One of Billy Joel’s biggest hits was called “Only the good die young.” It actually was controversial in the Catholic Church, when he sang “you Catholic girls start much too late.” But, taking the title a little differently, there is a long list of very talented performers who left us way to early. The following is by no means a complete list, but illustrates the loss of music never written or sung.
Ritchie Valens died at the age of 17 after the start of a bright future. He had three huge hits under his belt, including a rock-n-roll version of the Mexican song “La Bamba.” Valens’ real name was Ricky Valenueza.
Buddy Holly died at the age of 22 on the same plane crash with Valens and the Big Bopper. This spawned the song “American Pie” by Don McLean when he sang of the “day the music died.” Holly was a meteoric talent and some say would have been bigger than Elvis, primarily because he wrote his own music. Before he died, he had a solid dozen big hits.
The class of age 27 deaths is profound. Jim Morrison of The Doors died at that age. He was the enigmatic leader that wowed the female audience. The Doors had a significant number of hits with very interesting lyrics. Morrison, though, did his health no service with his excessive alcohol and drug use which led to some rocky stage performances.
Jimi Hendrix died at age 27 as well. Hendrix was regarded by many as the greatest rock-n-roll guitarist ever. He matched his unique abilities playing a right handed guitar upside down as a lefty, with lyrics that matched the psychedelic age. He also does the best cover of a Bob Dylan song called “All along the watchtower.”
Janis Joplin was another talent that died at age 27. Her voice was spectacular and she put every pound and inch of her body into belting out her songs. I remember Dick Cavett interviewing her after one of her songs and she was still catching her breath. She was influenced by Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Etta James and Aretha Franklin.
Kurt Cobain also died at age 27. He led a grunge rock movement from the Northwest that was gaining huge footing. It would have been interesting to see where his music went in the future.
Hank Williams died mysteriously at age 29. He was one of the more prolific country song writers, with many of his songs crossing over into more national appeal. If you ever have a couple of hours, watch “The Hank Williams Story,” with George Hamilton playing Williams.
Patsy Cline died in a plane crash at the age of 30. Her voice and style took country music more mainstream. While there is a movie on her career, I love how Beverly D’Angelo played her in “Coal Miners Daugher” about her good friend Loretta Lynn. Her version of Willie Nelson’s “Crazy” is legendary.
Jim Croce also died in a plan crash at age 30. Croce was a prolific song writer and talent who wrote every day music for the every day person. His wordsmithing and guitar driven music was a classic match. It should be noted the great guitar work was played by Croce and Maury Meuhleisen, who also died in the crash. If you ever get a CD of Croce’s greatest hits, you need to get a package set, as it will need two.
Cass Elliott of The Mamas and the Papas died at age 32. She was the lead voice on most of their biggest hits and her vocal talents could blend with a variety of music. I saw her and legendary crooner Andy Williams sing two different songs in harmony on his show.
Stevie Ray Vaughan, the great blues guitarist, died at the age of 35. The story goes he and Eric Clapton switched places on a helicopter ride from a guitar festival. We would have lost a talent either way. Vaughan still does not get the notoriety he deserves as he could match Hendrix and other blues legends. It should be noted, he gave homage to these legends when he played with them.
Harry Chapin died in a car accident at age 38. He was on his way to a benefit concert. If you are not familiar with his work, he was one of the best storytellers in song. Plus, he would talk with the audience between songs making them live more. People know “Cats in the Cradle,” but do check out “Mr. Tanner” and “A Better Place to Be.”
The final three need no introduction and deserve their own post – John Lennon was killed at the age 40, Elvis Presley died at the age of 42 and Marvin Gaye died at age 44. Three of the most legendary talents could have offered so much more.
If I left off someone, please add them in a comment. If you are not familiar with any of these performers, please check them out. You will not be sorry. If you are familiar, please revisit your past. Only the good die young.
Amy Winehouse was another of the group of 27. She was a tremendous talent with a big problem.
Roy, great addition. She had a huge talent to make a song her own. We warched a documentary movie with lots of phone footage about her. Her voice was admired by many artists. Yet, she could have used the support of her friends who she pushed away with her drug use and not listening. Like many artists, she needed people who were not sycophants.
Note to Readers: I should add Mozart died at the age of 35. He was both prolific and talented in the volume and excellence of his work. A favorite scene of the movie “Amadeus,” where Tom Hulce plays Mozart, is when he asks a contemperory, but less acclaimed composer, Salieri, to write down a composition from his death bed. Salieri was fiercely jealous of Mozart, but marveled at his talent to compose without the help of an instrument.
One cannot think of Marvin Gaye without remembering Tammi Terrell. The magnificent duo were performing when Tammi collapsed onstage into Gaye’s arms. This led to the diagnosis of a brain tumor and after numerous surgeries she succumbed to complications less than 3 years later, just shy of her 25th birthday. It has been said that Marvin Gaye never got over the loss. Otis Redding at only 26 yrs. of age, another lost in a plane crash. The tragic death of the 23 year old Selena by a senseless murder. I must also include another loss of an immensely talented person in a plane crash, John Denver. Though in comparison to your list, the age of 53 may not seem that young…it seems that age is relative depending on ones own age, at my age 53 is young! “We all die. The goal isn’t to live forever, the goal is to create something that will.” – Chuck Palahniuk. Each of these did just that! Thank-you!
Ellen, great comment and additions. I did not know Tammi Terrell’s story. So, tragic. She and Gaye were sensational together. Otis Redding was fantastic and Selena died much too young. John Denver died before his time. I tried to stay away from the 50s deaths. Michael Jackson went at age 50. I could have mentioned Whitney Houston at age 49. Thanks for the great comment. Keith
Note to Readers: Roy got me thinking about a few more deaths. Duane Allman, the great slide guitarist of The Allman Brothers, died in a motorcycle wreck at age 24 (note he also played on Eric Clapton’s “Layla.” Otis Redding died at age 26 and had just recorded his greatest hit “Sitting on the dock of the bay,” which went to #1 after his death. And, the velvet voice Sam Cooke died at the age of 33. Let’s go out with Sam singing, “Darling, you send me….you thrill me…you send me, honest you do, honest you do, honest you do.”
Wow, so young, all of them. I finally had the chance to see Bohemian Rhapsody last night and, although, at 45, Freddie Mercury may not have been as young as those on your list, obviously a great talent left us way before his time. Although I’m not religious, I love the thought that somewhere, there is an amazing band playing.
Janis, you are right to mention Freddie Mercury. As I told Ellen, I was using below age 50. That is a neat thought about the eternal band. As I type this, I recall The Righteous Brothers singing a song called “Rock and Roll Heaven,” along those lines. Ironically, Bobby Hatfield died reasonably early at age 63 just before a concert with Bill Medley. Keith
During the 1990s, I stumbled upon a restaurant run by Jim Croce’s wife and son. It was also a bit of an homage to him. I came home with more than delighted tastebuds. I also purchased “Thyme in a Bottle; Memories and recipes from Croce’s Restaurant” by Ingrid Croce. It’s full of family stories and photos that go along with the recipes.
Linda, what a cool story and I love the name of the cookbook. Thanks for sharing. Keith