Well, I never thought I’d make it, but I turn 27 today, 1 August. So what better way to celebrate than write a blog post about the famous 27 Club, something that has always fascinated me ever since I got into classic rock. I remember being in secondary school and talking to my friend who was equally obsessed with classic rock about it, we were shocked at how many of the 27 Club have names that start with J: Robert Johnson, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix.
Everyone is fascinated with the 27 Club. But why? In this blog post I’m going to talk about the fascination with the 27 Club and then we’ll talk about the musicians themselves, but instead of talking about their deaths, let’s talk about how we remember them – the work that they created: what will live forever! Let’s celebrate the lives of these musicians.
The Mystique of The 27 Club
Rock and Roll has a lot of young deaths. Not all of these were because the musicians lived recklessly and did lots of drugs, contrary to popular beliefs. Some young deaths were plane crashes or traffic collisions like Ritchie Valens (17), Eddie Cochran (21), Buddy Holly (22), Cliff Burton (24), Duane Allman (24), Otis Redding (26), The Big Bopper (28), Viktor Tsoi (28), Marc Bolan (29), and Patsy Cline (30). Some young deaths were health conditions/illnesses like Stu Sutcliffe (21), Tammi Terrell (24), Paul Kossoff (25), Minnie Riperton (31), and Ricky Wilson (32).
On a personal level, the reason why I’m so fascinated with these musicians is because I see them as people who achieved a lot at such a young age, and then I look at myself and think “Wow, I’m pathetic! These guys were out touring the world, making lots of money, and making work that will forever be remembered and meanwhile I’m just sitting on my bed with my laptop and making memes and occasionally posting some commentary on classic rock, but nothing groundbreaking”. These musicians were high achievers and many of them were geniuses and visionaries, among the top of their field and who knows what more amazing things they would have done had they lived a full life?
There are many reasons people are fascinated with the 27 Club and other young deaths of musicians. Part of it is the pop culture aspect: these were people who made music that we love and for the enthusiasts it isn’t enough to hear the songs, we want to know about the people behind them and for many of us we want to know their whole story from beginning to end. The way humans look at death is it’s one big mystery. What happens afterwards? Is there an afterlife? Is that it? Is it over? As far as making music or art is concerned, yeah, the person is gone and they can no longer make or perform music. They left us with a lot of great work, that’s for sure, but what’s on everyone’s minds is what would have become of them had they lived? What direction would they have gone in next? What ideas were in that incredible mind, but were never realised? People constantly thinking of these musicians and celebrating their work has immortalised them. They may not be on this planet, but we’re always thinking about them.
I’ve thought of this philosophical question, at what age is the saddest death? I’d argue that a young adult or a teenager’s death is the most tragic of all. Of course all deaths are sad, but I think between the ages of 16 and 29 are the saddest of all. At those ages, you’re only just starting to live; you’ve more or less developed as a human being and people see that unique personality; you have hopes and dreams which may only be starting to be accomplished – but you have a ways to go on other hopes and dreams; you’ve made a lot of connections: at that age you’re probably in a committed relationship or you’ve at least been in a few; no doubt that in your teens and 20s, you’ve touched a lot of people’s lives and made an impact even if you’re not a famous person.
Why 27 and not some other age? Well, I decided to make a little bar graph according to 100 Youngest Musician Deaths on the ihopeidiebeforeigetold.com page. Of course, it isn’t an exhaustive list of musician deaths, but rather a good sample size and a pretty complete resource.
You see a huge spike at the age of 27, and coincidentally 27 deaths at the age of 27! So there is actually a reason that so much focus is on that age for musicians. The sheer number that died at 27 and that’s not all of them! Without further ado, The Diversity of Classic Rock’s tribute to the 27 Club, and not just the same 7 or so musicians who always get talked about. There’s many more than that!
NB: All dates are day/month/year.
Over 100 Years of The 27 Club
In this section, I’ll be going through the 27 Club chronologically by the date of death. Only rock (and genres considered rock-adjacent) musicians will be talked about in this blog post, as this is a rock music blog. Starting with Alexandre Levy and ending with Amy Winehouse. Yes, There were 27 Club members before Robert Johnson, often called the first 27 Club member.
Content Warning: Some discussion of drugs and violence.
Alexandre Levy (d. 17/1/1892): Brazilian composer, pianist, and conductor who combined the sounds of classical music with Brazilian folk music and rhythms. I included him as he’s the first listed on Wikipedia’s 27 Club list. Little is known of his life.
Louis Chauvin (d. 26/3/1908): Ragtime musician of Mexican (Mestizo) and Black ancestry. Widely considered the best pianist of his time in the St Louis area. Before jazz was popular, there was Ragtime, a genre popular from the 1890s to the 1910s. The name refers to its syncopated (rhythms played together to make part of the music off-beat) or ragged rhythm. He was best known for his compositions “The Moon Is Shining in the Skies”, “Babe, It’s Too Long Off”, and “Heliotrope Bouquet”.
Robert Johnson (d. 16/8/1938): Delta Blues guitar legend. Influenced many classic rockers, especially Eric Clapton, Brian Jones, Keith Richards, Led Zeppelin, and Bob Dylan. Sadly as incredible a performer as he was, he only had a couple recording sessions in 1936 and 1937, but these are considered landmark and very ahead of its time.
His life was full of mystery and there’s a legend that while living on a plantation he wanted to become a great blues musician so he went with his guitar to a crossroad, where he met the Devil, who taught him guitar and he made a deal with him to be a blues master. How good was he at the blues? When Brian Jones played a Robert Johnson record for Keith Richards, Keith thought that there were two guys playing guitar, when in fact that was all Robert Johnson playing one guitar. Not only was Robert Johnson considered a great guitarist, his vocals are praised because of his use of microtones, which gave his songs that emotional feel. Eric Clapton called his voice “the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice”.
Nat Jaffe (d. 5/8/1945): Swing jazz pianist who spent a decade in Berlin, where he received classical training on piano. He worked with musicians like Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Charlie Barnet, Jack Teagarden, and Sarah Vaughan.
Jesse Belvin (d. 6/2/1960): R&B singer-songwriter. He started performing professionally at the age of 16, opening for Big Jay McNeely and Lionel Hampton at the 5th Cavalcade of Jazz in LA. The following year, he became a backing vocalist for Big Jay McNeely, as part of Three Dots and a Dash. In 1952, he started recording as a solo artist. “Dream Girl” was a breakthrough for him, reaching #2 on the R&B charts in 1953. That was the year he was drafted into the army, but even then he continued writing songs, like “Earth Angel”, which was a big hit for The Penguins, one of the first R&B to pop crossover hits. In 1956, he was back recording solo again and “Goodnight My Love” was a big hit, becoming the closing theme for Alan Freed’s show. In 1958, he got another hit with a group called The Shields, “You Cheated”. As The Cliques, he and Eugene Church got a minor hit with “The Girl In My Dreams”, which Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons later covered. Right before his death, he was touring with Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, and Marv Johnson. They played the first concert with an integrated audience in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Rudy Lewis (d. 20/5/1964): Vocalist in The Drifters. He got his start singing gospel music and was one of only two men who sang with the Clara Ward Singers, a gospel group he kept working with until he auditioned and got into The Drifters. He was hired on the spot as Ben E. King’s replacement when he auditioned for The Drifters at the Uptown Theater in Philadelphia. He sang lead vocals on hits like “Please Stay”, “Some Kind of Wonderful”, “Up On The Roof”, and “On Broadway”. As a solo musician, he released two singles, “Rainbow In My Eyes” b/w “Nobody Knows” and “Baby I Dig Love” b/w “I’ve Loved You So Long”. Just before The Drifters were to record “Under The Boardwalk” he was found dead in his hotel room. It was later revealed that Rudy Lewis was gay and suffered from binge eating disorder.
Joe Henderson (d. 24/10/1964): R&B and gospel singer who got a big hit with “Snap Your Fingers”, which reached #2 on the R&B charts and #8 on the pop charts in 1962. He didn’t have many other hits after that, with his last chart hit being “You Take One Step (I’ll Take Two)”.
Rockin’ Robin Roberts (d. 22/12/1967): Rock singer from the Pacific Northwest. Best known as a member of garage band The Wailers, who were the first band to cover Richard Berry’s “Louie Louie”, but that version wasn’t a nationwide hit, but it did well in Seattle. That version influenced The Kingsmen’s version of it, with Jack Ely copying Rockin Robin Roberts’ ad-libbed line “let’s give it to ’em right now!”.
He was born in New York City and as a child, after his father died, his family moved to Tacoma, Washington. While in secondary school, he got into R&B music and often bought R&B records in the record stores in the black neighbourhoods of Tacoma. He loved to cover R&B songs and his stage name came from the Bobby Day song “Rockin’ Robin”. In 1960 he left the band The Bluenotes for rival group The Wailers. While he was a musician, he didn’t drop out of school. He ended up graduating with a MSc in Biochemistry and became an assistant professor for a bit. He was also a Marine from 1962-1967. In July 1967, he moved to San Francisco to work as a chemist for the Crown Cork and Seal Company.
Malcolm Hale (d. 30/10/1968): Original member and lead guitarist for female fronted rock band Spanky and Our Gang. He played on the first two albums. His death was a blow to the band and led to their breakup in 1969.
Dickie Pride (d. 26/3/1969): Rock and roll singer who was part of Larry Parnes’ stable of pop stars, and like many of them he had a stage name that reflected his persona. He was born Richard Kneller. When he was younger, he was told he could consider becoming an opera singer, but he instead turned to skiffle, and later rock and roll instead. Pianist and composer Russ Conway heard him and recommended him to Larry Parnes. At 16, he played his first concert as Dickie Pride. In 1959, he released his debut single, “Slippin’ and Slidin'”, a Little Richard cover. He then performed in The Big Beat Show with fellow Parnes’ pop stars Marty Wilde, Billy Fury, Terry Dene, Johnny Gentle, and Duffy Power. Pride was a one hit wonder whose singles underperformed. His only chart hit was “Primrose Lane”, which just made the top 30. It wasn’t long before Larry Parnes dropped him. After that he was struggling with his mental health. His contemporaries believed he deserved better.
Brian Jones (d. 3/7/1969): Founding member of The Rolling Stones and multi-instrumentalist who could pick up any instrument and play it well. You can hear his talents especially on the albums Aftermath, Between the Buttons, and Their Satanic Majesties Request. Sadly, he’s dismissed a lot in Rolling Stones history and it’s a shame. Without Brian Jones, there’d be no Rolling Stones. He wasn’t some loser druggie, he was a smart guy with a lot of talent, gone too soon.
He was born in Cheltenham to a Welsh family. He was a smart kid and did very well in school, especially in music, where he was first clarinet in the school orchestra. He was rebellious and hated the conformity of school. As a teenager he got into blues and jazz music, and that opened a whole new world for him. He was a later starter than you would think on guitar, only getting his first acoustic guitar at 17. He spent some time living a nomadic life as a busking musician before moving to London in the early 60s to play blues music and start The Rolling Stones. While in London he made friends with Alexis Korner, Paul Jones, and Jack Bruce.
In May 1962 he placed an ad in Jazz News looking for bandmates. Ian Stewart, Keith Richards, and Mick Jagger ended up responding and they joined The Rolling Stones. Dick Taylor and Tony Chapman later joined, but they were eventually replaced by Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts. Brian Jones even came up with the band’s name, naming the band after a Muddy Waters song. He also taught Mick Jagger how to play harmonica.
However, over time he became estranged from his bandmates and pushed to the side. Manager Andrew Loog Oldham wanted Mick Jagger to be the face and star of the show and for them to write original material so they can make more money. Brian Jones on the other hand wanted the Stones to stay blues. Brian Jones got arrested a couple times for possession of marijuana and that started to cause even more trouble in the band. His condition got worse and worse and when the Rolling Stones were to tour America again in 1969, he couldn’t come along and on the 8th of June 1969, he was fired. In less than a month, he was found dead in his swimming pool. Of the Rolling Stones, only Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman went to his funeral.
Alexandra (d. 31/7/1969): German singer born Doris Treitz. She was very artistic and her mother encouraged her to pursue her passions. Before she was a musician she was an actor and fashion designer and even competed in the Miss Germany pageant. When she was 19, she married a Russian immigrant who originally was on his way to the US, but after a year they divorced and he went to the US without her. She started her music career in 1967 and had a few hits in Germany. She also sang songs in other languages and performed in Rio de Janeiro once. She died in a car accident while on the way to speak to her record label. Her son, Alexander, and mother were in the car, her son survived and her mother died later in hospital.
Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson (d. 3/9/1970): Founder, lead singer, and leader of blues rock band Canned Heat. He was born on the 4th of July 1943 in a suburb of Boston called Arlington. While in university, he played the Cambridge, Massachusetts coffeehouse folk-blues circuit and did some music journalism, writing for Broadside of Boston and Little Sandy Review. When there was a revival of interest in Son House, he forgot how to play his own songs and Alan Wilson jogged Son House’s memory by playing his songs for him and even played harmonica and guitar on his album Father of Folk Blues. Later, he met legendary acoustic folk guitarist John Fahey, who gave him the nickname “Blind Owl” because of his nearsightedness and his bookishness. He then played on John Fahey’s album The Great San Bernardino Birthday Party & Other Excursions.
In 1965, he and Bob Hite formed Canned Heat, named after Tommy Johnson’s 1928 song “Canned Heat Blues”. They famously played Monterey in 1967 and Woodstock in 1969. Alan Wilson sang on the band’s two biggest hits: “On The Road Again” and “Going Up The Country”, the latter of which became a hippie anthem. Johnny Otis produced the band’s 1966 debut, but it wasn’t released until 1970. The band had a reputation for being “bad boys” because they were arrested for drug possession. To bail them out of jail, their manager had to sell the band’s publishing rights.
Alan Wilson struggled with depression and felt quite lonely because of his introverted personality. He had an interest in environmentalism and conservation. He attempted suicide months before his death. His death was only two weeks before Jimi Hendrix’s.
Jimi Hendrix (d. 18/9/1970): No introduction is needed for Jimi Hendrix, one of the best guitarists of all time and a total genius. He was born in Seattle to mixed parents. His father was born in Canada and his mother was part Native American. He was a firstborn and he had four younger siblings. His upbringing was difficult, with not a lot of money, his parents being alcoholics who would often fight, and he and his brother Leon were moved around a lot. As a kid, he loved to mock play guitar with a broom and the school social worker begged Jimi’s father, Al, to get him a guitar for his well being. It would be years until Jimi got something close to resembling a guitar. He found a ukulele while cleaning up an old woman’s home and made do with the instrument that only had one string, playing along with Elvis songs. Finally at the age of 15, he got an acoustic guitar and learnt how to play blues songs.
At 19, he got in trouble for riding in a stolen car and so he was sent to the Army. While in the Army, he still played guitar. After a year, he was discharged and moved around Tennessee, playing in various bands and on the Chitlin’ Circuit. There, he backed musicians like Wilson Pickett, Slim Harpo, Sam Cooke, Ike & Tina Turner, and Jackie Wilson. In 1964, he went to New York and played some Harlem Clubs before working with the Isley Brothers and later, Little Richard. In 1966, he moved to Greenwich Village and played at the famous Cafe Wha? and started a band with Randy California (later of Spirit). One day, Keith Richards’ girlfriend saw him play and was mesmerised. She introduced him to Chas Chandler (formerly of The Animals) and in September, he went to London and The Jimi Hendrix Experience were put together. The band quickly found success and Jimi famously played both Monterey and Woodstock. Jimi was praised by so many of his contemporaries. With Axis: Bold As Love, he experimented with some psychedelic effects like feedback and panning, which gave his music a space rock sound. “Burning of the Midnight Lamp” from Electric Ladyland was his first song to use a wah-wah pedal. The Experience then broke up in 1969 and Jimi then played Woodstock with a new band he called Gypsy Sun and Rainbows. At this time, he was the highest paid rock musician in the world. His Woodstock performance is considered one of the best musical performances of all time. In 1970, he released his first album without the Experience, Band of Gypsys. It had a funk rock sound rather than the hard rock fans were more familiar with. An incredibly prolific musician, many songs were released posthumously. For sure, had he survived the 70s, he would have gone in a funk direction and who knows? Maybe he would have tried disco or hip-hop?
Janis Joplin (d. 4/10/1970): Weeks after Jimi’s death was Janis’s death. Janis went from just a blues fan in Texas to superstar. She was born in Port Arthur, Texas and grew up going to church with her family. While in secondary school, she was an outcast who was bullied a lot. Thanks to one of her friends, she got into blues music and that changed her life. While in university, she performed folk music and was even profiled in a student newspaper. By this time, she got into Beat poetry and that influenced her aesthetic. In 1963, she left for California for the first time and hitchhiked to San Francisco. She spent a couple of years there and started doing drugs and getting into trouble. In 1965, she came back to Texas and her family tried to get her to live a sober life. It wasn’t long until she was back in San Francisco, but this time she found success with Big Brother and the Holding Company. Like Jimi and Alan Wilson, she also performed at both Monterey and Woodstock, which were groundbreaking moments for her career. In 1969, she split from Big Brother and the Holding Company and went solo and toured Europe. She arrived to Woodstock by helicopter with Joan Baez and she attended the festival with her girlfriend, Peggy Caserta. She did a lot of drugs and drank a lot before her set, but even though this wasn’t her best performance, the crowd still loved her. In an interview she said she felt most comfortable playing smaller venues in San Francisco. The last band she put together were the Full Tilt Boogie Band, made up of Canadian musicians who used to work with Ronnie Hawkins. She went to her high school reunion but had a bad experience there and at a press conference she said some disparaging things about her hometown and school, who could blame her though? Texas still has a lot of problems with racism and homophobia. Her 1971 album, Pearl, was released posthumously and was her biggest success, the hit single on it was a cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee”.
Arlester “Dyke” Christian (d. 13/3/1971): Lead singer of funk band Dyke and the Blazers. He was born in Buffalo, New York and went to Phoenix with bandmate Carl LaRue and they formed Dyke and the Blazers with some musicians there. The band were best known for their hits “Funky Broadway” – the first hit song to use funky in its title (released in 1966) and “Let a Woman Be a Woman”. Wilson Pickett covered “Funky Broadway” and fellow Buffalo native Rick James called the song’s sound revolutionary. Just as Arlester Christian was preparing for a British tour with Barry White, he was murdered in Phoenix. No one was convicted of his murder.
Jim Morrison (d. 3/7/1971): Lead singer of The Doors and songwriter/poet. Considered one of the best lead singers of all time. An icon of the 60s generation. He was born in Florida. His father was in the Navy and therefore the family moved around a lot. When he was around 3-4 years old, he saw a car accident in the desert and there were some Native Americans there crying. It was a significant formative event in is life and influenced his songwriting. He was an intelligent kid and loved to read philosophy and poetry. He read more than anyone in his English class and the books he read were so out there that his teachers couldn’t believe the books existed. The Doors are named after Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, which was a reference to a line in William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
After spending some time in Florida going to college, he ended up moving to LA in 1964 and transferring to UCLA and the following year graduating with a degree in Theatre Arts. Like Ray Manzarek, he made some student films and they later utilised these skills to make prmotional videos for their songs. He was broke before he formed The Doors, going for a time living off beans and LSD. He formed The Doors with Ray Manzarek in 1965. The two ran into each other in Venice and they hit it off. In 1966, The Doors opened for Van Morrison & Them at the Whisky. Van Morrison was a huge inspiration for Jim’s stage presence and songwriting. In 1967, they got their breakthrough with their self-titled debut and when they performed “Light My Fire” on The Ed Sullivan Show, Jim refused to censor “girl we couldn’t get much higher”, getting them banned from the show – a pretty badass move. The band were prolific, releasing 3 albums in a year and a half long period. They were on top of the world!
But in 1969, Jim Morrison’s appearance changed, he started growing facial hair, dressing more casually, and he gained weight. At a Doors concert in 1970 in Florida, he tried to start a riot and was arrested. Governor of Florida Charlie Crist pardoned Jim Morrison in 2010. LA Woman was the last Doors album with Jim Morrison. After recording that, he went to Paris with Pamela Courson, his girlfriend. He died in Paris. Many classic rock fans make it a point to see his grave in Père Lachaise Cemetery.
Linda Jones (d. 14/3/1972): Gospel influenced soul singer. She was born in Newark, New Jersey and came from a family of gospel singers. At the age of 6, she started singing in her family’s gospel group, The Jones Singers. She made her first recording as Linda Lane in 1963. Four years later she reached #4 on the R&B charts and #21 on the pop charts with “Hypnotised”. She followed that up with “What’ve I Done (To Make You Mad)”, which wasn’t a pop success, but reached #8 on the R&B charts. She didn’t have another hit again until 1972 when she covered The Impressions’ “For Your Precious Love”. That same year, she died in her sleep due to complications from diabetes.
Leslie Harvey (d. 3/5/1972): Guitarist of Scottish band Stone The Crows and younger brother of Alex Harvey. In the 60s, The Animals’ Alan Price asked him to join the band but he turned it down to stay in his brother’s band. After that, he was in The Blues Council, which ended up having a tragic ending when the tour band crashed and singer Fraser Calder and bassist James Giffen died, leading to their breakup. After that, he joined Cartoone, who opened for Led Zeppelin and Spirit. In 1969, he formed Stone The Crows with Maggie Bell, Colin Allen, James Dewar, and John McGinnis. He played on the band’s first two albums. While playing a concert in Wales in 1972, he was electrocuted when he accidentally touched a microphone that wasn’t earthed.
Ron “Pigpen” McKernan (d. 8/3/1973): Founding member of the Grateful Dead. He was born and raised in California. His father was an R&B DJ and one of the first white DJs for KDIA, a black radio station. Because of his father and black friends growing up, he got into blues music. He taught himself how to play piano, guitar, and harmonica and was an avid record collector. When his family moved to Palo Alto when he was 14, he made friends with Jerry Garcia. In the early days of the Grateful Dead, they played a lot of R&B and blues covers and Pigpen largely picked the songs for the sets. Later though, Jerry Garcia became the leader and changed the direction of the band to more psychedelic and jam band. He and Bob Weir were almost fired at one point. He was good friends with Janis Joplin and like bandmate Tom Constanten, he didn’t like psychedelic drugs. Instead he preferred drinking and he drank a lot! He didn’t even smoke weed! When the Grateful Dead were busted for pot in 1967, he was arrested too even though he didn’t smoke. He happened to have a rare autoimmune condition and drinking made things worse, so bad to the point where doctors told him to retire from performing in 1971. When he left the Grateful Dead for good he cut ties with all band members. Jerry Garcia said at his funeral “After Pigpen’s death we all knew this was the end of the original Grateful Dead.”
Roger Durham (d. 27/7/1973): Percussionist and vocalist of Kansas City R&B band Bloodstone. The band were formed when the band members were in secondary school and performed doo-wop. They then moved to LA and changed their named from The Sinceres to Bloodstone. They got their first big hit with “Natural High” in 1973, which did well on the European and American charts. Sadly, just as Bloodstone found success with “Natural High”, Roger Durham died at 27 after being thrown off a horse.
Wally Yohn (d. 12/8/1974): Organ player of jazz rock band Chase, best known for their 1971 hit “Get It On” (no relation to T. Rex’s song of the same name). Their debut album sold hundreds of thousands of copies, but their followup, Ennea didn’t do very well. They were nominated for the Best New Artist Grammy, but Carly Simon beat them. Pure Music, their 1974 album was better received and The Ides of March’s Jim Peterik co-wrote a couple songs on the album. The band released 3 albums until multiple band members died in a plane crash: Bill Chase, Walter Clark, John Emma, and Wally Yohn. They were on their way to a scheduled performance at a county fair in Minnesota.
Dave Alexander (d. 10/2/1975): Stooges bassist. While in secondary school, he met future Stooges bandmates Ron & Scott Asheton. He dropped out of secondary school and travelled to England with Ron Asheton to see The Yardbirds and The Who and try to find The Beatles. After that, they met Iggy Pop and formed The Stooges. Dave Alexander may have had little experience in playing bass, but he was a fast learner and had a part in composing and writing the songs on the band’s first two albums. He was fired from the band in 1970 for being too drunk to play the Goose Lake International Music Festival. He was considered The Lost Stooge, because of his shyness and mysteriousness. He had an interest in the occult and loved metaphysics and philosophy. But like Pigpen McKernan, he started drinking from a young age and he had a lot of problems with alcohol, but unlike McKernan, he loved to smoke weed and trip on acid too.
Pete Ham (d. 24/4/1975): Lead singer, founding member, and main songwriter of Badfinger, who were once called the “Next Beatles”, but in fact ended up becoming one of the most screwed over bands in classic rock history. The band’s name was taken from the working title of “With A Little Help From My Friends”, “Bad Finger Boogie”.
He was born in Swansea, Wales and was in a couple rock bands, one of which became The Iveys. In 1966, The Iveys moved to London and Pete Ham became their main songwriter. In 1968, The Beatles’ personal assistant Mal Evans heard about them and told The Beatles about them and they got signed to their Apple label. They released one album in 1969 as The Iveys, Maybe Tomorrow. In December 1969, Badfinger made their debut as Badfinger with “Come and Get It”, a Paul McCartney composition. That song was on the soundtrack of the film The Magic Christian and many of their Iveys songs were re-recorded for Magic Christian Music. Later in 1970, they released their second album, No Dice, which had the big hit “No Matter What”. Things were still going well in 1971 and 1972 when “Day After Day” and “Baby Blue” were hits. Pete Ham’s composition “Without You” became a big hit for Harry Nilsson in 1971. When Nilsson heard the original, he thought it was a new Beatles song. In 1973, Pete Ham was awarded an Ivor Novello Award for his songwriting.
Not only was Pete Ham doing well in Badfinger, he was working with George Harrison on All Things Must Pass and played on stage with him at The Concert For Bangladesh. However, financially Badfinger didn’t have anything to show for their success. Their manager Stan Polley who allegedly had Mafia connections stole their money and this was bad news for Pete Ham who had bought a house and his girlfriend had a baby on the way. The band members were also fighting a lot with each other. They tried to get gigs on their own, but No Dice. Pete Ham’s mental health declined and he started self harming – burning cigarettes on himself.
Days before his 28th birthday, Pete Ham got the bad news over the phone that the money’s all gone. Devastated, he called his bandmate Tom Evans and they went to the pub. Pete had 10 whiskies and Tom drove him home. Just as Tom left, Pete wrote a suicide note and hanged himself in his garage. One month later, his daughter Petera was born. The death of Pete Ham was a huge blow to the band, who broke up but then when they reunited they continued having drama. Tom Evans took his life in 1983 after fighting with Joey Molland over royalties for “Without You”. He was 36.
Gary Thain (d. 8/12/1975): Bassist for Uriah Heep and Keef Hartley Band. He was born in New Zealand and moved to Australia at 17 before moving to England in the late 60s. He once jammed with Jimi Hendrix in 1969. He joined the Keef Hartley Band, playing with them at Woodstock in 1969 and playing on their albums from 1969-1972. They toured with Uriah Heep and Uriah Heep poached him in 1972, asking him to join the band. He played on Demons and Wizards, The Magician’s Birthday, Sweet Freedom, and Wonderworld. In 1974 while Uriah Heep toured the US, he was shocked and seriously injured. He had drug problems and couldn’t play properly, so he was let go from the band. He died of respiratory failure due to a heroin overdose at his London flat.
Cecilia (d. 2/8/1976): Spanish singer-songwriter known for her political and feminist songs, which would get her into trouble because of Franco’s dictatorship. For example, her song “Un millión de suenos” (a million dreams) was originally titled “Un millión de muertos” (a million dead). She also had a song called “Me quedaré soltera” (I will remain single).
She sang in both English and Spanish and had a big following in Latin America, performing a lot of concerts in various countries there. Her biggest influences were Simon & Garfunkel, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez and that made her stand out in a crowd of Spanish singers who were more influenced by French musicians. Her father was a diplomat so she moved around a lot living in the UK, US, Jordan, and Portugal. She died in a car accident on the way back to Madrid from a concert in Vigo.
Helmut Köllen (d. 3/5/1977): Bassist for German prog rock band Triumvirat. He was from Cologne and was in a bunch of local bands before joining Triumvirat in 1974. That year, Triumvirat toured the US with Fleetwood Mac. In 1975, they opened for Grand Funk when they toured Europe. Köllen released one solo album in 1976 called You Won’t See Me, named after one of his favourite Beatles songs. He also loved working on cars and had an interest in race car driving. After his death German prog rock band Birth Control wrote and recorded “We All Thought We Knew You” as a tribute to him.
Chris Bell (d. 27/12/1978): Singer-songwriter and guitarist of Big Star, the band he led with Alex Chilton. Both of them were from Memphis and played in garage rock bands inspired by British Invasion groups. He even named one garage rock band The Jynx, a play on The Kinks. While Alex Chilton was in The Box Tops and found fame with the hit “The Letter”, Chris Bell kept working with local bands in Memphis and worked with groups like Icewater and Rock City. Bell asked Chilton to join a new band he was forming, Big Star, but Bell left the band in 1972 after #1 Record came out because of its lack of success. He struggled with depression, alcoholism, and drugs and became immersed in Christianity. He didn’t give up on music though and tried to launch a successful solo career, but without much luck. He died in a car accident on the way home from a band rehearsal.
Zenon de Fleur (d. 17/3/1979): Guitarist for rock band The Count Bishops, born Zenon Hierowski. The band had an international lineup with American, Irish, Australian, and British band members. The band had a following in the pub rock scene. Zenon died in a car accident.
Jacob Miller (d. 23/3/1980): Lead singer of reggae band Inner Circle. He was born in Mandeville, Jamaica and raised by his grandparents in Kingston. He spent a lot of time in his early years at Studio One recording for Sir Coxsone Dodd. A band called Inner Circle hired him as lead singer and bandmates nicknamed him “Killer”. He loved making jokes. In 1976 they got a record deal with a major label and by 1978 they became one of the most popular reggae acts. They also incorporated other sounds into their music like rock and disco. Right before his death he travelled to Brazil with Bob Marley and Island Records founder Chris Blackwell to celebrate Island opening an office in South America. Right after he got back to Jamaica and on the eve of an American tour with Bob Marley, Miller and his son died in a car accident.
D. Boon (d. 22/12/1985): Guitarist and lead singer of San Pedro, California punk band Minutemen, known for their very short songs, often under two minutes, with a lot being under a minute long. D. Boon and friend Mike Watt had a passion for music and met when they were 13 initially playing covers together. In 1978, they formed The Reactionaries together with George Hurley and Martin Tamburovich. They had a following in the hardcore punk scene and toured extensively across America. The band were getting more and more popular and their last tour was with REM in 1985. D. Boon was killed in a van accident and the Minutemen disbanded. Bandmates Mike Watt and George Hurley were devastated and considered quitting music all together, but a big fan of the band encouraged them to continue making music and so the surviving band members went their separate ways. Famous fans of The Minutemen include Dave Alvin of The Blasters and Joe Strummer of The Clash (who considered them one of the top punk bands along with The Ramones, Television Personalities, and Buzzcocks). Their best album is Double Nickels On The Dime (the title is a reference to trucker slang with “Double Nickels” meaning 55 mph and “The Dime” referring to Interstate 10, the southernmost cross country motorway in America stretching from California to Florida), an 81 minute long double album with over 40 songs, some jazz-fusion and funk elements can be heard on this album, making it a really interesting alternative/post-punk listen.
Alexander Bashlachev (d. 17/2/1988): Russian poet and singer-songwriter. He was born in Cherepovets in 1960. He left secondary school in 1977 and his goal was to go to journalism school in St Petersburg, but he couldn’t get in because he didn’t have a writing portfolio. For a year, he worked as a painter at the Cherepovets Metallurgical Plant, where his father worked. Both his parents worked in science, but he wanted to work in a creative field. A year later, he got into journalism school, but at Ural State University. He came back to his hometown and worked at a newspaper. In 1984, a friend encouraged him to start playing living room concerts in Moscow and St Petersburg. He played concerts at the flats of artist Nikola Ovchinnikov and poet Gennady Katsov. He later joined the Rock Club in St Petersburg and worked at the famous Kamchatka boiler room, same boiler room where Russian rock legend Viktor Tsoi worked. In 1987, he appeared in a documentary film called Rock and performed at the 5th Leningrad Rock Festival. His favourite bands were The Doors and influential Russian band Aquarium. He always felt lonely and depressed and it is thought when he fell out the window of his flat that it was suicide.
Pete de Freitas (d. 14/6/1989): Drummer of Echo & The Bunnymen who played on the band’s first five albums. He was born in Trinidad and raised in England. He joined the band in 1980. He temporarily left the band in 1985 and went to New Orleans to try to form a new group, but it never took off. He came back as a part time member in 1987. While travelling from London to Liverpool on motorbike, he crashed into a car and died.
Finbarr Donnelly (d. 18/6/1989): Singer of post punk band Five Go Down to the Sea?. He was born in Belfast and raised in Cork. His family moved to the south of Ireland to escape The Troubles. When he was 16, he met future bandmate Ricky Dineen and they bonded over UFOs. The two formed a band called Nun Attax, which became Five Go Down to the Sea?. In 1983 the band moved to London for better opportunities. Alan McGee of Creation Records was impressed with their work and signed them. Unfortunately the Singing in Braille EP only sold 600 copies, therefore it was a flop and so the band broke up. Donnelly and Dineen stayed in London and tried to get noticed in the industry, but no luck. The two loved to joke and Donnelly liked to drink, had an eccentric stage presence, and wrote absurdist, surreal lyrics. Overall a charismatic person with a magnetic personality. He drowned while swimming in the Serpentine Pond in Hyde Park on a hot day. After he died, it was revealed he was gay.
Chris Austin (d. 16/3/1991): Country singer and guitar/fiddle player for Reba McEntire and Ricky Scaggs. While on tour with Reba McEntire, the plane with her band and road manager crashed into a mountain after taking off from San Diego.
Dimitar Voev (d. 5/9/1992): Bulgarian poet and founder of new wave band Nova Generacia (New Generation). He formed the group in 1987 and they had a cult following in Bulgaria. Dimitar’s younger brother Simeon took over on vocals when he died. In 2006, they opened for Depeche Mode when they played a concert in Sofia.
Mia Zapata (d. 7/7/1993): Lead singer of punk band The Gits. She was born in Chicago and raised in Louisville. She started playing piano and guitar at the age of 9. Besides punk rock, she loved blues, R&B, and jazz music. While at university in Ohio, she and some friends formed a punk band and they moved to Seattle to pursue a music career. In Seattle The Gits found a following in the feminist scene and started to get a lot of respect from grunge fans. The band were able to go on an international tour without the might of a record label, an incredible accomplishment!
She came from an affluent family, but was not materialistic and her father described her as someone who lived in two worlds. She was a social butterfly with lots of friends in all sorts of social circles. On 7 July 1993, she was raped, beaten, strangled, and murdered while walking around the Capitol Hill neighbourhood of Seattle, known for its gay scene and counterculture scenes. The medical examiner recognised her because they were a fan of The Gits. The murderer wasn’t caught until 2003. Because of DNA evidence collected, the murderer, Jesus Mezquia, was arrested and charged in connection to the case. He had a history of being violent towards women. He did not know Mia.
Mia’s friends started a self-defence group called Home Alive, who offer anger management and self defence courses. In 1994, punk band 7 Year Bitch released an album in tribute to her called ¡Viva Zapata!. Joan Jett and Kathleen Hanna wrote “Go Home” as a tribute to her. A documentary film about her called The Gits Movie came out in 2005.
Kurt Cobain (d 5/4/1994): Lead singer and guitarist of Nirvana. A hero and spokesperson for Generation X. Well known for his angsty and political songs. He was born into a musical family in Aberdeen, Washington. He started singing at just two years old and playing piano at the age of four. He loved to listen to a lot of music of the 60s and 70s. His parents divorced when he was nine and that had a major effect on him, with him becoming more withdrawn. At 14, he got a guitar from his uncle.
He formed Nirvana in 1987 with Krist Novoselic and went through a bunch of drummers before finding Dave Grohl. Success came quickly for the band. Their first album, Bleach did well in sales, but their 1991 album Nevermind with the hit singles “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, “Come As You Are”, “Lithium”, and “In Bloom” was the band’s breakthrough. In Utero also had hits with “Heart Shaped Box” and “All Apologies”. His father tried to get him into sports, but it wasn’t really his thing. He dropped out of secondary school and his mother gave him an ultimatum: get a job or move out. He ended up leaving and living with friends. He eventually got a job and a place of his own but wanted to form a band so he begged his friend Krist Novoselic to join.
The sad thing is that Kurt Cobain didn’t want to be the spokesperson for a whole generation and was afraid of fame. He didn’t like it. To cope with his depression, he turned to alcohol and various drugs. In his family, a lot of people struggled with mental illness and some even took their lives. A month before his death, he tried to kill himself, but ended up in hospital. His wife, Courtney Love, and some friends tried to stage an intervention to get Kurt off drugs weeks later, sending him to a rehab centre. He ended up escaping and flew back to Seattle, he was spotted a few times, but no one knew where he was. Courtney Love hired a PI to try to find him, but no luck. Nirvana were to play Lollapalooza that summer, but since the band thought they were breaking up they pulled out. It turned out that Kurt took his life and his body was found days later.
Kristen Pfaff (d. 16/6/1994): Kurt Cobain wasn’t the only grunge 27 club death. Kristen Pfaff was the bassist for Hole and Janitor Joe. She was born in Buffalo, New York. Her biological father was from a family of successful musicians and he mother remarried and she took her stepfather’s last name. She studied classical piano and cello before becoming a rock star. She earned a Bachelor’s in Women’s Studies from University of Minnesota and worked as a counsellor for rape victims and advocated for women’s rights. While in Minnesota, she taught herself bass guitar and formed Janitor Joe in 1991. Courtney Love invited her to join Hole in 1993, but at first Pfaff didn’t want to join, but Courtney was determined and eventually convinced her to join Hole and move to Seattle. They ended up becoming friends and she was close to Eric Erlandson and Kurt Cobain. She had a drug problem and moved back to Minnesota after recording Live Through This and returned to Janitor Joe. Like Kurt Cobain, she went to rehab not long before her death, but the cause of death was an overdose.
Richey Edwards (d. 1/2/1995?): Rhythm guitarist and lyricist of Manic Street Preachers. One of the biggest mysteries in rock and roll is what happened to him? He was born and raised in Wales and before joining the Manic Street Preachers, he studied political science at University of Wales, Swansea. While in secondary school, he met his future bandmates, but he wasn’t originally a musician in the band, but rather started off as their roadie and driver. He was more of a songwriter than a guitarist, but he was still important in the sound and musical direction of the band. He suffered from depression and self harmed. At a couple points he checked himself into hospital, meaning that he missed out on promotional events for his band and two big festivals: Reading Festival and T in the Park. His last tour with the band was a European tour with Suede and Therapy?. On the eve of a trip to the US to promote the album The Holy Bible, he withdrew a large amount of money from his bank account and stayed at a hotel in London before returning to Wales. His car was abandoned at a service station near the Severn Bridge, a common suicide site. However, in previous interviews he said he’d never contemplate suicide. Some think that he’s still alive and claim to have spotted him in various places, but nothing conclusive. In 2008, he was declared presumed dead.
Kami (d. 21/6/1999): Drummer for visual kei band Malice Mizer. He was born on 1 February 1972 in Japan and as a child he loved traditional Japanese brush writing and using an abacus. He briefly played drums as a kid, but stopped and started again when he was in secondary school. He particularly loved new wave bands like Culture Club and Duran Duran.
Before Malice Mizer, he played in a punk band and had hair so long he could sit on it, but he later cut his hair because it got in the way. Bassist Yu~ki noticed him and wanted him to join the visual kei band to replace Gaz, who left. Visual kei is a style of Japanese rock music where the musicians dress androgynously and wear their hair in elaborate styles and wear flamboyant clothes, very much in the style of glam rock or new romantic musicians. Malice Mizer’s style was very much inspired by 18th and 19th century clothing, lots of French influence too. Kami played on the band’s first album, Memoire. He died at the age of 27 of a subarachnoid haemorrhage. Bandmate Gackt wrote a couple songs as a tribute to Kami, “Emu ~ For My Dear” and “U+K”. Közi and Yu~ki also wrote a song in tribute to Kami, “Memento”.
Amy Winehouse (d. 23/7/2011): R&B singer-songwriter and considered one of the best singers of the 2000s. She was born in London to a Jewish family, but she didn’t really like going to religious school or to synagogue. Music runs in her family, especially jazz music and she grew up listening to Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, and Dinah Washington. At 14, she started playing guitar and writing songs and by 17 she was the featured female vocalist with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. In 2003, she released her jazz influenced debut album, Frank, which was well-received and got her a lot of positive attention in the music press. In 2006. she released her classic album and breakthrough, Back to Black, which had more of a 60s girl groups inspired sound. The Dap Kings, Sharon Jones’ backing band, played the instruments on the album. She had a great work ethic, was a perfectionist, and very particular in what she wanted, making the album a success. “Rehab” was the big hit on the album and it was everywhere! In 2008, she won five Grammys! The only nomination she lost that year was for Album of the Year, which Herbie Hancock won for his Joni Mitchell cover album, River: The Joni Letters. She also did a lot of philanthropic work, donating money and time to charities and once being called the most charitable act. The public didn’t know much about her generous nature.
She was on top of the world, touring all over the world, but the reality was it was a difficult time for her. Fans booed her and walked out of her concert because she showed up intoxicated. While she was a talented performer, concerts and festival appearances frequently went wrong and she wasn’t at her best with her sometimes forgetting where she was and too drunk to remember her lyrics. Her last public appearance was at the Roundhouse in Camden, when she briefly appeared on stage to support her goddaughter Dionne Bromfield. Her last recordings were duets with Tony Bennett. She died at her home in Camden of accidental alcohol poisoning.
Below, you can find a playlist of 27 Club musicians (Note: Embedded Spotify playlists only show the first 100 songs. This playlist will have over 400 songs covering most of the musicians on this list, just click on the Spotify logo and you should get the full playlist):
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Well, happy birthday to you. I’ve got 40 years on you and a birthday coming up. Does it get easier? Well, it gets different. Your 67-year old you likely won’t recognize your 27-year old you. So it goes.
Interesting to see the statistical “proof” of the 27 club. Pretty amazing statistic. Who can explain it? The rock and roll lifestyle is a hard one and drugs and transportation take most of them out. Sometimes in combination. But that doesn’t explain the 27 thing. Oh well, sweet mystery of life. Or death.
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Thank you so much!
Happy birthday, Angie, and keep up the great work! 🙂
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Cool article, and I’m really happy you mentioned Finbarr Donnelly as Nun Attax and Five Go Down To the Sea? were great bands. I’m not sure if it’s accurate to say that it was revealed that he was gay after his death, though – according to Paul McDermott’s oral history and an interview Ricky Dinneen did a couple years ago, his family and most of his friends knew he was gay while he was alive.
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