Rides during the Civil Rights Movement. After citing the New York City political system as racist after a mayoral run in 1977, Sutton went on to form the group Inner City Broadcasting, which owned 18 radio stations, including New York’s famous WBLS, and which later went on to buy and renovate the Apollo Theater.

Koko Taylor (1935-2009)

Dubbed the Queen of Chicago Blues, Taylor, born Cora Walton in Memphis, TN, got her start singing gospel. Yet once she relocated to Chicago with her husband Robert “Pops” Taylor, she began to make blues music in earnest. Her live performances eventually landed her a record deal with Chess Records, who released her bopping, R&B charting single “Wang Dang Doodle.” Even as the blues declined as a commercial format, Taylor continued to cultivate her fame, earning Grammys and a plethora of W.C. Handy awards.

Sarah E. Wright (1928-2009)

A trailblazing novelist, Wright was the author of the 1969 novel, ‘This Child’s Gonna Live,’ a look at a poor black woman and her family in a fishing village during the Great Depression. The novel was distinguished during its time for having an African-American female protagonist, helping pave the way for authors like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. Wright, an executive member of the Harlem Writer’s Guild, also published a book of poetry and a nonfiction book for children on A. Philip Randolph.

Roc Raida (1972-2009)

Born Anthony Williams in New York, Raida was a DJ who was an stunning turntablist, winning trophies and awards for his mixing/performance skills. A jovial soul affiliated with Rob Swift and Total Eclipse, the innovator was a DJ instructor and released a slew of mixtapes and instructional videos.

Anne Brown (1912-2009)

Brown’s heavenly soprano became a centerpiece for Gershwin’s folk opera Porgy and Bess, and in fact inspired the composer to expand Bess’ part after hearing Brown’s vocals. She later performed in Europe and South America, and taught in Norway, where she resettled.

David “Fathead” Newman (1933-2009)

A tenor saxophonist who joined Ray Charles’ band in 1954 and later went on to work with Aretha Franklin, Newman had a long, varied successful recording career in his own right, regularly releasing album after album after album from 1958 until the year of his death.

Rev. Ike (1935-2009)

Rev. Frederick Eikerenkoetter, who was known to many as “Rev. Ike,” was the head of a New York-based ministry during the ‘60s that emphasized having material wealth in the here and now. A forerunner of the prosperity gospel ministries of today, Ike’s own ideas were influenced by a 19th-century spiritual/social movement known as new thought. Ike had a huge following, headlining Madison Square Garden in the ‘70s and creating grand, theatrical designs and effects for his places of worship.

Buddy Montgomery (1930-2009)

A renowned jazz vibraphonist and pianist, Montgomery played with his musician brothers Wes and Monk in the 50s and 60s as part of Wes’ quartet. He and Monk also belonged to the modern jazz group The Mastersounds. Montgomery later went on to form jazz education organizations in the Oakland area and led a New York-based trio at the Parker Meridien in the late early ‘90s.