A rock guitarist since the 1970s, Kelley has been a fan of rock, blues, and jazz since the 1960s.
27: So Young to Die!
This is not a comprehensive list. It is a list of rock stars who died infamously at the age of 27, including blues artists such as Robert Johnson as well as performers of rhythm and blues, since rock ‘n' roll grew from these genres, but it does not include artists from other genres such as jazz or country. The list also doesn’t include rockers who died of natural causes or accidents. Lastly, the artists are listed chronologically by the dates of their demise.
1. Robert Johnson
As the legend goes, blues artist Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads so he could attain virtuosity with the guitar. Well, somehow Johnson got his wish, recording 29 songs - many of them classics - during a short career. Perhaps Johnson’s greatest tunes were “Come on in My Kitchen,” “Sweet Home Chicago” and “Crossroad Blues,” famously covered by the rock group Cream on their double album set Wheels of Fire.
Many consider Johnson the father of modern rock ‘n’ roll. (Incidentally, an actor portrays a Johnson-like character in the movie Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?) It is generally accepted that Johnson was poisoned – perhaps given some tainted rye moonshine - by a jealous husband or girlfriend while playing at a juke joint near Greenwood, Mississippi. Johnson took days to die and was buried in an unmarked grave. Robert Johnson passed on August 16, 1938.
2. Rudy Lewis
Rudy Lewis, singer in the legendary R&B group the Drifters from 1960 to 1964, sang the lead on such hits as “On Broadway” (a top ten hit) and “Up on the Roof.” Formerly of the Clara Ward Singers, Lewis’ silky sweet voice was compared to that of Ben E. King. Just before the recording of mega-hit “Under the Boardwalk,” Lewis was found dead in his apartment, and the cause of death has never been ascertained. Authorities think he died of a drug overdose, though friends think Lewis, a binge-eater, probably choked to death on food. (Why didn’t the cops perform an autopsy? If and when I find out, I’ll let you know.) Rudy Lewis died on May 20, 1964.
3. Brian Jones
Brian Jones was a rhythm guitarist and multi-instrumentalist who brought together members of the Rolling Stones, who began performing in 1962. Jones figured prominently in the Rolling Stones' early albums, playing rhythm and slide guitar, harmonica, and doing background vocals. Jones's relationship with other band members became strained when they learned that Jones was actually making more money - £5.00 per week – according to the management contract that Jones had signed for all band members in early 1963. Aside from his musical career, Jones was a man about town who may have fathered as many as five illegitimate children.
But from 1968 onward Jones' contributions to the Rolling Stones diminished steadily, perhaps because of his increasing use of mind-altering substances, and by mid-1969 Jones was expelled from the band. Jones planned to start his own band, but this never happened.
Circumstances regarding Jones' death remain cloudy to this day. Jones was found motionless at the bottom of his swimming pool and declared dead by authorities. Friends said that Jones had been drinking and taking pills. The coroner's report showed "death by misadventure." Some think Jones committed suicide; others think he was murdered. Fellow Rolling Stones Mick Jagger and Keith Richards didn't attend Jones' funeral. Brian Jones died on July 3, 1969.
4. Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson
Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson was one of the seminal members of Canned Heat, a 60s blues-revival band. Wilson was a rhythm guitarist, songwriter, vocalist, and virtuosic harmonica player. Blues legend John Lee Hooker called Wilson the best harmonica player he had ever seen. Wilson sang the lead on two of Canned Heat’s greatest hits: “Going Up the Country” and “On the Road Again.” Wilson had emotional problems and attempted suicide numerous times. Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson died of a drug overdose—widely considered a suicide—on September 3, 1970.
5. Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix became an overnight sensation after an eruptive performance at the Monterey International Pop Festival in June 1967, where he played his guitar behind his back, with his teeth and later set it aflame and then bashed it into the stage. During Hendrix’s short, three-and-a-half-year recording career, he became rock’s number-one guitarist and is still considered such by many rock purists. In 2003 Rolling Stone voted him the greatest guitarist of all time. Hendrix’s tour de force was the double-album set Electric Ladyland, featuring hits such as “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” “Still Raining, Still Dreaming” and “House Burning Down.” This album is an exemplar of Hendrix’s inventiveness, guitar genius, and versatility. Not bad for a high school dropout who couldn’t read music!
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Fortunately, Hendrix toured almost constantly and many of those performances, including an iconic one at Woodstock, were recorded in some fashion. Moreover, Hendrix jammed with just about every notable lead guitarist of the era, except Jimmy Page. What a shame! Jimi Hendrix died of drug complications—mixing alcohol with barbiturates, a very dangerous combination—on September 18, 1970.
6. Janis Joplin
Janis Joplin started her singing career with the psychedelic rock band Big Brother and the Holding Company. Joplin’s raucous, bluesy voice fit in well with the San Francisco acid rock sound emerging at the time. Like Hendrix, Joplin blew people’s minds at Monterey in 1967, singing such hits as “Down on Me” and “Ball and Chain.” Joplin eventually left Big Brother and formed two more bands.
After having given up drugs for awhile—except for perhaps her beloved alcohol— Joplin obtained a potent batch of heroin that hadn’t been cut and died of an overdose on October 4, 1970. (Other junkies died from the same load of H.) Possible biographical movie projects have been in the works for years. The movie, The Rose, starring Bette Midler, is often considered a Joplin biopic. However, Joplin was no pop singer!
7. Arlester “Dyke” Christian
Arlester “Dyke” Christian formed a soul and funk band in 1966, calling it Dyke and the Blazers, which soon toured with the O’Jays. Arlester played bass but was the lead singer of the Blazers. The first single the band released was titled “Funky Broadway,” a song Arlester had written, which eventually became a big hit by Wilson Pickett in 1967.
The Blazers, which changed personnel a number of times over the years, disbanded on March 13, 1971, when Arlester was shot and killed on the streets of Phoenix, Arizona. The authorities considered the shooting an act of self-defense, perhaps brought about by a bad drug deal, although Arlester had no drugs in his system at the time.
8. Jim Morrison
Jim Morrison—mystic, poet, shaman, filmmaker and, oh yes, lead singer for the rock group the Doors—splashed upon the music scene in Los Angeles in 1967. Perhaps Morrison’s greatest work came on “The End,” a protracted ode to Greek tragedy laced with obscenities, the singing of which got the band thrown out of their gig at The Whisky A Go Go in Hollywood.
Morrison’s risqué antics got the band in trouble many times. Perhaps to avoid jail time for an indecent exposure conviction in Miami, Florida, Morrison moved to Paris in March 1971. One morning at dawn, Morrison began spitting up blood, took a bath, and died of an apparent heart attack (an autopsy was never performed.) Since Morrison’s drinking and drugging were legendary, even for the standards of the time, his death probably didn’t surprise many. Some think Morrison faked his death and went to Africa. Jim Morrison died on July 3, 1971 (two years to the day after Brian Jones).
9. Ron “Pigpen” McKernan
Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, keyboardist, singer, harmonica player, was one of the founding members of the Grateful Dead, a prominent San Francisco Bay Area band. McKernan was known for his thick, weathered vocals on such tunes as “Midnight Hour” and “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.” McKernan once had a fling with fellow boozer Janis Joplin and sang with her at some gigs. (According to singer Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane, McKernan introduced Joplin to Southern Comfort.)
When McKernan’s health began deteriorating, he left the Grateful Dead in 1972. On March 8, 1973 Ron “Pigpen” McKernan was found dead of a stomach hemorrhage brought on by years of heavy drinking.
10. Dave Alexander
Dave Alexander was the original bass player for the Stooges, a protopunk band led by Iggy Pop and formed in 1967. Essentially a novice bass player at the time, Alexander nevertheless helped the Stooges write, arrange and compose some of the songs on their first two albums, The Stooges and Fun House.
Interestingly, per those acid-laced times, Alexander liked to use psychedelic licks in his tunes. But in August 1970 Alexander showed up late and inebriated for a show and was later fired by frontman Iggy Pop. Five years later, Alexander was hospitalized for pancreatitis caused by heavy consumption of alcohol.
Alexander developed pulmonary edema, his lungs filling with fluid, and died on February 10, 1975.
11. Peter Ham
Peter Ham was a guitarist and songwriter for Badfinger, an early-70s rock group that some called the new Beatles. Appropriately, Badfinger’s first hit “Come and Get It,” was written by Beatle bassist Paul McCartney. The band continued churning out cutting-edge material, seemingly making lots of money; however, nobody knew where the money was going.
Distraught over financial matters, Peter Ham hanged himself on April 23, 1975. Allegedly, Ham left a suicide note that named Stan Polley, his booking agent, as the cause of the suicide. But Polley denied the existence of such a note. Tragically, Badfinger’s Tom Evans, upset regarding what he considered the band’s missing income, also hanged himself in 1983!
12. Gary Thain
Bassist and songwriter Gary Thain played with the Keef Hartley Band at Woodstock and later became the third bassist for British rock group Uriah Heep. Primarily a blues and jazz player, Uriah Heep was Thain’s first plunge into rock. Thain also wrote some of Uriah Heep’s material, notably “Chrystal Ball” and “Gary’s Song.”
Gary Thain died of a heroin overdose on December 8, 1975.
13. Alexander Bashlachev
Alexander Bashlachev was a Russian rock guitarist and singer-songwriter. Throughout the 1980s, Bashlachev wrote songs and composed music. He also performed whenever he could, but usually for small audiences, since rock and roll was considered counterrevolutionary in Russia (at that time known as the U.S.S.R.) during the 1970s and ‘80s. In 1985 and again in 1987, Bashlachev played at the Leningrad Rock Festival, a gathering comprising about 600 people.
Suffering from depression and alcoholism, Bashlachev died after falling from the balcony of a ninth-floor apartment building. The death was considered a suicide. Bashlachev went to the Promised Land on February 17, 1988.
14. Mia Zapata
Mia Zapata formed the punk rock band the Gits while attending college in Ohio. Zapata was heavily influenced by blues singers such as Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. Joan Jett compared Zapata’s talent to that of blues legend Janis Joplin. But Zapata’s singing career didn’t get rolling until 1989 when the group relocated to Seattle, Washington, where “grunge” was slowly gaining nationwide popularity. The Gits first album was Frenching the Bull, released in 1992.
Tragically, just when the Gits were finding an audience, Zapata was found dead near the Comet Tavern in Seattle. Zapata had been raped, badly beaten, and strangled to death. Using DNA evidence, Zapata’s assailant was eventually apprehended, convicted, and sentenced to 36 years in prison. Mia Zapata died on July 7, 1993.
15. Kurt Cobain
Troubled genius Kurt Cobain formed the grunge group Nirvana in 1986. Led by Cobain’s songwriting, singing, and lead guitar, Nirvana’s second album Nevermind hit the top of the charts in 1991, making the band superstars and netting them truckloads of money. But Cobain, a quiet, reclusive fellow, never enjoyed the limelight of celebrity. Nirvana’s mega-hit single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” is considered one of the greatest rock tunes of all time. In 2007 VH1 voted it the top rock song of the 1990s. The tune is still popular; even college marching bands play it.
As Nirvana gained popularity, Cobain started using heroin in the early 1990s. He may have started taking heroin to relieve pain from chronic back and stomach trouble. Cobain said his stomach pain was so bad at times that he sometimes considered committing suicide. In March of 1994, Cobain attempted suicide by gobbling painkillers washed down with champagne.
But on April 5, 1994, Kurt Cobain succeeded in ending his life with a shotgun blast to the head. But some people think Cobain was murdered. They say Cobain couldn’t have used the shotgun to shoot himself because he had a large amount of heroin in his system. Could the heroin have killed him anyway? Experts can only speculate.
16. Kristen Pfaff
In 1993 Kristen Pfaff became the bassist for Hole, the band Courtney Love had formed before the death of husband Kurt Cobain. Pfaff played on Live Through This, the only album she recorded with Hole (certainly an ironic title for Pfaff).
As many musicians have done in past decades, Pfaff began using heroin. On June 16, 1994, Kristen Pfaff died of a heroin overdose.
17. Richey Edwards
Richey Edwards sang, wrote songs, and played rhythm guitar for the alternative rock band the Manic Street Preachers. A native of the United Kingdom, Edwards wrote most of the band’s songs and was considered a primary inspiration for their sound. Unfortunately, as well as having a creative bent, Edwards suffered from bouts of depression, anorexia, and self-mutilation, once using a razor to carve “4-Real” on his left forearm.
Edwards disappeared on February 1, 1995, the cause of which has often been considered a suicide, though many of his friends disagree. The authorities announced in November 2008 that Edwards was still missing and presumed dead.
18. Fat Pat
Fat Pat was a hip-hop artist whose birth name was Patrick Lamark Hawkins. Fat Pat was associated with Screwed Up Click and recorded for Wreckshop Records. The first album he performed on was Ghetto Dreams, released in 1998. It featured the hit rap tune, “Tops Drop.” Interestingly, All of Fat Pat’s albums were released posthumously.
Fat Pat was shot to death on February 3, 1998. Tragically, his brother “Big Hawk” was also shot to death eight years later.
19. Freaky Tah (Raymond Rogers)
Raymond Rogers, known professionally as Freaky Tah, was a rapper who performed with the hip-hop group Lost Boyz. Other members of the group were Mr. Cheeks, DJ Spigg Nice and Pretty Lou. Tah’s work with Lost Boyz produced two certified gold records, Legal Drug Money and Love, Peace & Nappiness.
Freaky Tah was shot in the back of the head and died on March 28, 1999.
20. Sean Patrick McCabe
Sean Patrick McCabe was the lead singer/song writer for the hard rock band Ink and Dagger. Brought together in 1996, this Philadelphia alternative rock band used vampire shtick in their live performances, developing a large following in Philly’s underground music scene. Their first album was Drive This Seven Inch Wooden Stake Through My Philadelphia Heart.
Sean Patrick McCabe choked to death on his own vomit while swilling alcohol on August 28, 2000.
21. Levi Kereama
Levi Kereama was a contestant on the first season of Australian Idol in 2003, but he only made it to sixth place. Later, Levi, along with his brothers, formed the rhythm and blues group Lethbridge, at times supporting top-rated talent such as Boyz II Men and Shaggy. Levi’s sweet voice brought to mind the crooning of Michael Jackson and Jeffrey Osborne.
On October 4, 2008, Levi fell to his death from a 20-story hotel window. Authorities believe his death was a suicide, but family members say it was an accident.
22. Amy Winehouse
Amy Winehouse may have been as well known for her singing prowess as for her party-hardy lifestyle, bad behavior, and mental problems. The pop and jazz singer/songwriter won five Grammy Awards in 2008, perhaps her peak year, and her best song at the time may have been “Rehab,” certainly an apt title given her trials in that arena. As with many pop stars over the years, Winehouse often consumed alcohol before a gig, leading to numerous bad performances and reviews.
Winehouse also admitted using hard drugs such as crack cocaine and heroin. And, sadly, her list of confrontations with the police is as long as that of any pop star in recent memory. Amy Winehouse died on July 23, 2011.
In October 2011 the Coroner in London, England stated that Winehouse died of accidental alcohol poisoning; she had five times the legal limit of alcohol in her system at the time of her demise.
23. Soroush Farazmand
Soroush Farazmand didn’t exactly have a household name in the United States, and he probably didn’t have one in his native Iran either. Farazmand, a rock guitarist, and the rest of his band, the Yellow Dogs, came to America seeking the freedom to play whatever music they wanted, which they couldn’t do in Iran, a repressive place. Unfortunately, they came to a country with lots of freedom, including one to bear arms.
Soroush Farazmand and his brother and bandmate, Arash, were shot and killed by another Iranian musician who was distraught after being kicked out of the Free Keys, another Iranian band. The killer, wielding an assault rifle purchased in the U.S. some years before, killed three people and then committed suicide. Soroush Farazmand died on November 11, 2013.