February 3, 1959, is what many refer to as, “The day the music died.” It was on that day a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa claimed the lives of three popular Rock and Roll Stars. Buddy Holly, age 22, Ritchie Valens, age 17, and J. P. Richardson (The Big Bopper), age 28.
(Bit of trivia. Did you know Country Music legend Waylon Jennings gave up his seat on the plane to the Big Bopper?)
Their deaths are a few of the many music stars who have died young—many as the result of plane crashes. Others include Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves, Otis Redding, Jim Croce, Ronnie Van Zant, Rick Nelson, and John Denver. One might conclude it’s not safe for singers to travel by air.
But there is another group of singers who have died young. Some of the more well-known are:
- Blues singer Robert Johnson—1938 (For a fascinating story about Johnson, check out Mae Clair’s January 11 post.)
- Founding member of the Rolling Stones, Brian Jones–1969
- Alan Wilson of Canned Heat—1970
- Jimi Hendrix—1970
- Janis Joplin—1970
- Jim Morrison—1971
- Ron McKernan of the Grateful Dead—1973
- Badfinger’s Pete Ham—1975
- Kurt Cobain—1994
- Amy Winehouse—2011
None of these singers died in plane crashes and the cause of the death varies, including drug overdoses, suicide, and alcohol poisoning. But there is one common factor. All of them died at the age of twenty-seven.
Promotional photo of The Doors with Morrison in front. Attribution: Elektra Records-Joel Brodsky, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The deaths of Hendrix, Joplin, and Morrison within a few short months caused some talk and speculation. However, it wasn’t until Kurt Cobain’s death by suicide years later that the term “27 Club” came about. Some have even referred to it as “The Curse of Twenty-Seven.”
A statement from Cobain’s mother, Wendy Cobain O’Connor, appeared in the Aberdeen Washington newspaper Daily World. “Now he’s gone and joined that stupid club. I told him not to join that stupid club.” According to Cobain’s biographer, Charles R. Cross, she was referring to the deaths of Joplin, Hendrix, and Morrison.
Eric Segalstad, author of The 27s: The Greatest Myth of Rock and Roll disagrees. He believes Cobain’s mother referred to the deaths of his two uncles and a great-uncle who all died as the result of suicide.
Curse or coincidence there is an extraordinary number of singers who died at the age of twenty-seven. Some singers never reached that age including Valens, Holly, and Otis Redding. Living to the age of twenty-eight and beyond is no guarantee of survival. With the exception of Redding who was twenty-six at the time of his death, the ages of other singers I mentioned who died in plane crashes ranged from twenty-eight to fifty-three.
But still, there are probably several singers who breathe sighs of relief on their twenty-eighth birthday.