2010 has not been a kind year to Memphis musicians. The scene is still reeling from the recent deaths of such noteworthy figures as Alex Chilton, Jay Reatard, and Willie Mitchell — and last Thursday, June 24th, brought the unfortunate news of the passing of another well-known Memphis musician, power pop singer/songwriter Tommy Hoehn.
Hoehn was perhaps best known as a sometime collaborator with the members of Big Star (he sang back-up vocals on Third/Sister Lovers) and the Scruffs, but was a gifted pop artist in his own right, releasing two fine solo albums in the mid-late '70s on London Records. The 1977 single "Blow Yourself Up" was his biggest hit, eventually earning Hoehn a new generation of followers thanks to its inclusion on the 1993 Rhino Records compilation D.I.Y.: Come Out and Play: American Power Pop I (1975-78), as well as the 2008 retrospective Thank You Friends: The Ardent Records Story.
"I met Tommy at Ardent Studios in November 1975, when he came in and played piano on a song that [Big Star drummer] Jody Stephens and I were recording with [legendary Rolling Stones producer] Andrew Loog Oldham," says frequent Hoehn collaborator Van Duren. "I think that anyone who worked with Tommy respected his talent and saw him as one of the best pop musicians and singers that Memphis ever produced. He was underrated by the musical movers and shakers here."
Hoehn continued to record throughout the early-mid '80s, most successfully with the 1983 EP I'm So Afraid of Girls. The title track in particular is a textbook example of Hoehn's prog-ish take on McCartney-esque pop; indeed, the song's gut-wrenching refrain of "I'm so afraid girls/I'm so afraid of you" may be Hoehn's most effective plea.
"That album was a lot of fun to make," says Emory Smith, who played guitar on I'm So Afraid of Girls. "There was lots of silliness involved, and trying new things, even if it was wrong. We were like mischievous brothers in the studio, trying to figure out what we could do."
The 1990s brought a series of comeback attempts from Hoehn. First came solo offerings with Of Moons and Fools and The Turning Dance, and later the start of a collaboration with Duren, which produced the albums Hailstone Holiday, Cows on the Fence, and Blue Orange, the latter of which would prove to be Hoehn's last official release in 2002. Both Hoehn and Duren were fresh off of major life-upheaval at the time of the album's creation, which may account for the tangible sense of urgency that ended up getting captured on record.
"I was recovering from the stroke and going through a divorce, and Tommy was taking debilitating Interferon treatments for hepatitis," says Duren. "Blue Orange is a pretty fierce record as a result."
After a long hiatus, Tommy Hoehn began work on a new solo album in late 2009, tentatively titled Pi, at Chris Swenson's Memphis Independent studio. Work on the record continued through early this year, with many local musician friends, including Duren, Lucero's Rick Steff, and Big Star/Chilton-collaborator Richard Rosebrough, chipping in. But Hoehn, diagnosed with cancer in December, was never well enough to sing lead vocals.
Tommy Hoehn died on Thursday, June 24th, 2010. He was 55 years old.
"The last time I saw Tommy, I promised him that we would finish the record," says Duren. "The idea now is to bring in different vocalists and make this a tribute to him. The material is sometimes complex, a thinking man's pop music, and always melodic and honest — essential Tommy Hoehn."
Beyond the music, however, a dear friend and family member will be sorely missed.
"Tommy was one of the best friends I have had in this life," says Duren. "He had such a huge heart, and was one of the most intelligent guys I ever encountered. Tommy Hoehn's legacy will be what any father hopes his legacy will be: his children. But he also leaves a great body of recorded music, almost every bit of it really great. Now it is the work of those who knew him and loved him to try to see that that music goes on, the unfinished work finished."