“Hope I die before I get old” — Do famous musicians really die young?

Jimi Hendrix

With her tragic and untimely death, Amy Winehouse became the latest member of a grim group — the so-called Club 27, whose only entrance requirement is to be a famous musician and to die at age 27. The club also includes legends such as Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Kurt Cobain. This got me to thinking — is it really true that the brightest stars burn out the earliest? Or does it just seem that way because of our fascination with stars who die young?

Curious, I decided to conduct a little research so I compiled a list of famous and influential dead musicians. Of course that list could be limitless, depending on your standards for fame and influence. I ultimately opted to use Rolling Stone‘s list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time, first published in 2004/05 and updated in 2011. So yes, it focuses heavily on rock and pop, leaving out a ton of worthy artists from country, jazz, hip hop, and other genres. No Patsy Cline, no Biggie Smalls, not even Miles Davis. So if you want to complain that your favorite musician was left out, take it up with Rolling Stone. Sorry!

That means this data includes solo artists from Rolling Stone‘s list, as well as members of groups that made the list. And believe me, for some of those Motown and southern rock groups, it was not fun collecting that data.


What I Found

Here are some interesting facts I picked up from this list:

Sid Vicious
Sid Vicious

Youngest to die — Sid Vicious (Sex Pistols), age 21. On the evening of 1 February 1979, Vicious (born John Simon Ritchie) overdosed on heroin at his new girlfriend’s (Michele Robison) New York City apartment. He was reportedly revived by those in attendance, and went to bed with Robison at approximately 3am the next morning. On the morning of February 2 his body was discovered. No autopsy was ever performed.

Oldest to die — Bo Diddley, age 79. Diddley was one of the most influential guitar players in history, and his trademark shuffle is instantly recognizable to this day. His career spanned more than six decades, until a stroke and heart attack in 2007 put an end to public playing days. He finally died of heart failure on June 2, 2008, with more than 30 family members at home with him. His grandson, Garry Mitchell, stated that a gospel song was sung at Diddley’s bedside and afterwards the legendary musician’s last words were, “I’m going to heaven.”

Age with the most deaths — You guessed it, 27. Eight members of the RS 100 (Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Dave Alexander, and Rudy Lewis) died at 27, twice as many as any other age.

Most lethal age groups — Bolstered by the members of Club 27, the 26-30 group had 15 members. After that there is a pretty big dropoff until things pick up again in the 46-50, 51-55, and 56-60 ranges.

Lynyrd Skynyrd (1977)
Lynyrd Skynyrd

Group with the most deaths — Due in no small part to a tragic 1977 plane crash that claimed the lives of three members, seven members of Lynyrd Skynyrd have died since the group’s inception in 1964. Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, and Cassie Gaines (as well as assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary and co-pilot William Gray) were killed in the crash.

Since then four other members of Skynyrd have passed — Allen Collins died in 1990 from chronic pneumonia, a complication from paralysis suffered in a 1986 car accident; Leon Wilkeson died in 2001 after suffering from suffering from chronic liver and lung disease; Billy Powell died in January 2009 of a suspected heart attack, but no autopsy was performed; Hughie Thomasson died in September 2007 of a heart attack; and Ean Evans died in May 2009 from cancer.

Collins, Wilkseon, and Powell were survivors of the plane crash in ’77, incidentally.

The Full List

As I mentioned before, tracking down all the deceased members of some long-running groups was not easy. So if I left anyone out, please let me know.

Tupac Shakur
Tupac Shakur
  • 21 — Sid Vicious (Sex Pistols)
  • 22 — Buddy Holly
  • 24 — Duane Allman and Berry Oakley (The Allman Brothers Band), Glen Goins (Parliament-Funkadelic), Cliff Burton (Metallica)
  • 25 — Zeke Zettner (The Stooges), Tupac Shakur
  • 26 — Otis Redding, Gram Parsons
  • 27 — Brian Jones (The Rolling Stones), Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan (Grateful Dead), Dave Alexander (The Stooges), Rudy Lewis (The Drifters)
  • 28 — Steve Gaines (Lynyrd Skynyrd)
  • 29 — Ronnie Van Zant & Cassie Gaines (Lynyrd Skynyrd), Clarence White (The Byrds), Hank Williams
  • 32 — Keith Moon (The Who), John Bonham (Led Zeppelin), Keith Godchaux (Grateful Dead), Florence Ballard (The Supremes)
  • 33 — Sam Cooke, Bon Scott (AC/DC), Keith Relf (The Yardbirds)
  • 34 — Lamar Williams (The Allman Brothers Band), Paul Williams (The Temptations)
  • 36 — Elbridge Bryant (The Temptations)
  • 37 — Jam-Master Jay (Run-D.M.C.), Brent Mydland (Grateful Dead), Allen Collins (Lynyrd Skynyrd)
  • 39 — Dennis Wilson (The Beach Boys), Clyde McPhatter (The Drifters), Al Jackson, Jr. (Booker T. & the M.G.s)
  • 40 — Bob Marley, John Lennon
  • 42Elvis Presley, Richard Manuel (The Band), Eddie Hazel (Parliament-Funkadelic)
  • 44 — Marvin Gaye, Allen Woody (The Allman Brothers Band, Gov’t Mule)
  • 45 — Freddie Mercury (Queen)
  • 46 — Gene Clark (The Byrds)
  • 47 — Michael Clarke (The Byrds)
  • 48 — Tom Fogerty (Creedence Clearwater Revival), Ean Evans (Lynyrd Skynyrd)
  • 49 — Joey Ramone (The Ramones), Jackie Wilson, Rudy Ivan (The Drifters), Leon Wilkeson (Lynyrd Skynyrd)
  • 50 — Dee Dee Ramone (The Ramones), Joe Strummer (The Clash), Michael Jackson, David Ruffin (The Temptations)
  • 51 — Carl Wilson (The Beach Boys)
  • 52 — Roy Orbison, Melvin Franklin and Eddie Kendricks (The Temptations), Frank Zappa
Jerry Garcia
Jerry Garcia
  • 53 — Sterling Morrison (The Velvet Underground), Jerry Garcia
  • 55 — Johnny Ramone (The Ramones), Rick Danko (The Band), Vince Welnick (The Tubes, the Grateful Dead), Hughie Thomasson (Lynyrd Skynyrd, Outlaws)
  • 56 — Garry Shider (Parliament-Funkadelic), Billy Powell (Lynyrd Skynyrd), Kevin Kelley (The Byrds, Rising Sons)
  • 57 — John Entwistle (The Who), Curtis Mayfield
  • 58 — George Harrison, Doris Coley (The Shirelles)
  • 59 — Lawrence Payton (Four Tops)
  • 60 — Syd Barrett (Pink Floyd), Ron Asheton (The Stooges)
  • 64 — Johnny Moore (The Drifters)
  • 65 — Richard Wright (Pink Floyd), Howlin’ Wolf, Ray Davis (Parliament-Funkadelic), Carl Perkins
  • 66 — Pete Quaife (The Kinks)
  • 67 — Ronnie James Dio (Black Sabbath, Dio)
  • 69 — Skip Battin (The Byrds, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Flying Burrito Brothers), Renaldo “Obie” Benson (Four Tops)
  • 70 — Muddy Waters
  • 71 — Johnny Cash
  • 72 — Levi Stubbs (Four Tops)
  • 73 — James Brown, Ray Charles
  • 79 — Bo Diddley

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