Unfortunately, music and tragedy tend to go hand in hand. Far too many talented musicians suffer from mental illness and related issues such as addiction and health problems. As a result, many visionary artists pass away before they have a chance to reach their true potential and enjoy their success.
It’s so common, in fact, that there is an informal group of musicians who all died at age 27 called the 27 club. The 27 club includes some of the most iconic names in the history of popular music, who passed away at the height of their success. Here is a closer look at the 27 club members and their impact on music.
Kurt Cobain was one of the most iconic artists of his generation and a pioneer in grunge and alternative rock. The frontman for the seminal band Nirvana, Cobain was known for his expressive vocals and angsty yet poetic songwriting that earned the band a reputation as the leading voice of their generation.
Their iconic track, Smells Like Teen Spirit, was an instant classic and helped launch the band into international stardom. But despite his success, Kurt struggled with mental health problems and battled substance addiction in his later years. In the days leading up to his death, Kurt’s friends and family staged an intervention and insisted he check himself into rehab. He agreed but later escaped by jumping over a six-foot fence while taking a cigarette break.
Days later, an electrician discovered him at his home in Seattle with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Despite Kurt’s short life and career, he is one of his generation’s most talented and iconic musicians.
Jim Morrison was a singer, songwriter, and poet known for being the frontman and lead singer of The Doors. Morrison was a symbol of the emerging 60’s counterculture and became famous for his poetic lyricism and often wild behavior. He founded the Doors with keyboardist Ray Manzarek in 1965 and gained national attention two years later with the success of the song Light My Fire. The Door’s success had much to do with Jim’s mysterious persona and expressive lyrics.
He recorded six studio albums with the Doors before passing away in 1971. During his career, Jim developed an addiction to alcohol, which impacted his ability to perform and record. On July 3rd, 1971, he was found dead in a bathtub in his apartment in Paris. Authorities ruled his death a heart failure, which many believe may have been drug-related. However, they never performed an official autopsy, and there have been many conspiracy theories about what actually happened that night. Morrison was among the original group of 27 club musicians along with Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, and Jimi Hendrix, who all passed away at 27 within a few years of each other.
Janis Joplin was one of the most iconic female rock stars of the 1960s and a major figure in the hippie counterculture movement. Her career took off after a stellar performance with Big Brother and the Holding Company at the Monterrey Pop Festival in 1967. She eventually left the band and found success as a solo act, landing five singles on the top charts. Her most famous tracks include Me and Bobby McGee, Piece of My Heart, Cry Baby, Down on Me, and Mercedes Benz.
Janis developed an addiction to heroin, which she tried to kick several times. But her attempts were ultimately unsuccessful, and she died of an overdose at the age of 27. On October 4th, 1970, she was found dead on the floor of her room at the Landmark Motor Hotel. Her close friend John Byrne Cooke believed that the dose she had received was much stronger than she was used to, and her death was accidental. But despite her untimely passing, Janice remains one of the most influential female musicians of all time.
Even though his professionalcareer lasted only four years, Jimi Hendrix is regarded as one of the all-time most influential guitar players. Jimi’s musical journey began in 1962 after being discharged from the army. He moved to Nashville, Tennessee, to start playing gigs all across the South. After struggling to make a living playing the Southern R&B circuit, Jimi eventually moved to London, England, where he formed his band, the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
Within a few months, the band landed three top ten hits in the UK – Hey Joe, Purple Haze, and The Wind Cries Mary. He blew up in the US with a scorching performance at the Monterrey Pop Festival and eventually headlined at Woodstock and the Isle of Wright Festival. But like many great artists of that era, Jimi experimented with substances and alcohol, which led to his premature death. On the morning of September 18th, 1970, Jimi was discovered by his girlfriend Monika Denneman to be unconscious and unresponsive.
Paramedics rushed him to the hospital, where he was declared dead after choking on his own vomit due to a lethal mix of barbiturates and alcohol. Even though his career was short-lived, Jimi Hendrix is still considered one of the most important and influential guitarists in the history of rock ‘n roll.
Brian Jones was an English guitarist and one of the founding members of the Rolling Stones. He was the group’s original leader before Keith Richards and Mick Jagger developed a strong songwriting partnership and began to take the band in a new direction. Brian was an essential part of developing the group’s early sound, playing multiple instruments on many of the band’s early hits.
But later in the group’s progression, Brian became estranged from the rest of his bandmates and struggled with drug and alcohol addiction. Around midnight on July 3rd, 1969, Brian was found dead at the bottom of his swimming pool and pronounced dead when doctors arrived. They ruled his death accidental, although the coroners noted that his heart and liver were enlarged due to drug and alcohol abuse. Brian was the first of the original 27 club musicians whose deaths created the myth.
Robert Johnson was an American blues musician now considered one of the genre’s pioneers. He is regarded as a master of the delta blues and proficient in many styles and techniques. Although not commercially successful in his lifetime, he produced over 30 landmark recordings that influenced an entire generation of rock’ n-roll artists, from Eric Clapton to the Rolling Stones.
According to rumors, he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his uncanny musical ability – a myth that is a central theme in many of his songs. Johnson died near Greenwood, Mississippi of unknown causes. Legend has it, that the jealous husband of a wife he was flirting with murdered him in a fit of rage. Much of Robert Johnson’s life remains a mystery. However, he’s now considered one of the most influential blues artists of all time.
Amy Winehouse was an English singer-songwriter known for her deeply expressive voice and unique blend of soul, R&B, and jazz. Her 2006 album Back to Black was one of the best-selling albums in UK history and won numerous awards, including five Grammys. But, throughout her career, Amy suffered from drug and alcohol addiction and frequently had to cancel tours and other responsibilities due to hospitalizations and struggles with depression.
On July 23rd, 2011, her bodyguard discovered her unresponsive. Paramedics pronounced Amy dead from alcohol poisoning after determining that her BAC level was more than five times the legal driving limit. Despite her short career, Amy had a massive influence on popular music and paved the way for a new generation of female artists.
Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson was the co-founder of the blues band Canned Heat. He was a talented guitarist and harmonica player who also sang lead vocals on two of the group’s biggest singles, On the Road Again and Going Up the Country. The band gained worldwide attention after appearing at the Monterrey Pop Festival and Woodstock and they’re considered one of the most important groups of the hippy era.
But Alan suffered from severe anxiety and depression and attempted suicide several times. He had insomnia and frequently took the barbiturate secobarbital to help him sleep. On September 3rd, 1970, Wilson was found dead in a sleeping bag on a hillside beside bandmate Bob Hite’s home. His official cause of death was an accidental overdose, although some speculate it may have been a suicide attempt.
Ron “Pigpen” McKernan
Ron “Pigpen” McKernan was one of the founding members of the Grateful Dead. Pig Pen grew up in Palo Alto with Jerry Garcia and they would frequently jam together as teenagers. They formed several bands that eventually became the Grateful Dead in 1965.
Unlike most of the other band members, Pigpen avoided using psychedelics but developed a strong addiction to alcohol. He was fired from the band several times due to a lack of work ethic and failure to keep up with their improvisational abilities. However, he continued to participate in shows and recordings until 1972. On March 8th, 1973, he was found dead in his home from a gastrointestinal hemorrhage related to his years of alcohol abuse.
Dave Alexander was an American musician best known for being the bassist in the early punk band the Stooges. Dave went to high school with Ron and Scott Asheton, and together they would form the Stooges after meeting Iggy Pop in 1967. He barely knew how to play the bass at the time of forming the band, but that was all part of the raw energy that would make the group so unique.
Like many rock stars of the time, Dave abused drugs and alcohol. Iggy Pop fired him from the band after getting too drunk and forgetting the chord changes during a performance at the Goose Island Festival in 1970. That was the beginning of the end, and Dave died of pulmonary edema linked to his alcoholism at 27.
Peter Ham was a Welsh singer-songwriter known for his role as the lead singer in the ’70s rock band Badfinger. Badfinger was an influential band in the genre of power punk and had four back-to-back hits from 1970 – 1972, including Come and Get It, No Matter What, Day After Day, and Baby Blue. But the band experienced severe financial problems after their manager Stan Polley took off with their advance from Warner Brothers, leaving the group penniless. Believing his finances were ruined, Peter hung himself in his garage on April 24th, 1975.
Chris Bell was an American musician best known for being one of the founding members of the powerpop band Big Star. The group’s debut album, #1 Record, was highly acclaimed by critics and has been listed as one of the greatest albums of all time. But due to poor label promotion, it was a commercial flop and only sold 10,000 copies in the first week. Bell eventually left the group to focus on a solo career. But before he could release a proper album, he died after losing control of his Triumph TR7 Sports Car and crashing into a light pole. His solo album I Am the Cosmos was released posthumously in 1992.
Mia Zapata was an American musician, the lead singer of the Seattle punk band, the Gits. Mia was a prominent figure in the emerging grunge scene but was kidnapped and murdered on her way home from a music venue in 1993. After police discovered her body, several Seattle grunge bands, including famous acts like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden, helped raise $70,000 to hire a private investigator to find her killer. The crime went unsolved for many years, but a man named Jesus Mezquia was eventually arrested in 2003 and sentenced to 36 years for the crime.
Randy “Stretch” Walker
Randy “Stretch” Walker was a rapper and record producer known for membership in Queen’s based Live Squad and 2Pac’s group Thug Life. Stretch rapped on and produced countless 2pac songs and even appeared alongside him as an extra in the film Juice.
Stretch died in 1995 after leaving a session with Nas when two men pulled up to his car in a black minivan and began firing shots. Stretch’s death remains unsolved, but some say it was over a drug deal gone wrong.
Louis Chauvin was an American ragtime musician who worked at the turn of the 20th century. Many of his contemporaries, like Scott Joplin and Joe Jordan, remember him as a skilled performer. However, he only left behind three published works – The Moon is Shining in the Skies, Babe, It’s Too Long Off and Heliotrope Bouquet. Chauvin died in 1908 at 27; his death certificate lists the cause of death as multiple sclerosis, likely caused by syphilis and starvation due to being in a coma.
Rudy Lewis was an American R&B singer known for his contribution to the doo-wop and R&B groups, The Drifters. George Treadwell invited him to join the Drifters after Rudy auditioned for him at Philadelphia’s Uptown Theater. He sang lead vocals on several hits with the Drifters, including Please Stay, Some Kind of Wonderful, Up on the Roof, and On Broadway.
Rudy suffered from heroin addiction and a binge eating disorder. He died in his Harlem hotel room on May 21st, 1964. They never performed an official autopsy, but his friends believe the cause of death was a mix of a heart attack, asphyxiation, and a drug overdose.
Nat Jaffe was an American swing jazz pianist known for his work with famous names like Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong. He trained as a classical pianist in Berlin, where he lived from 1921 to 1932, before returning to the US to work with groups like Noel Francis and the Emery Deutsch Orchestra. Nat also performed as a soloist on 52nd Street and led his own trio with famed Jazz singer Sara Vaughn. He died in 1945 from complications due to high blood pressure.
Dickie Pride was an English singer who was linked to famous impresario Larry Parnes. Pianist Russ Conway first discovered Dickie and introduced him to Parnes, who signed him to his record label soon after.
Despite numerous television appearances and tours, Dickie’s music failed to live up to commercial expectations. He was excellent at performing live, but for some reason couldn’t translate it into album sales. Parnes eventually dropped him after his second album flopped and he was forced to take a job driving a delivery van while working on other music projects. But he also suffered from mental health problems and heroin addiction. He died from an overdose of sleeping pills in 1969 at age 27.
Helmut Kollen was a German bass player best known for his work in the band Triumvirant. The group was a major player in the genre of euro rock and took influence from progressive rock bands like The Nice and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Helmut died on May 3rd, 1977, from carbon monoxide poisoning. He was listening to music while parked in the garage with his car engine running. His solo album You Won’t See Me was released posthumously later that year.
Pete de Freitas
Pete de Freitas was an English musician who was the drummer in Eco and the Bunnymen. He joined the band in 1979 and played the drums on their first five albums. He quit the group briefly in 1985 and spent several months on a drinking binge in New Orleans before returning to the band shortly thereafter. Pete de Freitas died in a motorcycle accident after colliding with an oncoming vehicle while driving down the A51 Road between London and Liverpool in 1989.
Kristen Pfaff was an American musician, best known as the bass player in the group Hole. Hole was the alternative rock group founded by Courtney Love, the wife of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. Before joining Hole, Kristen also played bass in the noise rock band Janitor Joe. While on tour in California, she met Courtney Love and Eric Erlandson and decided to move to Seattle to work on the band’s acclaimed second studio album, Live Through This. Kristen died of a heroin overdose on June 16th, 1994, just two months after the death of Kurt Cobain.
Fat Pat was a rapper from Houston, Texas, known for being the brother of fellow rapper Big Hawk and one of the original members of DJ Screw’s influential Screwed Up Click. Screwed Up Click was famous for inventing a new genre of music and mixing technique called “chopped and screwed”. The technique featured classic hip-hop records that had been slowed down and manipulated, then remixed to include freestyles from the rappers in the crew.
Fat Pat was shot and killed on February 3rd, 1998, after going to a promoter’s apartment to collect an appearance fee. His first two albums, Ghetto Dreams and Throwed in the Game, were released after his death.
Fredo Santana was one of the early pioneers of Chicago drill music and the cousin of Chief Keef. Early on, Fredo served as Keef’s manager and founded the label Savage Squad Records. But he also started rapping in 2011 and released his debut album Trappin Ain’t Dead in 2013.
Fredo struggled with PTSD from his rough upbringing in the Southside of Chicago and struggled with an addiction to drugs like Xanax and Lean. Toward the end of his life, he suffered from epilepsy-related to his drug addiction and ended up in the hospital several times. On January 19th, 2018, his girlfriend discovered him on the floor of their home in Los Angeles, where paramedics pronounced him dead at 27.
As the Head Editor and Writer at Music Grotto, Liam helps write and edit content produced from professional music/media journalists and other contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.
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