No number in rock history is as charged as 27. Because between the sultry summer of love in 1969 and the aftermath of the hippie era in July 1971, one music legend after another bit the dust. Brian Jones, Alan Wilson, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison. All of them were 27 years old when they exchanged the temporary for the eternal.
Their licentious, dissolute lives were marked by excessive alcohol abuse, drugs, and all sorts of other demons that came to tickle their particularly fragile characters from time to time. But also by unmistakable talent that has since been matched only very rarely, if at all. The fact that they all died at the age of 27 did not escape the press and fans. ‘Forever 27′ grew into a myth: that rock stars statistically die in the arms of the grim reaper at the age of 27.
When an unsuspecting electrician found Kurt Cobain’s three-day cold body in his Seattle home on April 8, 1994, the concept of the ’27 Club’ got a new lease on life. The Nirvana frontman was quickly followed by the also 27-year-old Manic Street Preachers guitarist Richey James Edwards.
The millennium trudged on, and for a moment it seemed that fate was satisfied. But that was just an illusion. Because on July 23, 2011, the Metropolitan Police confirmed the death of Amy Winehouse. As crowds of grieving fans laid flowers outside the soul singer’s Camden Square home, music and culture desks worldwide went into overdrive. The ’27 Club’ had a new member.
Who were the others? And who was the first? And what mysteries and conspiracy theories circle like vultures around their cause of death? You’ll discover that in this chronological top 10 of artists who died at the age of 27.
10. Robert Johnson (May 8, 1911 – August 16, 1938)
Contemporaries believed that Robert Johnson had sold his soul to the devil. And they knew exactly where. And especially: why. The bluesman from the Mississippi Delta walked to a crossroads near Dockery Plantation at midnight. There, the devil tuned his guitar, plucked a few tunes, and then returned the six-stringed instrument.
In exchange for his mortal soul, Robert Johnson became an exceptionally gifted guitarist, according to legend. Listen to the 29 songs he left behind. The musician only briefly visited the recording studio twice in his short life. But the sparse discography he pressed there at 78 rpm certainly justifies his mythical status and the enormous impact he had on everyone who came after him.
In 1961, three decades after Robert Johnson’s death, the compilation album ‘King of the Delta Blues Singers’ was released on Columbia Records. At that time, no one knew what the guitarist looked like. Johnson’s only two surviving photos were discovered later. Only a few blues connoisseurs were aware of his music. This compilation would immediately change that. The whole world suddenly knew how Johnson sounded. Peerless. Eric Clapton based his early career with Cream and The Bluesbreakers on it and would later honor his mentor with the cover album ‘Me and Mr. Johnson’ (2004).
But as often happens with true, genius artists, the guitarist himself would not taste his unprecedented fame. Robert Johnson died at the age of 27. During his short stay on this earth, life had hardly spared him. His first wife, sixteen-year-old Virginia Travis, died in childbirth. Her devout family blamed him for their daughter’s death. That’s what happens when you play devil’s music. His second marriage fell apart. From then on, the young man wandered with his faithful guitar between dens of iniquity. As long as there was alcohol, attractive women, and a stage.
Johnson’s licentious life was not without danger. In the summer of 1938, he flirted with the wrong woman. Her jealous husband plotted revenge with a poisoned bottle of whiskey. Harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson knocked the deadly bottle out of Johnson’s hands, advising never to accept an already opened bottle of whiskey.
To which the ever-thirsty Johnson replied, “Don’t ever knock a bottle out of my hand.” The guitarist was then offered a new bottle. Three days of excruciating hellish pain later, the never fully realized blues promise died of his poisoning symptoms.
9. Brian Jones (February 28, 1942 – July 3, 1969)
“Brian Jones was the main man in the Stones; Jagger got everything from him,” Ginger Baker once remarked. Fully fired up, the red-haired drum legend of the sixties power trio Cream added: “Brian was much more of a musician than Jagger will ever be — although Jagger’s a great economist.”
No empty words. Without a doubt, the best-dressed man of the Swinging Sixties was one of the first British musicians to pick up the slide guitar. Blues was his whole young life, and he eagerly injected it into The Rolling Stones. That name? Of course, it came from Brian Jones. The rhythm guitarist found the inspiration on the back of a Muddy Waters record.
As The Stones conquered the UK and then the whole world, the musical prodigy (he effortlessly switched his Vox Teardrop guitar for a piano, sitar, oboe, or sax) sank further and further. In March 1967, bandmate Keith Richards snatched Jones’ girlfriend, the German-Italian Anita Pallenberg, from him. Brian would never forgive Richards. But it was just a taste of the great betrayal that awaited him.
On June 8, 1969, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger threw the multi-instrumentalist out of the band he had founded himself in the London spring of 1962. No worries. Jones was already dreaming aloud of ambitious jam sessions with Jimi Hendrix and a flourishing international solo career.
It never came to that. In the terribly early morning of July 3, 1969, Brian Jones’ then-girlfriend Anna Wohlin found the lifeless body of the guitarist at the bottom of his swimming pool in Cotchford Farm, Sussex. The fact that the 21-year-old Swedish model spoke hardly any English did not exactly promote the phone call with the emergency services.
Brian Jones’ fatal swim was classified as an accident. Not surprising, given his medical history of asthma and excessive drug use. Conspiracy theorists are not satisfied with that. For example, the Netflix documentary ‘Rolling Stone: Life and Death of Brian Jones’ in 2019 once again blew the dust off the murder theory.
And Keith and Mick? They kindly declined the funeral. Two days after Brian Jones’ death, they were in Hyde Park with The Stones. There they introduced their new rhythm guitarist Mick Taylor to the audience.
8. Alan ‘Blind Owl’ Wilson (July 4, 1943 – September 3, 1970)
The sixties wouldn’t be the same without Canned Heat. The band provided the unofficial theme song of Woodstock with ‘Going Up the Country’. Ironically, the well-known derived music documentary of the wild hippie festival in Bethel doesn’t show a snippet of their performance on the second day.
The unmistakable falsetto behind that hedonistic hippie classic and Canned Heat’s other international hit ‘On the Road Again’ was, of course, that of Alan ‘Blind Owl’ Wilson. A nickname the guitarist and harmonica player certainly deserved. Without his thick glasses, Alan Wilson wouldn’t even notice you if you did a handstand right in front of him.
But what musicality was in that nearsighted guy! When Wilson camped in the recording studio with his idol John Lee Hooker for the double album ‘Hooker ’n Heat’ in May 1970, the blues giant was amazed by Wilson’s fabulous guitar playing and unprecedented harmonica skills. Even more, Hooker praised Wilson as the “greatest harmonica player ever”.
The collaboration between Canned Heat and John Lee Hooker was released in early 1971. Alan Wilson wouldn’t live to see it. On September 3, 1970, the musician was found in his sleeping bag in the green hills of Topanga Canyon. Sleeping outdoors was something the nature lover often did. He loved the fresh air. But his nasal head voice would never sing ‘Going Up the Country’ again. The verdict was an overdose of barbiturates.
7. Jimi Hendrix (November 27, 1942 – September 18, 1970)
What kind of music would Jimi make today in the 21st century? And what would the effects pedal magician, who ran his Fender Stratocaster through a modest Vox Wah, Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face, Univox Uni-Vibe, and Roger Mayer Octavia, think if he saw the ridiculously expensive aircraft carriers of pedalboards amateur guitarists are now lugging around?
It’s one of those sad questions in the wonderful history of music that we will unfortunately never know the answer to. Because at dawn on September 18, 1970, the always impeccably dressed guitar god never woke up in the room of the Samarkand Hotel in the London district of Notting Hill. The flat actually belonged to his last girlfriend, the German figure skater Monika Dannemann, who called the ambulance and later married Uli Jon Roth of the Scorpions.
Choked on his own vomit. Not a pleasant, let alone tasty farewell. Just before, the flamboyant musician had slipped into a coma due to a fatal combination of sleeping pills and wine. Hendrix had taken about nine Vesparax tablets from Dannemann. What? He hadn’t been sleeping well for weeks and didn’t bother with leaflets, okay?
Or was there foul play? In 2009, Hendrix’s ex-roadie James ‘Tappy’ Wright came up with a much more disturbing theory. The guitar legend was murdered! And by his manager, Michael Jeffrey. Hendrix wanted to kick his management out. Of course, Michael Jeffrey didn’t like that. Imagine if such a manager suddenly had to work honestly for a living instead of lazily pocketing his client’s income.
In this exit scenario, the guitarist was clearly worth more to him dead than alive. So with the help of some tough guys, the manager stuffed his golden boy full of sleeping pills and alcohol. The truth? Hard to say. Michael Jeffrey, who doesn’t come off well in the flood of Hendrix biographies, died himself in a plane crash in Nantes on March 5, 1973. If he had killed the world’s most influential sixties guitar virtuoso, he took that sinister secret with him to his grave that day.
6. Janis Joplin (January 19, 1943 – October 4, 1970)
In early January 1971, the LP of ‘Pearl’ was on the shelves. Janis Joplin’s second solo album easily climbed to the top of the American Billboard 200. It stayed there for nine weeks. The single ‘Me and Bobby McGee’, penned by Kris Kristofferson, also effortlessly reached the top of the charts. More than five decades later, the timeless album has lost none of its power.
The blues singer never knew. Three months before ‘Pearl’ was released, she took a shot of heroin at the Landmark Motor Hotel in Hollywood. An inevitable relapse. The Texan had been able to resist the needle for several months during the recordings of what would turn out to be her definitive posthumous masterpiece.
But that day in October, the urge for intoxication took over again. Long before she set the Monterey Pop Festival on fire with Big Brother and the Holding Company, Janis already had the dubious nickname ‘speed freak’. That raw voice? The result of chain-smoking since she was 14 and gallons of Southern Comfort whiskey. And pain. Damn a lot of soul pain. Listen to Joplin’s cover of Moondog’s ‘All Is Loneliness’ and then pick the sorrow out of your ear canal with a family pack of Kleenex.
On October 1, 1971, Janis sang her last lines. The swan song ‘Mercedes Benz’ was perfect in one take. Then it was time for the needle again. But the heroin she shot up with three days later turned out to be much stronger stuff than usual. That week, several other customers of Janis’ drug dealer also passed away. Their names will remain anonymous forever. Janis Joplin’s? It’s forever etched in the marble of music history.
5. Jim Morrison (December 8, 1943 – July 3, 1971)
“Actually, I don’t remember being born, it must have happened during one of my blackouts,” Jim Morrison once remarked. ‘The Lizard King’ was never short of a good quote. And why would he be? Was there ever a more attractive poet and lyricist in the charts than James Douglas Morrison, the frontman of The Doors?
In his 27 years on earth, Jim Morrison lived a life like a grand, epicurean film epic. Twenty years after his death, Oliver Stone captured it on film in the entertaining biopic ‘The Doors’ (1991). Organist Ray Manzarek and drummer John Densmore were less pleased with the final result, which portrayed their fallen leader as an “out of control sociopath” and “Jimbo Morrison, the drunk.” For them, Jim was primarily a hilariously funny and extraordinarily sensitive friend.
Regardless, the film ends with an entirely accurate image: the singer’s grave at Cimetière du Père-Lachaise. Reportedly, the final resting place of ‘Mr. Mojo Risin’’ is the fourth most popular tourist attraction in Paris after the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and Notre Dame. That is, until Mickey Mouse set up an amusement park in the French capital. But how did the American singer end up there, and how did he join the 27 Club? There’s a logical explanation.
After the raw, pure, excellently soaked bluesy swan song ‘L.A. Woman’ (1971), Morrison moved to Paris. The City of Light proved to be the long-sought balm for his tormented soul. But the French party was short-lived. On the morning of July 3, 1971, Jim’s girlfriend, Pamela Courson, found her beloved dead in the bathtub of their rented apartment on Rue Beautreillis. The explanation for this is much less logical.
The Parisian on-call doctor declared on the death certificate that the poet died of natural causes: heart failure. The doctor then disappeared without a trace. An autopsy? Forget about it. Four days later, Morrison’s remains were buried in Père-Lachaise. Attendance was low. His band members thought Jim was playing another prank on them, so they sent their manager instead. He only saw a sealed coffin.
It was only after the funeral that the world discovered what had happened. In the years that followed, the myth of the artist grew, as did the numerous conspiracy theories about his death. If he was even in that coffin…
4. Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan (September 8, 1945 – March 8, 1973)
Cozy domestic apartments away from the wild tour life apparently aren’t such safe places for rock stars either. Because on March 8, 1973, Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan was also found as dead as a doornail in his rented home in Corte Madera by his landlady. An internal bleeding, the doctors concluded. What exactly caused that internal bleeding? You didn’t need to be a doctor to figure that out. ‘Blue Ron’ certainly didn’t miss his drinks.
It was somewhat ironic that alcohol became Ron McKernan’s nemesis. Unlike his band members, he was the only one who stayed away from psychedelics and the harder stuff that later crept into the rehearsal room. On the other hand, since his early teenage years, he drank himself into oblivion every day. That band was, of course, The Grateful Dead. The mythical American psychedelic rock collective from San Francisco that effortlessly navigated between folk, bluegrass, roots music, and endless LSD-soaked marathon jams.
Before Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh put their mind-expanding stamp on the band’s sound, ‘Pigpen’ was the main band member. The blues of Lightin’ Hopkins, which he picked up from his father (who moonlighted as an R&B DJ) when he was just a twelve-year-old kid, he exalted through his harmonica and electric Vox Continental and Hammond B-3 organs.
But with a love for the blues came an insatiable thirst for alcohol. As Pigpen drifted further away on a sea of empty whiskey bottles and buckets of sickly sweet ‘bum vino’, his body suffered more and more. After hospitalization in August 1971, doctors advised the then 25-year-old musician to temporarily stop touring. McKernan returned for the ‘Europe ’72-tour, immortalized on a triple album. On June 17, 1972, he joined The Dead on stage at the Hollywood Bowl for the last time. Afterward, he broke all contact with the band with the words, “I don’t want you around when I die.”
But his band members never forgot him. Never. “Pigpen was and is now forever one of the Grateful Dead,” reads the stone inscription on his gravestone in Alta Mesa Memorial Park.
3. Kurt Cobain (February 20, 1967 – April 5, 1994)
From the early days of the World Wide Web, you could simply pick Kurt Cobain’s farewell letter from the internet. Unlike the other tormented artists on this list, he left his last words on a piece of paper. That writing contained the immortal lyrics “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” from Neil Young’s ‘Hey hey, my my (Into the black)’ (1979). In the following months, Cobain’s great hero, with the help of backing band Crazy Horse, poured his grief into the equally gritty and painfully honest eulogy ‘Sleeps with Angels’ (1994).
The reluctant grunge icon had been wandering for several weeks when he shot himself in the head with his shotgun on that fateful April 5, 1994. A month before, there was the coma in a hotel room in Rome. The result of 50 Rohypnol pills that the Nirvana frontman washed down with a bottle of champagne. There was the police intervention in the marital home in Seattle, where the law confiscated a whole stash of firearms after a disturbing call from Kurt’s wife, Courtney Love. And then there was that massive heroin addiction.
On March 31, 1994, the musician fled the rehab clinic. Eight days later, electrician Gary Smith found his lifeless body. The famous suicide note had been pinned to a plant pot with a red pen for three days. But did it really happen that way? You wouldn’t want to feed the fans who believe their idol was murdered on behalf of his wife. Filmmaker Nick Broomfield dedicated the controversial documentary ‘Kurt & Courtney’ to it in 1998.
More crucial is the music. The most sacred outlet that the tormented young man in the flannel lumberjack shirt from Aberdeen was always about. From the playful ‘About a Girl’, which already skillfully demonstrated on the dirty debut album ‘Bleach’ (1989) that Cobain knew very well how to write a catchy melodic pop song. Followed by the sudden catapulting to stratospheric stardom that ‘Nevermind’ (1991) and the opening track ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was. The grand, recorded live in just 14 days, ‘In Utero’ (1993), where the crazy exorcisms of ‘Rape Me’, ‘Milk It’, and ‘Tourette’s’ seamlessly blend with the sincere subtleties of ‘Pennnyroyal Tea’ and closing track ‘All Apologies’.
On November 1, 1994, five months after the fatal shotgun blast with the Remington Model 11, the previously recorded ‘MTV Unplugged in New York’ was released. The last verses of the Lead Belly cover ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’ were bone-chilling that evening in the Sony Music Studios. When asked for an encore, the singer replied, “I don’t think we can top the last song”. Unfortunately, that turned out to be the sad truth.
2. Richey Edwards (December 22, 1967 – February 1, 1995)
In early 1995, the Manic Street Preachers were on the verge of a major breakthrough. Because a year later, with their fourth studio album ‘Everything Must Go’ (1996), they would capture the second place in the British charts. The bravado with which the Welsh rock band launched its debut ‘Generation Terrorists’ is finally being cashed in. But now there’s first ‘The Holy Bible’ (1994). A dark, gloomy record that rightly counts as a magnum opus in the discography of the Welsh quartet. Sales figures don’t always tell the whole story.
The pitch-black lyrics of the disturbing masterpiece naturally flowed from the pen of Richey James Edwards. Who else comes up with titles like ‘4st 7lb’, a disturbing look at anorexia; or ‘Mausoleum’, which ended up in the notebook after a visit to the Dachau concentration camp?
The neo-romantic rhythm guitarist struggled with his demons once again during the recordings. They had been with him for a while. When a teasing NME journalist Steve Lamacq asked Richey how serious he was about The Manics after a show at the Norwich Arts Centre on May 15, 1991, the musician promptly carved ‘4 REAL’ with a razor blade into his left arm. It earned him 17 stitches at Norwich General Hospital and a pale-faced Lamacq.
On February 1, 1995, Richey Edwards simply disappeared. Like a ghost. The creative brain behind The Manics’ early far-left androgynous-punk-glam image left no body behind. A month after his sudden disappearance, his empty car was found at the Severn Bridge, a popular hotspot for suicides. In the following years, fans believed they recognized the singer, presumed dead, in the most exotic places. Hippie markets in Goa, bars in the Canary Islands.
It wasn’t until November 23, 2008, that Richey’s parents legally declared their missing son dead. His former band members continued as a trio, evolved into a mainstream stadium band, and sold more than ten million records in that capacity. They still deposit a portion of the royalties into Richey’s bank account. Because you never know if he might show up again.
1. Amy Winehouse (September 14, 1983 – July 23, 2011)
“I have a feeling I’m gonna die young”, sighed a then 25-year-old Amy Winehouse to her personal assistant Alex Haines. The man was happy to tell the British press. He also immediately added that the troubled singer spent about 5,000 pounds on drugs every week. Spicy detail: the former employee and Amy Winehouse also had a steamy affair in between working hours. He affectionately called her his little porn star.
On July 23, 2011, it turned out that the British artist had predictive powers; she became the newest member of the Club of 27. That day, her bodyguard found her lifeless body in her North London flat. Alcohol poisoning. It was the inevitable culmination of tumultuous years full of loads of alcohol, suitcases full of drugs, eating disorders, and her much-discussed toxic marriage to the professional do-nothing Blake Fielder-Civil, the viper that introduced her to heroin in a dingy hotel room.
During her life, the English tabloid press had a field day with Amy. That the young woman, plagued by bulimia and lung problems, was a vulnerable little bird under that impressive beehive and tattoos didn’t bother them. The paparazzi have to eat too. Asif Kapadia attempted to restore her reputation in 2015 with the acclaimed documentary ‘Amy’, which received a standing ovation at the Cannes festival that year.
But more important is Amy’s musical legacy. As the first Brit ever, she cashed in 5 Grammy Awards. Of course, she got them for the million success ‘Back to Black’. The breakthrough album with the candid monster hit ‘Rehab’ sold 350,000 copies in the Netherlands alone. But on her debut ‘Frank’, she shows at least as phenomenally her unparalleled vocal capacities.
To say that the jazz and soul singer inspired a whole generation of female artists is like noting that the sun is shining. Adele, Lady Gaga, Florence Welch, and Billie Eilish are just a few names whose lives Amy changed forever.