In Memoriam: David Malachowski, Loretta Lynn, and Pharaoh Sanders

In a season with much to mourn, David Malachowski’s passing hit me hardest.

This was not just because he was the youngest, just 67 when heart trouble took him. The spiritually-inspired saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders was 81, country’s first feminist icon Loretta Lynn was 90.

I admired David as an artist, loved him as a friend and admired how he carried, in his Schenectady origin story, the lesson that anyone from anywhere could do anything, if talented and hard-working enough. David was both, so he went far.

David Malachowski
David Malachowski (2010) (photo by Andrzej Pilarczek)

David’s sometime colleague Chris Shaw Facebooked David’s rise. (Grateful for the chronology, I tinkered a bit with wording.)

David Malachowski, the great guitarist for Shania Twain and Savoy Brown has passed away. He was a monster player and a fine man. He is already missed…he played on Mountain Snow and Mistletoe with us (Shaw, wife Bridget Ball and their all-star holiday-music/celebration crew). He has been a member of Reckless (1978–81), the Greg Austin Band (1985–88), Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen (96-99), Savoy Brown (2000-2005), Mechanical Bull (2007-2009); and was sideman for Janie Fricke (1988), Shania Twain (1995-2007), Garth Hudson (The Band, 2003), Phoebe Legere (2006), Genya Ravan (ex-Ten Wheel Drive, 2012), Anthony Rapp (2010) and Daphne Rubin-Vega (2014-current) as well as being involved in musical theatre, writing for newspapers and magazines, producing and writing songs.

Ever-sharp, ever-versatile reporter Steve Barnes tells David’s story in typically comprehensive, detailed thoroughness in Saturday’s Times Union, which published many of David’s music reviews. David was reviewed nearly as often as as reviewing: We all watched David grow from local hero to a national creative force we could see on TV, at the Grammys, on the Tonight Show.

A childhood illness might have revved his ambition, propelled his rise, as such early challenges often seem to do. And he always seemed to build his opportunities more than merely find and fill them. His chronology is a trajectory, his skills growing with his profile. The logic of his playing was always clear, the expression warmly soulful and the effect always strong and personal. He played with such fluent ease that he made everything look easy. But he was such a friendly, engaging guy that other guitarists admired him without envy.

I got to see him play at the old Coliseum/Whatever with Janie Fricke who gave full returning-homie respect introducing him. Second Wind and Music Haven impresario Mona Golub booked him to play her Washington Park series; David fronted a crew of Nashville compadres, a country-rock juggernaut. 

When Golub presented Maura O’Connell at the old Music Haven stage in Schenectady Central Park, a cool rain fell, so David and our friend Kathy huddled cozily under my umbrella. 

David Malachowski
David Malachowski (2012)

Around that time, at Capital Rep and other venues, he ran musical theater pit bands; preparation for his later move to New York City (from Woodstock) for more recent high-profile work in town and on the road.

He was always rocking, and always ready.

Arguably his most successful knock on the biggest door in reach was organizing a touring band for Canadian country-star-in-the-making Shania Twain after an impromptu try-out in a Burlington bar.

Working from tapes Twain’s producer/husband Robert John “Mutt” Lange provided, David made a few calls, then a brave gamble.

First, he rounded up a crew of killers including Gary Burke, drummer in Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue (now in Woodstock’s Professor Louie and the Crowmatix), and Graham Maby, formerly in British rocker Joe Jackson’s hard-swinging New Wave band. 

Then David decided to rock Twain’s songs, which Lange reportedly built originally from samples snagged from Def Leppard albums he’d produced. Twain’s first album was much tamer than how David would punch up the songs.

David Malachowski and Tony Levin
David Malachowski and Tony Levin (2011) (photo by Rudy Lu)

He knew he was playing for hard-driving perfectionists. Lange was said to listen to hours of blank analog tape to ensure it was flawless before recording on it. A friend in the Adirondacks later said a painter hired to complete work on the studio Lange built for Twain near St. Regis Lake had to go back and re-do his work 16 times to get the color just right.

Nonetheless, after only a few days’ practice, David played their songs his way for Twain and Lange.

When he played the live-audition tape over the phone for me later, the music hit hot and raw. It was hard country, David style – and it rocked.

At the end, I could hear both Twain and Lange laugh with pure delight: David and the boys were hired.

Their first gig was “The Tonight Show,” then the Grammys – then everywhere.

Off the road to make a second album, Twain and Lange formed a new touring band – without David and his boys. “They went for the look thing,” he stoically told me – though his own look thing – stove-pipe skinny pants, past-his-shoulders hair – was always striking.

Post-Twain, he lived and worked mainly in New York City, though he toured through here a few times. In the City, he happily spent good dad time with daughter Lindsay. His pride and joy shone bright in their many Facebook’ed photos. She was with him when he passed. When she reported losing him, consternation erupted here in his old home town; love for a highly creative artist whose talent took him everywhere.


In the constellation of classic country singers – Kitty Wells, Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Reba McIntire, say – Loretta Lynn shone brightly as any, a durable, unique pioneering star. 

Like David Malachoski decades later, Lynn went from relative nowhere to absolutely everywhere.

Loretta Lynn

Lynn sang of love and loss for more than 70 years, claiming dignity, power and independence for women without sacrificing a tender vulnerability. Her love songs packed a poignancy that only a convincingly tough cookie could claim. She never lost her creative spark, recording and touring until fairly recently.

Like Parton, she married early and long. Encouraged by husband “Dooley” Lynn, she became a pace-setting pioneer who drew the map future stars would follow. She built a home-grown career on her own record label and knocked on radio station doors herself. She not only injected a brave woman’s candor into her songs, but also invented the machinery to deliver them to the world.

I never got to see her sing live; in her peak touring years, country artists were still playing union halls, county fairs and strip-mall kicker bars. But her sound and style and soulfulness shone through the radio and records in a way that always grabbed my ear.

She had so clearly lived her songs that they feel like real life when you hear them. They bring you into her life. And you feel her courage, her resiliency and power.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Many years back, when long-distance calls cost daunting sums, my friend Steve phoned from Seattle. In his cups, he was anxious to share. A tapestry of sound unfolded over the phone, like a magic carpet soaring just below an ornate temple ceiling or a gallery-sky of stars. Steve had put on “The Creator Has a Master Plan” by the tenor saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders, placed the phone by a speaker and walked away. 

Pharaoh Sanders (1985)

When side one ended, he flipped the disc, dropped the needle and left. I listened to the whole ride, all 33 minutes.

A protege of tenor sax giant John Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders followed ‘Trane’s travels in jazz from body to soul, uniting flesh and the spirit in sky-scratching sounds and striving toward the infinite. At times he seemed to push more air through his sax than it could hold, more feeling than mere ears could handle, so it hit your heart directly.

He’s rightly been called “a church with open doors.”

At a now-vanished club (on Schenectady Street in Hamilton Hill), he played from the earthy – “Lil Liza Jane” – to the celestial – yep, “The Creator Has a Master Plan.” And it all worked, from the get-down to the rise way on up.

When six of us old Navy vets met up in Albuquerque last week, Steve was among us, and so was Pharaoh Sanders. I gave Steve “Promises,” the saxophonist’s last recording, made with the electronica composer Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra. 

Maybe, late one night, I’ll put that on and play it over the phone to Steve.

RIP: David Malachowski, Loretta Lynn, and Pharaoh Sanders.

  1. Rudy says

    Great essay. It’s a challenge to some up the loss of 3 musical giants of different genres. Each who has touched us in different way.

  2. Mark Hudson says

    Lovely tribute. I saw David play with Savoy Brown in a daytime concert at the Time Warner studio (sometime either late 90’s or early aughts.) He tore it up. RIP.

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