The number of rockers who were taken from us too early in life — whether by accident, violence or, as was written on the coroner’s report for Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones, “misadventure” — is obviously far too large. The fact that so many of the biggest and most influential talents in rock history died at the age of 27 is even more bizarre and, when you think about it, downright creepy.
Over the years, the stories behind the deaths of the members of this so-called “27 Club” have grown more and more inflated and outrageous. People have tried to make sense of these tragic losses by creating stories about everything from murders being legally covered-up to elaborate hoaxes and even deals with the devil trotted out. This tends to happen most frequently in situations where there’s a little bit of mystery involved with the death, such as an undiscovered body or an autopsy that was never performed for one reason or another.
We’ve tried to distinguish fact from fiction regarding these sad stories in the following gallery of Rockers Who Died at Age 27. And we’ve also joined forces with our friends at Loudwire and Diffuser to bring you not just some of our favorite classic rockers, but also those from the alternative and metal worlds to give you a better idea of just how big this 27 Club is.
Of all the rockers who died at age 27, perhaps none left the world with such a gaping sense of “what could have been” than Jimi Hendrix, who died of asphyxiation in his girlfriend’s London apartment on Sept. 18, 1970. His unparalleled ability to express and innovate on the guitar, as well as his endless desire to redefine everything about what rock music could be and how it was presented, make it all but certain that the four original albums we got to hear from Hendrix were only the tip of what he could have accomplished with more time. Sadly, a combination of red wine and sleeping pills (reportedly, stronger than expected) took that all away from us.
On July 3, 1969, just a month after being kicked out of the famous group he had helped form — the Rolling Stones — guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones drowned in his own swimming pool. Jones, a slide guitar genius who intended to be the Stones’ leader as they performed more traditional blues-based music, was slowly pushed to the side in favor of the impressive songwriting abilities (and charismatic on-stage presences) of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. After he contributed to just two songs on 1969′s ‘Let it Bleed’ album, Jones’ substance abuse problems — including an arrest that threatened his ability to tour overseas — became too much for his bandmates. Those same abuse problems are also believed to have contributed to his drowning death.
The sense of mystery created by the music of the Doors, specifically their charismatic frontman Jim Morrison, has helped make it hard for some people to believe that he’s truly dead. Of course, the fact that an autopsy was never performed doesn’t help, either. The singer reportedly died on July 3, 1971 — again, at the age of 27 — of heart failure in the bathtub of his Paris apartment. In accordance with French law, since there was no sign of foul play, no further investigation was performed. However many people suspect that Morrison in fact died of a heroin overdose, possibly in the bathroom stall of a nearby club. Or maybe he faked the whole thing and is raising horses in Oregon.
Keyboardist and vocalist Ron “Pigpen” McKernan of the Grateful Dead died at age 27 on March 8, 1973 from internal hemorrhaging caused by excessive drinking. Pigpen, who apparently earned his nickname, as you might suspect, from a lack of personal hygiene and a generally unkempt approach to life, is credited with pulling the Dead together in the mid-’60s, and served as their first frontman. After touring with the band for years and performing on several of their important early albums, failing health brought on by his addiction forced him to leave the Dead in 1972. Less than a year later, he passed away.
Janis Joplin, solo star and singer for Big Brother and the Holding Company, died at age 27 on Oct. 4, 1970 of a heroin overdose. The distinctive vocalist had endured a long history of drug and alcohol problems. According to Rolling Stone’s account, Joplin was found dead in L.A.’s Landmark Hotel, with fresh needle marks on her arm and $4.50 clutched in her hand. It has been suggested that her dealer accidentally sold her and several other clients an overly strong dose of the drug. She was in the process of finishing up what would turn out to be her posthumously-released 1971 solo album Pearl, having just completed the a cappella track “Mercedes Benz” three days earlier
Legendary bluesman Robert Johnson, whose songs have been recorded by the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, the Allman Brothers Band and many other classic rockers, died at age 27 in 1938. Since so little is known about Johnson — who recorded barely more than two dozen songs, including “Dust My Broom” and “Sweet Home Chicago” in his unnaturally short life — some pretty crazy myths and rumors about him have taken hold in many people’s minds. He’s rumored to have sold his soul to the Devil, and to have died after being poisoned by the jealous boyfriend of a woman he was talking to, just as famed talent scout John Hammond was trying to hand him a one-way ticket to fame and fortune.
On April 24, 1975, just three days shy of his 28th birthday, Badfinger singer and guitarist Pete Ham killed himself, reportedly because he was despondent over his poor financial situation and an ongoing battle with the band’s manager, Stan Polley. According to Rolling Stone, Ham left a note near his body declaring, “Stan Polley is a soulless bastard. I will take him with me.” His bandmates said the manager had withheld financial information from them. Despite writing several of the band’s hit singles, including “Day After Day“ and “No Matter What,” Ham apparently found himself broke and concerned as to how to help support his about-to-be born child, which apparently led to his tragic decision.
Alan Wilson, guitarist, singer, harmonica player and primary songwriter in Canned Heat, died on Sept. 3, 1970 due to an overdose of barbiturates. It has never been determined whether or not Wilson, who suffered from depression and had reportedly attempted suicide before, took his own life. Known as “Blind Owl” due to his poor eyesight, Wilson founded the quintessential boogie group in 1965 in Los Angeles with other blues lovers. He wrote and sang lead on the group’s two biggest hits, “On the Road Again” and “Going up the Country.” They had just finished recording an album with one of their idols, John Lee Hooker, when Wilson died.
On Dec. 8, 1975, Gary Thain, the former bassist for Uriah Heep, died at the age of 27. The official cause of death was respiratory failure as a result of an overdose of heroin. He had been fired earlier in the year due to his increasing drug problem and replaced by John Wetton, who had previously been the bassist for King Crimson. Thain joined the kings of British progressive hard rock in 1972 and was with them for five albums, four of which went gold in the United States. Before that, the New Zealand-born Thain had spent four years in the Keef Hartley Band, who opened up for Uriah Heep in 1971.
Helmut Kollen, the former bassist and singer for the German progressive rock group Triumvirat died of carbon monoxide poisoning in his garage at the age of 27. He was listening to tracks from the album he was working on while in his car with the engine running. Kollen joined Triumvirat, considered to be Germany’s equivalent of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, in 1974. He was on their two most successful albums, Illusions on a Double Dimple and Spartacus, which reached No. 27 on the Billboard Top 200 before leaving for a solo career in 1975. In Oct. 1977, his solo album was released under the title ‘You Won’t See Me.’
After the deaths of legends like Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin all at the age 27, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain added his own name to the list after committing suicide in 1994. And it was Cobain’s death that really brought the notion of a “27 Club” to the public eye. Cobain had possessed a troubled mind for most of his life, which was accelerated by his heroin addiction and refusal to attend rehab. Cobain became the gravelly voice of the ’90s grunge movement the minute “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hit the airwaves, with the Nirvana leader continuing to create brilliant rock milestones until the day he died.
Dave Alexander, original bassist for the Stooges, was a true punk rock pioneer. Joining forces with Iggy Pop, Scott Asheton and Ron Asheton, Alexander began to blueprint the genre of punk with his three bandmates in 1967. Alexander can be heard in the Stooges’ self-titled debut album along with the group’s sophomore masterpiece, ‘Fun House.’ The bassist was dismissed from the Stooges after losing interest in rehearsals and being too drunk to play a hometown gig in Michigan. The bassist died of pneumonia and an inflamed pancreas in 1975 at the age of 27. Alexander’s alcohol abuse reportedly contributed to the bassist’s early demise.
Mars Volta “sound manipulator” Jeremy Michael Ward was an integral part of the experimental band. After the internal collapse of At the Drive-In, guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala formed the Mars Volta, recruiting Ward immediately for the project. Ward provided loops, samples and soundscapes to the Mars Volta’s sound, performing live with the band while remaining offstage. Jeremy Michael Ward passed away at the age of 27 after experiencing a drug overdose on May 25, 2003, just months before the Mars Volta released their debut album, ‘De-Loused in the Comatorium.’
Only two months after Kurt Cobain committed suicide, the grunge legend’s widow and Hole frontwoman Courtney Love lost yet another important figure in her life. Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff, like Cobain, also suffered from heroin addiction, overdosing in 1994 at the age of 27. Kristen was “bright, personable, wonderful … very, very talented, smart, and she always seemed to be in control of her circumstances,” her father, Norman Pfaff, told the Seattle Times the day after her death. “Last night she wasn’t.”
American Head Charge lost their beloved guitarist Bryan Ottoson in the middle of a 2005 tour with Mudvayne. The band found Ottoson dead lying on a sleeping bunk on the group’s tour bus. Ottoson’s cause of death was ruled as an accidental overdose of prescription drugs. The 27-year-old shredder had been dealing with strep throat on the road and was prescribed penicillin and an unnamed pain medication. Police documents indicated that Ottoson has consumed “a large amount of alcohol at a bar” shortly before his death, but the “large amount” claim was quickly refuted by the band.
Amy Winehouse was already considered a tragic figure when she passed away from alcohol poisoning on July 23, 2011. Winehouse had very publicly suffered from serious drug and alcohol abuse issues, all-the-while thumbing her nose at them with her breakout hit, “Rehab” (“They tried to make me go to rehab, I said no, no, no.”) Nobody seemed too surprised by her untimely passing — which, in a way, made everybody feel guilty about it. Our celebrity culture loves to see stars fall hard, then recover gracefully, but Winehouse sadly just fell.
Chris Bell earned a spot in the infamous 27 Club when, on Dec. 27, 1978, he lost control of the compact Triumph TR-7 sports car he was driving home from a late-night visit to his father’s restaurant in Memphis, Tenn., smashing it into a light pole on the side of the road and killing him instantly. Bell was a founding member of influential power pop band Big Star, but bowed out in 1972 after their debut album, ‘#1 Album,’ failed to find success.
The Gits were an up-and-coming Seattle punk band on the verge of big things in the booming alternative ’90s when singer Mia Zapata was abducted early in the morning of July 7, 1993, after leaving a friend’s Capitol Hill apartment. Her body was discovered less than two hours later; she had been beaten, raped and strangled to death at the age of 27. Sadly, one of Seattle’s brightest young stars was snuffed out before she could truly shine. Zapata’s murder was featured on ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ but remained a cold case until Florida fisherman Jesus Mezquia was convicted of the crime more than a decade later.
Alternative rock was still truly underground when singer-guitarist D. Boon helped form California post-punk band the Minutemen in 1980. The group never sold many records, but its influence on the rock world is undeniably felt to this day. The Minutemen were true road warriors, leaving home for months at a time. It was while on tour that Boon died, on Dec. 22, 1987, when the band’s van was in an accident near Tucson, Ariz. He was, of course, 27.
Friendly Fires touring trumpet player Richard Turner was swimming in a pool in South London on Aug. 19, 2011, when he suddenly went into cardiac arrest. Lifeguards on hand and emergency responders were unable to revive the 27-year-old brass player, who died from a ruptured aortic aneurysm. ”He was an utterly exceptional musician and his contributions to our shows will be hugely missed,” read a post from the band.
Official records report that Manic Street Preachers songwriter and guitarist Richey James Edwards was “presumed dead” after the Welsh rocker mysteriously went missing at the age of 27 in 1995. His body was never found, though, leaving the door open for conspiracy theorists and overly optimistic fans to hold out hope that he may one day reappear. That, of course, isn’t likely, as his car was found near a renowned suicide spot, and no Edwards sightings since have ever been confirmed. Still, his 27 Club membership is best considered conditional. The Manics eventually continued on without him, although they have kept a percentage of the royalties aside should he return.
Born in Port of Spain, the capital of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, Pete de Freitas joined Liverpool post-punkers Echo & the Bunnymen in 1979, right before they recorded their seminal 1980 debut album, ‘Crocodiles.’ He stayed on for four additional Bunnymen studio albums and played on the hit singles “The Cutter,” “The Killing Moon” and “Lips Like Sugar.” De Freitas died in a motorcycle accident in 1989, roughly a year after Bunnymen singer Ian McCulloch had quit the group.
Best known as the former singer of Inner Circle, Jamaican singer Jacob Miller had the kind of voice that could effortlessly shift from smoothed-out Lovers Rock ballads to rock-infused reggae. Miller and his bandmates famously appeared in the cult classic film ‘Rockers,’ where they played a hotel house band that jams with the film’s hero, Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace. On March 23, 1980, during rehearsals for an American tour with Bob Marley, Miller was tragically killed in a car accident in Kingston, Jamaica.
Formed in 2004, Australian metalcore quintet the Red Shore had everything going for them when tragedy struck in 2007. During a tour with All Shall Perish, the band’s minibus veered off a highway on the east coast of Australia, crashing and ultimately killing lead singer Damien “Damo” Morris and merchandise man Andy Milner. The band would soldier on with a new singer for a few years before breaking up in 2011, leaving behind three albums.
Georgia musician Nate Niec might not have been a household name, but the bassist definitely left his mark in his community. In addition to playing bass in punk bands like No Holds Barred and Das Maniacs, Niec worked at a camp for traumatized children and even did some acting work, playing a monster in an indie film. Niec was killed in 2009 in a traffic accident in Johns Creek, an area near his home in Alpharetta.
Elizabeth “Bipsy” Amirian was an aspiring singer-songwriter from Northern California whose promising career was cut short by an act of horrifying violence. On Feb. 12, 2009, Amirian died after being stabbed, raped and kept prisoner for two days by her fiancé, Mikey David Beauchamp Wagstaff, who was later sentenced to life in prison. As of 2013, a book about Amirian’s life was being shopped around to publishers.
Sounding like a more agitated version of Minor Threat/Fugazi legend Ian MacKaye, Ink & Dagger singer Sean McCabe had an unruly vocal delivery that perfectly complemented Don Devore’s rubbery guitar riffs. McCabe’s magnetic stage presence and dark yet often humorous lyrics — something sorely lacking in the ’90s Philadelphia punk scene — helped the group set itself apart from the rest of the VFW circuit. Sadly, McCabe died in 2000 after passing out from drinking alcohol and choking on his own vomit in a motel room in Indiana.
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