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Surprising 7: Musicians who died at 27
If there is an unlucky number in the world of music it has to be the number 27, as an unusually large number of the greatest talents in 20th and 21st century rock music died at this age.
If there is an unlucky number in the world of music it has to be the number 27, as an unusually large number of the greatest talents in 20th and 21st centuries rock music died at this age. Before their death, every one of them was already considered a defining personality of the music of their era, and their untimely passing made them downright legendary. Here are the most famous members of the 27 Club.
Did you know?
The former owner of the property where Brian Jones the musician died was A. A. Milne, the author of Winnie the Pooh.
The hippie icon Jimmy Hendrix – whose followers were great advocates of peace and love – often turned violent after consuming spirits or alcohol mixed with drugs.
While alive, Kurt Kobain appeared only once on the cover of popular music magazine Q, but has appeared there six times or more since his death in 1994.
In terms of influence on later generations, Robert Leroy Johnson has to be one of the greatest figures in rock history. And yet, very little is known about the life of the Delta bluesman. He was born out of wedlock and had a turbulent childhood, before setting out on the road and touring the country from 1932 until 1938. Today, only 29 songs recorded by him remain. According to the most well-known legend about Johnson, he made the Faustian bargain: For a long time after picking up the guitar in the 1920s, he was just a mediocre musician, until one day at midnight he sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads and became a virtuoso.
The death of Johnson, who Rolling Stone named the 5th best guitar player in history, remains a point of contention to this day. Fellow blues musician Sonny Boy Williamson II once described an incident from August 1938, when Johnson was playing at an inn and flirting with the owner’s wife. When the woman handed Johnson a bottle of Whiskey, Williamson – who was also on the bill – warned him not to drink it, but he did not listen. The guitarslinger soon began displaying symptoms of poisoning, and died three days later. According to the popular myth, Johnson was killed by strychnine poisoning, which has been disputed on the grounds that the compound has a strong and unique odor that the musician would surely have noticed, and its effect is much more immediate than the three-day death struggle suggests.
The 27 Club has few members whose deaths do not involve some kind of mystery. Brian Jones, late guitarist for the Rolling Stones, is no exception. Just how important Jones was to the band in its early period is evident in former Stones bassist Bill Wyman’s words: "He formed the band. He chose the members. He named the band. He chose the music we played." However, his influence within the band waned over time due to his worsening drug and alcohol problems, which led to his firing in June 1969.
On the evening of July 2, 1969, the guitarist was found motionless in his pool by friends and acquaintances gathered at his residence in Hartfield, East Sussex. According to his autopsy records, the death of Jones – who had been living with a significantly enlarged liver and heart due to his drinking and drug abuse – was the result of misadventure. Of course, not everyone was satisfied with this explanation, and theories involving murder soon began to appear. In the 1990s, the publication of two books resulted in a man named Frank Thorogood becoming the primary suspect; he had been working as a builder on Jones’ mansion at the time of the musician’s death. In 2009 Sussex Police reviewed the incident based on new evidence compiled by investigative journalist Scott Jones, but ultimately found documents not substantial enough to reopen the case.
“I’ve been dead a long time”, remarked Jimi Hendrix after the third song of his performance in Aarhus, Denmark, on September 2, 1970, before walking off the stage. Two and a half weeks later the overworked guitar virtuoso was no longer just figuratively dead. Hendrix was found by his girlfriend, figure skater Monika Dannemann, in his London apartment on the morning of September 18, 1970, after he choked on his own vomit. As it was later revealed, the musician had taken nine sleeping pills instead of the suggested amount – one whole or half piece – after drinking wine the previous night, and had slept so deeply that he failed to wake up to the urge to throw up.
The unexpected death of the guitar prodigy inspired many conspiracy theories. The most bombastic among these is the one promoted by James “Tappy” Wright, who had worked as a roadie for a number of musicians, including Hendrix. In 2009 Wright claimed that in 1971 one of the guitarist’s former managers, Michael Jeffery, admitted to him while drunk that he and his “old friends” had personally stuffed the wine and the sleeping pills into Hendrix, who had been looking for a new manager at the time. Jeffery, who had been struggling with considerable accumulated debt, had previously bought a $2 million life insurance policy on Hendrix, and – according to Wright – killed him to claim the money. However, Bob Levine, Hendrix’s US manager, rejected Wright’s accusations that Jeffery had anything to do with the guitarist’s death. He argued that the roadie had made up the story as a publicity stunt to promote his book.
When on October 4, 1970, John Cooke, the manager of Janis Joplin’s last band, opened the door to room 105 of the Landmark Motor Hotel in Los Angeles, he already suspected that something was very wrong. He found the queen of rock and roll lying half naked between the nightstand and the bed with a few dollars in her hand. Her heroin needle was on the table. She had been dead for hours.
By 1968, the singer, who became one of rock’s greatest stars in the wake of the 1967 Monterey Pop festival, was reportedly spending $200 on heroin every day, and often drank a bottle of whiskey as well. In 1970, she entered the studio with her Full Tilt Boogie Band to record their new album, Pearl. On October 3, after a day of tracking, she and organist Ken Pearson headed out for drinks. She arrived back at her hotel room after midnight and injected what would become her final shot of heroin.
On October 4 her bandmates waited for her to show up at the studio, in vain. Band manager John Cooke became cautiously hopeful when he noticed Joplin’s Porsche with its psychedelic paint job in front of the hotel, but upon entering her room he was forced to face the facts. Her death had been caused by a heroin overdose, but the alcohol she had consumed the night before could also have contributed to the tragedy. In accordance with her will, her friends used her money to throw a massive wake party.
10 months: That is all it took for 1960s counterculture to lose three of its emblematic icons. After the death of Hendrix and Joplin, on July 3, 1971, Pamela Courson found her boyfriend, Doors frontman Jim Morrison, dead in the bathtub of their rented apartment in Paris. The official cause of death was heart failure, and the coroner did not deem it necessary to perform an autopsy. According to Courson, Morrison woke up coughing on that fateful night, and went to the bathroom to try and relax. That was the last she saw of him alive. However, one of the singer’s friends later claimed that he had died in a night club bathroom of a drug overdose.
In 2014, singer-actress (and Mick Jagger’s ex-girlfriend) Marianne Faithfull announced that she knew what really had happened to Jim Morrison, and since everyone else who could have known the truth was already dead, she had no reason to keep it a secret any longer. In July 1971 Faithfull was in Paris with her boyfriend at the time, Jean de Breteuil, heroin dealer to the biggest stars. He allegedly also sold some of his stuff to Jim Morrison, which, according to Faithfull, was so pure that it killed the singer. The dealer personally delivered the drugs to Morrison’s apartment, while Faithfull, overcome by misgivings, stayed in their hotel room.
“It’s better to burn out than to fade away”, Kurt Cobain wrote in his suicide note, quoting a song by Neil Young. Cobain, who became a generational icon in the early 1990s, was struggling with a number of physical and mental issues, including constant stomach pain, chronic bronchitis, heroin addiction, alcoholism, and recurring depression, exacerbated by his superstar status and the weight of the media attention that came with it. Mental illness ran in his family: According to one of Cobain’s cousins, he had two uncles who committed suicide.
In March 1994, Cobain traveled to Rome to undergo treatment. It was there that he first attempted to take his own life, swallowing a large amount of sleeping pills with champagne. After his return to the US, his wife, Courtney Love, even called the police one time when he locked himself in a room with a shotgun. By the end of the month, Cobain had agreed to check into rehab in Los Angeles – only to escape shortly thereafter. He went missing for days, until electrician Gary Smith found him in his home in Seattle on April 8. The Nirvana frontman had been dead for days, after shooting himself in the head. According to his sister, Cobain’s death was the fulfillment of a dream he would often talk about when they were young: to become a member of the 27 Club.
“I have a feeling I’m gonna die young”, Amy Winehouse allegedly told her personal assistant, Alex Haines, a few years before her death. The singer-songwriter’s former employee also told the press that one of her greatest fears was ending up in the 27 Club.
At 10 in the morning on July 23, 2011, Winehouse’s bodyguard tried unsuccessfully to wake her up in her London apartment; but this was not unusual, as she would often sleep until late. However, when he found her at 3 in the afternoon still lying in the same position, he realized something was wrong. The forensic team found one smaller and two larger bottles of vodka in Winehouse’s room. She had died of an alcohol overdose.
In a 2004 interview for notable British music magazine Q, Winehouse – still in a healthier shape and without her signature tattoos – talked about wanting to have many children should she be lucky enough to meet a decent man. By contrast, it was later her husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, who made her drug addiction worse by introducing Winehouse to crack and heroin. Of course, Fielder-Civil (who later went to jail for theft) was not the only one who helped pave the way to the demise of the singer, who also suffered from depression and indigestion: Her parents’ divorce, the death of her grandmother, her father’s egoistic behavior, and the constant media attention that did not afford her an ounce of privacy all contributed to her fall.
Text by Adam Hensley. We Love History Magazine / welovehistory.com
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