15 music legends who died too young
PUBLISHED: 20:00 15 February 2019 | UPDATED: 16:20 18 February 2019
This month it’s 60 years since Buddy Holly died in a plane crash aged just 22. Our arts editor takes a look back at other stars we lost before their time, from Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain to Whitney Houston.
Buddy Holly (aircrash)
February 3, 1959 was the day the music died – according to singer-songwriter Don MacLean – this was the day that rock ‘n’ roll superstar Buddy Holly died in an air-crash alongside fellow singers Ritchie Valens, and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson.
Bespectacled Buddy Holly had swiftly developed a love for rock ‘n’ roll after opening for Elvis Presley on tour dates in Texas during 1955. His style swiftly changed from country to rock and he became a prolific songwriter, penning such all-time classics as That’ll Be The Day, Peggy-Sue, It’s So Easy and Heartbeat.
Holly died after the plane, in which he was a passenger, crashed shortly after take-off following a concert in Clear Lake, Iowa. He was due to fly to his next gig in Moorhead, Minnesota but disaster struck because of bad weather. Buddy Holly was only 22 when he died.
Marc Bolan (car crash)
On September 16, 1977, Bolan was a passenger in a Mini, driven by his girlfriend Gloria Jones which hit a sycamore tree in Barnes, southwest London. Bolan was the front man of the glam-rock band T-Rex and is often credited with starting glam-rock when he appeared on Top of the Pops in March 1971, wearing glitter and satins, encouraging other rising rock stars like David Bowie and Freddie Mercury to follow suit.
Bolan’s first band Tyrannosaurus Rex was an acoustic psychedelic-folk rock outfit which caught the imagination of influential Radio 1 DJ John Peel. In early 1970, after three moderately successful albums, Bolan beefed up the sound of the band making it more rock ‘n’ roll’, and came up with their first big hit Ride A White Swan.
Other hits soon followed including the five-minute Hot Love, Get It On, Jeepster, Children of the Revolution, 20th Century Boy, Telegram Sam and Solid Gold Easy Action. Slowly, in the mid-70s T-Rex began fall apart and Bolan moved to the US to pursue a solo career. He returned to the UK in 1977 to front a successful TV show called Marc which finished shortly before his fatal accident. Marc Bolan was 29 when he died.
Freddie Mercury (AIDS-related bronchial pneumonia)
On November 24, 1991, rock band Queen and the British music scene in general lost one of their most flamboyant most gifted performers. Freddie Mercury, the proud peacock of British rock music, author of Bohemian Rhapsody, We Are The Champions and Don’t Stop Me Now, succumbed to AIDS.
Surrounded by his current partner Jim Hutton and former girlfriend Mary Austin, he died at home in London having just announced he was suffering from an HIV-related illness. Queen’s current album Innuendo, which had been completed earlier in the year, was riding high in the charts and contained the hit singles I’m Going Slightly Mad, the No 1 spot scoring title track and his emotional farewell to fans, Days of Our Lives.
Even after the album was finished Freddie continued recording banking tracks for a posthumous Queen album Made In Heaven. Freddie was an accomplished singer and songwriter but it was on stage where he shined. Freddie and Queen’s performance at Live Aid in July 1985 remains a career highpoint. He joined Brian May and Roger Taylor in their band Smile in April 1970. They were joined in March 1971 by bass player John Deacon and Freddie renamed the band Queen. They had No 1 albums and singles in the 70s, 80s and 90s and currently hold the record for the band with the most weeks on the chart having overtaken The Beatles. Freddie Mercury was 45 when he died.
Elvis Presley (Heart attack)
On August 16, 1977, the music business was forced to confront its own mortality when rock ‘n’ roll’s first superstar died at his home Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee. There had been tragedies before, but this one felt different because Elvis represented rock ‘n’ roll’s first long-term career. He was a big achiever, an artist who had managed to re-establish his musical career after wasting the best part of a decade churning out increasingly poor musicals.
In 1968, in a daring live TV special he re-discovered his roots and was able to breathe new life into his majestic 1950s hits – songs like Heartbreak Hotel, Hound Dog and Jailhouse Rock. His next step was to go back into the studio and make new music. The result was a career best album From Elvis In Memphis and new hit singles In The Ghetto, Suspicious Minds and Kentucky Rain. Other hits followed like The Wonder of You, Burning Love, the Chuck Berry cover Promised Land and the raw Way Down.
With the movies behind him, Elvis found inspiration once again in a live audience. He became the biggest draw in Las Vegas but by the mid-70s what was once liberating had now become a prison. He wanted to see the world, he wanted to make his mark on new audiences, he wanted a new challenge but his manager Colonel Tom Parker was an illegal alien in the US and could not accompany his star overseas. Elvis retreated into prescription pills and mysticism to dull the pain. He was 42 when he died.
John Lennon (Gunshot wounds)
On December 8, 1980, crazed fan Mark Chapman shot John Lennon four times in the back outside Lennon’s apartment building in New York. John had just returned from a recording studio working on his follow-up to the recently released album Double Fantasy. Lennon had autographed a copy of the album for Chapman earlier that evening.
The death of John Lennon sent shockwaves around the world. Although he’d not released much music in recent years (Double Fantasy was the first album of new material since 1974’s Walls and Bridges) Lennon was half of one of the greatest songwriting teams of all-time and a founder member of The Beatles, one of the greatest bands of all time. Fans had long hoped for a Beatles reunion. The closest they had come was on Ringo Starr’s 1973 album Ringo which had all four Beatles playing and supplying songs in different combinations but at no point were all four playing together. With Lennon’s assassination all hopes of reunion were dashed for good.
Lennon’s biggest influence came during his years with The Beatles. He was the one who pushed the others into experimenting with studio equipment, coming up with songs like Tomorrow Never Knows and Strawberry Fields Forever and Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, but solo hits like Give Peace A Chance. Merry Xmas War Is Over, Imagine and Jealous Guy continue to reveal what he could achieve on his own. John Lennon was 40 when he died.
Amy Winehouse (alcohol poisoning)
On July 23, 2011 British rock music lost one of its most distinctive voices. She was able to move between soul, pop, rock, rhythm and blues and jazz with consummate ease. Although her chaotic personal life tended to dominate the newspaper headlines, it was no accident that she picked up three Ivor Novello Awards for her song writing and her second album Back to Black (2006) one five Grammy Awards in one evening. The awards included three of the most prestigious Best New Artist, Record of the Year and Song of the Year.
Amy wore her influences on her sleeve. In July 2000, she became the featured female vocalist with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra and she particularly liked the singing styles of Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington. Her debut album Frank (2003) clearly demonstrate these influences. Her second album Back to Black was much more driven by a 1960s girl group sound. The album spawned hits Rehab and Valerie. The latter was also on producer Mark Ronson’s solo album Version.
She started a big world tour during the latter half of 2006 and played the 2007 festival circuit but by the early autumn it was clear that the wheels were starting to come off the wagon. In November 2007, the opening night of a 17-date tour was marred by booing and walkouts at the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham. A critic for the Birmingham Mail said it was “one of the saddest nights of my life...I saw a supremely talented artist reduced to tears, stumbling around the stage and, unforgivably, swearing at the audience.” Days later the rest of the tour was cancelled.
Although work continued sporadically on a third album, various other live appearances were marred by slurred lyrics, Amy being unsteady on her feet and being generally unreliable. Drinking and, according to her brother Alex, chronic bulimia sealed her fate. Amy Winehouse was 27 when she died.
George Michael (heart failure)
On December 25, 2016 British pop music lost one of its most distinctive voices – one of the few people able to match Freddie Mercury’s vocal range, which he demonstrated at Freddie’s memorial concert in 1992 when he performed the gospel-influenced Somebody To Love with the surviving members of Queen.
George first shot to fame as one half of 80’s mega stars Wham and scored a succession hits such as Wham Rap, Wake Me Up Before You Go Go, Club Tropicana, Last Christmas and Careless Whisper. George Michael and Wham partner Andrew Ridgley went their separate ways in June 1986 after scoring their final number one with The Edge of Heaven.
George, after duetting with musical heroine Aretha Franklin on I Knew You Were Waiting, started work on his first solo album Faith which contained the controversial single I Want Your Sex. A world tour followed in 1988 after which George retreated into the studio writing his first ‘serious’ album which he named Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1. This was released in September 1990 and eventually spawned five singles and bizarrely the resulting tour seemed to ignore the newly released album and George devoted most of the concerts to performing cover versions of his favourite songs by other artists. A subsequent falling out with record label Sony meant that Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 2 was cancelled and George became a semi-recluse and new music appeared only at spasmodic intervals. His last album Patience was released in 2004. George Michael was 53 when he died.
David Bowie (cancer)
On January 10, 2016 David Bowie lost his highly secretive battle with liver cancer. Despite having a decade long career break following a heart attack in 2004, Bowie remained one of the worlds most innovative and prolific musicians. The fact that he released Blackstar, his final album of new work, two days before his death speaks volumes.
Bowie made a virtue out of his passion for reinvention. Each new album saw him explore new types of music and create a new image. His first hit single A Space Oddity announced his arrival but it wasn’t until his albums Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars that he really made an impact on the British public.
Throughout the 1970s albums flowed quickly Aladdin Sane came and went to be followed by Diamond Dogs, Young Americans and Heroes. All were supported by a raft of top ten singles and new looks. The 1980s were greeted by Bowie as a white-faced Pierrot singing Ashes to Ashes from his album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). In 1983, Bowie reinvented himself again with his hit-filled album Let’s Dance. Over the years Bowie explored electronic dance music, heavy rock, indie rock and performed with the band Tin Machine. He also made regular appearances as an actor in films such as Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, Labyrinth, The Man Who Fell To Earth and The Prestige as well on stage in The Elephant Man. David Bowie was 69 when he died.
Prince (accidental overdose)
On April 21, 2016, one of the few people to challenge David Bowie’s crown for musical invention lost his battle against opioid addiction. Prince – or Prince Rogers Nelson, to give him his full name – was a musical prodigy. He pioneered the Minneapolis sound, which is a subgenre of funk rock with elements of synth-pop and new wave, in the late 1970s and wrote his first his first song, Funk Machine, at the age of seven.
He released his debut album For You in 1978 and the follow up 1979 album Prince went platinum. His global break through came in 1984 when he released Purple Rain, the soundtrack album to his film debut. The album Sign of the Times followed along with the soundtrack to Tim Burton’s 1989 dark Batman re-boot.
Prince lived for creativity. He did everything: he was singer, songwriter, musician, record producer, actor and filmmaker. He played all the instruments and refused to be constrained by one style of music. He was also prolific, so much so Warner Brothers, his record label, told him to stop recording so much material. Prince responded accusing the label of not promoting his work with sufficient vigour and changed his name to the Love Symbol forcing the press to refer to him as The Artist Formerly Known As Prince.
During his lifetime Prince released 39 studio albums with some like Emancipation and Crystal Ball being three disc or five disc sets. The 1996 album Emancipation marked Prince’s release from his Warner Bros contract and he stopped appearing in the public with the word ‘Slave’ written across his face. Prince was 57 when he died.
Whitney Houston (drowning)
On February 11, 2012, Whitney Houston one of the most inspiring singers of her generation drowned in her bath tub hours before she was due at an record label pre-party for the annual Grammy Awards. Although, a portrayed as a ‘clean-cut’ singer in the 1980s and for most of the ‘90s by the end of the decade she was getting a reputation for being difficult.
The daughter of Elvis Presley’s back-up singer Cissy Houston, Whitney showed early promise and was schooled in singing by her mother. After performing a duet Hold Me with Teddy Pendergrass, Whitney was offered a recording contract by Clive Davis, who would become her long-term friend and producer. Whitney issued seven albums and two soundtrack albums during her lifetime, spending much of the 1990s appearing in movies such as The Bodyguard and The Preacher’s Wife.
The Bodyguard provided her with one of her biggest hits, I Will Always Love You, a cover of a Dolly Parton song, which spent 14 weeks on the chart. Her eponymous debut album, released in 1985, provided her with the first four of her seven number one hit singles. These included I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me), Didn’t We Almost Have It All, So Emotional, and Where Do Broken Hearts Go? After her long foray in Hollywood in 1998 she released the critically acclaimed My Love Is Your Love, her first album in eight years, which was written and recorded in just six weeks. As the 21st century progressed she became increasingly unreliable cancelling gigs and turning up late to rehearsals and interviews. Her last tour was the Nothing but Love World Tour in 2010 which received mixed reviews because of her erratic vocal performance. Whitney Houston was 48 when she died.
Michael Jackson (drug-related heart attack)
On June 25, 2009 the King of Pop followed in the footsteps of the King of Rock’n’Roll. Jackson remained hugely influential at the time of his death and was the third highest selling artist of all-time after The Beatles and Elvis Presley.
He made his professional debut in 1964 with his brothers as a member of The Jackson Five and although he started his solo career in 1971, it wasn’t until the early 1980s that he became a worldwide phenomenon. Off The Wall was a huge hit in 1979 with singles She’s Out of My Life, Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough and Rock with You. In the early 1980s he collaborated with Freddie Mercury on an abortive series of duets. They recorded three songs State of Shock, Victory and There Must Be More to Life Than This before Freddie backed out after Jackson insisted on bringing a llama into the recording studio.
Jackson’s masterwork Thriller was released in 1982 which earned him seven Grammy Awards and delivered seven top 10 singles, including Billie Jean, Beat It, and Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’. He also made the most of the burgeoning MTV station. In addition to the album, Jackson released Thriller, a 14-minute music video directed by John Landis, in 1983.
It was a long, five year wait until Jackson’s next album Bad which appeared in 1987. Again the hit singles flowed with nine songs hitting the top ten including I Just Can’t Stop Loving You, Bad, The Way You Make Me Feel, Man in the Mirror, and Dirty Diana. Unlike Thriller, Bad was given a world tour during which time Jackson performed a total of 123 concerts to an audience of 4.4 million people, including a record-breaking seven sold-out shows at Wembley Stadium. In 1991 Dangerous became his next chart-topping album which he followed two years later with a ratings-topping Superbowl Half Time Show. His recording output slowed as controversy about his lifestyle grew. He married and divorced Lisa Marie Presley, then bought fantasy ranch Neverland and put out just two new albums HIStory, a part greatest hits and Invincible which was released in 2001. He was working on This Is It, a retirement concert tour, at the time of his death. Michael Jackson was 50 when he died.
Jimi Hendrix (accidental overdose)
On September 18, 1970, the world lost one of the most expressive, innovative guitarists the music industry had ever seen – the only man to join Cream on stage and so impress Eric Clapton that he stopped playing just to watch Hendrix in action. Hendrix started his career as a guitarist in Little Richard’s band before he was discovered playing in club in Greenwich Village, New York by Animals bass player Chas Chandler who brought him to Britain and then re-exported him back to America as part of the British invasion.
In 1966, Hendrix had three UK top ten hits with the Jimi Hendrix Experience: “Hey Joe”, “Purple Haze”, and “The Wind Cries Mary”. Armed with two top ten LPs Are You Experienced and Axis: Bold As Life he set out to conquer his homeland and announced his return to the US with a guitar-burning headline act at the Monterey Pop Festival.
For his third album he based himself at the newly opened Record Plant recording studios and began to experiment with a larger band line-up inviting guest musicians to add to his increasingly complex sound. Among, the tracks on the double album were a 15 minute slow-blues version of Voodoo Child and a faster rock version Voodoo Child Revisited, as well as a stunning cover of Bob Dylan’s All Along The Watchtower and The Burning of the Midnight Lamp, which was his first recorded song to feature the use of a wah-wah pedal.
After headlining the Woodstock Festival in 1969, Hendrix recording schedule became more erratic. He disbanded and then re-formed The Jimi Hendrix Experience. He was recording a new album First Rays of the New Rising Sun when he died suddenly in London. Jimi Hendrix was 27 when he died.
Kurt Cobain (suicide)
On April 5, 1994, Kurt Cobain, frontman of the band Nivana, one of the most visible musical figures of his generation, committed suicide with a shotgun, having absconded from a drug rehabilitation facility. In a suicide note, addressed to an imaginary childhood friend, he confessed that he had not “felt the excitement of listening to as well as creating music ... for too many years now”.
Cobain formed the band Nirvana with Krist Novoselic and Aaron Burckhard in 1987 and established themselves as not only a leading part of the Seattle music scene but the epitome of grunge. Nirvana’s first global success came with the hit single Smells Like Teen Spirit from their second album Nevermind (1991).
Following the success of Nevermind, Nirvana was labelled the flagship band of Generation X, and Cobain was hailed by music critics as the spokesman of a generation; however, Cobain resented this, believing his message and artistic vision had been misinterpreted by press and public alike.
Increasingly Cobain’s personal problems and his relationship with wife Courtney Love became the subject of increasing media attention. It became known within the industry that Cobain had developed a serious heroin habit which he supplemented with LSD and solvent abuse.
Cobain was reluctant to talk about his music but told interviewers that his influences were a mix of The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, The Sex Pistols and The Clash.
Beat poet William S. Burroughs’, who knew Cobain, whose book Naked Lunch was a particular favourite of Cobain, was unsurprised by the singer’s suicide, saying: “It wasn’t an act of will for Kurt to kill himself. As far as I was concerned, he was dead already”. Kurt Cobain was 27 when he died.
Glenn Miller (missing in action)
On December 15, 1944 Glenn Miller’s plane vanished while crossing the English channel, on his way to entertain the troops in France. Whether his plane crashed in bad weather or was shot down by German fighters no-one knows but the world lost one of the most influential dance band composers and conductors.
Miller’s recordings include In the Mood, Moonlight Serenade, Pennsylvania 6-5000, Chattanooga Choo Choo, A String of Pearls, At Last, (I’ve Got a Gal In) Kalamazoo, American Patrol, Tuxedo Junction, Elmer’s Tune and Little Brown Jug.
Miller’s big band straddled the worlds of dance band and jazz band and although they were loved by the public at large were regarded with suspicion by some jazz critics who thought that Miller’s performances were over-rehearsed and too drilled to be really jazzy and spontaneous.
Not everyone was of that opinion as Louis Armstrong carried tape recordings of Miller’s music with him on tour and Frank Sinatra held Miller’s arrangements in high regard.
Miller was too old to be conscripted but pulled strings to be put in charge of modern army band in charge of morale. He joined the army in September 1942 as a captain but promoted to major in August 1944. Glenn Miller was 40 when he died.
Billie Holiday (cirrhosis)
On July 17, 1959 one of the greatest jazz voices to emerge from New York’s Harlem district was silenced while handcuffed to a hospital bed. She had been arrested, while dying, for drugs offences.
After a traumatic childhood, during which Holiday was the victim of an attempted rape while aged 11, Holiday began singing in nightclubs in Harlem, where she was heard by legendary producer John Hammond, who commended her voice. She signed a recording contract with Brunswick in 1935. Her first hit, What a Little Moonlight Can Do, was a collaboration with Teddy Wilson and went onto be a jazz standard. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Holiday had mainstream success on labels such as Columbia and Decca. By the late 1940s, legal troubles and increasing drug abuse saw her performances become increasingly erratic. There were good nights and not so good nights. After a short prison sentence, she performed at a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall, but her reputation was starting to deteriorate.
Though she was a successful concert performer throughout the 1950s, with two further sold-out shows at Carnegie Hall, Holiday’s bad health, and ongoing drug and alcohol abuse, caused her voice to wither. Her final recordings were met with mixed critical reaction, owing to her damaged voice, but were mild commercial successes. Her final album, Lady in Satin, was released in 1958. Billie Holiday was 44 when she died.