Published: July 23, 2011
Amy Winehouse, the British singer who found worldwide fame with a smoky, hip-hop-inflected take on retro soul, yet became a tabloid fixture as her struggles with drugs and alcohol brought about a striking public career collapse, was found dead in her home in London on Saturday. She was 27.
For many rock and roll fans who saw such reports about the sudden death of Amy Winehouse – one fact jumped right out: her age. 27-years old.
As of this writing, the cause of her death is not known. The London police said that, “at this early stage it is being treated as unexplained.” But nobody will be surprised to learn that the artist who hit the charts singing, “They tried to make me go to rehab, but I said ‘no no no’” probably succumbed to her addictions.
Thus, we add Amy Jade Winehouse (September 14, 1983 to July 23, 2011) to the list of rock stars that died at 27 years of age.
The list got started early – with the death of the pioneering bluesman Robert Johnson on August 16, 1938. Legend had it that Johnson went down to a lonely crossroads and sold his soul to the devil for the ability to play guitar with a genius that inspired future rockers like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Paige. His death is full of mystery, too. But we do know that he was 27-years old when died after drinking from a bottle of whiskey that was poisoned with strychnine.
27-year old Brian Jones had recently been kicked out of The Rolling Stones when he was discovered at the bottom of his swimming pool on July 3, 1969. His death, too, is shrouded in mystery and unproven suspicions of foul play.
The coroner’s report concluded that Jones’ untimely demise was “death by misadventure”, noting that the troubled rocker’s liver and heart were greatly enlarged by drug and alcohol abuse
Canned Heat was a hit at Woodstock in the summer of 1969, but a little over a year later, the band’s leader, singer, and principal songwriter was dead at the age of 27. Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson died of a drug overdose on September 3, 1970 in Topanga Canyon – not far from where I live. Wilson had reportedly tried to kill himself twice before, and some say his death was a suicide, though he left no note.
Either way, Wilson is at home on this ignominious list, as suicide and overdose are the most common causes of death for these 27-year old rockers.
Just two weeks after Wilson’s death, an accidental overdose took the life of Jimi Hendrix on September 18, 1970. The virtuoso guitar god took a lot of sleeping pills on the day he wound up face down in his own vomit. The Belgian sleeping pills he took were far more powerful than he realized. He may also have been mixing pills with red wine. According to the doctor who first attended to him, Hendrix asphyxiated in his vomit, which was mainly red wine.
A little more than two weeks after 27-year old Jimi passed away too soon, rock music fans were stunned by another tragedy: the death of the great Janis Joplin due to an accidental heroin overdose.
The heroin that 27-year old Janis took in a Hollywood motel on October 4, 1970 turned out to be much more potent than normal. In fact, several of her dealer’s other customers also overdosed that same week.
The stunning deaths of rock superstars Hendrix and Joplin were followed in less than two months by the sudden demise of a third future Rock & Roll Hall of Fame member. The Door’s charismatic and controversial front man, Jim Morrison was found in the bathtub of his Paris apartment, dead of an accidental heroin overdose, on July 3, 1971. One of rock’s legendary heartthrobs, Morrison was also just 27 years old when his heart stopped beating.
A deadly mix of morphine and alcohol claimed the life of country rock pioneer Gram Parsons on September 19, 1973. The gifted and influential singer and songwriter was just two months shy of his 27th birthday when he died in the desert of Joshua Tree, California from an overdose of morphine and booze. In fact, it’s been written that the amount of morphine Parsons took was enough to kill three people.
You may want to look up what happened to Gram Parson’s body: it’s one of the strangest rock legends of all time.
Pete Ham’s suicide on April 24, 1975 closed one of the saddest chapters in rock and roll history. There was a time when Ham’s band, Badfinger, was a serious contender for The Next Big Thing after the breakup of the Beatles – but their wonderful, melodic music could not overcome the twin evils of terrible management and awful recording deals. Despondent over has band’s troubles, Ham hung himself in his garage. He was, of course, 27. His suicide note included an indictment of Badfinger’s business manager, Stan Polley: “P.S. Stan Polley is a soulless bastard. I will take him with me.”
Almost two decades later, another rock and roll suicide shocked the world. But while Pete Ham’s glory days were behind him when he put the rope around his neck, Kurt Cobain was a superstar still in his ascendancy when he took his own life on April 5, 1994.
Cobain went out like Ernest Hemingway, putting a gun to his head.
Sublime front man Bradley Nowell managed to make it a few months beyond his 27th birthday – but just before his band’s breakthrough third album went multi-platinum – Nowell was a dead man. The promising talent who wrote and sang such fabulous songs as “What I Got” and “Wrong Way” did, indeed, go out the wrong way from a heroin overdose on May 25, 1996.
So now, Amy Winehouse is gone, too. Just 27 years old. But the music remains. In fact, if you made a playlist of songs from the 11 artists noted in this article, it would probably be the best album you’ll hear all year.
And that would be the better way to remember them.