Robert Johnson (1911-1938)
One hundred years ago, a boy-child was born in Mississippi; a dirt-poor, African-American who would grow up, learn to sing and play the blues, and eventually achieve worldwide renown.
In the decades after his death, Robert Johnson has become known as the King of the Delta Blues Singers, his music expanding in influence to the point that rock stars of the greatest magnitude, all sing his praise and have recorded his songs.
According to legend, Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his mighty talent, which he demonstrated on street corners throughout the Mississippi Delta and in the 29 songs he recorded between 1936 and 1937. Famously partial to women and whiskey, Johnson was allegedly poisoned by a lover’s jealous boyfriend or husband.
Brian Jones (1942-1969)
In 1962, Brian Jones formed the Rolling Stones with pianist Ian Stewart, singer Mick Jagger, and Jagger’s friend and guitarist Keith Richards. During the Rolling Stones’ early days, Jones served as leader, entertainer, and manager for the band.
However, he developed a severe substance abuse problem that by the mid-1960s had taken a toll on his health, landed him in jail and alienated him from his bandmates.
He was forced out of the group in June 1969. The following month, Jones was found dead at the bottom of his swimming pool; police reported that he had drowned while under the influence of alcohol and drugs. Recently, new evidence has suggested that foul play may have had a hand in his death at age 27.
Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson (1943-1970)
Known as Blind Owl because of his poor vision, Alan Christie Wilson was a co-founder, leader, and primary composer for the American blues band Canned Heat. He played harmonica, guitar, and sang with the group live, and on recordings. Wilson was lead singer on Canned Heat’s two biggest U.S. hit singles.
On September 3, 1970, Wilson was found dead on a hillside behind band mate Bob Hite’s Topanga Canyon home; he was 27 years old. An autopsy identified his manner and cause of death as accidental acute barbiturate intoxication.
Wilson reportedly had attempted suicide a few months earlier, attempting to drive his car off a freeway in Los Angeles. He was briefly hospitalized for significant depression and was released after a few weeks.
Wilson’s death came just two weeks before the death of Jimi Hendrix and four weeks before the death of Janis Joplin.
Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970)
Remembered as one of the greatest electric guitarists in history, Jimi Hendrix revolutionized rock and roll as both an artist and a producer during his brief four-year career. He learned to play guitar as a teenager and grew up to become a rock legend who excited audiences in the 1960s with his innovative electric guitar playing.
He died in London in September 1970, at the age of 27, asphyxiating on his own vomit while sleeping.
His girlfriend Monika Dannemann claimed that Hendrix, a heavy drug user who was particularly fond of LSD, had washed down a handful of sleeping pills with red wine before going to bed. Dannemann later revealed that Hendrix had taken nine of her prescribed Vesparax sleeping tablets, 18 times the recommended dosage.
Janis Joplin (1943-1970)
Janis Lyn Joplin was an American singer considered the premier female blues vocalist of the Sixties; her raw, powerful and uninhibited singing style, combined with her turbulent and emotional lifestyle, made her one of the biggest female stars in her lifetime.
She won over the San Francisco music scene with her bluesy vocals and powerful stage presence, first as the lead singer of Big Brother and the Holding Company and later as a solo artist.
Despite multiple attempts to get clean, she became increasingly addicted to heroin and alcohol as her career skyrocketed. She died of a heroin overdose in October 1970, less than three weeks after the death of fellow rock icon Jimi Hendrix. And not to mention how old she was…
Jim Morrison (1943-1971)
During his early years, Jim Morrison was a dutiful and highly intelligent child, excelling at school and taking a particular interest in reading, writing and drawing.
He underwent a traumatic but formative experience around the age of five when driving with his family through the New Mexico desert. A truck packed with Indian workers had crashed, leaving dead and mutilated bodies of the victims strewn across the highway.
A poet and avid reader of philosophy, Jim Morrison rose to prominence as the lead singer and lyricist of The Doors, a band he founded with a friend in 1965. By 1969, his drinking had become a problem, making him late for performances and fuelling raucous onstage behavior. In July 1971, Morrison died of a heart attack apparently caused by a heroin overdose while living in Paris. It is thought that he mistook the drug for cocaine and snorted a fatal amount.
Ron “Pigpen” McKernan (1945-1973)
Better known as Pigpen, he was considered by many to be the heart and soul of the Grateful Dead, especially in the band’s early days. The idea of starting the group was his, and soon the Warlocks were playing their first shows. His love of real blues was a driving force for the band early on. His soulful vocals, organ, and harmonica playing gave authenticity to the band, eventually known as the Grateful Dead.
McKernan did not share his bandmates’ predilection for LSD and other psychedelic drugs. However, his heavy drinking caused him to develop cirrhosis in 1970, and by 1972 his health had become so fragile he could no longer tour.
He died of an internal hemorrhage in March 1973. He was found lying on the floor beside his bed, half-dressed as if about to get into bed. He had apparently been dead for two days.
Kurt Cobain (1967-1994)
An icon of the Seattle grunge scene, Kurt Cobain (and Nirvana) achieved mainstream success in the early 1990s. A talented yet troubled grunge performer, Cobain formed Nirvana with a friend in 1985.
The single “Smells Like Teen Spirit”—like many Nirvana tracks—modulated between the soft and the thrashing. And Cobain was equally convincing as he sang the song’s mellow chorus and as he screamed its final lines. It proved to be the group’s biggest single and helped take the entire album to the top of the charts.
Cobain and Courtney Love started a whirlwind relationship that included letters, faxes, and numerous phone calls as the two were traveling with their respective bands. In February 1992, they got married and welcomed their daughter Frances Bean Cobain in August of that year.
Both Cobain and Love were into drugs and often used together.
Struggling with mental illness, chronic health problems and heroin addiction, he committed suicide in April 1994, leaving behind his wife, and their baby daughter.
Amy Winehouse (1983-2011)
Amy Winehouse broke into the music business when, at age 16, a classmate passed on her demo tape. She signed her first record deal as a jazz vocalist, and her music later blossomed into an eclectic mix of jazz, pop, soul and R&B. Winehouse won five Grammy Awards connected to her 2006 album Back to Black, and earned acclaim for songs like the title track, “Rehab” and “Love Is a Losing Game.”
She battled drug and alcohol addiction for years. Her substance abuse problems were frequent tabloid fodder and inspired some of her songs, most notably the hit “Rehab.” On July 23, 2011, Winehouse was found dead in her London apartment, becoming the latest musician to have their career cut tragically short at age 27.