27 Music Star Deaths That Shocked the World

RealClear Staff


The death of Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland at age 48 is just the latest example of a music star dying too young. It's been going on since the birth of Rock 'n' Roll itself in the 1950s. Here's a spin through the years. 

1. Buddy Holly -- The Day the Music Died

The first big Rock 'n' Roll death was on February 3, 1959, when 22-year-old Buddy Holly ("That'll Be the Day," "Peggy Sue") died in a plane crash in bad weather near Clear Lake, Iowa. Also killed were fellow stars Richie Valens ("La Bamba"), only 17 years old, and 28-year-old J.P. Richardson, a.k.a. The Big Bopper ("Chantilly Lace"). That terrible day was immortalized by singer songwriter Don McLean in his classic "American Pie," in which he called it "The Day the Music Died."

2. Sam Cooke

The King of Soul ("Twistin' the Night Away"), who had 33 top 40 hits, was only 33 when he was shot in a Los Angeles motel on December 11, 1964 at age 33 in a strange incident. What happened is still not clear, but he was shot by the manager of the Hacienda Motel. After an inquest, the courts ruled Cooke's death to be a justifiable homicide.

3. Otis Redding

Another soul great, Redding ("Sittin' On The Dock of the Bay") died in a plane crash on December 10, 1967 near Monona, Wisconsin. He was only 26.

4. Jimi Hendrix

One of the greatest and most influential guitarists of all time, Hendrix helped give rise to the "27 Club" -- that is, musicians who died at age 27 (there have been a lot). Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison all died at 27 within a year of each other, thus giving rise to the club. Later members include Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse.

Like so many in the club, Hendrix died -- on September 18, 1970 in London -- of a drug and alcohol overdose.

5. Janis Joplin

Less than 3 weeks after Hendrix died, Joplin ("Piece of My Heart"), one of the great vocalists of her time, joined the 27 Club after a heroin overdose in Los Angeles on October 4, 1970.

6. Jim Morrison

The heart and soul of The Doors ("Light My Fire," "The End"), Morrison died of a likely heroin overdose in Paris on July 3, 1971, completing the year of 27-year-old superstar deaths after Hendrix and Joplin. Is this where the idea that celebrities die in threes originates?

7. Jim Croce

The singer of  "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" and "Time in a Bottle" was at the top of his career at age 30 when his chartered plane went down on September 20, 1973 near Natchitoches, Louisiana, about an hour after finishing a concert at Northwestern State University. Chartered plane crashes killed many celebrities in the 1970s, including members of Lynyrd Skynyrd and New York Yankees All-Star catcher Thurman Munson.

8. Keith Moon

The iconic drummer of The Who was not only self-destructive, but also destructive: He was known for smashing up hotel rooms while in a drunken stupor. To the surprise of no one, he died of an overdose at age 32 on September 7, 1978. The creepy part: he died in the exact same London flat (leased to singer Harry Nilsson) as did Cass Elliot (of The Mamas & the Papas) four years earlier -- also at age 32!

9. Sid Vicious

If you thought heavy metal guys were destructive partiers, they had nothing on punk rockers. Perhaps the baddest and saddest of them all was Sid Vicious of the influential band the Sex Pistols. Four months after stabbing his girlfriend and manager Nancy Spungen to death, Vicious, who was out on parole at the time, OD'd, possibly as an intentional act of suicide, on February 2, 1979 at age 21.

Many who knew Vicious think that actor Gary Oldman nailed him in the 1986 movie "Sid and Nancy."

10. Ian Curtis

Ian Curtis was the lead singer and lyricist of the influential post-punk band Joy Division. Curtis, who suffered from epilepsy and depression, committed suicide on May 18, 1980, on the eve of Joy Division's first North American tour. Joy Division ceased to exist, but the surviving members formed another successful band, New Order.

Curtis' life has spawned two films, "24 Hour Party People" (2002) and "Control" (2007).

11. Elvis Presley

And now we get to two of the biggest, most shocking pop music deaths that took the world by total surprise. Just as many remember where they were when John F. Kennedy was assassinated or when 9/11 happened, there was a generation that knew exactly where they were when the heard of Elvis Presley's death on August 16, 1977, at age 42 after years of drug and alcohol abuse.

12. John Lennon

The other is the former Beatle, John Lennon. Only 40 and with a burgeoning solo career and relationship with Yoko Ono, Lennon was in the prime of his life on December 8, 1980 when he was assassinated by Mark David Chapman, a deranged fan who is still in prison for his senseless act.

Millions in America first heard about his death on "Monday Night Football," when Howard Cosell read a news bulletin during a game between the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots. 

13. Bob Marley

The "I Shot the Sheriff" groundbreaking reggae artist's death on May 11, 1981 at age 36 stunned the world not just because he was a musical giant, but because of how he died: Acral lentiginous melanoma, a particularly deadly form of skin cancer.

14. Karen Carpenter

A shocking disease also killed another iconic artist. Karen Carpenter became the face of anorexia nervosa after her death on February 4, 1983 at age 32 from the eating disorder. Her songs ("Close to You," We've Only Just Begun") she performed with her brother, Richard Carpenter, as The Carpenters. Fun fact: Karen was also an accomplished drummer.

15. Marvin Gaye

The man who helped to shape the sound of Motown in the 1960s ("I Heard It Through the Grapevine") met a particularly sad end at age 44 on April 1, 1984. Gaye's father, Marvin Gay Sr., fatally shot him at their Los Angeles house after an altercation.

16. Andy Gibb

A heartthrob for teenage (and older) girls, the death youngest of the brothers who formed the Bee Gees (although he was never in that band due to his youth) at age 30 on March 10, 1988, hit his young fans in much the same way the deaths of James Dean, River Phoenix and Heath Ledger hit their fans. Andy Gibb had a successful, though brief, solo career ("I Just Want to Be Your Everything").

17. Stevie Ray Vaughan

Vaughan is widely considered one of the most influential electric guitarists in the history of blues music, and one of the most important figures in the revival of blues in the 1980s. Tragically, he died at 35 on August 27, 1990 in a helicopter crash after performing with Eric Clapton. Oddly, he was one of three celebrities in the early 1990s to die in helicopter crashes, the others being promoter Bill Graham and NASCAR driver Davey Allison.

18. Jerry Garcia

Members of The Grateful Dead -- one of the symbols of the counterculture movement in the 1960s and a steadily popular band into the 1990s --  were well-known for their drug and alcohol use. Two members of the band died because of those issues. So when Garcia died of a heart attack after years of poor health on August 9, 1995, the question was, how did he make it to 53? 

19. Kurt Cobain

Perhaps if the Nirvana frontman ("Smell Like Teen Spirit") had died of a drug overdose, his death wouldn't have been such a shock. But the fact that he died -- at age 27 on April 5, 1994 -- from a self-inflicted gunshot wound was stunning. He was at the top of his career, he had a wife (Courtney Love) and a daughter. Reasons to live for. But depression is a terrible thing.

20. Tupac Shakur

Rappers and violence, sadly, seem to go hand-in-hand. Tupac had his life struggles, but he made his mark: Rolling Stone listed him as No. 86 on its 100 Greatest Artists of All-Time. No one knows who ordered or fired the shots on September 7, 1996 in a Las Vegas drive-by that would kill him six days later.

21. The Notorious B.I.G.

His real name was Christopher George Latore Wallace. You might have known him as Biggie, or Biggie Smalls. He is considered one of the greatest rappers ever. But just a few months after Tupac Shakur, one of his main rivals, was gunned down, he was the victim of a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles -- still unsolved -- that killed him at 24.

22. Aaliyah

The singer who got her start on "Star Search" was a fast-rising star in both music and movies -- she was in "Romeo Must Die" with Jet Li -- when she died with eight others in a plane crash in the Bahamas on August 25, 2001 at age 22.

23. Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes

The rapper who rose to fame with her band TLC had a tumultuous life -- she came from an abusive family and once burned down the house of her boyfriend, football player Andre Rison. She was called "Left Eye" after a man once told her he was very attracted to her because of her left eye. Lopes' weird way of demonstrating pride in the name was by wearing glasses with the left lens covered with a condom.

On April 25, 2002, Lopes was killed in a car accident in Honduras when she swerved off the road to avoid hitting another vehicle. She was thrown from her own vehicle and was killed instantly. She was 30.

24. Michael Jackson

The death of the King of Pop -- on June 25, 2009 at age 50 -- so shocked the world that much of the internet outright crashed or slowed to a crawl. His funeral was so big and filled with celebrities that it was held at Staples Center in Los Angeles and carried live on all the networks -- like they do when a president dies.

25. Whitney Houston

Drowning -- in a bathtub on February 11, 2012 -- was the undignified end to one of her generation's great entertainers, in both music and films ("The Bodyguard," "Waiting to Exhale."). Like Michael Jackson, her death was hastened to a prescription drug problem -- and in Houston's case, alcohol and drugs were part of the mix as well. She was only 48.

26. Amy Winehouse

Amy Winehouse was one of the world's biggest talents -- a voice with an emotion and power that's matched only by people with names like Streisand or Adele. It was a voice seemingly built for a decades-long career. So that makes it all the more tragic that her alcohol and drug addiction was something she could not overcome. She died at age 27 -- yes, another member of the "27 Club" -- on July 23, 2011.

27. Scott Weiland

The former lead singer for Stone Temple Pilots and Velvet Revolver famously battled substance abuse for years. On December 3, 2015, he was found dead in the back of his tour bus at age 48, likely of a heart attack.

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