Fans pay tribute to Chris Cornell in Detroit on May 19, 2017
Photo: Scott Legato/Getty Images
Remembering Chris Cornell: A sweet sunshower
Chris Cornell, who died at age 52 in Detroit on May 17 while on tour with Soundgarden, was one of the most beloved figures not just in rock, but all of music.
I have covered music for more than two decades, which in that time sadly encompasses far too many deaths. And few have prompted the waves of sadness and shock that have taken place following Cornell's passing.
Since his death, these are just some of the acts who have paid tribute to Cornell in concert: U2, Metallica, the Pretty Reckless, Ryan Adams, Incubus, Aerosmith, Stone Sour, Eric Church, Ann Wilson of Heart, Live, Bush, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Norah Jones.
And those are just the musical tributes.
Social media flooded with memories and tributes from friends and fans in disbelief. Everyone from Jimmy Page and Joe Perry to Anderson .Paak and Chuck D paid their respects. Perhaps Elton John summed it up best: "Shocked and saddened by the sudden death of Chris Cornell. A great singer, songwriter and the loveliest man."
It was the last two words that stuck out for so many.
Peter Katsis, who manages Jane's Addiction, Smashing Pumpkins and more, worked with Cornell during both his solo days and his tenure in Audioslave. Katsis says that Cornell's modesty is a big part of what made him so beloved in the industry.
"I think the massive love and respect that others who knew him had of him came from how unpretentious he was, and how devoted he was to his craft," Katsis says. "You felt like he was never interested in being a rock star. Or that was never that important to him. He concentrated on singing the best he could, and on feeling every note from deep inside. That's what made us feel every note, and what made us love him. He didn't have to concentrate on being a rock star, he just was one."
I interviewed one of Cornell's Seattle peers, Jerry Cantrell, several years ago and he echoed that sentiment. "Chris Cornell, that guy always had class. I've always respected everything that he's done. That was a hero of mine when we were starting out. I've always looked up to him as a writer."
With an impressive body of work spanning Soundgarden, Audioslave and his solo career, Cornell was arguably a singular voice of his generation, though that thought was uncomfortable to someone of his humility.
"I'm sure the best singer in the world, nobody knows who that is. He's somewhere, or she's somewhere, and they're out there," Cornell told me when I interviewed him in 2008. "I get blown away by singers all the time and almost feel embarrassed that I would be referred to or regarded as one of the best singers in rock ever."
But Cornell's vocals, which Katsis described as "looking effortless," were indeed praised by musicians from all walks of life. When I spoke with guitar legend Eddie Van Halen a decade ago and asked him what singers he would want to work with if he ever did a solo album, the first thing out of his mouth was, "Oh god, I love Chris Cornell."
Alice Cooper, a rock icon in his own right, was excited to work with Cornell on his 1994 album, The Last Temptation. "He wrote two songs for me and they just fit right on the album. I never do that, I actually never go outside of myself to write songs, but I really liked his stuff and I said, 'I really want to work with you.'"
The list of Cornell's admirers goes on.
Dave Gahan, lead singer of Depeche Mode, once told me, "Chris' music has been a big influence on me, certainly his voice. The guy can sing."
The late Ronnie James Dio, widely regarded as one of the best voices in metal history, once told me, "I love Chris Cornell."
Matchbox Twenty's Rob Thomas was more colorful with his description: "I think Cornell is f***ing amazing."
Cornell's star even reached the radar of Doors guitarist Robbie Krieger, who said, "I think Chris Cornell is great."
For Cornell, the respect he received from his idols and peers was something he took immense pride in. Over the course of multiple interviews, I spoke to Cornell about having Johnny Cash cover Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage," from 1991's Badmotorfinger.
"It made a difference to me in my life when Johnny Cash did a song that I wrote," he said. "That changed my life."
Cornell leaves a heavy legacy for a new generation of musicians who follow in his footsteps. Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds is a huge fan. "There is probably not a month that goes by, when you're in the alternative world, where somebody isn't talking about Chris in some way, especially from a vocal standpoint," says Reynolds.
But Reynolds also admired Cornell greatly for his philanthropy. "It really has been astounding to me the level of humanitarian efforts he and his wife made," Reynolds told Variety.
Cornell and his wife, Vicky, established the Chris & Vicky Cornell Foundation in 2012, to "protect the most vulnerable children." I spoke with Cornell about philanthropy in 2007 when he performed at fashion designer John Varvatos' annual benefit for the Stuart House, a program serving the special needs of sexually abused children and their families. The values of family and making a difference in the community were taking on an increased importance in the two-time GRAMMY winner's life.
"As I'm getting older and I have children and my life is definitely settling down more, I'm really about family," said Cornell.
"When I'm not in the studio making records … I'm at home with my wife and my kids. To be able to get involved in something like this is great. It's great to be around people who are doing something to help less fortunate people and people who are in tough circumstances. I myself, I've been in different situations throughout my life … so it's great to be able to be there and try and help someone else."
What was is your favorite Chris Cornell song? Listen to a playlist of ours below
(Steve Baltin has written about music for Rolling Stone, Los Angeles Times, MOJO, Chicago Tribune, AOL, LA Weekly, Philadelphia Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, and dozens more publications.)