Duets with the Dead

Tom Maxwell
5 min readOct 31, 2020

On America’s Necromarket

Audrey Hepburn was dead when she did this commercial

I see that Kanye West gave his wife Kim Kardashian a hologram of her late father as a 40th birthday present. Kardashian described it as “a gift from heaven” and “so lifelike!” My feelings on the matter differ significantly: since the time Kim Kardashian was born, we’ve used technology to create a platform for dead celebrity content. It’s ghoulish.

In 1982, country legends Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves appeared together on a duet, which charted at #54 on the Country Singles chart. The accomplishment was all the more extraordinary because both singers had died in separate plane crashes some twenty years before. Using the isolated vocals from two different performances sung a semitone apart, producer Owen Bradley matched the pitch, then added new orchestration and backing tracks. The resulting single was “I Fall to Pieces” — a morbid title, given the context.

This manufactured collaboration kicked off a veritable necromarket, especially after the success of two artists’ early 90s duets with their dead fathers: Natalie and Nat “King” Cole’s version of “Unforgettable,” and Hank Williams’ (Junior and Senior) “There’s a Tear in My Beer.” Frank Sinatra, who released an album of ho-hum duets in his lifetime (the collaborators sang along to Ol’ Blue Eyes’ previously recorded vocals), has continued the tradition from beyond the grave with Celine Dion, Robbie Williams, and Alicia Keys. But it’s Tupac Shakur who’s had the most successful post-life career: 8 posthumous albums certified platinum, most of which consist of duets with living rappers, as well as one “collaboration” with Notorious B.I.G., something which could only have happened over someone’s dead body.

Recording technology has always been a kind of embalming method. It’s wonderful to hear Claude Debussy perform one of his own compositions (recently recorded from a 1913 piano roll), or have access to Robert Johnson’s limited output, especially when his life as an itinerant black Southern musician in the 1930s was so little valued. We will never hear Bach’s pipe organ technique, or Buddy Bolden’s cornet improvisations — instrumental as they were in the creation of jazz. Capturing such transience is a kind of miracle, as it gives us access to these people beyond their earthly term. We can learn from their work, and build upon it.

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Tom Maxwell

Tom‘s work has appeared in Longreads, The Oxford American, Bitter Southerner, Slate, Salon, and Southern Cultures, among others. He usually writes about music.