Rachel Nagy, best known as the singer of the Michigan garage rock band the Detroit Cobras, has died, her representative confirmed to Pitchfork. No cause of death was given.
Detroit Cobra’s label Third Man eulogized Nagy on Instagram, writing, “In both her voice and personality, Rachel Nagy was the perfect balance of tough badass and absolute sweetheart.” Bandmate Greg Cartwright wrote in a message to the band’s Facebook page: “With the Detroit Cobras Rachel Nagy carried the torch of Rock, Soul and R&B to fans all over the world. More than just a performer, she embodied the spirit of the music itself and vaulted it to new heights with her own deeply affecting vocal power. I know that I am not alone when I say that I was inspired by her vitality, her fierce intensity and her vulnerability.”
Hailed as “Detroit’s most famous cover band,” the Detroit Cobras were founded in 1994 by Nagy and guitarist Mary Ramirez. They released their debut album, Mink, Rat or Rabbit, in 1998 with guitarist and Detroit photographer Steve Shaw (The Fondas), bassist Jeff Meier (Rocket 455, Nathaniel Mayer), and drummer Damian Lang (Two Star Tabernacle). They followed it up with Life, Love and Leaving three years later. Both LPs were solely comprised of 1960s cover songs, including pop hits and lesser-known soul songs by the Shangri-Las, Otis Redding, the Ronettes, the Marvelettes, Irma Thomas, and Ike and Tina Turner, among others.
The Detroit Cobras’ garage rock spin on Motown quickly caught the attention of Rough Trade. After signing to the label, they released the 2003 EP Seven Easy Pieces and the 2004 full-length Baby, the latter of which featured their original song “Hot Dog (Watch Me Eat).” The Detroit Cobras’ most recent studio album, Tied & True, came out in 2007. Third Man Records reissued the band’s first two records in 2016, stating, “The inimitable vocals of Rachel Nagy would no-doubt be a template from which folks like Amy Winehouse would work from years later.”
“People think, ‘Oh, they’re covers, it’s easy, what’s the problem?’ It’s actually harder. When people are playing original songs, they have the freedom to fuck up, they can change something. With us, it is something very specific that we’re after,” Nagy told blog All I Could See in 2018. “That’s the funny thing when people call us a cover band. Usually cover bands are at the corner bar playing Creed and songs everyone knows and wants to sing along with… Even those that are very deep into their music, they’re usually pretty surprised to find out what songs are what.”
As the years progressed, the Detroit Cobras were credited with helping popularize the city’s garage rock scene. Nagy personally was inspired by everything from the Muppets to vinyl sent her way from record collectors, but it was Irma Thomas in particular who instilled a love of music in Nagy’s heart. “She is my Beatlemania. She is everything to me,” she told NPR in 2007. “At Jazz Fest in New Orleans, that’s when I first understood Beatlemania… Irma walks out onstage and I collapsed and started crying and screaming. That woman, she just destroys me.”