There have been many great recording artists and performers who have died young, or well before their time. In most cases, this has robbed their fans of many years of work that they could have looked forward to. In a few examples, it has somehow seemed right, as if it was a good time to go, and leave a legacy untarnished by later mistakes. Here are a few for consideration. I obviously do not claim that this list is comprehensive, as I am hoping that you will all add some of your own.
Elvis Presley. Before his death, at the age of forty-two, in 1976, Elvis enjoyed a 21 year career as a world famous star. He was a top selling recording artist, internationally renowned singer, and the star of many films. He still has a massive fan base today, and even very young people can usually identify his photo. His music has been sampled into modern pop songs, and his image is iconic enough to feature on many posters, and countless souvenirs. The house where he spent most of his life, and also died in, ‘Graceland’ in Memphis, Tennessee, is now a museum, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. Personally, I was never a great fan of Elvis, and I only own one of his records, ‘Suspicious Minds’, written by Mark James. To my mind, Presley was one who died at the right time, as his legend would not have been the same, had he lived to old age. He had already staged numerous ‘comebacks’, and had become a staple of the Las Vegas hotel entertainment circuit. It is unlikely that his personal vanity would have allowed him to mature with dignity. I have an impression of an elderly, overweight man, bloated by excess, still trying to fit into his signature jumpsuits, and trying to achieve his famous pelvic gyrations, despite the threat of a fractured hip. I think it is safe to say, that he went while the going was still good.
Janis Joplin. Janis was a blues and rock singer, who lived a very short 27 years, until the lifestyle of heavy drinking and habitual drug use, finally killed her, in 1970. She was fairly unusual in the music industry, a white woman who could sing with the heart and soul of a black blues performer, as well as sounding Country at times too. She fronted the band ‘Big Brother and the Holding Company’ for three years, followed by a successful solo career up to her death. She performed at the Woodstock Festival, and the Monterey Festival, and had a series of hit records, mostly in the USA. Her album ‘Pearl’ is rightly regarded as a classic, and her recording of ‘Piece of my heart’, is considered to be the definitive version. She is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and is cited by many later singers as a big influence on their own careers. I am on the fence about Janis. In many respects, I believe that she might have gone at the right time. However, 27 is very young, and she may well have turned her life around, and made much more music for some of us to enjoy. Somehow, I doubt it, and feel that drugs generally have a way of winning, especially in the early 1970’s. Have a listen to some of her music, see what you think.
Jimi Hendrix. Something was happening that year. Only two weeks before Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix had died from a drug overdose, and he was also 27 years old. He died in West London, where he was living at the time. The career of this marvellous guitarist, excellent singer, and all-round accomplished musician, borders on the legendary. He had a truly distinctive style, which was instantly recognisable, and his talent could not be denied, even by his most vehement detractors. From 1966, until his untimely death, he was at the top of the musical tree, with a succession of huge hit albums, and performing live concerts all over the world. Even now, a few notes of one of his hits will enable almost anyone to realise that Hendrix is the man behind it. His music has been used extensively on film soundtracks, and his unique playing style is rightly considered to make him one of the best rock guitarists ever. So, did he have a future? It is safe to say that his best work was behind him at the time of his death. Despite his youth, it seems unlikely that his lifestyle would have changed a great deal. In truth, the indication is that he was still on a downward path, and musically, he was never likely to repeat his earlier powerhouse recordings. On balance, I have to say that he is better off leaving when he did, as his fantastic back catalogue ensures him a place in rock music history.
Amy Winehouse. There must be something sinister about the age of 27. Amy was the third person in this list to also die at that age, in 2011. I have to confess to bias here. In my opinion, she was the best female singer to appear in the UK during my lifetime, and I doubt that she will be bettered before my demise. Beginning with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra in 2000, she had an eleven year career, during all of which she remarkably only released two albums. Both were instant classics, and she was the recipient of various awards during her life, as well as being a great influence on many other young female artists in the record industry. Few other recording stars have received the hounding from the media that she endured, and together with bad choices in her personal life and attachments, it soon became clear to anyone who cared, that she seemed doomed from the very start. For me personally, she will always endure; irrespective of her errant ways during her career, her talent, and marvellous singing voice, will guarantee that she will always remain one of my favourites. But what of her ‘future’? I like to believe that she would have got through the worst, and like many before her, come out the other side, with a ‘comeback’ album, and yet more success. I have a vision of her, in her forties, as one of the most respected jazz and soul singers in the UK. It’s a shame that will never happen.
Jim Morrison. If you thought it was strange that three musicians should die at the age of 27, here’s another one! Before his death in Paris, in 1971, Morrison was best known as the charismatic front man and lead singer of the American rock band, The Doors. From 1965, until 1970, they had numerous hits, and also toured extensively. Their biggest hits, ‘Light my fire’, and ‘Hello I love you’ are still played today, and the band has an enduring fan base. Morrison’s grave, in a Parisian cemetery, is still visited by fans, who miss him to this day. Like so many tortured souls, he was a poet, and had his own philosophy on life, most of which transferred into the lyrics of his songs, and his distinctive musical interpretations. Like many of his contemporaries, he was also a heavy drinker, and habitual drug user. I have to say that I think he had done his best work before his death. I also believe that he would have enjoyed his posthumous fame, and iconic status. So Jim, better off dead then.
Otis Redding. He wasn’t 27 when he died, almost, but not quite. Otis was killed in a plane crash in 1967, three months after his 26th birthday. Sadly, his only number one hit, ‘The Dock of the Bay’, granted him the status of it being the first ever posthumous release to go straight to the top of the charts. Recording for both Atlantic Records, and Stax, his seven year career was studded with memorable hits. ‘Pain in my heart’, ‘Try a little tenderness’, ‘Respect’, and the heart-rending, ‘Ive been loving you too long’ are just some that spring to mind. He also recorded with Carla Thomas, and frequently performed alongside The Bar-Kays, and Booker T & the MG’s. Without doubt, his death robbed the world of soul music, as well as his legion of fans, of one of its greatest talents. Had he lived on, he would almost certainly have continued to record, to get better and better, and to end his life as one of the greatest, and most respected singers of his era. Truly, a tragic loss.
Marc Bolan. Former Mod style icon, clothing model, and general poser, Marc Bolan was undeniably attractive, and appealed to both men and women alike. He went through various name changes, from his original name of Mark Feld, eventually settling on Marc Bolan. There were some unsuccessful attempts at a recording career, before achieving limited recognition with his own band, Tyrannosaurus Rex, in the late 1960’s. His interest in mysticism and poetry gave the music a folky, often surreal feel, and it was not until he introduced electric guitars, and a significant change of image, that he achieved a number two chart hit with ‘Ride a white swan’, in1971. By then, the group name was shortened, to T-Rex, and due to Bolan’s flamboyant style, and ambiguous dress sense, was becoming associated with the popular ‘Glam Rock’ movement. With made up faces, wild hair, and glittery clothes, the band took off, with a run of top ten records, including ‘Jeepster’, Children of the Revolution’, and ‘Metal Guru’. For a long time, it seemed that they could do no wrong, and they became regulars on ‘Top of the Pops’, and many other TV shows. He continued to work up until his death; though the band fell apart, with all the original members leaving, until Bolan was left fronting his own TV show, ‘Marc’. He never repeated his earlier success, and died in a car crash in West London, just short of his 30th birthday. On balance, I feel that he would have endured, changed his image once more, and used his rarely mentioned musical talents to carry on working in some part of the industry. As such, this was a regrettable death, leaving us wondering what might have been.
Michael Hutchence. Singer in the Australian group INXS, Hutchence had obvious talents as the front man of this very successful rock band. Despite this, he was equally as famous for his long hair, sexy stage presence, and his association with a string of famous women; including Kylie Minogue, and Paula Yates. He was also a hard-living pop star, using drugs, drinking, and known for occasional temper outbursts. He also dabbled with acting, appearing in films between INXS record releases. The band managed worldwide recognition, charting in most countries at some stage, The huge hit, ‘Need you tonight’ crossed all musical boundaries, and was popular with rock, pop, and soul fans alike. In 1997, the band were on a celebratory tour, to mark twenty years together, when Hutchence was found dead in a Sydney hotel room. His death sparked great speculation in the press, though the official version was suicide, due to depression. At the time, INXS were arguably less popular than ever. With that in mind, it seems that Michael, though only 37, chose the correct time to depart this life.
Buddy Holly. Killed in a plane crash at the age of 22, Buddy Holly was one of the earliest artists in the then new musical genre being called ‘Rock and Roll’. His nasal singing style and heavy black rimmed spectacles were obviously a profound influence on Elvis Costello, and his catchy pop songs were the forerunners of almost all pop music of the 1960’s. Many are still played today, and the fans of that style of music keep it all very much alive. He had signature hits; ‘That’ll be the day’, ‘Peggy Sue’, and ‘Oh boy’, and was backed by The Crickets, who continued to record after his death. In a short recording career, of less than five years, he achieved fame on both sides of the Atlantic, and was one of the first true ‘pop stars’. His influence on other famous acts, such as the Beatles, and The Rolling Stones, cannot be denied. His hit ‘Not Fade Away’, was also a massive hit for many other groups in later years, and his jangling guitar style was frequently imitated. However, I have a feeling that he was very much of his time, and was unlikely to endure past the peak of the popularity of Rock and Roll. So, better to die a legend then, and as he said in his song, prophetically as it turned out, ‘not fade away’.
There you have nine famous recording artists, all taken ‘before their time’. Whether or not you agree with my conclusions, I hope that you find the concept interesting, and that you will add many more to my list.
And don’t get me started on film stars…