The 50 Most Tragic Rock Deaths

The admittedly macabre list that follows is our attempt to rank these musical deaths according to level of tragedy. Yes, this is morbid. Yes, this is self-defeating. But there are lessons to be learned here: Don’t mix barbiturates with alcohol. Don’t drink an entire bottle of whiskey in one sitting. And don’t, for the love of God, board a single engine plane on a dark and stormy night just to play to a few hundred drunks in Pigsknuckle, Arkansas.

A word about the rankings. To qualify, you had to be younger than 50 (hence Jerry Garcia’s omission from the list) and a big star or on your way to being a big star. We considered age at time of death, body of work at time of death, and, to some degree, avoidability of death. Thus, John Lennon’s assassination, while horribly tragic, does not rank as high as Jimi Henrdrix’s drug overdose, because Lennon was 40 and Hendrix only 28.

Now, then, the list:

1. Buddy Holly, The Crickets. Plane crash, 23.
It was only 1959 when the small-engine plane fell from the February sky, claiming the life of Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. Only 23 years old, Holly had already written an album’s worth of hits, including “Peggy Sue,” “Oh, Boy,” “Not Fade Away,” “Everyday,” and “That’ll Be The Day.” This last song – and the plane crash – inspired Don McLean’s “American Pie”; the last line in the song is This’ll be the day that I die. We would gladly trade McLean’s opus for twenty more years of Holly.

2. Jimi Hendrix, The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Drug overdose, 28.
Word on the street is Hendrix would have lived had the ambulance come sooner, and the medical staff been more experienced (oh, the irony). This does not excuse Hendrix – the originator of the Seattle sound – from imbibing so many barbiturates. The best guitarist that ever lived, and certainly the best that ever died.

3. Otis Redding. Plane crash, 26.
The recording of “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” was just three days old when Redding’s plane went down en route to a show in BFE. Better known for his powerful vocal work, Redding wrote “Respect.” Upon hearing Aretha Franklin’s version of the R&B classic, he remarked, “She done stole my song!”

4. Kurt Cobain, Nirvana. Suicide, 27.
Incesticide was Led Zeppelin I, Nevermind Led Zeppelin II, In Utero Led Zeppelin III…and Cobain bowed out before giving us Nirvana’s Runes. Nirvana was the pinnacle of the Seattle grunge sound, the best thing to hit music in 20 years. And Cobain was Nirvana. Like him or not, Cobain was a Rock Star, and Rock Stars are a dying breed.

5. Randy Rhodes, guitar, Ozzy Osbourne. Plane crash, 26.
Rhodes was aboard a small plane whose pilot, horsing around, flew too close to Osbourne’s tour bus, clipping the wing and causing the plane to crash. He was a better guitarist than Eddie Van Halen, and certainly wrote more musically interesting, if not more widely known, songs: “Crazy Train,” “I Don’t Know,” Mr. Crowley,” “Flying High Again,” “Suicide Solution,” and the ballad “Goodbye to Romance,” to name a few.

6. Patsy Cline. Plane crash, 31.
As she left Kansas City’s Ryman Auditorium, one of her friends told her to be careful flying. “I’ve been in two bad ones,” she said, referring to two previous car accidents. “The third one will either be a charm, or it’ll kill me.” Unfortunately, the cliché did not follow.

7. Ronnie Van Zant, Lynyrd Skynyrd. Plane crash, 29.
Steve Gaines, Lynyrd Skynyrd. Plane crash, 30.
Say what you will about the racist implications of “Sweet Home Alabama” (and there is much to say); with “Freebird” and “Gimme Three Steps,” Skynyrd had penned three classic rock hits when band leader Van Zant and several of bandmates died in a plane crash. The one thing we’re fuzzy on is who is playing in the band now.

8. Eddie Cochran. Car crash, 21.
One of rock’s pioneers, Cochran already had a handful of radio hits to his credit, most notably the classic “Summertime Blues,” when he died in a car wreck in Great Britain. His spirit evidently drifted around England for some time, for you can hear his influence in British Invasion pop; The Who, in fact, covered “Summertime Blues.”

9. Bob Marley, The Whalers. Brain cancer, 36.
Deeply religious, Marley refused medical treatment for his condition. He was the seminal reggae act, his music covered by artists as diverse as Eric Clapton and Bruce Springsteen. As influential, in his own way, as anybody on the list. The Police are just one band who would never have existed without his example.

10. John Lennon, The Beatles. Homicide, 40.
If anything good came out of Lennon’s violent end, it was that he lived long enough to leave a prodigious legacy of music. Imagine, if you will, him dying at 23, and you know why Buddy Holly tops this list.

11. Marvin Gaye. Homicide, 43.
Gaye’s best songwriting days were behind him when his father shot him to death, but he had just made a comeback with “Sexual Healing,” his biggest hit ever. Talk about killing the goose that laid the golden eggs.

12. Duane Allman, The Allman Brothers. Motorcycle crash, 27.
Gregg’s brother died when his motorcycle crashed into a peach truck. Soon after, the Allman Brothers – now misnamed – released the album Eat a Peach. What’s that you say? Duane was Wally Pipp to Dickie Betz’s Lou Gehrig? True, most of the Allmans’ best stuff was done after his death. But we don’t think one more cook would have spoiled this particular broth. Quite the opposite.

13. Jim Croce. Plane crash, 30.
When still a nobody, Croce canceled a concert at a college in Louisiana, promising to return the following year. The following year he was a big star, thanks to songs like “Bad Bad Leroy Brown,” “Operator,” “Time in a Bottle,” and “Don’t Mess Around With Jim.” He made good on his promise, playing the show in the swamp, and died before he could return to his wife and infant son.

14. John Bonham, drums, Led Zeppelin. Alcohol overdose, 32.
It’s tough to feel sympathy for a guy who drinks 30 shots of vodka in one sitting, even if he is the best drummer in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. And Led Zeppelin was more or less done recording when he died. But his loss did deprive us of any chance of more material from one of the best rock bands of all time.

15. Sam Cooke. Homicide, 33.
Cooke was stabbed to death over a squabble over money from one of his shows. Cooke helped transition rock from the doo-wop 50s sound to the more experimental 60s with hits like “Twistin’ the Night Away.”

16. Amy Winehouse, alcohol poisoning, 27.

17. Janis Joplin, Big Brother & The Holding Company. Drug overdose, 27.
One of the first women to front a rock band, Joplin and her throaty rasp opened the gates for other grrls to take center stage. She died two weeks after Hendrix – a bad month for rock ‘n’ roll.

18. Ritchie Valens. Plane crash, 18.
Sure, his big hit, “La Bamba,” was a traditional Mexican wedding song. But how many people even have hits at 18?

19. Keith Moon, drums, The Who. Drug overdose, 31.
He was high when he joined the band and high when he left it. His style of drumming was perhaps a bit busy, but it was certainly better than what Ringo Star was doing. After Moon, drummers were not just there to keep the beat.

20. Selena. Homicide, 24.
In perhaps the oddest celebrity murder since President James Garfield was assassinated by a lunatic acquaintance because the Chief Executive wouldn’t name him ambassador to France, Selena was cut down in the prime of life by the psychopathic president of her own fan club. Naysayers claim she would have been a Latin Celine Dion. We credit her for ushering Latin music back to the mainstream.

21. Stevie Ray Vaughn. Helicopter crash, 36.
Phenomenal R&B guitarist who died, like so many others before him while on tour. Also lost in the accident was his battered and bruised woodgrain guitar, the same one he used for decades.

22. Jim Morrison, Vocals, The Doors. Drug overdose, 29.
The Doors were more or less unhinged anyway when their charismatic leader, now bloated and strung out, broke on through to the other side. His death did more for the band’s inexplicable popularity than their lackluster catalogue ever could. Much ado is made of his alleged lyrical genius, which is to say, of nothing. His contribution to rock ‘n’ roll is that he looked good without a shirt, and somehow managed to ride the wizardry of a geeky keyboardist (who, it should be noted, wrote all the music; Morrison just penned the drug-addled words) to immortality.

23. Hillel Slovak, guitar, The Red Hot Chili Peppers. Drug overdose, 26.
With his high school buddies, Slovak fused rap, rock, jazz and funk, creating a style unique to the Chilis. He taught Flea how to play bass. ‘Nuf said.

24. Karen Carpenter, The Carpenters. Anorexia, 29.
Shy, withdrawn, and lonely, Carpenter developed anorexia, a condition her death helped bring to the fore. Despite the band’s success, she had poor self esteem exacerbated by bad romantic relationships. She died in her sleep, in her old bedroom in her parents’ house.

25. Mama Cass Elliot, The Mamas & Papas. Heart Attack, 31.
Official cause of death is heart attack, although it was widely reported that the corpulent Cass choked on a ham sandwich. Once she died, the band was effectively through.

26. Freddie Mercury, Queen. AIDS, 45.
Most rock songs contain four chords. By contrast, “Bohemian Rhapsody” contains all but four chords. His operatic voice was too good for rock ‘n’ roll; he stood out like a seven footer on a high school basketball team. As no one has imitated bandmate Brian May’s guitar sound, no one has touched Mercury’s voice. Now he sings with the angels.

27. Frankie Lymon. Drug overdose, 24.
“Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” she once asked, in song. Perhaps because the alternative is dying of a drug overdose at the start of a great musical career.

28. Harry Chapin. Car crash, 39.
It’s somehow appropriate than a balladeer who wrote such profoundly sad songs would wind up on this list. “Cat’s in the Cradle” did for ballads what “The Death of a Salesman” did for plays.

29. Elvis Presley. Drug overdose, 42.
It is a fat, bloated, old Elvis we picture hunched dead over the toilet bowl in his Graceland mansion, his pants down around his swollen ankles. He was fat and bloated, but he was not old. Clearly he was on the decline, but who’s to say he wouldn’t have rebounded? His impact on rock ‘n’ roll is impossible to calculate and could have been even greater had he not left the building so soon and so suddenly.

30. Brian Jones, guitarist, The Rolling Stones. D.
Guitarist whose experiments with the sitar yielded the classic “Paint It Black.” Take that, George Harrison.

31. Shannon Hoon, vocals, Blind Melon. Drug overdose, 28.
All I can say is that his life was pretty short.

32. Bobby Sheehan, bass, Blues Traveler. Drug overdose, 31.
Ah, the vicissitudes of life. You figure if someone from Blues Traveler was going to OD it would be the obese John Popper, who is, we’re told, not averse to a toot now and again. Instead drugs claimed one of the more underrated bass players in recent memory.

33. Cliff Burton, bass, Metallica. Car crash, 24.
Metallica, when still a novelty metal act, was riding in an R/V that had one bed, above the front seats. The band members drew straws (or some equivalent) for access to the bed. Burton won…and was the only band member to die when the R/V flipped over. Fade to black.

34. Prince, drug overdose, 

35. Wendy O. Williams, The Plasmatics. Suicide, 49.
The original grrl, WOW fronted several punk bands and did some solo work in the 80s.

36. 

37. Andy Gibb. Heart attack, 30.
Each succeeding Gibb brother seems to have less talent than his predecessor. Older brother Barry wrote most of Andy’s songs – and a lot of other people’s – but the kid bro had a better look.

38. 

39. Michael Hutchince, vocals, INXS. Suicide, 37.
Suicidal blonde, indeed. A concussion suffered in a brawl with a cab driver left the gastronome Hutchince unable to smell or taste. Rumor has it his hanging was erotic self-asphyxiation.

40. Mark Sandman, bass, Morphine. Heart attack, 45.
A stand-up comedian with a two-string bass. Morphine was a great live band. No more.

41. Peter Tosh. Homicide, 43.
Conspiracy theorists have him being assassinated for political reasons. Certainly his signature tune “Legalize It” is less than subtle. With Marley, one of the first great reggae acts.

42. Ricky Nelson. Plane crash, 40.
Teen idol son of Ozzie and Harriet (no, not that Ozzy), Ricky was as popular as David Cassidy and Leonardo diCaprio put together. Then, suddenly, he wasn’t. He died, like so many before him, en route to a show.

43. Falco. Car crash, 41.
Austrian pop star whose “Rock Me Amadeus” found itself on the U.S. charts in the mid 80s. He was working on what was reported as his masterpiece when he died. Now we’ll never hear it.

44. Sid Vicious, The Sex Pistols. Drug overdose, 22.
Talentless buffoon who somehow captured the imagination of a generation of punk rockers. His overdose at the Chelsea Hotel is compared in certain benighted circles to the murder of John Lennon in a decidedly better neighborhood. Johnny Rotten now has a show on VH1. Maybe Sid would be on the Animal Network, had he lived.

About Greg Olear

Greg Olear (@gregolear) is a founding editor of The Weeklings and the author of the novels Totally Killer and Fathermucker, an L.A. Times bestseller.
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