In the music world, a comeback is hardly new. Musicians and bands who swear they've performed their last gig are inevitably resurrected for one more – this time we really mean it – final farewell or reunion tour.
But coming back from the grave? That's another feat altogether. Yet some musicians are perfecting this more complicated revival, finding a way to live on not just through their music, but through fresh collaborations with contemporary artists.
This summer, Dean Martin could be heard crooning to "Baby-O" with American Idolette Paris Bennett. On the same album, Martin and actor Kevin Spacey exchange studio banter during lulls in a rendition of "Ain't That a Kick in the Head." As for Elvis? Well, he's been busy appearing beside Céline Dion (who has also worked with the late Frank Sinatra) at the "American Idol" finale and then recording "In the Ghetto" – single and video – with daughter Lisa Marie Presley in August. Meanwhile, Dweezil Zappa kicked off the second Zappa Plays Zappa tour, during which he jams along to old footage of his dad, Frank.
"Nobody in rock 'n' roll retires anymore," says Jim DeRogatis, music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. "Not Led Zeppelin. Not Van Halen. Not even people who are dead."
To the people charged with these artists' estates, posthumous duets are a way to keep long-departed musicians in the public eye and, with the help of younger musicians, bring them alive for new generations. Some observers are more critical, claiming such "duets" are not only baldly commercial – an ersatz marketing ploy that tampers with an artist's legacy and oeuvre – but also a macabre exercise.
Dating back at least to the 1950s, the posthumous duet has frequently been met with critical acclaim. By the '90s, the form was so popular that in coverage leading up to the 1991 Grammy awards, The New York Times suggested it might be time to create a separate category for the "posthumous familial collaboration," citing Hank Williams Jr. and Sr.'s winning number and Natalie Cole's multiple nominations for her album "Unforgettable: With Love" with her father, Nat.
But technology today – far superior to what it was even five years ago, according to Dean Martin's business manager, Laura Lizer – has made it easier than ever to disassemble a song and lay down new vocals. (Or project a convincing hologram of Elvis onto a stage.)
"Forever Cool," released in August, also features Martin with singer Joss Stone and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. "This will reach so many ages and so many different generations," says Martin's daughter, Gail. "I think Dad would have adored it."
Miles Davis's nephew, Vince Wilburn Jr., says the trumpeter's remix EP, "Evolution of the Groove," which came out in August, was a similar bid "to reach a wider, younger audience." Its five tracks feature hip-hop artist Nas, guitarist Carlos Santana, and Mr. Wilburn himself on drums. He says the reception has been mostly positive. So much so that there are plans for a Miles Davis hip-hop duet tribute album, with possible appearances by Kanye West, Jay-Z, and Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest.
Of course not everyone is thrilled with the concept. "There're a couple of jazz purists who didn't dig it," admits Wilburn.
Similarly, the 2005 "Notorious B.I.G. Duets," which paired the murdered rapper with hip-hop stars such as Eminem, Jay-Z, R. Kelly, and Mary J. Blige, is just one example of a release unpopular with critics and fans alike.
Asked if she'd consider partnering her legendary stepbrother, Jimi, with a living musician, Janie Hendrix's answer is unequivocal: No. "We kind of look at it as the karaoke version of playing with Jimi," says Ms. Hendrix, CEO of Experience Hendrix. "We try to keep things as authentically correct and as pure as possible"
Mr. DeRogatis of the Sun-Times is a bit blunter is his critique. "There's no two ways around the mercenary aspect of live musicians with dubious connections to the dead flaunting their stuff," he says. "It's all really 'Wizard of Oz,' except behind the curtain is not a little man, but a corpse."
He concedes, "The technology is astounding. We can do anything." But adds, "It doesn't mean we should."
While many fans can't seem to get enough of such collaborations, plenty echo DeRogatis's cry for authenticity.
In recent weeks wholly unconfirmed rumors have swirled that Britney Spears's "comeback" will include a collaboration with none other than Marilyn Monroe. The reports have Monroe fans in a tizzy.
"Leave Marilyn Monroe alone Britney!!!!," implores one post on a website announcing the rumor. "Let Marilyn rest in peace. She had talent, you don't!"