Early, untimely deaths – and the questions and legacies left behind – from Janis Joplin to Elvis Presley to Whitney Houston to Chris Cornell.
Ignore the think pieces. Mass mourning over celebrity deaths is not just a current-generation phenomenon – the Internet and social media only accelerate and amplify how fans process profound, visceral sorrow.
Years from now, the most earnest, intensely felt remembrances on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter – the ones reacting to an untimely, unexpected passing of an icon like Chris Cornell, Prince, Amy Winehouse or Whitney Houston – will serve as yellowed newspaper clippings once did: They’ll take us back to that historic, shared moment of gut-punching, breathtaking shock and sudden loss.
Who did you text when Michael Jackson died? Where were you when John Lennon was shot? Did you, like many devastated fans, flock to the Dakota on Manhattan’s Upper West Side after you heard? Which Nirvana song did you play over and over again after Kurt Cobain’s body was found? Do you (or a parent) have a story about Elvis’ last day?
Revisiting these memories again and again (and we do) can feel traumatic, and the most sensational details still shock decades later. But there’s a more expansive, alternate historycomponent at work, too, imagining what these legends might have created had they lived, and how their absence has shaped the music and popular culture that followed. Most cliches begin as essential truths: Yes, the artists featured and remembered here are gone – but they’re never forgotten.
Year: 1959; Age: 22
As part of the Crickets and later as a solo artist, the suit-clad, glasses-wearing Holly was the voice of the burgeoning rock and roll youth culture of the Fifties. His distinctive vocal style and hits like “Not Fade Away” and “It’s So Easy!” made him emblematic of the entire decade and a significant influence on the next wave of rock and roll stars, including John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who bonded over their love of Holly while beginning to explore their musical ambitions. “I used to write songs like Buddy,” McCartney admitted in an interview, noting the attempts him and Lennon would make to imitate Holly. “Eventually, out of it, we got a couple of little songs. We got ‘Love Me Do,’ the very first Beatles song.” But on February 3, 1959, the decade and Holly’s career came to a tragically sudden halt when the 22-year-old died in a plane crash alongside fellow stars the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens. The crash was later dubbed “The Day the Music Died” by Don McLean in his signature hit “American Pie.” BS
Year: 1963; Age: 30
Although she lived only a year and two months longer than 29-year-old Hank Williams had, Patsy Cline secured her legacy as one of the greatest vocal talents of the 20th century by fusing country charm and big-city boldness to a sterling voice that was as adept at honky-tonk weepers as it was lushly orchestrated pop standards. Hits like “I Fall to Pieces,” “Walkin’ After Midnight” and Willie Nelson’s “Crazy” accompanied her slow ascent to stardom, while posthumous releases “Sweet Dreams (of You)” and “Faded Love” kept her in the spotlight after her death in a plane crash in Camden, Tennessee. In fact, her legend only flourished in the decades after her demise. In 1973, Cline became the first solo female artist elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame, even ahead of the genre-defining Kitty Wells. Portrayals by Oscar nominees Beverly D’Angelo (in the 1980 Loretta Lynn biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter) and Jessica Lange (1985’s Sweet Dreams), and continuing interest in her hits via jukeboxes and karaoke, spurred Cline’s Greatest Hits album to sales in excess of 10 million, earning a Guinness World Records spot for its chart longevity. Now, there’s even a shrine to the inimitable vocalist in downtown Nashville: the Patsy Cline Museum houses memorabilia from her 1961 Carnegie Hall debut, her history-making Las Vegas engagement the following year and the elegant wristwatch she was wearing when she died just a few months later. Over half a century since her tragic passing, Cline remains a direct and long-lasting influence – just listen to stylists like Reba McEntire, Kacey Musgraves and LeAnn Rimes for proof. SB
Year: 1964; Age: 33
Born in Mississippi and raised in Chicago, Cooke was an essential architect of soul music who bridged gospel and pop to influence generations of singers. He rose to gospel stardom during the Fifties as a member of the Soul Stirrers, then crossed over with the 1957 classic “You Send Me,” which went to Number One. He followed that success with a string of hits that combined smooth enunciation and intimate phrasing with bluesy drive and urban authenticity. He was a Top 40 staple throughout the early Sixties, but his career was cut short on December 11, 1964, when he was killed in Los Angeles in a still-contested incident: A hotel manager claimed she shot the singer in self-defense after he’d allegedly tried to rape a 22-year-old woman and then turned on her. The coroner ruled it a justifiable homicide but the circumstances around the shooting remain murky. Eleven days after his death, Cooke’s greatest song, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” was released; based on his own experience being turned away from a whites-only motel in Louisiana, it became a Civil Rights anthem and one of the landmark records of the Sixties. “Sam Cooke reached down deep with pure soul,” Van Morrison wrote in Rolling Stone, when Cooke was named Number 4 in this magazine’s list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. “He had the rare ability to do gospel the way it’s supposed to be – he made it real, clean, direct. Gospel drove Sam Cooke through his greatest songs, the same way it did for Ray Charles, who came first, and Otis Redding.” JD
Year: 1967; Age: 26
Otis Redding’s incredible June 1967 performance at the Monterey Pop Festival, which brought soul music to an astonished and electrified white rock audience, was a landmark boundary-breaking moment in pop music history. Just months later, on December 10, Redding died in a plane crash near Madison, Wisconsin, where he was scheduled to perform that night. At the time he was wrapping up the recording of “(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay,” the “folk-soul” monument that turned the racial and social promise of that Monterey performance into one of the most powerful songs of all time. Redding had already established himself as a vibrant force in R&B thanks to hits like “Try A Little Tenderness,” “Pain In My Heart” and his hard-hitting cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.” At the time of his passing, his art was entering a new phase of passion and possibility, making his tragic death that much more heartbreaking. “Elvis was the King of rock,” said Steve Cropper of Booker T & the MGs, who was left with the task of mixing the final version of “Dock of the Bay” after Redding died. “Otis was the king of soul. Had he lived, I think he would’ve been King of them all.” JD
Year: 1969; Age: 27
The Rolling Stones would never have existed were it not for the efforts of original guitarist Brian Jones. He formed the initial incarnation of the group when he took out an ad in a May of 1962 issue of Jazz News seeking bandmates, and even named the fledging group after the Muddy Waters song “Rollin’ Stone Blues.” His love of American R&B music was critical to the group’s early sound, though once Mick Jagger formed a songwriting partnership with Keith Richards and the group transitioned to original material, his power in the band dramatically receded. It receded further when a growing drug addiction made him extremely unreliable, eventually causing the group to sack him in the summer of 1969. Weeks later, he was discovered at the bottom of his swimming pool in Sussex, England. To this day, some people suspect foul play was involved, but most of the evidence confirms the coroner’s report which famously read “death by misadventure.” “He had a huge contribution in the early days,” Jagger told Rolling Stone in 1995. “He was very obsessed with it, which you always need…He killed himself, but he should’ve been playing trad-jazz weekends and teaching in school; he probably would have been better off.” AG
Year: 1970; Age: 27
Joplin was the first woman rock star, bushwhacking through a buttoned-down and sexist culture with no script – just desire, pain, an astonishing white-light vocal attack, and a mighty appetite for drugs and alcohol. As a teen, she fled Port Arthur, Texas, where she’d been routinely humiliated by hometown peers, arriving in San Francisco just in time for hippie culture’s blossoming. She became a star with Big Brother and the Holding Company in the wake of a spectacular Monterey Pop festival appearance, and soon broke off to do her own thing.
She formed a band and soon completed her first solo LP, Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! Working on a follow-up in 1970, after a summer that included a media fiasco around her high school reunion and a tumultuous relationship with a 21-year-old coke dealer, she overdosed on heroin alone in room #105 of the Landmark Motor Hotel in Hollywood, just two weeks after Jimi Hendrix’s death. Though she hadn’t fully completed work on it, the posthumous Pearl, featuring “Me and Bobby McGee” (her only #1 single) and “Mercedes Benz” (the last song she ever recorded), would be her great crossover success.
“She held nothing back. She went to the edge every time she opened her mouth,” said Rosanne Cash, whose first-ever album purchase was Pearl. “She was a very fierce, very beautiful bright light that burned out way, way too quickly.” WH
Year: 1970; Age: 27
Between the spring 1967 release of Hendrix’s bombastic first studio LP, Are You Experienced?, and his death three short years later, he became the guitar god to which all other guitar gods would be measured. Most impressive, though, was how his talent seemed to just pour right out of him. “His playing was effortless,” Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello once said. “There’s not one minute of his recorded career that feels like he’s working hard at it – it feels like it’s all flowing through him.” He was capable of hard-rocking pyrotechnic displays – both musically and literally, such as when he set his guitar on fire at Monterey – and he could also play the most touching meditations like “Castles Made of Sand.” His final album, Band of Gypsys, even found him exploring funk. A year after he played a searing, psychedelic rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock, he was found dead. The artist, who was known for his drug use, had ostensibly choked on his own vomit after taking barbiturates; officials deemed it accidental but did not rule out suicide as a possibility. He’s since remained an inspiration to several generations of six-string players, thanks to a steady stream of posthumous releases, documentaries and films about him. “I think the reason musicians love Hendrix’s playing so much is that the language of it was so native to his head and heart,” John Mayer once said. “He had a secret relationship with playing the guitar, and though it was incredibly technical and based in theory, it was his theory. All you heard was the color. The math is what’s been applied ever since.” KG
Year: 1971; Age: 27
For fans of the Doors, Jim Morrison’s erratic outbursts and stage performances were a part of the appeal of the seminal psychedelic rock band, but as he neared his final months, the Lizard King’s lifestyle was catching up rapidly with him. During his short career, Morrison became the classically handsome face and poetic lyrical voice of the psychedelic movement, singing about desert trips and Greek mythology with humor and abandon. He lived the hard and fast lifestyle of his songs, and though drugs like LSD were all the rage, alcohol was Morrison’s main vice. By 1969, two years after his band became one of the biggest names in rock music, his addiction began to take a toll on his physical appearance, and his concert outbursts became more violent and unhinged, even leading to a Florida arrest for indecent exposure. In 1971, he was living in Paris with his girlfriend Pamela Courson, who found him dead in their bathtub. No autopsy was performed, but the official cause of death for the 27-year-old was listed as heart failure. “He would’ve never stopped making music,” Doors’ bandmate Robby Krieger told Rolling Stone in 2013. “He was going to Paris to take a rest from it all, mainly the trial and all the hoopla.” In 1974, also at the age of 27, Courson died of a heroin overdose. BS
Year: 1971; Age: 24
When Duane Allman took off on his Harley near Macon, Georgia on the late afternoon of October 29, both he and the Allman Brothers Band had good reason to chill and cut loose. Two months earlier, At Fillmore East, a scorching, career-defining live album, had been released and was cementing the band’s rep. Allman had done a short detox stint and the band was finishing up its next album, Eat a Peach. Swerving to avoid a truck, Allman, who was wearing a helmet, was suddenly thrown from his bike, which landed on top of him; he died from massive internal injuries.
Allman had already lived several creative lives. He’d played in bands with his younger brother Gregg, injected bee-sting lines into records by Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett, and was now the primal force in one of America’s most potent and intense outfits, one where blues, country, jazz and rock intermingled. Allman wasn’t a sonic shape shifter like Hendrix or a strict traditionalist like Eric Clapton, but as he demonstrated in his guest parts of Clapton’s Layla album with Derek and the Dominos, Allman was a clean, concise but wild-eyed player who seemed incredibly connected to his instrument. “To this day, I’ve never heard better rock guitar playing on an R&B record,” Clapton recalled of Allman’s work on Pickett’s version of “Hey Jude.” Allman’s final recordings – his fluid parts in the Allmans’ “Blue Sky” and his gentle instrumental “Little Martha” – suggested an even musically richer future.
“He was so intelligent.” wrote Gregg in his memoir, My Cross to Bear. “It would be amazing to see what he was into today.” DB
Year: 1977; Age: 29
Rock pioneer Bolan helped shape glam as we knew it, paving the way for artists like David Bowie with his band T. Rex’s space-y sound, mystical lyrics and gender-bending style. Bolan symbolized the evolution of rock subculture in the Seventies, and T. Rex found success with albums like Electric Warrior. “What I saw in [Marc] was raw talent,” producer Tony Visconti reflected in a Guardian interview. “I saw a potential rock star in Marc, right from the minute, the hour I met him.” Though his band and music career fell off in the mid Seventies, Bolan found a new calling as the host of the 1977 series Marc, where he performed and brought on a mixture of new and established musicians to join him. A week after the final episode – which featured Bowie and Bolan singing “Heroes” together – and two weeks before his thirtieth birthday, Bolan’s wife Gloria Jones lost control of their vehicle in a crash that killed the singer instantly. BS
Year: 1977; Age: 42
Elvis Presley’s easygoing demeanor, boyish good looks and, of course, his golden voice, made him early rock & roll’s greatest success story. Beginning in the mid-Fifties, he shook up a nation of teenagers with his hip-swiveling performances on TV and Number One records like “Hound Dog,” “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Don’t Be Cruel.” He could sing country, rock & roll and gospel. He obeyed an Army draft order in 1958 and took a two-year hiatus from performing, which didn’t stymie his career, thanks to a string of hits he’d recorded before entering the service and an appearance on Frank Sinatra’s TV special in 1960. He’d spend much of the Sixties making movies, but reestablished himself as a singing star with an NBC special (his “’68 Comeback”), and began playing residencies in Las Vegas, eventually getting his first Number One in close to a decade with “Suspicious Minds.”
It was in the Seventies, though, that his personal life began falling apart. He divorced his wife Priscilla and began gaining weight and dabbling with barbiturates, tranquilizers and amphetamines, despite never touching alcohol. “I think the Vegas period is underrated,” Bono once said. “I find it the most emotional. By that point Elvis was clearly not in control of his own life, and there is this incredible pathos. The big opera voice of the later years – that’s the one that really hurts me.” Presley was found dead in his bathroom at his Graceland estate by his girlfriend. While his death was officially ruled a casualty of heart disease, it’s been suggested that drug use may have also been responsible. His legacy has only grown and grown since then, from impersonators to new Number One hits (“A Little Less Conversation”), proving he will always be the King. KG
Ronnie Van Zant
Year: 1977; Age: 29
When Lynyrd Skynyrd boarded a chartered Convair on October 20, guitarist Allen Collins was freaked after seeing a flame erupt out of the right engine. But the band needed to travel from Greenville, S.C., to Baton Rouge as part of a tour in support of their new album, Street Survivors. “If the Lord wants you to die on this plane, when it’s your time, it’s your time,” singer Ronnie Van Zant told them. “Let’s go, man. We’ve got a gig to do.”
After the pilots were forced to attempt an emergency landing in a Mississippi field, the plane clipped trees and smashed into the ground. Most of the band survived, but Van Zant was killed instantly, along with guitarist Steve Gaines, his sister Cassie (a backup singer) and road manager Dean Kilpatrick. The eerily prophetic cover of Street Survivors, which pictured Skynyrd in flames, was immediately replaced with a straight band photo.
The crash didn’t just rob one of rock’s major bands of its frontman. It also cut short the life of the most powerful singer and lyricist to emerge from Southern rock since Gregg Allman. Onstage, the stout, sullen Van Zant exuded a hardened, macho cool, like an American version of Van Morrison, yet the songs he co-wrote for his band were not simplistic redneck clichés. They tackled his early struggles (“Four Walls of Raiford”), self-doubt and moral struggles (“Was I Right or Wrong”), guns being “good for nothin’” (“Saturday Night Special’), and melancholy (“Free Bird,” “Tuesday’s Gone”). A high school dropout with a criminal record behind him, Van Zant was a genuine populist who projected anti-corporate Southern pride (“Workin’ for MCA”). “Underrated,” says Jason Isbell. “Many of those songs are way smarter than they appear.” DB
Year: 1978; Age: 32
Few people have ever embraced the rock star lifestyle quite like Who drummer Keith Moon. From the minute the group got even a tiny bit of notoriety, his life became one nonstop drunken orgy of trashed hotels rooms, crashed cars and parties that lasted for days at a time. Nobody would have put up with it where he not one of the greatest drummers in rock history, a feral force-of-nature that became the backbone of the Who’s Maximum R&B sound when he joined the group in 1964 and turned classic songs like “Won’t Get Fooled Again” into showcases for his wildly idiosyncratic playing. But by 1978 the lifestyle was finally catching up with him. He was bloated, hopelessly addicted to alcohol and struggling to lay down even basic drum tracks during recording sessions. On September 6th of that year, he went to the premier of the Buddy Holly Story and them retired to his London flat, which happened to be the exact location where Mama Cass died four years earlier. That evening he took 32 clomethiazole tablets (meant to fight off the effects of alcohol withdrawal) and died as a result.
“I don’t think he ever knew happiness,” Pete Townshend told Rolling Stone in 1982. “He was one of the most difficult people to return love to. Because he was such an expansive guy, and you had to act in such a sensational, larger-than-life manner, you know? I mean, you didn’t say hello to Keith: it didn’t matter if he’d only been out of the studio for five minutes, when he came back in, he insisted on kissing everybody on the lips.” AG
Year: 1980; Age: 23
Joy Division were just beginning to gain recognition as a groundbreaking post-punk act in the spring of 1980, but to its frontman, the growing acclaim was meaningless. Curtis – a deep baritone singer that infused nearly every Joy Division song with intense sorrow, emptiness and longing – suffered from severe depression and epilepsy (sometimes having seizures onstage) at a time when treatment options for both afflictions were minimally effective. He was also consumed by the guilt he felt by cheating on his wife (and mother of their newborn daughter) with a Belgian journalist. He poured all his pain into the lyrics of one of his final songs: “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” Weeks before it came out, he hanged himself in his kitchen while listening to Iggy Pop’s The Idiot. His surviving bandmates carried on as New Order, but never got over the horrific loss.
“He was his own worst enemy,” Joy Division bassist Peter Hook told Rolling Stone in 2013. “The doctor said to him, when he was diagnosed with epilepsy, ‘If you live a quiet life, no loud noises, no alcohol, you should be okay.’ Being in a group does not let you do any of those. And he didn’t want to give the group up. He was just as passionate and enthusiastic about it as all the rest of us. He had a terrible dilemma with himself. It must have been awful, and we were absolutely no fucking use.” AG
Year: 1980; Age: 32
Led Zeppelin drummer Bonham shared the basic life philosophy of Keith Moon: play the drums with reckless, wild abandon and live your life the same way. The huge success of Led Zeppelin throughout the 1970s gave him endless opportunities to party and consume just about every illicit substance ever created, but he simply couldn’t carry on like that without facing a horrible consequence. The inevitable occurred on September 25th, 1980 when he consumed somewhere in the vicinity of 40 shots of vodka over the course of just 24 hours as Zeppelin was preparing for an American tour. He was found dead in his bed the following morning.
“John had this amazing technique,” Jimmy Page told Rolling Stone in 2007, “but he also had the imagination to go with it. You hear the pattern he comes up with in ‘Good Times Bad Times’. That still perplexes drummers. Nobody else can do that. Nobody else had that imagination.” AG
Year: 1980; Age: 40
After five years of seclusion in the late 1970s, where he focused nearly all his energy on wife Yoko Ono and their newborn son Sean, the former Beatle was finally ready to return to public life in late 1980. He was clean and sober and eager to share his new album Double Fantasy with the world. “Wasn’t the Seventies a drag?” he said. “Well, here we are, let’s make the Eighties great because it’s up to us to make what we can of it.”
Double Fantasy – a collaborative double record with Ono – hit shelves on November 17th and earned the best reviews of his career since Imagine nine years earlier. Opening track “(Just Like) Starting Over” reflected his optimism about the future, and on December 8th he spent the day talking to local radio stations, posing nude for Rolling Stone‘s cover at his New York apartment and heading over to the Record Plant to work on a remix of Ono’s song “Walking On Thin Ice.” He arrived home and encountered a fan, Mark David Chapman, who shot him five times at close range. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.
The news was announced on Monday Night Football by Howard Cosell, sending mourners to the building site to share their grief, sing songs of peace and try to make sense of the horrific tragedy. “John Lennon meant everything,” Tom Petty told Rolling Stone in 2000. “When I was young and seeing the Beatles performing on TV, they were the first ones who weren’t just saying showbiz banter. They’d actually say something. He was great role model for my whole generation.” AG
Year: 1983; Age: 32
After the singer’s sudden death, her legacy felt cloudy – thanks to the then-misunderstood illness, anorexia, which took her life, and a prevailing lack of critical respect for the hugely popular music she and brother Richard produced as the Carpenters from 1970 onward. Many dismissed trademark hits like “Yesterday Once More”, “Close to You” and “Rainy Days and Mondays” as schmaltzy and Lawrence Welk–level square; others were haunted by images of an alarmingly frail, thin Carpenter in performance. She was the first celebrity to posthumously make eating disorders a part of the national conversation; her complicated relationships with her brother and her mother, Agnes, and lack of control over her own artistry have been explored extensively since her passing. What ultimately redeemed her has been a gradual reassessment and celebration of her extraordinary contralto and The Carpenters’ catalog. An early, now-impossible-to-find Todd Haynes documentary Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story became an underground classic after its 1988 debut, and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth wrote and recorded “Tunic (A Song for Karen)” in her memory in 1990. “I wanted to put Karen Carpenter up in heaven playing drums and being happy,” Gordon told Rolling Stone in 1997. Similarly, Elton John called her “one of the greatest voices of our lifetime,” and Madonna professed that she is “completely influenced by her harmonic sensibility.” In her final years, she was eager to take her lush, understated and crystal-clear voice into a new, independent direction. A 1979 solo album produced by Phil Ramone – not released until 1996 – had her singing about sex and liberation on tighter songs inflected with rock and disco. “It was a beginning,” Ramone told the New York Times. “I’m not saying that Karen was Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan, but a voice like that could have done anything.” JR
Year: 1984; Age: 44
One of the most impassioned voices in popular music, Gaye swiftly ascended the pop charts in the Sixties with a string of catchy, moving singles – “Ain’t That Peculiar,” “You’re All I Need to Get By,” the enduring “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” – and established himself as a hit-maker. In 1971, though, he dug deep into himself to create soul music’s Sgt. Pepper – What’s Going On – a carefully composed plea for compassion and humanity as the Vietnam War raged on. “What’s Going On is the most profound musical statement in my lifetime,” Smokey Robinson once said. “It never gets dated. I still remember when I would go by Marvin’s house and he was working on it, he would say, ‘Smoke, this album is being written by God, and I’m just the instrument that he’s writing it through.’” Within a couple of years, he explored sexier and generally lighter terrain, scoring Number One hits with “Let’s Get It On” and “Got to Give It Up” (the song that inspired the “feel” of Robin Thicke’s embattled “Blurred Lines”); 1982’s “Sexual Healing” missed the Top Spot, stalling at Number Three. Toward the end of the Seventies, though, his personal life began falling apart. He divorced his wife, Anna Gordy – the sister of Motown founder Berry – and he filed for bankruptcy, eventually moving to Europe to avoid the IRS. He was also battling depression and an addiction to cocaine, and in the year of his death he threatened suicide multiple times. Despite this, he did not die by his own hand. His father, a preacher, shot him at point-blank range one day before Marvin’s 45th birthday following an argument. He’s still considered a musical force, and he influenced generations of singers, including D’Angelo and Usher. KG
Year: 1991; Age: 45
Mercury’s voice would be a thing of legend were it not recorded. With seemingly little effort, the Queen frontman could shift from crooning like a balladeer to snarling from his gut at a moment’s notice (see “Killer Queen”). But he’s also important for bringing a sense of drama to hard rock, encouraging his bandmates to sing operatically on “Bohemian Rhapsody,” show off their senses of humor (note the kazoo in “Seaside Rendezvous” and the whole “I Want to Break Free” video where they dressed in drag) and generally shoot for writing the most bombastic and grandiose songs they could (“We Are the Champions”). On the stage, he was a flamboyant, indefatigable presence who could get tens of thousands of people to clap their hands along to songs like “We Will Rock You” and “Radio Ga Ga.” “I love the way Freddie performed,” My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way once said. “He would strike amazing poses; maybe he practiced them in front of a mirror, but he wasn’t pretending to be somebody else. That was him telling the world, ‘This is who I am.’” Despite his big persona, Mercury kept his offstage life private, rarely granted interviews, though that didn’t keep him from becoming an LGBT icon. In the early Nineties, rumors began circulating that he had contracted AIDS, which he confirmed just two days before his death of bronchial pneumonia, a side effect of his disease. His music has gone on to inspire countless musicians, from Lady Gaga to Metallica. KG
Year: 1994; Age: 27
For Generation X, he was their most tragically fallen angel. The Aberdeen, Washington-raised Cobain spent his childhood feeling trapped and disillusioned by his small town ruled by hyper-masculine boys he didn’t fit in with. He found punk rock, relocated to Olympia, then Seattle, and soon had formed a grunge band with his childhood friend Krist Novoselic that would end up being called Nirvana. Nevermind and the opening riffs of the angsty, loud “Smells Like Teen Spirit” were the beginning of a new era, knocking Michael Jackson off the charts and putting the Seattle scene on the map, paving the way for bands like Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains. The brilliant way Cobain channeled his feelings of being a misfit in his music – through despondent lyrics, visceral screams and volatile performances – resonated for many itching to break free from the social constructs of older generations.
Though he once dreamed of becoming a major rock star, Cobain claimed publicly how much he loathed fame, especially after his heroin addiction and tumultuous relationship with wife Courtney Love turned him into a tabloid staple. “Unfortunately, Nirvana became too big too quick,” bandmate Dave Grohl reflected in a 2016 interview. “Bands are like families that go through uncomfortable growing pains, and if it happens all at once, it’s just too much to handle.” Even after the birth of his only daughter Frances Bean Cobain, Cobain’s addiction worsened – a dependency he blamed on a lifelong and cripplingly painful stomach ailment – and he found himself briefly in rehab before committing suicide with a shotgun in his Seattle home at age 27. “I don’t have the passion anymore,” he wrote in his suicide note before quoting Neil Young. “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” BS
Year: 1995; Age: 53
Garcia was supposed to grow into his famous caricature on the cover of Old and In The Way – sitting on a barrel picking banjo with his pals, when he wasn’t spearheading the collectivist spacecraft known as the Grateful Dead with his lazy laser-beam guitar leads and cosmic-Americana lyrics. One of the greatest songwriters and soloists in rock history, Garcia was the Dead’s fulcrum and focal point. Overzealous Deadheads projected the role of guru onto him, a role he completely rejected but could never quite shake.
His death had roots in his heroin habit, begun from smoking the drug in the ’70s (under the impression it was “Persian opium”). It progressed to full-on addiction, triggering a downward health spiral exacerbated by diabetes, sleep apnea, cigarette smoking, other drug use and a toxic diet consisting mainly of meat and ice cream. After collapsing in 1986 and literally returning from the dead, he cleaned up, and the band’s popularity hit a new level. But fame dogged him, he backslid, and old habits returned. Garcia died in the summer 1995 of cardiac arrest during an attempt at rehab. As he sang in a Rev. Gary Davis song – often in his twenties, and once again in his later years – death don’t have no mercy.
“There’s no way to measure his greatness as a person or as a player,” said Bob Dylan, who toured with Garcia and the Dead in 1987. “He is the very spirit personified of whatever is muddy river country at its core and screams up into the spheres. He really had no equal.” WH
Year: 1995; Age: 23
In March 1995, the Mexican-American pop star was shot dead at a Days Inn in Corpus Christi, Texas, by her fan club president, Yolanda Saldívar. At the time of her murder, Selena had been hard at work on her English crossover album, Dreaming of You, the follow-up to her smash 1994 LP, Amor Prohibido. Saldívar, manager of Selena’s fan club and fashion boutique Selena Etc., was under fire by the Quintanilla family for embezzlement of funds.
As a third-generation Texan, Selena was not just an icon for those of Mexican descent, but a hero to many young Latinx Americans who grew up between cultures and struggle with questions of national identity. Selena also set a precedent for women in Tejano music, a heavily male-dominated genre, of which she’d be later crowned as queen. Her father, former doo-wop singer Abraham Quintanilla Jr., pulled Selena out of school in the 8th grade so she could sing in the family band, Selena y Los Dinos — a gig for which she spent years learning Spanish as a second language. She would eventually win the Tejano Music Award for Female Vocalist of the Year, nine years in a row; in 1994 she won her only Grammy for Selena Live!, and broke attendance records at Houston Astrodome and Miami’s Calle Ocho festival in the month before she was murdered.
Three months after she died, Dreaming debuted at number one on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart — a first for any Latin artist in history. Another U.S.-born Latina, Jennifer Lopez, would make her own breakthrough starring as the singer in the famous 1997 biopic, Selena. In 2016 Selena’s famous namesake and fellow Texan, Selena Gomez, told Sacramento radio station NOW 100.5: “My dad and my mom loved her music and named me after her. It’s so surreal. I got to meet her family and got super emotional … I don’t know where she’d be right now. It’s nuts.” S.E.
Year: 1997; Age: 24
When Biggie Smalls was murdered during a still-unsolved drive-by shooting in Los Angeles, his shocking death forced the music industry to change. During his too-brief life, he had engaged in an increasingly heated rivalry with Tupac Shakur; the latter’s death on September 13, 1996 had not lessened the rancor surrounding the duo. Hip-hop culture was being consumed by street violence, and record executives seemed too frightened, or too callous, to stop it. That began to change just before Biggie’s death. Several reconciliation summits were organized: Snoop Dogg appeared with Sean Combs on The Steve Harvey Show to renounce any “East Coast-West Coast” conflict, and Ice Cube and Common embraced during a peace summit led by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Most importantly, countless artists made pains to work with counterparts from opposite coasts, including Dr. Dre’s all-star project “East Coast/West Coast Killas.” When Biggie’s final album Life After Death dropped on March 25, 1997, its overwhelming success helped dispel some of the ugliness surrounding Biggie’s untimely death. It also cemented his reputation as one of the most skilled lyricists of his generation.
The genre may have moved on while cementing The Notorious B.I.G. as one of its greatest heroes. But there is also Christopher Wallace, a young man from Brooklyn, New York whose life was taken from him far too early. “He didn’t do nothing to nobody. Yeah, he had a temper. He got into fights. But nothing he should be killed for,” Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs told Rolling Stone in 1997. “Nobody can tell me that just ’cause you a rapper, at the end of the day you get killed because you the flyest rapper? Motherfuckers are so jealous just ’cause you the best?” MR
Year: 1996; Age: 25
Tupac Shakur had encountered brushes with death years before he was murdered. In the midst of a 1994 trial for sexual assault, he was shot five times by unknown assailants at Quad Studios in New York City. The next day, he was found guilty on numerous counts, leading fans to believe that his career – and his time in the public eye – was over. (While in prison, he released 1995’s Me Against the World.) Several months later, he was bigger than ever, thanks to his multi-platinum All Eyez on Me. Throughout, his powerful, incendiary raps captured the joys and pain of a young man struggling to make sense of his life.
The period when he was shot – from being gunned down in a hail of bullets on September 7, 1996 in Las Vegas to expiring in a nearby hospital a week later– remains shrouded in controversy. It has yielded true-crime books, tell-alls from close friends and tangential figures, defamatory claims, and conspiracy theories. For years afterward, many believed that he was still alive, perhaps inspired by his final posthumous album under the Makaveli alias, Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory. “He was like, ‘I don’t see myself growing old’,” Treach from Naughty By Nature told MTV News in 2010. Even today, two decades after his death, he remains one of the most popular rappers in the world. Given that, his physical absence seems unreal. MR
Year: 2001; Age: 22
Aaliyah Haughton’s young age at the time of her death belies her status in urban music culture. She had already released three albums; the third, a self-titled effort issued a month before she died, debuted at number one on the Billboard charts. Each new work raised the bar for what could be accomplished in R&B. Age Ain’t Nothin’ But a Number blended a rough hip-hop sexuality with a smooth, polished surface. One in a Million rejiggered rhythm, sound, and voice, the result of a felicitous pairing with Missy Elliott and Timbaland. By the time of Aaliyah, she had branched out into movies – her 1999 film Romeo Must Die was a surprise box office hit – and had begun expanding her range beyond radio-ready R&B. She embarked to the Bahamas to film a video for the second Aaliyah single, “Rock the Boat.” She and 8 members of her entourage died when the return plane crashed shortly after takeoff on August 21, 2001. Sadly, her third album was no longer an expression of artistic growth, but a memorial to what could have been – with current artists like Beyonce, Solange, Rihanna, Ciara and many more in her debt. “What I will miss the most about Aaliyah is her laugh and smile,” Elliott told Entertainment Weeklyin 2011. “I’ll also miss recording with her because she wasn’t ever scared to push boundaries as an artist.” MR
Year: 2009; Age: 50
The final years of the King of Pop’s life were mired in controversy. Gossip persisted about his ostentatious wealth, extensive plastic surgery and bizarre habits. He had been accused of child sexual abuse, and though a 2005 trial resulted in an acquittal, the charges continued to haunt his career and reputation. A series of planned 2009 shows titled “This Is It” were designed to shore up his unstable finances as well as reward fans who had waited years to see the legendary performer live. Then, on June 25, 2009, Jackson suddenly died after overdosing on physician-prescribed medication. (Dr. Conrad Murray, who administered the drugs, was later tried and convicted.) Despite these distractions, his death prompted the world to focus on his genius and an enormous body of work (beginning with his days as a kid with the Jackson 5) left behind. His memorial service was broadcast on national television and treated like a state funeral. A 2010 film, This Is It, documenting the rehearsal sessions for those aborted London concerts, became the highest-grossing musical film in history. And many of his impossibly massive, culture-defining hits – “Billie Jean,” “Bad” and “Black or White” – re-entered the charts. It was all part of the mourning process for one of the greatest entertainers of all time.
Jackson’s legacy continues to linger. His estate is one of the most profitable among entertainers; it’s also the frequent target of lawsuits. More than his status as a money-generator, it’s his unique blend of childlike innocence, songwriting magic, and incandescent performances that is irreplaceable. “We have lost a genius and a true ambassador of not only Pop music but of all music,” said Justin Timberlake, who sang on Jackson’s posthumous 2014 hit, “Love Never Felt So Good.” “He has been an inspiration to multiple generations.” MR
Year: 2011; Age: 27
In the time the world got to know Winehouse, she was a whirlwind. Her 2006 sophomore album Back to Black became an international success, bringing her smoky, Mark Ronson-assisted retro-soul to the masses and making her the world’s foremost vocal diva. It turned out to be her final LP, as her rise to success worsened her dependency on alcohol and drugs— making the omnipresence of her biggest single “Rehab” even more ironic and heartbreaking. As later chronicled in the Oscar-winning documentary story Amy, her Cinderella story turned into a tabloid nightmare as she spiraled out very publicly until her death in 2011, at age 27, from alcohol poisoning. Winehouse’s influence still remains with many modern soul singers giving credit to her honest lyrics and singing voice. “I owe 90 percent of my career to her,” Adele said. BS
Year: 2012; Age: 48
The daughter of gospel singer Cissy Houston, the cousin of Dionne Warwick and the goddaughter of Aretha Franklin, Houston, blessed with a once-in-a-generation voice, became the ultimate crossover artist. “Because of her cousin Dionne, she understood all those pretty-ass melodies from Burt Bacharach,” Narada Michael Walden, one of Houston’s producers, told Rolling Stone in 2012. “But because she was young and from the era of Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna, she had soul in her too – those rhythms. She had both sides, Plus, she was so damn gorgeous. You couldn’t say no to her.” Beginning with her self-titled 1985 debut, Houston racked up 11 number one singles (including “The Greatest Love of All” and “I Will Always Love You”), sold over 200 million albums, won seven Grammys and inspired the virtuosic likes of Mariah Carey, Adele, Ariana Grande and many others.
Houston’s cheerful facade began falling apart after the commercial peak of the Bodyguard soundtrack in 1992: A volatile marriage to Bobby Brown and serious drug and alcohol addictions led to an exploitative reality show, disturbing interviews (her “crack is whack” comment to Diane Sawyer in 2002) and the diminishment of her once flawless instrument. On the eve of the Grammys in February 2012, she was found dead in a bathtub in her hotel room at the Beverly Hilton; coroners ruled her death as accidental, citing heart disease and cocaine use, with multiple drugs found in her system. (Tragically, her daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown, died three years later at age 22 under eerily similar circumstances). “She was the ultimate legend,” Beyoncé told Essence after Houston’s death. “She was sincere and kind. Her voice was perfect. Strong but soothing. Soulful and classic. Her vibrato, her cadence, her control. I, like every singer, always wanted to be just like her.” JR
Year: 2016; Age: 57
One of the most singularly talented artists ever to sign a record contract, Prince “produced, arranged, composed and performed” all the music on his debut album, For You, which came out when he was 19, and would seamlessly hop from instrument to instrument throughout the rest of his career with phenomenal ease. He became a hit-maker in the late Seventies and early Eighties thanks to his provocative, sexually charged image and singles that could straddle the pop, R&B and dance charts like “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” “Uptown” and “Controversy.” He became ready for primetime with 1999, an album that showcased his multi-racial, multi-gender band the Revolution, and became a megastar with Purple Rain – the movie and its diamond-certified soundtrack, whose hits included “Let’s Go Crazy” the epic title track and “When Doves Cry.” “‘When Doves Cry’ is one of the most radical Number One songs of the past 25 years,” Questlove once said. “Here’s a song with no bass line in it, hardly any music. Yet it’s still had such an influence; ‘When Doves Cry’ is a precursor to the Neptunes’ one-note funk grind, a masterpiece of song with just a drum machine and very little melody.”
As he released hit album after hit album, his legend continued to grow into the Nineties until he went to the mats with his label, Warner Bros., whom he felt had given him a bad deal. He scrawled “slave” on his face, changed his name to a sigil and fought until he was an independent artist, vindicating himself with the double-platinum 1996 LP Emancipation. He continued to score Top 10 albums into the 2010s but would experiment with releasing songs on Twitter and touring when and how he felt like it. Along the way, he developed a secret addiction to painkillers, possibly as treatment after reportedly getting hip-replacement surgery, and died of an overdose of the opioid Fentanyl in April 2016. The week after his death, Billboard reported that The Very Best of Prince and Purple Rain claimed the top two spots of its albums chart, demonstrating his impact. KG
Year: 2016; Age: 53
George Michael lived a very private life and rarely went on the road, so the fact that he was hardly ever seen in public throughout 2015 and 2016 didn’t raise many red flags. He did have to cancel many dates on his 2011 tour due to pneumonia and complaints of severe chest pains, but he was in his early 50s and certainly didn’t seem to have any sort of fatal condition. That made it all the more shocking on Christmas of 2016 when he was discovered dead in his bed at his home in Goring-on-Thames, England. An autopsy revealed the former Wham! frontman suffered from the heart condition dilated cardiomyopathy. His death sent shockwaves across the globe, instantly reminding millions of fans that behind all the tabloid drama was one of the great pop vocalists of all time, an icon that was never afraid to walk away from unimaginable success when he felt like it was time for a change. “His is a legacy of unquestionable brilliance which will continue to shine and resonate for generations to come,” his former Wham! partner Andrew Ridgeley said after he died. “George has left in his songs, in the transcendent beauty of his voice, and in the poetic expression of his soul, the very best of himself.” AG
Year: 2017; Age: 52
Soundgarden were twelve dates into their 2017 tour when it touched down at Detroit’s Fox Theater on May 17th. It was an uneventful show packed with hits (“Black Hole Sun,” “Spoonman”), deep cuts (“Slaves and Bulldozers,” “Ugly Truth”) and selections from their 2012 comeback LP King Animal, though at times frontman Chris Cornell looked a little distant and disengaged. But even on that night, his wrenching growl that powered so many unforgettable songs by Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog, Audioslave and his solo career that established him as one of the most formidable vocalists of his generation remained as powerful as ever.
When the show wrapped, he went back to his room at the MGM Grand Detroit, asked for help from his security guard and a hotel staffer to fix his Apple TV. And then sometime in the middle of the night attached a red elastic exercise band to the top of his bathroom door and hanged himself. A toxicology report discovered numerous drugs in his system, including Ativan, the sedative Butalbital and barbiturates. He’d been battling drug addiction and depression for much of his adult life, though in recent years he was thought to be doing much better. The news sent shockwaves through the rock community. “He wasn’t just a friend,” said Eddie Vedder. “He was someone I looked up to like my older brother.” AG
Year: 2017; Age: 41
When Bennington died in June of this year, he was at the top of his career. Linkin Park’s seventh album, One More Light, had reached Number One on the Billboard chart – their fifth to do so – and they were just about to set out on a North American tour that saw them playing stadiums as well as arenas. Since the band’s mega-selling breakthrough debut, Hybrid Theory, came out in 2000, Bennington had become the overdriven voice of a generation; he also sang for a side project, Dead by Sunrise, an all-star covers band, Kings of Chaos, and as a replacement for Scott Weiland in Stone Temple Pilots. “It’s the angel and the demon, sitting on both shoulders,” actor and Thirty Seconds to Mars frontman Jared Leto once said of Bennington’s voice. “You could feel the tension between the two when he sang, and I think the reason so many people connected to his music was because of that balance he achieved between the two.” Despite his success, though, he was battling internal demons. He’d been sexually molested as a child and subsequently began abusing alcohol and drugs as a teen. Depression and bouts of substance abuse followed him into adulthood. Nevertheless, he projected upbeat confidence, making his death all the more mysterious. At the time of his death – declared suicide by hanging – his friends say he had been only six months sober and one of his former Dead by Sunrise bandmates told Rolling Stonehe believed Bennington’s “dark passenger” had taken control of him. Bennington left behind a musical legacy that revealed rare vulnerability and passion. KG
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