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Singer-Songwriter Jesse Winchester Dies After Cancer Battle

Singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester, whose songs were recorded by Elvis Costello, Little Feat and James Taylor, has died after a lengthy battle with cancer of the esophagus. He was 69.

The news was confirmed this morning (April 11) by his wife, Cindy. Earlier in the week, word had spread of Winchester’s death, but she denied them, saying that he was receiving hospice care at their home in Charlottesville, VA. “As we like to say, he’s still teaching us a thing or two about dignity and grace,” she said. “Those that know him will know that’s a big part of who he is. He’s a dignified gentleman.”

Though Winchester was rightfully revered as a songwriter — Bob Dylan once said of him, “You can’t talk about the best songwriters and not include him” — the Louisiana native never found broader individual stardom. This is likely because, in 1967, he fled the country as a draft resister in the Vietnam era and could therefore not tour America. However, his records, particularly his 1970 Robbie Robertson-produced debut, fell into some impressive hands.

‘Payday’ was recorded by Costello for his 1995 album ‘Kojak Variety,’ and then by Taylor for the 2012 tribute project ‘Quiet About It,’ which also featured Costello on the title track. Little Feat offered a take on ‘Rhumba Man.’ Over the years, Jimmy Buffett, Lyle Lovett, the Everly Brothers and Emmylou Harris also interpreted songs by Winchester. Harris closed out her concert on Tuesday at Chicago’s Vic Theater with his ‘My Songbird’ in tribute.

Winchester didn’t return to the U.S. until being granted a pardon as part of a late-’70s effort by former President Jimmy Carter. “It was the first thing that Jimmy Carter did after his inauguration,” Winchester once said. “I was on the road, and somebody phoned me in my hotel room and told me. I just sat down on the bed and wept.”

He belatedly made his American stage debut in a 1977 event that moved Rolling Stone magazine to call him “the greatest voice of the decade.” By then, however, musical tastes had already shifted away from the singer-songwriter genre that he might have helped personify.

Winchester recorded seven studio albums through 1981, placing a handful of singles in the Canadian charts, with 1981’s ‘Say What’ reaching the lower reaches of the U.S. Top 40. Only three albums followed from 1988 to 2009, including the aptly titled 1999 album ‘Gentleman of Leisure’ – which Winchester once joked came “uncomfortably close to the truth.”

A final studio effort, ‘Love Filling Station,’ arrived two years prior to Winchester’s initial cancer diagnosis. In 2012, he appeared on Costello’s short-lived television program ‘Spectacle,’ moving fellow guest Neko Case to tears with his performance of ‘Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding.’ More recently, Winchester had cancelled several dates as his health worsened.

Winchester said he always deep connection to the South, and in particular to Memphis, where he attended high school. Even after he was pardoned, he remained in Quebec until he relocated to Charlottesville in the last decade of his life. He is survived by his wife, a brother and sister, three children, one step-daughter and five grandchildren.

Next: See Other Rockers We've Lost in 2014

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