10 Tampa Bay artists who died in 2016

Musician George “Buster” Cooper, 87, died May 13.
Musician George “Buster” Cooper, 87, died May 13.
Published Dec. 28, 2016

The art world lost international icons in 2016 including David Bowie and Prince. But Tampa Bay also felt the sting of death among its creative communities. Here are some of the local artists we lost.

George "Buster" Cooper, 87, died May 13. Born in St. Petersburg, the jazz trombonist studied under local jazz legend Al Downing. His career took off, and he traveled the world backing jazz legends including Lionel Hampton, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington, whose orchestra he played with for a decade. Ellington was so enamored with Cooper's playing, he wrote a song for him called Trombone Buster. When he moved back to St. Petersburg in 1994, Cooper took over the jazz night at the Garden restaurant on Central Avenue. His weekly performances became a fixture of the downtown nightlife scene. In 2010, the city proclaimed June 20 Buster Cooper Day. Cooper, who had prostate cancer, played his last gig in February at the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club.

Tanya Coovadia, 53, died May 25. Coovadia was a local author whose recently published compilation of short stories, Pelee Island Stories, won an Independent Publisher Book bronze award. Her interests included photography, political activism, website design and music. She played bass guitar and wrote songs with her teenage daughter, Darwin. She died from esophageal cancer.

Dave McKay, 55, died Aug. 4. Country music station WQYK-FM 99.5's on-air personality was a beloved presence in Tampa Bay for two decades. At the time of his death, he worked on the station's Dave and Veronica morning show. In 2008, McKay and co-host Randy Price were named On-Air Personalities of the Year by the Country Music Association; McKay was a four-time finalist for the same honor from the Academy of Country Music. During his stint at the station, both groups named WQYK the best major-market radio outlet in America. McKay was revered as an audio producer and respected by country music artists. He was found dead at his home in St. Petersburg from a cocaine overdose.

Sheila Shear Wessner, 85, died Sept. 30. A longtime performer, director, teacher and mentor in local theater, she began her theater career in St. Petersburg in 1961. Wessner was active with many area theatres including St. Petersburg City Theatre, Francis Wilson Playhouse, Gorilla Theatre and Eight O'Clock Theatre. She was an adjunct professor at Eckerd College's Drama and Wordbridge programs, working with Richard Rice. Wessner was also co-founder and instructor of Actors' Arena at Ruth Eckerd Hall from 1983 to 1987. She founded Act Now Studios in Clearwater, where she taught acting for stage, film, television and auditioning to approximately 400 children and adults per year from 1987 to 1990. Wessner toured as an Actors' Equity member to various dinner theaters around the country and performed in the Early Bird Dinner Theatre and Showboat Dinner Theatre. She worked as an on-set dialogue coach and casting director for local independent films, and with Coconuts Comedy Club, coaching comics on stage presence.

From Prince to Bowie to Carrie Fisher, death came for all these pop culture icons in 2016

Donald Silverberg, 87, died Nov. 15. The St. Petersburg jeweler opened Silverberg Jewelry Co. in 1968 with his wife, Jane. They travelled the world to find unique pieces to sell in the store, which expanded to four locations. Silverberg was a civil rights advocate, impressing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on local business owners who hadn't adopted it. He was also the co-founder of Menorah Manor, a retirement and treatment facility in St. Petersburg. After retiring in 1997, Silverberg began marble sculpting, studying with masters in Northern Italy. His pieces were shown and sold locally, including at Temple Beth-El's annual art show.

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Kyle Freeman, 35, died Nov. 30. Known as "Freeman" or "Freeman Werkz," Freeman was a prolific musician known in St. Petersburg for his personality and personal style. After graduating from Largo High, he earned a recording arts degree from Full Sail University. A producer and DJ with an encyclopedic knowledge of music, he collaborated and recorded with many local musicians. Freeman loved roots reggae music and hip-hop and played DJ gigs all around St. Pete, in addition to performing stand-up comedy. He was a fixture at Kahwa Coffee, where he met his girlfriend, Marie Parham. Together they had a son, Naji Zen.

Paul Eppling, 67, died Dec. 2. Eppling's metal sculpture Security Lizard, made from old car parts and street lights, is perched atop the St. Petersburg Fleet Maintenance Building and is visible from I-275. Eppling moved to St. Petersburg in 1967 to attend Florida Presbyterian College — now Eckerd College — to pursue an art degree. He began making the metal sculptures that over time became a hallmark of St. Petersburg. Five of his pieces are on display at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve. St. Petersburg proclaimed May 8, 2014, Paul Eppling Day. He died from progressive supranuclear palsy, a neurodegenerative disease.

Natasha Richards, 44, died Dec. 2. The Clearwater-based drag performer was a fixture in the Tampa Bay gay nightclub scene and won dozens of titles in local and national drag pageants. Born male, she transitioned to female soon after she started performing. She was lauded for her theatrical performances and quick wit when she emceed. She choreographed and designed the outfits for her own shows and for clients. Richards also mentored young drag queens trying to break into the scene and was one of the performers who brought Latin Night to Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

Rick Manners, 57, died Dec. 5. The Holiday musician avidly promoted the St. Petersburg music scene. Manners gave his time and effort to help local venues, including the Local 662 and the Blueberry Patch, behind the scenes for free. He recorded his own music, including an album titled The United States of $camerica, and was working on a musical. Manners, who suffered a stroke, was celebrated with a memorial concert that featured 13 bands.

Jason Miller, 36, died Dec. 10. A star on the rise, the tenor moved from singing in the chorus of the St. Petersburg Opera Company to performing more roles and had just successfully auditioned for Opera Tampa. He was a member of St. Petersburg College's choral ensemble, the Madrigalians, which had recently performed one of his compositions, and performed at the prestigious Carnegie Hall in New York City. Miller taught music lessons at the business he owned, Gulfport Music Studio, and was a section leader for the choir at St. Wilfred Episcopal Church in Sarasota. He died in a car accident.

Compiled by Maggie Duffy, Times staff writer