Music is a path to immortality according to an old saying. That can be true as many an artist has risen from merely an entertainer to a major cultural icon. However, music is also a path of danger. Drugs, the rush of fame, the pressures of performance and keeping up, they can all take their toll. Many a rising star has seen their life cut short by such a horrible fate, but it’s not always drugs. It can be illness or some sudden accident that can take a life too soon or in some cases, a legend before their time. Not all deaths can be shocking; when Amy Winehouse passed on of an overdose, it was tragic, but not a true shock given her long-time addictions.
Some deaths can come out of left field and be truly stunning. Again, it can be a younger star on the rise suddenly dying or a legend facing an end far more unexpected than usual. The music world has seen all types of these over the years, many from rock and roll. There have been others in country, pop, classic crooners and other sides as well. Some are due to the addictions of the musicians and unable to handle the pressures. But others were huge because those involved still appeared to be in the prime of life and impossible to imagine they could be gone so soon. Here are 20 deaths that rocked music fans and stand among the most huge in the history of our culture.
20 Hank Williams
Rarely has a life so short been so influential. While country music had existed for a while, it was Williams who helped turn it into mainstream, taking off in the 1940s with several smash hits. Williams was the one who began such sounds like “honky-tonk” and “bluegrass” that would influence country artists to this day. Sadly, Williams’ talent was offset by his hard drinking that cost him a few deals and a fall off a horse led to an addiction to painkillers. Still, he was the biggest star in country as he headed to a concert in West Virginia on New Year’s Eve, 1952. A deadly ice storm forced him to drive and as it crossed into the state on New Year’s Day, his driver realized Williams had died. The cause was a heart attack due to his long-time drinking and his funeral in Alabama attracted thousands. He was just 29 years old and thus this death a true shock for his fans. Despite that, his legacy as “the King of Country” remains intact and almost every singer since owes their career to him one way or another.
19 Stevie Ray Vaughn
His mainstream career wasn’t long, but it was highly influential. Vaughn was influenced by blues, but worked rock into his guitar skills as he performed for several bands in the 1970s. His fame grew as he preferred natural amps to pedals and soon found a partnership with David Bowie. Vaughn was affected by addictions to alcohol that led to a near fatal hospital stay in 1986. However, he emerged clean and sober and rebuilt himself, better than ever before and rising higher with his album In Step a smash hit that won him a Grammy Award. Vaughn appeared to have conquered his demons and ready for a long career. Which was why it was so heartbreaking when, on August 26, 1990, Vaughn boarded a helicopter in Wisconsin for a show in Chicago. In a haze, one of the copters crashed into a hill, killing Vaughn and three others. It was a major blow, to lose a great talent who had seemed above his rough past but his legacy lives on as one of the most influential guitarists of all time and revered as an icon.
18 Janis Joplin
The “27 Club” is infamous in music. For some strange reason, many a star has died at only 27 years old such as Amy Winehouse and others. Joplin is among its most famous members and their most tragic. Her singing style was raw and unhinged, her rasp giving her vocals more power. She made Big Brother and the Holding Company a major act, performing at Woodstock and part of the wave of counterculture sound of the late ‘60s. Sadly, Joplin was also hampered by addictions to heroin and drinking that cut into her health several times. On October 4, 1970, her manager became concerned of her missing a recording session and went to her hotel to find Joplin dead. The cause was a heroin overdose with rumors it was a bad cut of heroin. Coming just two weeks after the death of Jimi Hendrix, Joplin’s loss was an even bigger shock to the music industry and showing how the drug culture took far too many great talents away.
17 Jim Morrison
To many, his death has only added to his amazing legacy. Morrison was one of a kind, a skillful poet who channeled that into his work with the Doors. As their lead singer, he was amazing in his vocals but also his unique style, showing off a good clothing style, his mentality and how he boasted of being on a higher plane than others. With hits like Light My Fire and others, Morrison was becoming a true standout against authority and boasting of a mentality that made him a leader of the counterculture movement. Much of that was pushed by his drug use which Morrison insisted just helped him grow his mind and add to his aura. In 1971, he moved to Paris, shaving his famed long hair and gaining weight. On July 3rd, Morrison was found dead in his hotel bathtub. The official cause of death was a heart attack but many believe substance abuse played a major role. Controversy rages with reports the police were bribed to not have an autopsy and talk of foul play. Regardless, Morrison was gone at only 27 and that early exit has just made him more of an icon and greater in death than in life.
16 Jenni Rivera
While born in California, Rivera soon became one of the biggest stars in Mexico. She was hailed for breaking out among the male-dominated Banda music genre, her performances marked by her great dancing and showing off her body. But she had the stellar vocals to make it up, winning numerous awards to add to her fandom. A star of her own reality TV show, Rivera also took part in numerous charities and a broadcaster as well. On December 9, 2012, Rivera was with her band flying from a concert in Mexico when the jet ran into complications. It was found crashed a day later, all on board killed instantly. Across Mexico and the Southwest U.S. million mourned the loss of Rivera with a park in Los Angeles named in her honor. She had completed work on the third season of her I Love Jenni show and it still aired with a new special remembering her. The legal issues over her death have been dirty, but that shouldn’t take away from this vibrant talent stolen so tragically.
15 Robert Palmer
The British singer was well known for his soulful sound and great humor that carried him to chart success. He became bigger in the 1980s with hits like Addicted to Love and Simply Irresistible that had him surrounded by gorgeous models. Palmer was quick to grasp the “synth wave” style of the 1980s and used it for his many hit albums to become a major star in both the U.K. and America. A two-time Grammy winner among his many other awards, Palmer had a great style and quite popular with his suits clashing with his nice rock anthems. However, his lifetime habit of smoking would catch up with him. On September 26th, 2003, Palmer was in Paris taking part in a TV special when he suffered a heart attack. The hospital could do nothing for him and Palmer was dead at only 54. Given his incredible drive and energy, his sudden death was jarring to his millions of fans and showcased how you didn’t have to be a hard rocker to fall to some darker addictions.
14 Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes
TLC may have been a company-formed girl group, but they managed to break out nicely as the performers threw their creativity behind it. Lopes proved that, writing several of their hits like “Waterfall” and pushing their fun style. Their “CrazySexyCool” album sold 23 million copies, making them one of the biggest music acts around. However, stories began to abound of Lopes’ ego making her turn on the band and the famous story of setting fire to her ex-boyfriend’s mansion. Battling substance problems didn’t help but she seemed to clean up her act, a new solo album and made it clear she wasn’t totally against a TLC reunion one day. On April 25th, 2002, Lopes was driving in Honduras and swerved to avoid an incoming truck. It went off the road, flipping several times with Lopes killed instantly. She was mourned as snuffed just as her career was really taking off more and how her TLC career left more of a legacy behind.
Few times has such a lovely talent been snuffed out too soon. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Detroit, this gorgeous young woman appeared on Star Search at 10. She began breaking out in the late 1990s as a singer and model, her R&B tunes winning over those looking for a break from the “bubblegum pop” of the time. Aailyah also began appearing in movies like Romeo Must Die and her soulful tunes and terrific style soon had her being called the “Young Queen of R&B.” On August 25th, 2001, she joined members of her recording company on a flight from the Bahamas. The pilot was unlicensed and had drugs in his system when the plane crashed off the islands, killing all on board. It was a shocking move as Aailyah was about to promote her newest album and had just filmed her role as a vampire in Queen of the Damned. Many have mourned not just her, but the great career cut too short and a wonderful life ending fast.
12 Sid Vicious
Not to be confused with the future pro wrestler, Vicious was the lead guitarist and leader of the Sex Pistols. Exploding onto the scene in the 1970s, the Pistols helped revolutionize punk rock and Vicious became one of its first major stars. With his wild hair, tattoos and anti-establishment attitude, he was an icon as he ripped up crowds with his wild play. He also entered into a marriage with Nancy Spungen that gained infamy for their drug use and hard partying ways. Spungen would be stabbed to death in a New York hotel with Vicious arrested for her murder. He was released on bail and during a wild party, was found dead of an overdose on February 2nd, 1977. Debate rages whether it was suicide and whether it meant Vicious was guilty over killing Nancy. While he’s more a precautionary tale today, most still think of Vicious for how he changed the rock game more than his sad end.
11 John Denver
Of all the people you’d expect to have a violent death, Denver was not one of them. Notable for his blond hair and glasses, Denver broke out in the 1970s as the star of folk music. His guitar and voice were known on hits like “Rocky Mountain High,” a sensitive but warm man who had an all-American sense of values to make him quite popular. Denver added to it with acting gigs like Oh, God! and numerous TV specials. With twelve gold and platinum albums and a poet laureate, Denver was a huge part of Colorado culture as well as an advocate for nature causes. An avid pilot, Denver was trying out a new craft on October 12th, 1997 when the craft crashed. It was a horrendous one, crushing his body to the point where they needed fingerprints to identify him. It was controversial as Denver had his flying license suspended after drunk driving. It was a bitter end to an otherwise truly good man and how you don’t have to be a major rocker to meet an early death.
Selena Quintanilla-Perez was on the verge of true greatness. At only 23 years old, she was being hailed as “the Queen of Tejano Music.” Born in Texas, she got into music early in her life, winning raves for her glorious voice and terrific style. As her popularity grew in both Texas and Mexico, she showcased a terrific style with her sexy outfits, called “the Tejano Madonna” and a huge fanbase. She won a Grammy in 1994 and was about to release her first English-spoken album and sure to take off majorly. But on March 31st, 1995, Selena was shot dead by a former employee at a Texas hotel. The Hispanic community was hit hard and deep, 60,000 fans showing up for her funeral and Texas was at half-mast for a week. Her album was a hit to show her great voice off, but hurting that she couldn’t live to enjoy it. She gained further fame when Jennifer Lopez (who bore a stunning resemblance to the singer) played Selena in a biopic that made Lopez herself a star. Yet it hurt to see such a shining talent silenced just as her true greatness was upon her.
9 Tupac Shakur
“Gangsta rap” was often joked about being about the violence, but also backing it with good music. Tupac used his harsh growing up in Harlem to fuel his work, his songs talking of the struggles of black youths. He was notable for his great voice and appearance with multiple tattoos and soon gained a following. Tupac was also moving into movies while trying to “Mainstream” a bit, but became part of the famed “East Coast-West Coat” rap wars of the period. He also got attention for run-ins with the law, including shooting a cop which just added to his rep. On September 7th, 1996, Tupac was in Las Vegas for a Mike Tyson boxing match, driving to his hotel alongside fellow rapper Suge Knight. Another car pulled up next to them and opened fire with pistols and shotguns. Shakur was taken to the nearest hospital, doctors doing their best but he succumbed to his wounds six days later. The mystery over who was behind it rages but Tupac’s legend has only grown since to stand among the icons of rap.
8 David Bowie
The British singer was an expert at morphing his style over the decades. He broke out as “Ziggy Stardust” with his glam rock exterior hiding his genius at music and fashion. He became a monster success with 26 albums and massive sales of 140 million records worldwide and a standby of the industry. Bowie was also famed for movie appearances like The Hunger, The Man Who Fell to Earth and Labyrinth. He took some years off for health reasons, but remained constant in his creativity. From award shows to marriage to model Iman and more, Bowie inspired countless other acts and it was assumed he always would. But on January 10th, 2016, Bowie passed of cancer in New York. It was completely unexpected as he had given no indications he was sick at all. In fact, he had just begun promotion of his final album, Blackstar, with various performances planned. His loss was huge for music, movies and fashion all together, proving how much Bowie changed the game.
This was a man who played by his own rules and his own style so that he could succumb to death seemed…wrong. In the 1980s, this star not only broke out with his fantastic music, but also his unique style. With his androgynous looks and quirky mannerisms, Prince could win over female fans but still remain a solid man in his own right. His works included hits like Purple Rain and more and his fame was immense from an Oscar win to performing at the Super Bowl. This is a man who spent years going around with a symbol for his name and still a massive success. He was at the prime of life at 57, a man who seemed to always be around which was why it was so stunning when word came of him found unconscious at his Minneapolis home. Rushed to the hospital, he was pronounced dead on April 21st, 2016, millions of fans in mourning. Artists raced to pay tribute to him in concerts and show how his amazing legacy will continue onward. An overdose of medication appeared to be the cause and the music world still can’t believe one of its greatest and most stylish men could be gone that quickly.
6 Elvis Presley
For three decades, Elvis wasn’t just rock and roll, he was American culture. He led the way of rock in the 1950s with his classics like Hound Dog and countless more. His dance moves got female fans screaming, his crooning was great and that hairdo became an institution. He moved from just singing to become a movie star as well, appearing in over two dozen films that showed his rebellious nature. His concerts were amazing with his sequined suits and when he had to enlist in the U.S. Army, millions acted like it was a national tragedy. He hit a rough patch in the 1960s but came back to become a standout in Las Vegas. However, his weight began fluctuating and he was soon saddled with various drug issues and depression. On August 16th, 1977, he was found dead in his hotel room of a heart attack brought on by drugs. The worldwide mourning was huge with his home of Graceland soon becoming a shrine. Since his death, Elvis has gone from merely a music star to one of the greatest cultural icons of the 20th century and no matter how rough his last few years were, he remains “The King.”
5 Whitney Houston
True, she had undergone some troubled times, but it was still a shock. When Houston broke onto the scene in 1986, she was hailed for her fantastic voice, great look and ability to rock fans. With such hits as “Dance With Somebody” and more, she achieved multiple gold, diamond and platinum status with just about every album she did. She also broke out in movies like The Bodyguard and others and seemed to have a long life ahead. Things hit a rocky patch with her marriage to Bobby Brown led to some run-ins with the law. Also, reports of her becoming more of a diva and no-shows for concerts and events. Her health also fluctuated, shocking many by appearing to be skin and bones for some appearances. Being Bobby Brown basically showed her as a screeching mess who appeared high much of the time. They divorced in 2007 which was quite bitter with Houston admitting her drug use and attempts at a comeback rough. Still, she seemed ready for more which was why the music world was stunned when she was found dead in the Beverly Hills Hilton on February 11, 2011. The planned Clive Davis Grammy party that evening became a memorial to her and the Grammys the next night paid tribute with a stirring performance by Jennifer Hudson. It was a tragedy to see Houston fall and how her death could silence such an amazing voice.
4 Kurt Cobain
“Grunge” wasn’t really a thing until Nirvana came along. This Seattle based band rocked fans with their wild style while also giving some soulful and insightful lyrics. Cobain was their frontman and centerpiece, winning fans with his amazing work. He was considered the voice of a generation, creating this new style of both wardrobe and attitude and becoming something of an icon as he led the alternative music wave of the 1990s. However, Cobain also battled substance abuse and his troubled marriage to Courtney Love became tabloid fodder. He reportedly didn’t enjoy his public standing and the adulation and it weighed on him. Still, it was stunning when on April 5, 1994, Cobain was found dead of a gunshot wound. It was ruled suicide but the controversy has erupted with rumors of him being murdered continuing today. Since then, Cobain’s legend and status as an icon has only grown but many are sorry that a man so brilliant could be troubled to such a hard young end and rob the world of his great voice.
3 Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson
This is an event so epic that it sparked a song, aptly titled “The Day The Music Died.” In the 1950s, rock and roll was truly taking off and rising up with slews of stars abounding. Buddy Holly was notable for his blond hair, large glasses and crooning out hits like Peggy Sue. Ritchie Valens was the first Mexican-American rock star, his fantastic energy coming out in songs like La Bamba and wining over Latino fans as well as crossing over to mainstream audiences. J.P. Richardson was known as “The Big Bopper”, his rockabilly style winning over as he was growing in popularity. On February 3rd, 1959, the three were part of the “Winter Dance Party” tour across the Midwest, selling out several concerts. The musicians hated the tour bus in the cold winter road and so Holly decided to hire a private plane to fly them to Minnesota. Waylon Jennings was to take part, but switched with Richardson, who was too ill to drive and Valens won a coin toss to Tommy Allsup to fly. Shortly after takeoff, the plane was overwhelmed by the wind and snow and crashed into a cornfield in Iowa, killing all on board. It was a devastating loss to the music world, three men in their primes taken and its legacy lives on in song since.
2 John Lennon
The Beatles helped change music as we know it. These four British rockers went from pioneering pop to some truly experimental work that shifted things up. They were huge stars, appearing in movies and their break-up a massive deal. They drifted to various work and clearly John Lennon was the star of the bunch. He and wife Yoko Ono were working on various albums with Lennon hailed for both his talent and working for peace with songs like Imagine becoming anti-war anthems. He was working on a new album on the night of December 8th, 1980 when he and Ono were walking back to his New York apartment. Mark David Chapman, a disturbed man whose idolizing Lennon had turned to hate, opened fire, shooting Lennon four times. Chapman calmly sat and read A Catcher In the Rye before he was arrested. The first announcement of his death came from Howard Cosell during Monday Night Football, and millions of fans across the world mourned. Lennon was cremated and his ashes spread in Central Park as it’s wrong a man who talked of peace could meet such a harsh end.
1 Michael Jackson
Leave it to Michael Jackson to save his best act for last. When the news came that the iconic singer had suddenly collapsed and died while rehearsing on June 25th, 2009, the reaction was amazing. Twitter crashed, You Tube exploded, message boards collapsed and every news channel on the planet made it top priority. More importantly, after years of being a tabloid joke and a figure of mockery due to so many scandals (lightening skin, marriages, accusations of molestation) and infamously bizarre behavior, Jackson’s legacy was now changed. People were remembering Jackson for his amazing music, how he revolutionized music videos and how in the 1980’s no one on the planet was a bigger star than him. His death was stunning as he’d been preparing for a new concert tour and seemed as healthy as ever. That he could be taken so quickly was just astounding and put his past in a brand new light as a world without Michael Jackson was nearly impossible to imagine. Today, folks remember him in a better way, for his great contributions less than his fall and thus his death allowed the King of Pop to take his reign to a totally new level.
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