“I’m so sorry, the disease has spread, your condition is terminal. You have 10 months to live”. BOOM!
You’re a world-famous musician in your prime, nailing virtually every performance and recording session. Some of your albums have gone gold – even platinum. Every move you make… nights out, walking your dog Bosco… press releases… they’re all gobbled up by your fans – and you wouldn’t have it any other way. Your public is eager and hungry – they all want you, now. Oh, and your net worth? Millions. In every conceivable way, you, my friend are on top of your world. But, in three seconds of disbelief, life as you’ve known it… is over. You’re a mortal. You’re dying. And there ain’t any way to change that. In two weeks, you’re about to set out on a 100-City Tour. What the hell?? Your doctor tells you to cancel, your Manager tells you not to worry, and your band-mates say “Oh-oh”.
The musicians listed below took this incomprehensible news and set it on the back burner. Each of these ten idols knew they were dying. They each had unfinished business, and bravely took on the journey of completing it. While their conditions were terminal, in some cases enduring indescribable pain and fatigue, these heroes made the seemingly impossible decision to continue touring, recording and pouring out their souls to the public… the loyal fans that supported their champions until, quite literally, the last breath. Their music covered the full spectrum. Some of the stories may surprise you.
10. Warren Zevon – 2003
Songwriting Legend Warren Zevon (Werewolves of London, Excitable Boy…) had his first taste of sweet success in 1964. He was only 16 and likely had no idea of the measure of fame that was to come. Warren learned of his terminal condition in 2002, and his tragic death occurred at age 56.
Upon his passing, the passionate performer’s critically-acclaimed career had spanned 40 years. The singer battled personal demons i.e. addictions and the endless rigors of writing, touring, and performing for four decades. The offbeat Zevon often described a fear of doctors – in fact, the only practitioner he saw regularly was his dentist. After Zevon became ill at a 2002 concert, he relented and saw a medical doctor. The diagnosis was grim – inoperable lung cancer. In October ‘02 on The Late Show With David Letterman, Warren gave his last public performance. The witty and dark sense of humor, however, was still intact when he stated: “I might have made a tactical error in not going to a physician for 20 years… It’s one of those phobias that didn’t pay off.” His condition terminal, the courageous Zevon pushed on, working furiously to complete his final album The Wind. Film crews were allowed to document his daily struggles to finish his last work.
As his condition dwindled, Zevon summoned the energy to record the final ballad “Keep Me in Your Heart”. The beloved artist had become so weak, the song was recorded in a makeshift studio in his home. Just two weeks before his death, The Wind was released, and Zevon’s bold legacy began.
9. Johnny Cash – 2003
One of the most influential and best-selling recording artists in history, Johnny Cash – “The Man in Black” – portrayed an image of toughness, grit and resolve. He was singing covers and originals… cranking out songs by the dozens i.e. “I Walk the Line” and “Ring of Fire”. The legendary dude was on top of the world for many years. While at times his lifestyle was considered by many to be dangerously over the edge (long-term drug abuse), the spot-on songs and endless sold-out shows kept coming.
His passion and unstoppable work ethic enabled him to continue to perform, even when his offstage life was seemingly out of control. Cash was relentless. When hospitalized in 1998 for severe pneumonia, he’d already been diagnosed a year earlier with diabetes-related neuropathy, a nervous system disorder. Despite his obvious failing health, he refused to lay down the microphone, and, amazingly continued to record. In the final album before his painful passing, he sang “Hurt”, a song about regret. Most agree he was saying goodbye.
8. Tammi Terrell – 1970
You’re All I Need to Get By… These were the last lyrics sung by young “rising-like-a-rocket” Motown Superstar Tammi Terrell, in her last-ever public performance. As she and Marvin Gaye sang their duet, Terrell was terminally ill and extremely weak, yet she summoned the strength to appear onstage and sing this final song publicly.
Tammi’s polished, powerful voice was in demand throughout the 1960s. She sang many duets with Gaye and, together, they were among Motown Records “royalty”. The beautiful Terrell had been diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1968 and, although she received treatments, the cancer progressed. During a brief period of slight recovery / relief from crippling headaches, Tammi insisted on recording in the studio to complete Easy, the final album on which her voice was heard.
As her condition again worsened, she only recorded on days in which she was physically able, which were few. A few months after completion of Easy, Terrell succumbed to the illness. She was 24. In the 45 years since her death, her profound contributions to R&B are very much alive and her strength will never be forgotten.
7. Minnie Riperton – 1979
“The lady with the high voice and flowers in her hair…” was used to describe Riperton, an AMAZING classically-trained singer whose exquisite voice climbed easily into the “whistle register” – the rare ultra-high vocal pitch achieved by a small number of female singers of our time (Mariah Carey, Deniece Williams, Rachelle Ferrell to name a few). She used this hypnotic talent in a bunch of her hit songs, including “Loving You”.
Her fans were blown away when Minnie revealed on The Tonight Show that she had breast cancer that had spread throughout her body and was undergoing treatment. Despite her deadly diagnosis and the hardships of travel, the irrepressible Riperton continued her musical journey. In mortal physical pain, she recorded her last album Minnie. Sung beautifully, the soulful ballad “Memory Lane” allowed Minnie to say Goodbye to her family – and to the entire world.
6. Freddy Mercury – 1991
The number five. Hmm… Well, the Pentagon has five sides, “5” was Reds Catcher Johnny Bench’s number, Cinco de Mayo (5/5) and, finally… Freddie Mercury’s five octave vocal range. Huh? It’s true. Mercury was the front man for the iconic band Queen. The late singer’s soaring voice blew us away, as the idol was capable of belting out a low note “F2” to a high note “F6”. Simply put, his vocal range was HUGE! Only a handful of male rock singers in his time had ever achieved this level of “vocal godliness”. Freddie had lots of practice, having played 700 concerts and nearly 40 albums with his band.
Although the press reported that Mercury tested HIV positive in 1986, the singer and those closest to him persistently denied the rumors right up until his death in 1991. His terminal illness appeared obvious to most, however, as his extremely frail appearance and weakened condition were evident in his (very rare) public appearances. His spirit, though, was unbreakable. The following two examples beg to be mentioned here:
After learning he had AIDS, it was reported that he threw himself “… the biggest and wildest birthday party”… for 700 people!
The video “These Are the Days of Our Lives” was Freddie’s last appearance in front of a camera, and he summoned the strength and willpower to record an hour at a time, until the video was completed. In one of these final sessions, he addressed his illness by stating: “I’m not going to think about it, I’m going to do this.” You did it, Freddy.
5. Bob Marley – 1981
It’s virtually impossible to let a Bob Marley T-shirt go unnoticed. Printed in every single color imaginable and worn in every size available (we’ve seen them in 5XL), who wears them? It’s difficult to classify the answer, because his mind-blowing appeal spans multi-generations, just as it did when he died from cancer in 1981.
After all, it was Marley and his band The Wailers that released some of the earliest reggae recordings – in the 1960s! Marley was one of the most influential musicians of all time and an enduring symbol of Jamaican culture. When in 1977, a small melanoma was found under his toenail, it was not considered to be serious. At the time, rumor had it that the condition was due to a football injury but, in reality, it was a symptom of an existing, deadly cancer. Nonetheless, as the fatal illness spread throughout his body, Bob continued his near-frantic touring schedule – right up until his last concert in September, 1980. His condition quickly worsened and sadly he passed on in May of 1981. He was 36.
So… the next time you see a Marley T-shirt, forget your troubles and dance.
4. Johnny Maestro – 2010
Young readers may not recognize his name but, as the original lead singer for The Crests (Sixteen Candles) – one of the world’s first interracial singing groups – Johnny Maestro was once a household name, and likely a pinup poster in the lockers of high school girls (at least those who got away with it).
Johnny started out singing in subways, but he soon became the Justin Timberlake of his day and was once described as “The Rolls Royce of doo-wop voices.” And, his rock n’ roll singing style was an early influence on another kid named Elvis, who became known for his pelvis!
Clearly, Johnny’s vocal talent was in huge demand. When he crooned, women swooned. He continued to perform into his later years, even after he was diagnosed with an aggressively invasive cancer. Even as he underwent cancer treatment, the dying singer kept his illness from the public. His fans were shocked to learn of his fierce battle and of the pain he must have endured while doing what he loved best… until the end.
3. Frank Zappa – 1993
Another revered performer lost to cancer, Zappa was a profoundly gifted and eclectic musician whose work covered more genres than virtually all of Pandora and Spotify. He was a multi-instrumentalist – a master of jazz, rock, classical, electronic, and other forms of music that are “frankly”, hard to describe. For example, his songs included titles such as “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” and “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama”. Heck, some old-school mamas probably did go this route after reading his song titles and seemingly insane guitar riffs.
No stranger to physical pain, Frank endured sickness throughout his childhood and, during a concert at the highlight of his career, was pushed from a stage, where he fell ten feet into the orchestra pit. Recovery took nearly a year and he was left with permanent injuries to his body and voice. This tolerance to emotional and physical pain was to become a critical aid in overcoming the diagnosis of inoperable prostate cancer in 1990. Learning of his certain fate, he threw himself into his work… releasing several acclaimed albums and conducting orchestras around the world. Upon his death, the world had lost music’s “Captain Kirk” – he boldly went where no performer had (ever) gone before.
2. Levon Helm – 2012
He was just eighteen, proud and brave… one of Levon’s signature lines, offered the world a peek into his adventurous musical spirit and fearless character. He was an amazing master of many instruments, creating unforgettable music in the worlds of country, rock and blues. A tragic diagnosis of throat cancer in 1998 caused him to lose his singing voice and it appeared that his performing days were over.
Miraculously, his voice partially returned several years later and, although now thin and gravelly, the voice was indeed that of Helm. He continued to perform for sold-out shows, winning several Grammys. His cancer was never eradicated, however. Astonishingly, his last courageous public performance was given one short month before his death in 2012. He was, indeed Proud and Brave. We’re honored to say “Play on, Levon.”
1. David Bowie – 2016
Our most recent loss was the incomparable David Bowie in January of this year. He was an iconic, almost superhuman figure in the music world for over 50 years. The terms “Comfort Zone” and “Status Quo” had little meaning to Bowie, as virtually each major album and tour was often way outside the scope of those before. Let’s not forget the androgynous Ziggy Stardust, David’s most famous alter-ego. He changed his music and appearance frequently… from rock, to, glam, to fusion… the list is even longer.
Amazingly, before David became famous as a recording artist and performer, he had already mastered dance, mime, and acting in movies and plays. He courageously pushed the envelope of what the public and his critics expected… the same courage that vaulted him headfirst into his work, especially during his intensely private battle with terminal liver cancer. He lived to see the release of his final album Blackstar two weeks before his death. The song “Lazarus” contains the lyrics: “Look Up Here, I’m in Heaven.”
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