Musical Legends Who Died at 27

By Tony O'Neill 07/24/11

When she died last July, Amy Winehouse became the latest in a long series of musical legends to expire at  27. But Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and Jim Morrison weren't the only ones to leave the stage three years shy of 30.

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Robert Johnson

The granddaddy of them all, Robert Johnson is possibly the 27 Club’s first documented member. While the legendary bluesman is something of a household name these days, he actually enjoyed very little commercial success during his short, mysterious life.  In fact it wasn’t until his recordings were reissued in the early 60s that his work really reached a serious commercial audience. A massive influence on successive generations of musicians, this master of the Delta blues has been described as “the most important blues singer that ever lived” by Eric Clapton, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in their first ever ceremony.  Born in 1911, his landmark recordings from 1936-1937 have since become blues standards. Songs like “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” and “Cross Roads Blues” forever altered the course of American popular music, and laid the seeds of what would later become rock-n-roll. Johnson lived an itinerant, undocumented life that spawned a heady mythology in the years following his death. Some claim that in exchange for his mastery of the blues, Johnson sold his soul to the devil on the crossroads at midnight, an idea that Johnson himself touched upon in the lyrics to his song, “Me and the Devil”—“Early this morning when you knocked upon my door/Early this morning, when you knocked upon my door/And I said, 'Hello, Satan, I believe it's time to go…” The details of his death near Greenwood, Mississippi in 1938 are just as mysterious as the rest of his life. One popular account claims that he was poisoned via a strychnine-laced bottle of whiskey after he flirted with the wife of a juke-joint owner. The musicologist Robert “Mack” McCormick even claimed to have tracked down the man responsible and obtained a written confession (although he declined to name the culprit). Others claim that this account is unrealistic, as Johnson supposedly died days—not hours—after ingesting the fatal dose of poison. Whatever the truth, his short, tragic life and legacy of influential, mold-breaking music has ensured him a place in rock’n’roll history, and the kind of supernatural status among other musicians that most ordinary mortals can only dream of achieving.


Jeremy Michael Ward

While he might not be an immediately familiar name, the guitarist, sound technician and vocal operator Jeremy Michael Ward earned his place on the list for his involvement with the incredibly intense rock-n-roll outfit The Mars Volta and the psychedelic dub act De Facto, as well as for his untimely death from a heroin overdose in 2003.  While—to my ears, at least—The Mars Volta have never been a band that truly managed to reach their full potential on record, they are definitely one of the most intense and jaw-dropping live acts you could ever hope to see. My ears are still ringing from a show of theirs I caught in 2002 in London, and in fact my daughter's ears are possibly still ringing from it as well, since my wife was six months pregnant at the time. Born from the ashes of punk band At The Drive In, on paper The Mars Volta seem like a rather strange proposition: they have been described as everything from progressive rock to jazz-fusion as well as a few other left field genres in-between. When you hear them up close it’s even further out than that, and on their debut album “De-Loused in the Comatorium,” the influence of Jeremy Michael Ward was profound. A sound sculptor extraordinaire, his technical wizardry helped the band to push boundaries, and egged them on into ever crazier and further-out paroxysms of sonic exploration. His death in Los Angeles came a mere month before that album hit stores. Even after his death, Ward would continue to exert a strong positive influence on the band: the follow-up album “Frances The Mute” was directly inspired by a diary Ward found while working for a repossession business in Los Angeles. And his overdose is said to have convinced Mars Volta members Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez to quit using opiates themselves.


Richey Edwards

The guitarist and lyricist of Welsh rock outfit The Manic Street Preachers has long been an object of fascination and utter devotion in his native Great Britain. While the band themselves came across as a perverse blend of Clash-style electioneering and Guns’n’Roses style cock rock on their debut double album “Generation Terrorists," it was the complex and often beautiful lyrics of Richey Edwards that immediately demanded the most attention from the press and the public. A damaged soul, Edwards was prone to bouts of depression and self-harm. Infamously, when challenged by an NME journalist that the band's image and subject matter was little more than a cynical pose, he pulled out a razor blade and gouged the legend 4-REAL into his forearm, creating an iconic, gory image that was soon plastered all over the music press. However it was his lyrical contributions to the band's third album “The Holy Bible” that truly cemented his legend as a master of bleak lyrical imagery. At the time the album was recorded, Edwards was in the grip of a severe depression, and was struggling with anorexia and alcoholism. This precarious mental state spurred some of the finest writing of his career: the tracks “Mausoleum” and “The Intense Humming of Evil” were inspired by the band’s visits to the concentration camps at Dachau and Belsen. “4 st 7 lbs” took its title from the weight that makes death reportedly unavoidable for anorexics. Titles like “Of Walking Abortion” and “Die In The Summertime” give a clue to the kind of pitch-black subject matter contained within. The lyrics of one of the album's catchiest tracks, “Yes” gave a clue to Edwards’ state of mind: “I eat and I dress and I wash and I still can say thank you, Puking—shaking—sinking I still stand for old ladies, Can't shout, can't scream, hurt myself to get pain out.” Edwards vanished on February 1, 1995, six months after the album was released, although he wasn’t officially pronounced “presumed deceased” until November 2008. His cult following remains fanatical in the UK; Caitlin Moran wrote in the Times that Edwards became “a cause celebre among depressives, alcoholics, anorexics and self-mutilators, because he was the first person in the public eye to talk openly about these subjects, not with swaggering bravado and a subtext of 'look how tortured and cool I am' but with humility, sense and, often, bleak humor.” The events leading up to his death inspired a novel (Richard by Ben Myers) and the Manic Street Preachers 2009 album “Journal For Plague Lovers” was written around lyrics given to bassist Nicky Wire by Edwards a few weeks before his disappearance.


Pete De Freitas

Pete Louis Vincent de Freitas was born in 1961 in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, and gained fame as the drummer for legendary Liverpool post-punk outfit Echo and the Bunnymen. De Freitas’ drumming can be heard on their classic albums “Crocodiles," “Heaven Up Here," “Porcupine” and the landmark “Ocean Rain,” the hit record that spawned what is probably their best known song, “Killing Moon."  While they were most successful in their native England, Echo certainly made headway in the US when their songs were featured on the soundtracks of hit movies like Pretty in Pink and Donnie Darko.  The band was a thing of shimmering beauty, aided in no small part by De Freitas’ powerhouse drumming and singer Ian McCulloch’s incredible vocal prowess. Sadly De Freitas died in 1989 in a motorcycle accident when he returned to Liverpool from London a year after McCulloch left to pursue a solo career. While the band would later reform, they never again managed to recapture the magic of those wonderful, De Freitas-era albums.

Jean-Michel Basquiat

In his brief time on this planet, New York born neo-expressionist artist Jean-Michel Basquiat burned a bright trial across the American art world. Basquiat’s career as an artist began in the burgeoning mid-70s' NY graffiti scene, where he created street art under the pseudonym SAMO. His rise was meteoric, and within five years he had gone from daubing his work on the walls of bombed-out Manhattan buildings to exhibiting with the likes of Julian Schnabel, briefly dating Madonna, working with David Bowie, collaborating with Andy Warhol, and appearing in Blondie’s “Rapture” video. Infamous for working in paint-splattered Armani suits, Basquiat energized New York art with an anarchic, rock-n-roll energy born out of the explosion of creativity around the Lower East Side, that had started with punk rock. His meteoric success led to him appearing on the front cover of New York magazine under the heading “New Art, New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist." Unfortunately Basquiat embraced the dark side of the lifestyle with reckless enthusiasm, and his growing dependence on heroin lead to bouts of depression and isolation that worsened when his friend Andy Warhol died in February 1987. Basquiat died six months later from a speedball overdose.


Dave Alexander

It’s impossible to overstate the influence of The Stooges on modern rock—the thrilling combination of the band’s ear-shattering proto-punk swamp-blues stomp, and the out of control vocals and manic stage presence of lead vocalist Iggy Pop, would cause a musical revolution and lead directly to the creation of what would later become known as punk rock. While the band was mostly unloved and neglected in its lifetime, albums like “The Stooges” and “Fun House” have since become recognized as legendary music statements, leading to the band’s belated introduction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010. Even in a band as addled by booze, self-harm and chemical abuse as The Stooges, bassist Dave Alexander stood out. He was eventually booted from the band in 1970 after he showed up too drunk to play a show at the Goose Lake International Music Festival. His heavy drinking continued after he was fired, and his health began to suffer for it. Five years later he was dead from pulmonary edema, linked to his abuse of alcohol. Iggy referenced Alexander’s death on his David Bowie produced 1977 album, “The Idiot” in typical deadpan style: during the spoken word intro to “Dum Dum Boys” where he talked about friends whom he had lost along the way, he mused, "How about Dave? OD'd on alcohol…"


Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson 

Canned Heat was a band with two distinct personalities. When Bob Hite took the lead, they were a hard-rocking blues act. When Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson (so named because he could reputedly barely see without his glasses on) sang with his sweet falsetto, they had a softer, almost country-ish feel. Wilson sang lead vocals on two of the band's best known tracks, “On the Road Again” and “Going Up the Country," but success did not lead to Wilson's personal happiness: he reportedly attempted suicide twice before his death in 1970, although his fatal overdose on barbiturates in his Topanga Canyon home is not clearly established as either a suicide or an accidental overdose, since he left no note. He did, however, leave us with a discography that includes a live album with John Lee Hooker, in which the legendary bluesman was so impressed with Wilson’s guitar work he exclaims, “You musta been listenin' to my records all your life!"

Dickie Pride

While he never enjoyed the success of contemporaries like Billy Fury or Marty Wilde, Dickie Pride was a sadly underrated British rocker who was dubbed “the sheik of shake” by the British press following his first public performance when he was just 16 years old. His biggest hit was the single “Primrose Lane,” which peaked at number 28 in the UK charts in October 1959, but it was the tragic details of his sad decline that would create the bigger headlines. Pride suffered from well-documented mental health problems as well as addictions to a variety of drugs including heroin. He was married in 1962 and his only son was born in 1965, but his musical career continued to decline as he spiraled ever downwards into depression and drug abuse. In 1967, he checked himself into a psychiatric clinic and during his stay received a lobotomy. Two years later Pride overdosed on sleeping pills. In 1999, his short, tragic life would inspire Charles Langley’s stage play “Pride with Prejudice.”


Brian Jones 

Beautiful and doomed, Brian Jones was the precociously talented guitarist of the Rolling Stones, the poster boy for swimming London decadence, and one of the 60s' most infamous drug casualties. The details of his decline into a psychedelic drug haze, and his eventual ejection from the band he founded, are standard rock lore these days. With Jones gone, the band would go on to even greater heights of success, becoming the biggest rock-n-roll act in the planet, and one of the biggest-earning acts in rock, more than 40 years after Jones was found drowned in his swimming pool in 1969.  Jones’ death inspired the classic Stones track “Shine a Light” as well as the Doors track “Tightrope Ride."  His virtuoso guitar playing can be heard on many early Stones classics, including the wonderful sitar riff that propels “Paint It Black” along.


Pete Ham

In many ways, the death of Pete Ham, the Welsh singer-songwriter who found fame as the leader of Badfinger, is one of the most unusual—and tragic—of all the 27 Club stories. While most of the deaths on the list involve drugs or reckless behavior, Ham was by all accounts a rather sober fellow who was instead badgered into his grave by unscrupulous managers and mounting legal troubles. His hits with Badfinger include “Come and Get it," “No Matter What” and “Baby Blue." But it was the song he co-wrote with bandmate Tom Evans for Harry Neilson, “Without You,” that might be his best known song. In the years since Neilson took it to number one it has become something of a pop standard, covered by a dizzying array of artists including Mariah Carey, Shirley Bassey and Chris De Burgh. Sadly, between 1973 and 1975 Badfinger found themselves embroiled in a series of protracted legal battles with their record label and business manager which effectively stifled their ability to record or make money. Despondent, Ham hung himself in his home in Surrey, England, leaving behind a girlfriend who was eight months pregnant with his child. His suicide note read, “I will not be allowed to love and trust everybody. This is better.” Taking a final blast at his business manager Stan Polley, Ham signed off with “P.S. Stan Polley is a soulless bastard. I will take him with me.”


Tony O'Neill is the author of several novels, including Digging the Vein and Down and Out on Murder Mile andSick City. He is the co-author of the New York Times bestseller Hero of the Underground (with Jason Peter) and the Los Angeles Times bestseller Neon Angel (with Cherie Currie). He lives in New York with his wife and daughter. O'Neill also interviewed Jerry Stahl and argued against abstinence for The Fix.

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Tony O'Neill, a regular contributor to The Fix, is the author of several novels, including Digging the VeinDown and Out on Murder Mile and Sick City. He also co-authored the New York Times bestseller Hero of the Underground (with Jason Peter) and the Los Angeles Times bestseller Neon Angel (with Cherie Currie). He lives in New York with his wife and daughter. You can follow Tony on Twitter.