In Memoriam

In Memoriam: Southerners We Lost in 2023

This year, we bid farewell to two of music’s biggest icons, a giant of American letters, and a former First Lady with a lasting legacy, among others

A collage of three photos: Tina Turner laughing; Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter together; a portrait of Cormac McCarthy.

Photo: Zoran Veselinovic/Cover Images; AP Photo; Beowulf Sheehan

From left: Tina Turner; Rosalynn Carter; Cormac McCarthy.

Radcliffe Bailey
November 25, 1968–November 14, 2023

photo: Stephen Smith/SIPA USA
Leslie Parks Bailey and Radcliffe Bailey.

The installations of celebrated Atlanta artist Bailey, which he called “medicine cabinet sculptures,” often mixed mediums. Case in point: the 35,000 jumbled piano keys and conch-shell soundtrack of 2009’s room-filling Windward Coast. Even if the artworks were abstract, the emotion of their prevailing themes was movingly clear, commenting on the history and experience of Black Americans.

Tori Bowie
August 27, 1990–April 23, 2023

photo: AP Photo/Matt Slocum
Tori Bowie celebrates after winning the silver medal in the women’s 100-meter final during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

A three-time All-American sprinter and long jumper from the University of Southern Mississippi, Bowie ascended to the gold-medal podium at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Her tragic death during childbirth at just thirty-two years old drew attention to the heightened pregnancy risks faced by Black women in America.

Jimmy Buffett
December 25, 1946–September 1, 2023

photo: chris dixon
Jimmy Buffett on Bull Island in South Carolina.

“Southerner” may not be the first descriptor associated with Buffett, such is the universal appeal of the tropical fantasies he spun into immense fame. But as true fans know, that beach-bum imprint came from a youth spent along coastal Mississippi and Alabama, and especially from an early-career sojourn busking in Key West. That’s okay, we’re proud to share our native son (of a son of a sailor) with Planet Parrothead.

Read more: My Wild Ride with Jimmy Buffett

Rosalynn Carter
August 18, 1927–November 19, 2023

photo: AP Photo
Rosalynn Carter with her husband, then Georgia state senator Jimmy Carter, at his Atlanta campaign headquarters on September 15, 1966.

Like her husband, Carter didn’t wish to exit the White House in 1980 after one term. Undeterred, the former first lady continued her good works from Plains, Georgia, for the next four decades, including hammering together Habitat for Humanity homes alongside Jimmy and advocating for ahead-of-the-times mental health treatment. She was a “steel magnolia” in the flesh.

Read more: Southern Women Spotlight: Rosalynn Carter

Guy de la Valdene
May 8, 1944–March 2023

A genuine French count isn’t supposed to wind up an avid sportsman and literary figure in Florida. Fishing drew Valdene to the Keys, where he directed the 1974 cult documentary Tarpon to capture angling adventures with hotshot writers Thomas McGuane and Jim Harrison. Passion for wingshooting led him to rehab a Tallahassee estate and pen the meditative For a Handful of Feathers. Oh, and he photographed Jimmy Buffett’s early album covers. 

Read more: An Island Education, excerpted from On the Water

Frederic Forrest
December 23, 1936–June 23, 2023

photo: Ralph Dominguez/MediaPunch /IPX
Frederic Forrest and actress Marilu Henner in 1980.

As a child in Waxahatchie, Texas, Forrest rode a horse to the movie theater. Smitten, he studied film at Texas Christian University and became one of Hollywood’s most prolific supporting actors—that’s him memorably hollering “Never get outta the boat!” in Apocalypse Now. Among more than eighty credits, he received an Oscar nomination as Bette Midler’s love interest in The Rose and frightened Lonesome Dove viewers as cold-blooded bandit Blue Duck. In thespian circles, that’s called “range,” and Forrest had it.

Jean Knight
January 26, 1943–November 22, 2023

photo: David Redfern/Redferns
Jean Knight on stage at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans in 1986.

“Who do you think you are?” goes the infectious refrain to Knight’s soul smash “Mr. Big Stuff,” which rocketed to the top of R&B and pop charts in 1971. Memphis’s Stax label issued that record, but Knight was a New Orleans gal through and through, totally nailing a 1985 cover of Rockin’ Sidney’s zydeco-powered “My Toot Toot” and serving as a Louisiana Music Commission board member.

Cormac McCarthy
July 20, 1933–June 13, 2023

photo: Beowulf Sheehan
Cormac McCarthy in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 2014.

When The New York Times called McCarthy’s 1985 breakthrough, Blood Meridian, “the bloodiest book since The Iliad,” it wasn’t a compliment, though the novel is now viewed as a lyrical masterpiece. Subsequent Texas-set works All the Pretty Horses and No Country for Old Men wowed critics and readers alike and cemented his reputation as one of America’s most important writers.

Read more: What Cormac McCarthy Meant to Southern Writers

Tim McCarver
October 16, 1941–February 16, 2023

photo: AP Photo/Ray Stubblebine
Philadelphia Phillies’ catcher Tim McCarver on home plate during a game against the New York Mets in 1978.

Signed by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1959 while still a Memphis high schooler, McCarver was an MLB catcher for twenty-one seasons, earning two World Series championships and induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Younger fans knew him better as an enthusiastic, longtime broadcaster. As a retirement tribute opined, “Any analyst can tell you what just happened. What made McCarver so special was his uncanny ability to tell you what was about to happen.”

Emily Meggett
November 19, 1932–April 21, 2023

photo: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Emily Meggett at the National Museum of African American History in 2017.

When Gullah Geechee Home Cooking was published in 2022, its success threw a spotlight on eighty-nine-year-old first-time author Meggett and the culinary culture of her Lowcountry Gullah community. But the people of Edisto Island, South Carolina, had long known of the local matriarch’s mastery of traditional dishes such as shrimp and grits, chicken perloo, and benne cookies. Till the day she died, she fed her neighbors with skill and love.

Read more: A Life Full of Gullah Geechee Food, Gathered in a Beautiful Cookbook

Lisa Marie Presley
February 1, 1968–January 12, 2023

photo: AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes
Lisa Marie Presley in West Hollywood, California, in 2012.

It’s easy to regard the life of Elvis’s only child as tragic, especially after it was cut too short by medical complications. And while her marriages to Michael Jackson and Nic Cage provided tabloid fodder, she bore the weight of Presley’s legacy bravely in her own music—and in the stare she could level with those familiar hooded eyes. It seems right that she’s back at Graceland, resting alongside her son (who died in 2020) and her father.

Willis Reed
June 25, 1942–March 21, 2023

photo: AP Photo/Anthony Camerano
Willis Reed in New York in 1970.

It wasn’t always easy for basketball players at historically Black colleges to get noticed by the NBA. But Louisiana-born Reed’s court dominance for Grambling State University made him a top 1964 draft pick for the New York Knicks, where the six-foot-ten center helped win two championships over nine seasons. In 1970, he was the first NBA player in history to be named regular season MVP, all-star game MVP, and finals MVP in the same season.

Gary Rossington
December 4, 1951–March 5, 2023

photo: Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP
Gary Rossington on stage at the 2015 Big Barrel Country Music Festival in Dover, Delaware.

Even if the Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist had perished in the 1977 plane crash that claimed several band members, he’d have earned rock ’n’ roll immortality for cowriting “Sweet Home Alabama.” Instead, he healed from his injuries and helped keep the Skynyrd flame burning for decades. When he passed in March, he was the last remaining original member.

Read more: The Story behind “Sweet Home Alabama”

Stella Stevens
October 1, 1938–February 17, 2023

photo: AP Photo/Jack Kanthal
Stella Stevens in New York Cityin 1968.

When Hollywood craved bombshell blondes in the 1950s, Memphis State University theater student Stevens headed west, trailed Marilyn Monroe into the pages of Playboy, and won a 1960 Golden Globe for New Star of the Year. Comedic chops landed her starring roles in The Nutty Professor and Girls! Girls! Girls! (with fellow Memphian Elvis Presley); versatility and determination kept her working in other genres, including the 1972 blockbuster The Poseidon Adventure.

Tina Turner
November 26, 1939–May 24, 2023

photo: Zoran Veselinovic/Cover Images
Tina Turner on stage in Munich, Germany, in 1987.

Everybody loves a comeback. At a moment when rural Tennessee-born Turner’s career could have followed her abusive marriage into the void, the forty-five-year-old pulled off the biggest comeback in popular music history with her huge 1984 solo album Private Dancer. She grew as confident in life as she was on stage, earning the sobriquet “Queen of Rock ’n’ Roll”—and icon status.

Read more: A Southerner’s Ode to Tina Turner