CJ Baker is a published writer who recently started the podcast Ongoing History of Protest Music.
Musicians Who Die Young
The lifestyle of a touring musician doesn't always contribute to a long life. There are rock and roll survivors who defied the odds and lived to a ripe old age, but countless others have succumbed to the rockstar life and died way too young. For example, the prominence of music artists dying at the age of 27 lead to the 27 club becoming part of rock and roll folklore. Of course, 27 isn't the only age at which musicians die. Right now we will examine a list of 18 who died at the early age of 28.
Avicii (September 8, 1989 – April 20, 2018)
Born as Tim Bergling, Swedish DJ Avicii was well known for such hits as "Levels", "Wake Me Up" and "Hey Brother". He collaborated and remixed for numerous artists including Aloe Blacc, Madonna, Lenny Kravitz, Nile Rodgers and Coldplay. He was also known for implementing an eclectic array of genres within his music. For example, his 2013 worldwide smash, "Wake Me Up" included bluegrass elements which were not traditionally associated with dance music.
The cause of death is not known, but on April 26, 2018 the family posted an open letter which included the following statement which strongly suggested suicide: “he really fought a battle with thoughts about the meaning of life and happiness. Now he could not go on any longer." Avicii did struggle with multiple health issues which were compounded by struggles with alcohol abuse. He retired from touring on August 28, 2016 due to his poor health. His multiple health scares, along with the up and downs of being a famous DJ is highlighted in the 2017 documentary Avicii: True Stories.
Wake Me Up by Avicii (Video)
Bradley Nowell (February 22, 1968 – May 25, 1996)
Nowell is a tragic example of someone who didn't experience commercial success until after he died. The founder, guitarist and lead singer of ska punk band Sublime, formed the band in 1988 but didn't experience their mainstream breakthrough until their self titled third studio album on July 23, 1996, nearly two months after Nowell's death. The album ended up selling over 5 million copies in the US and featured the alternative rock hits "What I Got", "Wrong Way" and "Santeria". The success of the album led to increased interest in their first two albums, with their 1992 debut 40oz. to Freedom selling over 2 million copies after Nowell's untimely passing. The band became an integral and influential part of the 90s ska punk revival.
While touring as part of Sublime he succumbed to the Rock and Roll lifestyle and became addicted to heroin, eventually dying of an overdose.
Santeria by Sublime (Video)
Shannon Hoon (September 26, 1967 – October 21, 1995)
Shannon Hoon was the lead singer of Blind Melon. The band's 1992 self titled debut sold over 4 million copies and it featured the iconic hit song and music video "No Rain". The follow up album, Soup was released on August 15, 1995, a couple of months before Hoon's death. The album didn't fare as well commercially, but in retrospect it is widely considered an overlooked classic.
Hoon was also closed friends with Axel Rose, and prior to Blind Melon's mainstream breakthrough, Hoon provided backing vocals on a number of songs on Gun N' Roses 1991 albums Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II, including "November Rain" and co-lead on "Don't Cry".
Hoon struggled with drug addiction and he died from a cocaine overdose. Hoon's tombstone was inscribed with Hoon's lyrics from the Blind Melon's song Change: “I know we can't all stay here forever/ So I want to write my words on the face of today and they'll paint it".
Change by Blind Melon (Video)
Tim Buckley Performing At Fillmore East on October 19, 1968
Tim Buckley (February 14, 1947 – June 29, 1975)
During his life span commercial success alluded Tim Buckley, but after his death his profile increased considerably. His eclectic and often avant-garde approach made him hard to pigeon hole, but as a singer songwriter it also made him extremely influential. The fact that many of albums were out of print and hard to find for several years (many of his albums are only now widely available digitally) expanded his cult following and made many of his recordings sought after by vinyl collectors.
Buckley died of heroin overdose. His son Jeff who was 8 years old at the time ended up pursuing music. Jeff's success led a new generation of fans to discover his father's music. Tragically Jeff also died way too young at the age of 30 from a swimming accident.
Steve Gaines (September 14, 1949 – October 20, 1977)
Back on May 11, 1976 Gaines joined the already well established southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd. The band were looking to replace guitarist Ed King and Gaines sister Cassie who was one of the band's backup singer recommended Steve. He appeared on the 1976 live album One More From The Road and the 1977 studio album Street Survivors. He provided lead vocals on "Ain't No Good Life" (which he also written) and co-lead vocals on "You Got That Right" (which he co-written with lead singer Ronnie Van Zant).
Gaines died in a airplane crash three days after the release of Street Survivor. The plane ran out of fuel and the cause of death was ruled as negligence on the part of the pilots. The plane crash also killed Van Zant and his sister Cassie. Both Van Zant and Cassie were only 29 years old. The crash also killed the pilot and co-pilot and the band's assistant road manager. The rest of the passengers on the plane survived but were badly injured. This was supposed to be the last time that the band was going to fly on the 30-year-old Convair CV-240. The band were planning to upgrade by purchasing a Learjet. Unfortunately, those plans never materialized.
The release of Street Survivors just before the crash made the album eerily prophetic. The original album cover featured the band members standing in the backdrop of flames (which was replaced with a plain backdrop after the crash). The album also featured the song "That Smell". The tune was written as a cautionary tale of the perils of drug use, but the reference to "the smell of death surrounds you" takes on a morbid resonance considering the plane crash.
JP "The Big Bopper" Richardson (October 24, 1930 – February 3, 1959)
Richardson first adopted the moniker The Big Bopper as a radio DJ. In May 1957 he set a record for broadcasting for five days, two hours, and eight minutes, playing a total of 1,821 records. Using his real name, Richardson wrote #1 country hits for George Jones ("White Lighting") and Johnny Preston ("Running Bear"). As a solo artist, things took off when he recorded the 1958 hit "Chantilly Lace" as The Big Bopper. He followed up with the top 40 novelty hit "The Big Bopper's Wedding".
His death is linked with one of the most tragic moments in music history. He died in a plane crash that also killed Buddy Holly and Richie Valens. Holly was only 22 and Valens was even younger at 17. That crash was penned as "The Day The Music Died" after Don McLean memorialized the event in his 1971 hit "American Pie". Even though there are some conflicting stories about the events leading up to the crash, according to multiple sources Richardson wasn't supposed to be on the chartered plane. He was suffering from the flu and he didn't want to ride on the broken-down tour bus, so he ended up switching spots with country music legend Waylon Jennings, who was the bassists for Buddy Holly's backing band.
The Day the Music Died: Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper (Video)
Jimmy "The Rev" Sullivan (February 9, 1981– December 28, 2009)
Sullivan got his start as the drummer for the ska punk Suburban Legends. He played drums on their 1999 debut Origin Edition. The DIY CD is hard to find and is considered a sought after collectible for fans of Suburban Legends and the Orange County Ska scene. Shortly after, Sullivan became a founding member and drummer for the commercially successful heavy metal band Avenged Sevenfold, adopting the moniker The Rev. He also played a key role in the song writing, including sole writing credit for "Afterlife", "Almost Easy" and "A Little Piece of Heaven" off their 2007 self titled album. The band released their debut album in 2001 and released four studio albums while The Rev was alive.
Their 2010 album, Nightmare also features contributions from The Rev, including two sole song writing credits. One of those song "Fiction" was originally entitled "Death" and according to the band he handed them the song three days before his death. The band dedicated the album in his memory.
Sullivan death was ruled as an accidental overdose of painkillers and alcohol. The coroner report also noted that Sullivan suffered from cardiomegaly, which most likely was a contributing factor as well.
Afterlife by Avenged Sevenfold (Video)
Kyle Pavone (June 5, 1990-August 25, 2018)
Pavone was co-lead vocalist for metalcore band We Came As Romans. Pavone provided clean vocals which served in contrast to David Stephens' unclean vocals. He also contributed keyboards and synthesizer to the band's sound. He joined the group in 2008 and he was featured on all five of their studio albums. The band played multiple years of the Van Warped Tour and had a dedicated fan following. Cause of death is currently unknown.
Maria Malibran (March 24, 1808 – September 23, 1836)
Malibran was a Spanish mezzo-soprano who is widely regarded as one of the most famous opera singers of the 19th century. She was known for her fiery personality and crazy vocal range. She is widely associated with famed Italian composer Gioachino Rossini, appearing in several his operas including Tancredi, Otello and Semiramide.
The downfall for Malibran started during a July 1836 performance of Vaccai's Giovanna Gray. She fell off a horse and suffered severe injuries. She refused medical attention and continued to perform. In September of 1836 she was performing as a part of a Manchester music festival where she collapsed on stage, but she still performed the next day. She died a week later.
Her legacy is preserved through the Maria Malibran fund which houses several scores, letters, contracts, books, portraits and other personal items in the Royal Conservatory of Brussels. Malibran also been a subject of many films and in 2007 world renown coloratura mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli dedicated her album Maria to songs which were composed for Malibran.
Bix Beiderbecke (March 10, 1903 – August 6, 1931)
Beiderbecke was a cornetist, pianist, and composer who is widely regarded as one of the most influential jazz musicians of the 1920s. He got his start recording with The Wolverines and The Bucktown Five. From there he had notable stints with the Jean Goldkette Orchestra and with Paul Whiteman's Orchestra. He also recorded with Hoagy Carmichael contributing to Carmichael's 1930 classic "Georgia On My Mind". His six compositions include the jazz standards "Davenport Blues" and "In a Mist".
Beiderbecke's official cause of death was lobar pneumonia but there is debate over the extent that alcoholism contributed to his condition. Much of Beiderbecke's legacy was established after his death. He was romanticized as a musical martyr who turned to alcohol to deal with the toils of constant touring and to cope with health issues. Also, his passing at an early age, along with there only being a small handful of recordings contributed to his legend.
Big Pun (November 10, 1971 – February 7, 2000)
Born Christopher Lee Rios, Big Pun's 1998 debut album Capital Punishment is the first solo album by a Latino rapper to be certified platinum in US (sales of over a million). His 2000 posthumous follow up, Yeeeah Baby eventually went platinum as well. He was also part of the Terror Squad whose members included Fat Joe, who was a close friend and mentor of Rios. Big Pun is widely regarded and quite often ranks well in best of all time lists, including in 2012 being ranked by The Source as the #19 best lyricist of all time. His 1998 hit "Still Not a Player" was ranked 76 on VH1's list of the 100 Greatest Hip Hop Songs of all time.
Big Pun was considered morbidly obese and he ended up dying of a heart attack.
Still Not a Player by Big Pun (Featuring Joe) (Video)
John Glascock (2 May 1951 – 17 November 1979)
Glascock got his start as the bass player for the somewhat obscure UK rock band The Gods, who also happened to feature future Rolling Stone Mick Taylor and future Emerson Lake and Palmer's Greg Lake. From there he joined a couple of other bands before becoming the bassist and occasional lead singer for the influential 70s progressive rock band Carmen. The band was known for their infusion of flamenco with rock. Their 1973 debut album, Fandangos in Space is widely regarded as an important album in the development of prog. The band broke up in 1975 after three studio albums. After the breakup Glascock joined the already well established Jethro Tull. Carmen previously opened for Jethro Tull on several occasions. Glascock was Tull's bassist for the four studios and one live album that was released between 1976-1979.
Glascock health started to deteriorate in 1978 and he had to miss a leg of the band's US tour. He was suffering from a congenital heart valve defect which was compounded by an infection caused by an abscessed tooth. His condition was exacerbated by the fact he continued the rock and roll lifestyle of heavy drug and alcohol use. His last performance with the band was on May 1, 1979. He died six months later due to the heart valve damage.
Jason Thirsk (December 25, 1967 – July 29, 1996)
Thirsk was a founding member and bassist for punk band Pennywise. The band formed in 1988 and during Thirsk's time with the band they recorded two EPs and three full lengths. Pennywise were considered an integral part of the 90s California punk revival.
In 1996 Thirsk took a hiatus from the band to try to overcome his alcohol addiction. He was unable to conquer his demons and he shot himself.
After Thrisk death they dedicated their 1997 album Full Circle to Thrisk's memory. Many of the tunes on the album contain strong anti-suicide messages. They also rerecorded "Bro Hymn" as "Bro Hymn (Tribute)" which originally appeared on their 1991 self-titled album. Thrisk wrote the lyrics in remembrance of three close friends who died. The lyrics were reworked to replace the line ""Canton, Colvin, Nichols, this one's for you" with "Jason Matthew Thirsk, this one's for you".
Bro Hymn by Pennywise (Video)
1999 Russian Postage Stamp Commemorating Viktor Tsoi
Viktor Tsoi (June 21, 1962 – August 15, 1990)
As the lead singer and songwriter of Kino, Tsoi is considered a pioneer of Russian rock music. The band formed in 1981 at a time when the Soviet government wasn't too keen on rock music and if you weren't state sponsored you had no chance at media exposure and were forced underground. Despite this fact, Kino were able to build a huge following for themselves. By 1988 the political climate was starting to change which allowed Kino to achieve a commercial breakthrough with their sixth studio album, the politically charged Gruppa krovi (English: Blood Type). The music resonated throughout the Soviet Union and lead what was referred to as "Kinomania" and fans being referred to as "Kinophiles.".
Tsoi success also expanded beyond just music. He appeared in a few Russians films as well. The band also achieved a big enough profile that they were able to tour outside of the Soviet Union, playing throughout Europe and even making their way to the US to play a 1989 concert in New York which also coincided with the US premiere of Tsoi's acclaimed film Needle.
Tsoi died in a car crash. According to the results of the official investigation he fell asleep at the wheel, possibly due to fatigue. His death was considered a shock and according to the August 17 edition Soviet newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda "Tsoi means more to the young people of our nation than any politician, celebrity or writer. This is because Tsoi never lied and never sold out."
Keith Green (October 21, 1953 – July 28, 1982)
Green's recording career got its start when he signed to Decca Records in 1965.He released his first single in May of 1965, "The Go Getter" He also wrote the song which gave the eleven old Green the distinction of becoming the youngest person to sign with American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP). It was Decca's plan to turn Green into a teen pop idol and he did appear on the Steve Allen Show and Jack Benny Program. Unfortunately, full blown stardom alluded him.
Later, he became an evangelist and a pioneering contemporary Christian music (CCM) artist. He released his debut CCM album For Him Who Has Ears to Hear in 1977 which was ranked 5th on the list of 100 Greatest Albums in Christian Music by CCM Magazine. He also befriended Bob Dylan during Dylan's born-again Christian phase. Dylan played harmonica on "Pledge My Head to Heaven" on Green's 1980 album So You Wanna Go Back to Egypt.
Green died in a plane crash which was caused by the small two engine plane exceeding it's loading capacity. Included among the eleven passengers who died was Green's 3-year-old son Josiah and 2-year-old daughter Bethany.
Luigi Tenco (March 21, 1938 – January 27, 1967)
Tenco was a controversial Italian singer whose legacy was also partly established by the disputed nature of his death. He had multiple songs which were banned because of Tenco's political views, such as the 1962 tune "Cara Maestra" (Dear Teacher) which was critical of the church. He was also known for his recordings with the renown Egyptian-Italian-French singer Dalida, who he was also romantically involved with.
Tenco allegedly shot himself to death. The suicide note made the following statement concerning his motives for ending his life: 'I do this not because I am tired of life (on the contrary) but as a protest against a public that sends roses to the final and a jury that selects 'La Rivoluzione'". The note was in reference to the fact that his song "Ciao, Amore Ciao" was eliminated from the Festival di Sanremo, a prestigious Italian song competition which also served as a important precursor to the Eurovison song contest. His body was discovered by Dalida. Because no autopsy was performed and no calligraphic analysis of the suicide note, many disputed the cause of death and suspected foul play. The body was exhumed on February 15, 2006 and according to experts the new autopsy and ballistics analysis supported suicide. These findings were still widely disputed.
Harry Womack (June 25, 1945 – March 9, 1974)
Womack was part the brother quintet The Valentinos. The brothers started to perform in their father's church. Ranging from 7-13 years of age, the young brothers cut their first single in 1954 "Buffalo Bill" under the name Curtis Womack and the Womack Brothers. They were starting to amass a gospel following when they caught the attention of legendary soul singer Sam Cooke. They ended up signing to Cooke's record label SAR Records in 1960. They recorded a couple of gospel singles as The Womack Brothers. Then they changed their names to The Valentinos and started performing secular music. They scored their first R&B hit in 1962 with "Lookin' for a Love". They followed that up with the 1964 minor hit "It"s All Over Now" which was written by Harry's brother Bobby. In 1964 it also became The Rolling Stones first US top 30 hit when they covered it. After their mentor Sam Cooke was murdered in 1964 the band struggled to regain their momentum. Bobby would eventually start to achieve success as a songwriter and solo artist and would use his brothers to provide backing vocals. This included the brothers singing background on Bobby's reworking of their previous hit "Lookin for a Love". The funky upgrade became a top ten hit in 1974.
Harry was stabbed to death by a jealous girlfriend who discovered garments that belong to another woman. Harry was staying at Bobby's place and the garments belonged to a girlfriend of Bobby.
Jessi Zazu Ain't Afraid of Cancer
Jessi Zazu (July 28, 1989- September 12, 2017)
Zazu was the lead singer of Those Darlins, who were a mixture of alt-country and garage rock. The band released their self titled debut in 2009 on their own label Oh Wow Dang. The first single from the album "Red Light Love" got some attention when it was featured in a Kia Sorento commercial. They followed up their debut with two more critically well received albums. The band announced their hiatus on December 9, 2015 and performed their final concert on March 17, 2016.
On December 19, 2016 Zazu posted a YouTube video announcing she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. The video features her getting her head shave to prepare for the chemo. While she is getting her head shaved the Those Darlins tune "Ain't Afraid" was playing in the background and she was wearing the shirt which made that statement. Zazu wrote the tune which appeared on their 2013 album Blur The Line before she knew she had cancer. It contained the prophetic lyric "There's a tumor growing on my body I don't know what lays in store". Despite her defiance she sadly lost the battle.
Screws Get Loose by Those Darlins
© 2018 CJ Baker
Dianna Mendez on May 11, 2018:
Sad to read about these people who passed at an early age. I remember hearing about Keith Green; seems like it could have been prevented. God only knows when our time is up.
Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on April 28, 2018:
This was a sad list of those who died too young in their prime. Some I've heard of, like with Avicii and some I haven't toward the end. Thanks for sharing.