Born: May 8, 1911, in Hazlehurst, Mississippi
Robert Johnson lived and died in relative obscurity. He was a rootless, restless, sly, street-smart, womanizing, whisky-drinking hobo with a guitar and a gifted ability to pick up and synthesize the music he heard in juke joints and from records and radio. He played mills and barrooms and is only known to have recorded 29 tracks over two recording sessions, yet his music helped father rock & roll.
Died: August 16, 1938, in Greenwood, Mississippi
A 1961 release titled King of The Delta Blues Singers bore the painting of a faceless man hunched over his guitar—none of the two known photographs of Robert Johnson had surfaced (not until 1986 and 1989). Robert Johnson sounded primal, sang with lived passion about dark meetings at crossroads, love in vain and hellhounds on his trail, and died from poisoning under strange circumstances. Robert Johnson is an enigma and an amalgam elevated by white rockers to the pantheon as a mysterious folkloric hero. When alive, Robert Johnson was never the King of The Delta—just a talented minstrel—but his influence makes him the grandfather of rock.
An assorted collection of artists who have covered the songs of Robert Johnson include (in no particular order) The Rolling Stones, Canned Heat, Cream, the Blues Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ry Cooder, Eric Clapton, Cowboy Junkies, John Hammond, Peter Green, Cassandra Wilson, the Radiators, Fleetwood Mac, ZZ Top, Freddie King, Elmore James, Asylum Street Spankers, George Thorogood & the Destroyers, Keb ‘Mo’, Walter Trout Band, Lucinda Williams, Rocky Lawrence, Rory Block, Pyeng Threadgill, John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, Chris Thomas King, the Jeff Healy Band, Pussy Galore, White Stripes, Foghat, Status Quo, Johnny Shines, Roy Rogers, Led Zeppelin, Muddy Waters, Bonnie Raitt, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Grateful Dead, and Widespread Panic.
Born: December 15, 1932, in San Antonio, Texas
Jesse Belvin is hardly mentioned in the annals of rock, but his contributions are significant to its early development. Belvin could croon like Nat King Cole or roar, sounding like a combination of Little Richard and Elvis Presley. Belvin was a prolific songwriter and was known to sell them off to other doo-wop groups in the LA area for $100 a piece. Jesse Belvin co-wrote "Earth Angel," which was a major hit for the Penguins in the mid-fifties, peaking at the rhythm and blues charts and even crossing over to a respectable #8 on the pop charts. Frank Zappa paid homage to the song and the LA doo-wop scene that he grew up with on Weasels Ate My Flesh. "Earth Angel" was recently recorded by both Death Cab For Cutie and Weezer.
Died: February 6, 1960, near Hope, Arkansas
Bands: The Shields, and solo. Co-writer of The Penguins’ “Earth Angel”
RCA Records signed Belvin in 1959 and decided to promote him as much as possible. Jesse recorded a slew of singles and Dick Clark ended up using Belvin's "Goodnight My Love" as the closing theme for American Bandstand for several years.
February 2, 1960, Belvin played for the first segregated audience in the history of Little Rock, Arkansas. White supremacists hailed racial epithets and managed to halt the show twice. Belvin had received several death threats since his tour started in the still-segregated south, and he was scared for his life. Four hours after the show ended, Belvin was on the road near Hope, Arkansas, with his manager/wife JoAnn and a driver when the black Cadillac skidded off the road. Jesse and the driver died on impact while JoAnn died at the hospital later that night. A trooper on the accident scene stated that the rear tires had "been tampered with." No more details surfaced, but The 27s book tells another version of what happened that night. Belvin is largely forgotten, but his songs and recordings live on.
Born: February 28, 1942, in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England
Brian was true rock royalty and in the early days, the only bad Rolling Stone. He basked with blonde babes and fathered enough offspring to fill a soccer team. But his thirst for the limelight quickly overshadowed his art, which led to his demise.
Died: July 3, 1969, Hartfield, Sussex, England
Band: The Rolling Stones. Also recorded the Master Musicians of Joujouka
Brian Jones was born into a respectable family in Cheltenham, England, during a time when such families reprimanded their offspring using corporal punishment, even in public. His parents, Lewis and Louise, were more concerned about their family’s image than instilling happiness in Brian and his four-years-younger sister Barbara. Louise told her son that Pamela, another sister who had died of leukemia at the age of two, had been sent away for being naughty. They weren’t unusually cruel compared to other families, but years of verbal and physical abuse scarred Brian’s psyche for life.
Brian Jones’ boyhood was filled with altar service, depression, school pranks, chronic asthma and various nervous disorders. Despite of his nervousness he was capable of coaxing other boys in the schoolyard to do or believe things they’d regret later. The few who came back with clenched fists were met with meekness in Brian’s green eyes.
His mother taught him piano and he could practice clarinet at home, but listening to jazz and swing or practicing other instruments was done covertly and away from the house. Jones picked up an acoustic guitar and became infatuated with rural bluesmen such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lightning Hopkins, Ledbelly Leadbetter—and the mysterious Robert Johnson. In his teens, Brian became one of a handful young, amateur blues musicians playing on a scene dominated by scholarly trad. jazzers. He often sat in with various outfits and was capable of laying down decent jazz strums, but he was known to wander off stage if the band started playing numbers he felt were a bit too trad. The behavior garnered him off-stage attention, which he seemed to enjoy. Band members would often try to make him come back because his musical abilities helped the overall cohesiveness. Around this time, Brian became a father for the second time. His first, when he was 16, had been put up for adoption. This time was different. He took odd jobs to pay for his son and the mother, who eventually followed him to London after he moved there.
Brian Jones founded the Rolling Stones as a skiffle group in 1962. The band’s repertoire in the early days consisted of Chuck Berry numbers, Bo Diddley covers and a selection of other blues songs. Brian assumed leadership and his initial fortitude facilitated the band’s sudden success. He chose cover songs, hustled gigs, signed contracts and distributed proceeds (always skimming a little extra before disbursing the others). Women found the broad-shouldered sparkplug adorable. Brian was often nasty on stage and was known to egg on patches of the crowd for the sheer hell of it, but in between he’d turn those green beams in the direction of a special girl watching from the side of the stage and she’d melt. His charm lingered latently and he could be funny, jovial and cordial, his husked voice softly lisping underneath a blond mop top.
The Rolling Stones’s Cavern was a London club called Craw Daddy. Within months, Rolling Stones’ reputation made people stand in line for hours for an opportunity to sweat and shake in immobility. Girls with bouncing tops up front, gawking guys in the back. When the Beatles, who had already garnered reputation beyond Liverpool’s Cavern, listened in they were impressed enough to invite the band to one of their concerts as well as talking them up to potential producers and the press.
Brian Jones was never a songwriter, but what and how he played refined the overall sound. He doesn’t have a song to his name because he was constantly paranoid about letting others hear what he was working on. He wanted to stick with variations of the blues, while Keith and Mick were rockers. Ultimately, his failure to produce material made him irrelevant, so Mick and Keith moved into position as principal architects of the Stones’ direction. But that was in the studio and backstage. In public, Brian clung to the role as co-leader and bad-boy partier. His choices indicated that being a star was more important than playing music—he adored the spotlight. Skipping out on duties with the Stones, he flew to Monterey with Nico on his arm, so he could introduce Jimi’s Experience to the American audience.
In 1968, Brian spent time in Morocco recording tribal music, posthumously released as The Pipes of Pan at Joujouka. Brian’s leadership had already slipped, but his frequent escapades and propensity to avoid recording dates (he failed to show up during the recording of “Satisfaction”) rendered him persona non grata by his band mates. He would typically show up after Keith had recorded all the guitar tracks, leaving him to add other instruments. The trajectory of figuring out an arsenal of instruments led to a marked disinterest in the guitar, but Brian’s colorations added zest. “Paint it Black,” Rolling Stones’ third British number one single, sounded strangely haunted thanks to his sitar. Jones reached the apex of multi-instrumentation in 1966 on Aftermath and Between the Buttons. He played marimba on “Under My Thumb,” “Yesterday’s Papers” and “Out of Time;” dulcimer on “Lady Jane;” sitar on “Cool, Calm and Collected” and “Mother’s Little Helper;” trombone on “Something Happened To Me Yesterday” and flute on “All Sold Out.”
For fifteen months, Anita Pallenberg was his girlfriend, and she made him laugh and forget about his deficiencies. His persona became increasingly mysterious and some have talked about the couple’s kinkiness: sado-masochism and even coprophagy. But the bliss ended after he had to fly back to London from a road trip on the continent due to a bad case of asthma. With Linda alone in the backseat, it didn’t take long for Keith to win her over.
The Stones’ founder turned into an emotional train wreck and two drug busts from the police with subsequent court appearances furthered his condition. A psychoanalysis ordered by the court found him to have an IQ of 133, but “losing his grip on reality. He vacillates between a passive, dependent child with a confused image of an adult on one hand and an idol of pop culture on the other.” He was put on a diet of tranquillizers and moved out of London to Cotchford Farm, an estate previously owned by Winnie the Pooh author A.A. Milne. Brian looked pale, grew tubbier and was generally zonked from a combination of medicine, booze, depression, asthma and frail nerves. In early June, Mick, Keith and Charlie drove out to sever the ties between Brian and the band. It was a sense of relief for both parties and Brian was promised a golden handshake equivalent of $1.7 million.
July 3, 1969, was a hot day at Cotchford, the air filled with pollen, but news about the check from the Stones organization lifted Brian’s spirits. He drank heavily, sucked on his inhalator and popped tranquilizers. Although he was hardly fit for stable movement on land, he decided to take a dip in the deep blue swimming pool that night. Anna, the latest of his string of nursing girlfriends, and Frank, a brute of a foreman that was living in an annex while supervising a posse of cowboy builders employed by Mr. Jones, eventually got out to fetch cigarettes, leaving Brian alone. He must’ve felt a drowsy calmness while splashing alone in his pool, eventually sinking to the tile-covered bottom. Brian Jones was 27 years old.
Born: May 17, 1941, in Butte, Montana
Died: October 30, 1968, in Chicago, Illinois
Band: Spanky and Our Gang, The New Wine Singers
Thanks to Spanky And Our Gang’s ’67 hits “Sunday Will Never Be The Same” and “Lazy Day,” the group is remembered as a mid-sixties pop sensation in the same vein as The Mamas and the Papas, but that was only one of the many flavors this Chicago-based band could concoct. Our Gang was studio-polished yet put on an entertaining act in that old-timey way, all while dazzling audiences with its display of sublime musicianship.
Elaine “Spanky” McFarlane and Malcolm McHale, the group’s principal members, spent 1962-64 as The New Wine Singers, a fantastic quintet that mixed jug band, folk, barbershop a capella, show tunes, and Irish standards. “We were eclectic as hell and loved every minute of it,” Spanky says today. “We did anything we wanted and there was a lot of cornball comedy.” “Malcolm had charisma and a rubber face that never stopped, he was right in there,” she adds.
The New Wine Singers put out a few LPs, including two live recordings, which capture the ensemble’s entertaining live show. Once that band fizzled out they formed Spanky And Our Gang. “Malcolm was such an integral part of the group,” Spanky says. “Very talented, but totally underrated, well, almost not rated at all.” Malcolm Hale wrote and arranged most of the tunes, played lead guitar, trombone, and sang. Still, since Malcolm spent every sixth weekend with the Army Reserves, the rest of the group learned to play occasional gigs without him.
Over the course of 1967 and 1968 the group placed five singles on Billboard’s Top 40 and made coveted TV appearances on the Tonight Show, the Dick Cavett Show, Hollywood Palace, and so on. Spanky And Our Gang’s most notorious gig was The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour where they performed “Give A Damn,” which was banned in several states for its un-kosher title (never mind that the song had a positive message; to give a damn about “your fellow man”). CBS received a flood of complaints after the show, one of which purportedly came from Richard Nixon. See, “damn” was not an appropriate word during 1968’s “family viewing hours.”
That October Malcolm Hale didn’t show up for a gig in Boise, Idaho, but the band set up his guitar amplifier on stage; they figured he might show up a little later. Mid-set, the amp screeched uncontrollably, disrupting the set. As soon as the band walked off stage they learned that Malcolm Hale was dead. The 27-year-old multi-instrumentalist had gone to bed drunk at a girlfriend’s place in Chicago (Spanky says he was quite the multi-dater), and even though the band called her to rouse him up, she refused to do so. After 28 hours of “sleep” the girlfriend discovered that he was dead. Malcolm Hale died of monoxide poisoning due to a faulty space heater. Spanky And Our Gang played the rest of the year to fulfill their obligations and called it quits. “I was devastated and cried every day for a year,” Spanky says.
The group’s hits keep popping up on various CD box sets, most recently on the three-disc Summer of Love: The Hits of 1967. To really figure them out you’ve gotta seek out their records. “It’s not about the hits. It’s about the album cuts and we had that going,” McFarlane adds.
Alan C. Wilson ("Blind Owl")
Born: July 3, 1943, near Boston, Massachusetts
The least glamorous of The 27s, Alan Wilson was more than anything a pure and frail human being, a blues scholar, a great harmonica player, and a guitar player with a solid foundation in Delta blues. Raised in Boston, Alan left for California to help John Fahey with his thesis. Fahey gave Alan the nickname "Blind Owl," due to his coke-bottom glasses, and introduced him to Bob "The Bear" Hite, another record collector. Together with Henry Vestine, a Mother of Invention alum, the trio formed Canned Heat in 1966.
Died: September 3, 1970, in Topanga Canyon, California
Bands and affiliations: Canned Heat, Son House, John Lee Hooker, John Fahey
Canned Heat started out as a purveyor of the Delta blues tradition, but got caught up with the psychedelic '60s and added more of a contemporary spin to their boogie. The Bear had a gravelly voice, while Alan sang with a high-pitched, often tortured lilt. Although Canned Heat is now largely forgotten (the band still tours with one member from the golden age, Fito de la Parra) it was one of the more popular bands of the late 1960s. Canned Heat headlined both the Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock and the group’s songs pop up in movie soundtracks and commercials.
Struggling with chronic depression, Alan Wilson overdosed in Bear's backyard on the eve of departure for a German festival that also marked one of Jimi Hendrix's last performances.
Born: November 27, 1942, in Seattle, Washington
The guitar was an extension of Jimi, a fifth limb he relied on as much as others would a leg or an arm. He played during set breaks or on the bus, recorded or jammed after shows, played along to Bob Dylan records during interviews and slept with the guitar at the edge of the bed.
Died: September 18, 1970, in a London hotel room
Bands: The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Band of Gypsys
Hendrix was born in Seattle by a teenage mom while his much older dad was stationed in the south. Jimi’s parents were both poor and alcoholic and they moved around a lot, living out of flop houses, cheap hotels and with friends and relatives, never staying too long in any place. With an upbringing marked by uncertainty, hunger, the death of his mother and belt whippings by his dad, Jimi became shy and introverted. One of his few joys was playing guitar on a broom along to old blues records. Somebody talked his dad into buying him a guitar and he spent his teenage years playing in a band around Seattle, including the premier club in the Northwest, the Spanish Castle. It didn’t take “half a day to get there,” as he later sang in “Spanish Castle Magic,” but traveling in beat-up cars sometimes led to unpleasant delays.
After a brief stint as a parachuter with 101st Airborne Jimi left the army guitarless, wearing issued clothes and $300 in his pocket. He walked into a jazz joint and spent all but $16. Unable to afford the Greyhound back to Seattle, he snuck back on the base and begged to get his guitar back from the guy he’d pawned it to. After recovering the axe, he spent the next three years priming his chops as a hired gun on the Chitlin’ Circuit—juke joints, cafes, dances and parties from Virginia to Florida, in the Delta and over to Texas—not unlike Robert Johnson had before him. Jimi’s knowledge of R&B, soul and rock hits of the day led to backing jobs for the stars of the day—Little Richard, Ike and Tina Turner and many others—but he kept getting fired for being too flashy. Otis Burke traded Jimi like a baseball card on the tour bus to Otis Redding for two horn players. He was fired a week later and left on the side of the road, but the penniless guitarist simply waited till another tour rolled through town for job.
Jimi eventually made it to New York City, playing with Curtis Knight—a pimp with a band—and his own, Jimmy James and the Blue Flames. Hendrix was finally in the spotlight, but his guitar reverberated nightly across an empty room at the Cheetah Club. Luckily, his dexterity caught the attention of Keith Richards’ girlfriend, Linda Keith, who kept bringing musicians and producers into the club until Chas Chandler of the Animals decided to fly Jimi to London. Finally, his career picked up speed. The day of Hendrix’ arrival, his guitantics wowed members of Britain’s musical cognoscenti and he found himself a girlfriend who had previously dated Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones and Keith Moon of the Who. Eric Burdon of the Animals who was present that night recalled later that, “It was haunting how good he was.” A week later Chandler brought Jimi to a Cream show so he could meet Clapton. Armed with his guitar he asked if he could jam—a request so ballsy that the guys were caught off guard. Nobody had ever asked to sit in with Cream before. Grafitti around London at the time proclaimed Clapton was God and here was this unknown, wild haired dude clutching a Fender Stratocaster. Jimi plugged in and played Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” in triple speed. Eric’s jaw dropped. “I thought, ‘My god, this is like Buddy Guy on acid,’ ” he recalled later.
The years on the Chitlin’ Circuit finally paid off. Hendrix had learned how to entertain audiences from watching Little Richards, how to bend strings from Albert King, sat by the feet of B.B. and picked up techniques from an apt student of T-Bone Walker and Freddie King. The analytical musical cannibal had finally transformed into a virtuoso anxious to take on the world.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience shook the world with its innovative sounds and fierce electric assaults. He used amps and electronic effects as instruments as much as the guitar, creating dive-bombs, haunting feedback, wah-wah modulated melodies, the sound of a rapid-fire machine gun and Delta blues soaked with dripping washes from the uni-vibe. Jimi suddenly found himself as the celestial center of the psychedelic 60’s, embracing road sex and alterations from acid to speed. Although some women were more important to Jimi than others, he shied away from intimacy and commitment, perhaps ingrained from watching his parents. Off stage, Jimi remained polite, but shy and reserved. He kept few close friends and rarely ventured outside the realm of music, socializing almost exclusively with musicians, producers, groupies and hangers-on. That and an incessant tour schedule and recording dates taxed him.
Jimi Hendrix’ performances became erratic during the last two years of his life. He complained that fans came to hear his early hits and watch him play guitar with his teeth. One night he collapsed on stage. While vacationing in Morocco, most likely the only vacation of his life, an old fortune-teller with a Tarot deck drew the Death card. The card could also mean rebirth, but Jimi freaked out. A few weeks before his death, he told a Danish journalist, “I’m not sure I will live to be 28 years old. I mean, the moment I feel I have nothing more to give musically, I will not be around on this planet anymore.”
Before Hendrix went to bed for the last time, he gobbled nine sleeping pills that belonged to a girlfriend. The German pills were stronger than he was used to and sometime in the early morning hours he puked, suffocating himself in deep sleep. Before Jimi went out that last night of his life he had worked on a new lyric: “The story of life is quicker than the wink of an eye.” Jimi’s ended at 27.
Janis Joplin ("Pearl")
Born: January 19, 1943, in Port Arthur, Texas
After a miserable childhood as Port Arthur’s “freak,” “creep,” and “pig” she went to found a crew of like-minded people in Austin’s University district. Janis sang vocal jazz, blues, country, folk, and bluegrass. In 1963, she left for the West Coast and spent time as a bohemian in North Beach. She moved up the coast and connected with the thriving folk scene that spread across several coffee houses. She recorded several demos accompanied by Jorma Kaukonen (later of The Jefferson Airplane), but got caught up in the speed scene, left town for NYC, came back, and was urged to dry up at home. Back in Port Arthur she shed her wild life style and cultivated a slow domestic life style. In San Francisco, Chet Helms, who knew Joplin from Austin, managed a new psychedelic band called The Holding Company, and he thought she would be perfect for the gig. He sent mutual friend who convinced Janis is was time to return.
Died: October 4, 1970, in a Los Angeles hotel room
Bands: Big Brother and The Holding Company, The Kozmic Blues Band, The Full Tilt Boogie Band
With Janis Joplin on board with The Big Brother and The Holding Company it didn’t take long before the band was known for raw-energy live shows. During the summer of ’66 the group moved next to the Grateful Dead; Janis and Pigpen soon had a little summer fling going. Big Brother’s major breakthrough occurred the following summer at the Monterey Pop Festival, which was appeared in D. A. Pannebaker’s Monterey Pop film. Big Brother and The Holding Company’s eponymous debut followed a few weeks later. The media loved the Janis’ raw vocals and wild demeanor, both on and off stage, but the rest of the group wasn’t equally excited about her commanding place in the spotlight.
Cheap Thrills followed in early ’68 and its single, “Piece of My Heart,” rose to the top of the Billboard chart. The continued to tour and Janis sunk deeper into her cravings for heroin. Columbia Records declined her suggested name for the album, yet it pretty much summed up where she was at: Sex, Dope and Cheap Thrills. Tensions mounted and Janis Joplin left Big Brother at the end of 1968, ready for her “own” band. Joplin sought help to assemble the Kozmic Blues Band in early 1969 and they soon recorded I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! The Kozmic Blues Band backed her up later that year at the fabled Woodstock festival, but critics urged her to disband, which she did only a year after its inception. Janis Joplin was much more involved in selecting her final band, which she named the Full Tilt Boogie Band. “It’s my band,” she raved to a journalist. “Finally it’s my band.” Joplin weaned herself off heroin, but filled the void with even heavier drinking.
During the 4th of July week in 1970, Janis and Full Tilt rode and performed on the Festival Express tour through Canada (other acts included Grateful Dead, Flying Burrito Brothers, The Band, Buddy Guy). She was drunk, but seemed happy. Unfortunately it didn’t last long. Over the course of that summer, Joplin was back on the needle.
In September 1970, she and the band started recording Pearl in Los Angeles with Paul Rothchild (who had previously produced The Doors). Janis Joplin sadly died of an overdose of heroin during the recordings on October 4, 1970. She was 27 years old and was scheduled to add vocals to “Buried Alive In The Blues” the following day.
Jim Morrison ("The Lizard King")
Born: December 8, 1943, in Melbourne, Florida
A self-styled "erotic politician," James Douglas Morrison was a creative soul, a loud drunk, and a fantastic entertainer who knew how to push the buttons of individuals, an audience, and society at large. The Doors worked hard at the Whiskey Go Go in Los Angeles. Jim's early stage presence was poor, but as the band grew tighter he grew comfortable with the role.
Died: July 3, 1971, in Paris, France
Band: The Doors
"Light My Fire" sealed the band's success and Jim was lauded as a mysterious Greek god and featured in teeny magazines. Morrison quickly grew tired of the success and wanted to be viewed as a filmmaker and poet. His lyrics for the Doors touched on subjects such as the meaningless war in Vietnam ("Unknown Soldier"), ecology ("When The Music's Over"), and sketches from his life and imagination ("LA Woman," "The End," "Riders on the Storm")
In 1969, after a concert in Miami, Morrison was accused of exposing himself on stage. The charges were ridiculous, witnesses dubious, and the trail bore strong markings of a farce. He was eventually let go with a fine, but he was done with his leather clad show biz persona. Jim Morrison gained weight, grew a beard, wrote poetry, directed a movie, and moved to Paris. One morning his girlfriend Pamela found him dead in the bathtub of the Paris apartment they shared. The official cause of death was heart failure. Morrison apparently did heroin the night of his death, and there are several conspiracy theories surrounding his death (i.e. did he really OD in the bathroom at the Rock & Roll Circus?).
Arlester "Dyke" Christian
Born: June 13, 1943, in Buffalo, New York
Dyke grew up in a rough part of Buffalo, New York, and learned to be street wise at an early age. He played bass and sang backing vocals for the O'Jays and in 1965 he found himself stranded with half the band in Phoenix. Not one to stay put, Dyke stepped up to the microphone, hired a few local musicians, and began playing James Brown-style soul as Dyke and the Blazers. Dyke and the Blazers’ 1966 record "Funky Broadway" became a hit (but an even bigger hit for Wilson Pickett who covered it the following year). The band played the legendary Apollo in NYC and James Brown stopped by their dressing room to say hi.
Died: March 13, 1971, in Phoenix, Arizona
Bands: Dyke & the Blazers, The O’Jays
"Funky Broadway" was the first song to have the word funk in the title and after it funk as a musical genre became synonymous with the syncopated rhythm pioneered by Dyke and the Blazers. Arlester Christian was shot several times while sitting in his car in down town Phoenix and died leaving a powerful albeit little known legacy. Listen to old James Brown, then pull out his 1967 "Cold Sweat" single and you'll hear Dyke's influence.
Ronald "Pigpen" McKernan
Born: September 8, 1945 in San Bruno, CaliforniaPigpen was the only showman of the Grateful Dead, a hard drinkin’ bluesman whose improvised blues raps equaled Jerry Garcia’s electric hillbilly guitar licks. Pig was an integral part of the Dead’s early incarnations. Ron McKernan selected cover songs, wrote words, music, and played piano, organ, harmonica, and sang.
Died: March 8, 1973 in Corte Madera, California
Bands: Grateful Dead, The Warlocks, Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions
Unlike the rest of the Dead, Pig wasn’t down with LSD, but he was reportedly dosed on two occasions. In 1966, he had a summer fling with Janis Joplin and introduced her to Southern Comfort, which soon became her signature booze of choice. As the Grateful Dead’s long, strange trip continued with psychedelic jams, Pig, who was more of a blues and rocker, was sidelined. Years of hard boozing soon took its toll and after a long period of illness Pigpen’s liver gave out in 1973. His epitaph reads “Pigpen was and is now forever one of the Grateful Dead.”
Roger Lee Durham
Born: February 14, 1946, in Kansas City, Missouri
In 1962, a group of high school friends in Kansas City, Missouri, founded a doo-wop quintet named The Sinceres. The members eventually learned how to play instruments, renamed themselves Bloodstone, and after a brief stint as a Las Vegas lounge act, moved to LA But months without a record deal forced the band to London where label boss Mike Vernon took them to the studio.
Died: July 27, 1973
Band: Bloodstone, The Sinceres
Roger Durham sang and played percussion on the group’s eponymous debut from 1972, which included “Natural High,” a single that placed top ten on the pop charts. (“Natural High” also found its way on the soundtrack to Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, starring Pam Grier, Robert De Niro, and Samuel L. Jackson, Bridget Fonda, and Michael Keaton.)
Bloodstone tapped into a mix of doo-wop, subdued funk riffs, and soul with a tinge of gospel, which garnered the group a place in the black rock and funk movement of the seventies. They played gigs alongside the likes of Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, The Impressions, and (the-not-so-black) Elton John. Bloodstone’s keyboardist Harold “Ivory” Williams went on to cut On The Corner with Miles Davis, but returned in time for gigs and recording dates.
July 27, 1973, Roger Durham fell off a horse and died from the injuries. His duty as an airman in the Vietnam War garnered him interment at the Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery in Kansas.
Born: January 12, 1947
Wally played organ for Chase, a brass jazz-rock band led by trumpeteer Bill Chase. Wally joined the band for the third and last record, the excellent Pure Music, where his oscillating leads and dripping Hammond organ chords added flair and texture.
Died: August 12, 1974, in Jackson Minnesota
August 9, 1974, several members of Chase flew to Minnesota for a gig at the Jackson County Fair. The weather turned nasty and the plane went down with Chase, Yohn, John Emma, Walter Clark, and the two pilots.
Dave Michael Alexander ("Zander")
Born: June 3, 1947, in Whitmore Lake, Michigan
Dave was the original bassist for the proto-punk band The Stooges. Like the rest of The Stooges, he was a fairly unseasoned player in the early days of the band, but their attitudes foreshadowed the punk movement by a few years. Zander first met the Asheton brothers in high school, but dropped out after 45 minutes of his senior year to win a bet. Eager to go to Liverpool, he recruited Ron Asheton to come along. In England the duo sought out the Beatles and caught a show with The Who. Once they made it home, they founded The Stooges with Iggy.
Died: February 10, 1975, in Ann Arbor, Michigan
Band: The Stooges
Dave Alexander played bass on The Stooges and Fun House, and is credited as the primary composer of "We Will Fall," "Little Doll," and "Dirt." Inspired by Jim Morrison, Iggy took stage antics to unprecedented levels, smearing peanut butter on his chest, cutting his arms with shards of glass, and pioneering the art of stage diving. Drugs were out of control, and although Dave isn't likely to have been any worse than the rest, his interest in practicing dwindled, and he left during the infamous Goose Lake International Music Festival in 1970. He died of pneumonia at an Ann Arbor hospital in 1975.
Born: April 27, 1947, in Swansea, Wales
A Welsh singer, guitar player, and songwriter, Pete was a dedicated musician who spent as much time as possible honing his craft for his group Badfinger. The group's predecessor was founded in his hometown Swansea while Pete was still in his teens, and they played a lot of the same venues as Steve Winwood and The Who. A small-time manager named Bill Collins saw the group's potential and took them under his wing, letting the members live and practice out of his London home. Collins encouraged The Iveys to work on song writing and Pete took the advice to heart.
Died: April 24, 1975, in Surrey, England
Bands: The Iveys, Badfinger
While the rest of London went psychedelic, The Iveys remained old fashioned in both dress and songwriting. Although the group's talent attracted attention from several record companies, Collins stayed put, waiting for a better opportunity. A former Beatles roadie, who worked for Apple records, took a strong liking to the group, and Paul McCartney signed them on in 1968. The single "Maybe Tomorrow," which trailed on the Billboard 100, selecting a follow-up proved difficult. In 1969, Paul McCartney gave them "Come and Get It" and an opportunity to record that track and a pair of their own for the movie The Magic Christian, starring Pete Sellers, Ringo Starr, Raquel Welch, and a John Cleese cameo. Before the release, the group changed their name to Badfinger and went for a slightly harder rock edge.
In November 1970, Badfinger released their second LP (No Dice) and the single "No Matter What" reached number eight on the Billboard charts ("Without You" from the same album became a hit for Harry Nilsson (1971) and Mariah Carey (1993). Signing on with business manager Stan Polley in 1970 proved to be a bad decision. He came highly recommended, but his mob ties and clever financial acrobatics only became obvious to the band members down the road.
Badfinger played acoustic guitars on George Harrison's monumental triple record All Things Must Pass (1971), sang backup vocals on a Ringo Starr single, and Pete Ham performed "Here Comes the Sun" on acoustic guitar with George Harrison on his Concert for Bangla Desh. Ass, Badfinger’s last record for Apple, failed to reach the Billboard Top 100. The follow-up, the eponymous Badfinger, was met with little enthusiasm, but 1974's Wish You Were Here was lauded by Rolling Stone magazine and other outlets. In a lawsuit with Warner Brothers, Polley was asked about money supposedly stashed away in an escrow account, but he didn't respond to the requests since the money had vanished. In retaliation, WB removed Badfinger's records from its catalog. Pete Ham soon found himself in a rut. He had written Top 10 singles and worked hard for Badfinger, but had no money and little fame to show for it.
April 24, 1975, Pete Ham hanged himself in his studio and his suicide note blamed Stan Polley for his death. Pete Ham's daughter was born the following month.
Born: January 25, 1951 in Memphis, Tennessee
Born into a wealthy family in Tennessee, Chris Bell spent his childhood listening to the Beatles, photographing, and playing music with his friends. He got a reputation as a good songwriter and guitar player when Alex Chilton (of the Box Tops fame) came back to Tennessee he was welcomed into the fold.
Fuelled by his fascination with the Beatles, Chris Bell wanted the two to become a song writing team like Lennon/McCartney. Big Star began working in the legendary Ardent studio at night as Big Star, the group created a brilliant album titled #1 Record. The sound, which was later labeled power pop, was drowned out by FM staples such as Led Zeppelin and marred by lousy distribution by Stax.
Died: December 27, 1978 in Memphis, Tennessee
Bands: Big Star, Rock City, Icewater, and solo
Big Star played only seven gigs in its original configuration before Chris Bell left disillusioned. Bell worked on a solo album that wasn't released until 14 years after his death and became a born-again Christian, preaching the power of the Lord to friends if they wanted to listen. Chris Bell accidentally crashed his car while driving home early one morning and died on impact.
Artists such as Elliot Smith, Wilco, R.E.M., and Ryan Adams revere Big Star’s music. Cheap Trick's remake of "In The Street" is now known as the theme from That '70s Show. (Alex Chilton, who kept the band alive for another album after Bell left, recently revived Big Star.) He is truly one of rock’s unheralded, yet remarkable songwriters.
Born: May 15, 1948, in Christchurch, New Zealand
Thain left his native New Zealand when he was 17 and lived as a bass player from then on until he died ten years later of complications from a drug overdose in London.
Gary Thain paid his dues playing R&B in German bars, and made it to London during the height of the Swinging '60s.
Died: December 15, 1975, in London, England
Bands: Uriah Heep, Keef Hartley Band, The New Nadir, The Secrets
He played in a jazz-rock trio called New Nadir, and Jimi Hendrix got up on stage with them one night at the Speakeasy. Thain’s next project was holding down the groove in the Keef Hartley Band, a tremendous British blues band. He stuck around for all six records and even played Woodstock.
In 1972, Thain received a phone call from prog rockers Uriah Heep, flew to the US, and ended up touring and recording with the band during its golden age. Gary Thain was fairly quiet, thin and frail from his drug use, but recognized as one of the two best musicians in the group.
Gary Thain was electrocuted while on stage in 1974, blacked out and suffered severe burns. The band cancelled the rest of the tour. Gary never fully recovered and was asked to leave the band shortly thereafter. A few months later his girlfriend found him dead in the bathtub.
Born: March 2, 1950, in Germany
Helmut Köllen joined Triumvirat in time to lend his bass, voice, and composition skills to this German progressive rock band’s two most famous albums: Spartacus and Illusions on a Double Dimple. In spite of overwhelmingly critical acclaim, Triumvirat was left as an opener for acts like Grand Funk Railroad in Europe and Supertramp in the US
Köllen left the band to pursue a solo career. Whether his death in 1977 was a suicide or an accident is anyone’s guess. He died in his car from monoxcide poisoning while listening to a demo tape of his songs with the garage door closed.
Died: May 3, 1977, in Germany
Band: Triumvirat and solo
Dennes Boon ("D. Boon")
Born: April 1, 1958, in Napa, California
Dennes Boon grew up in San Pedro, California, an industrial port town and home to many in the Navy. At 14, he jumped from a tree in the park and landed in front of Mike Watt and they became friends. D listened to Creedence Clearwater Revival, and that group's political lyrics became a life-long influence on his music.
Died: December 22, 1985, on I-10 in Arizona
Bands: The Minutemen, The Reactionaries
While still teenagers, Boon and Watt started a cover band, but later, after seeing the punk scene in LA did they think of creating their own music. The duo added George Hurley on drums, called themselves the Minutemen, and helped plow way in the nascent indie scene with Black Flag, the Meat Puppets, Mission of Burma, and Hüsker Dü.
The Minutemen turned most conventions upside down: songs clocked in at around a minute, few songs had choruses, the tunes blended jazz, funk, latin, punk riffs, and rock, and the lyrics were at times enigmatic, but political in a radical and/or blue collar way.
The Minutemen's most successful album was Double Nickels on the Dime, the title a joke on Sammy Hagar's "Can't Drive 55," and indirectly a joke on the rock establishment at large. To the Minutemen, doing things econo was a lifestyle. Records were cut for less than $1,000, the band traveled in a well-used van, and set up their own gear throughout the long tours. The econo mentality paid off as each tour increased the band's reputation and produced a small profit. Tragically, the band's career was cut short when D's girlfriend fell asleep behind the wheel and crashed the van on a road trip to Arizona. D slid out of the van, hit the pavement, broke his neck, and died on impact.
Pete de Freitas ("Mad Louis," "Boomerang Pete")
Born: August 2, 1961, in Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago
Pete was recruited as a replacement to Echo and the Bunnymen's drum machine. De Freitas proved quickly that he was much more than an average drummer. Opting for tribal rhythms and shunning excessive cymbal use, de Freitas established himself as an original rock drummer in the reverb-drenched eighties music scene. He was the backbone of Crocodiles, Porcupine, Heaven Up Here, and the brush-laden Ocean Rain.
Died: June 14, 1989, in England
Bands: Echo & the Bunnymen, The Sex Gods
In early 1986, Pete de Freitas left for New Orleans where he set a new record in rock 'n' excess. He consumed vast quantities of LSD, molly, cocaine, and booze while pretending to create music with his new band The Sex Gods. Instead of creation it was a macabre display of destruction. De Freitas totaled two cars, two motorcycles, and nearly himself. He stayed manically awake for eighteen days straight. The party ended when his money ran out and his compadres-in-excess drifted home. Pete de Freitas returned to Liverpool like a burnt-out shell and asked for a second chance. The Bunnymen took him back in, albeit on a salary, but the Bunnymen never found the way back to its creative glory (not just because of Pete). Vocalist Mac left and the three started recording with a new singer. In 1989, Pete de Freitas died on his Dukati motorcycle on the way to the studio in a head-on accident with a car.
Born: August 8, 1965, in Louisville, Kentucky
Raised in Kentucky on Bessie Smith, Jimmy Reed, Hank Williams, Billie Holliday, and hardcore punk Mia founded the Gits at Antioch College in 1986. A few years later, the band and a group of friends moved to Seattle in search of a new audience. Seattle’s alternative music scene, what was later labeled grunge, was about to blow up, and the Gits' post-punk music, attitude, and poetic lyrics garnered the band a devoted following. They took the show on abroad by nickel and dimeing an independent tour of northern Europe.
Died: July 7, 1993, in Seattle, Washington
Band: The Gits
The following year saw the band's first release, Frenching the Bully. In 1993, the band was busy working on an anticipated follow-up when Mia Zapata was raped and murdered late one night on her way home, ending the band's career. Kurt Cobain, who was a friend of Mia's, was profoundly affected by her murder and Nirvana played a benefit concert for the singer August 6, 1993. After nine years on the run, Florida fisherman Jesus Mezquia was sentenced to 36 years in prison in 2004 for her murder.
Born: February 20, 1967 in Aberdeen, Washington
By Cobain’s own account, he had a happy childhood until his parents divorced when he was eight years old. For the first year he stayed with his mother, followed by a couple of years with his father, Don Cobain. After Kurt’s rebellious teenage spirits reared its ugly head his life turned transient, as he was forced to live with various friends and family members until they could no longer deal with his negativity and tantrums. Don Cobain changed the course of his son’s life when he gave Kurt a guitar for his 14th birthday.
Died: April 5, 1994 at his home in Seattle, Washington
Band: Nirvana, Fecal Matter
Kurt didn’t find many people to jam with in high school, but he set out creating songs and improving his chops. One of his first bands was named Fecal Matter, fittingly named by Kurt who loved anything gross & perverted. Nirvana’s first incarnation came to life in 1987 after Cobain convinced Krist Novoselic to start a band with him. The two friends went through seemingly more drummers than Spinal Tap until they settled with Chad Channing. The trio recorded Bleach in 1988, which Sub Pop released the following year to great underground acclaim. Cobain still wasn’t completely happy with Channing’s skills on the skins, so the latter was casually replaced when Dave Grohl was available for a new gig.
With Grohl behind the drums, Nirvana gelled better than any power trio since Cream or the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and with the music industry finally looking for something else besides hard glam rock, divas, and pop posers, Nirvana seemed to fit the bill. In 1991, Nirvana’s major label debut, Nevermind, crushed the charts with a vengeance. The press jumped on the “Seattle—Grunge City” bandwagon and Cobain became an involuntarily spokesperson and tastemaker for Gen X.
Kurt Cobain first met Courtney Love after a show in Portland, Oregon, but it remained a casual encounter until Dave Grohl introduced the two during the Nevermind recordings in the summer of ’91. The two quickly developed mutual crushes, which evolved to a cross-country courtship during the fall. They didn’t bond strictly through romance, however, both claim that heroin and pills were an important part of the mix too.
The following year, in early 1992, Courtney Love was pregnant, so Kurt Cobain soon proposed they get married. The ceremony took place on Hawaii’s Waikiki Beach and photos show Kurt smiling, but his eyes are sedated from shooting up that afternoon. It didn’t take long for the press to catch on, and Courtney Love was often lambasted as a new Yoko Ono. Kurt & Courtney preferred to be compared to punk’s dreaded couple, Sid and Nancy. Following a highly publicized magazine article in Vogue where Love was quoted as saying she’d been using drugs during her pregnancy, Frances Bean Cobain came to the world August 18, 1992, as a normal healthy baby.
Although the becoming a father turned Kurt Cobain’s life into something positive, the dichotomy of mainstream success and underground cred became sort of an existential struggle for Cobain, and he chose to self-medicate with copious amounts of heroin. Cobain overdosed on heroin in July 1993 before a concert in New York City, and again from a combination of champagne and Rohypnol in March 1994 at a hospital in Rome, Italy. Cobain’s last week included a failed intervention, followed by a heroin binge, before Kurt bought a shotgun, and flew to LA where he checked himself in to rehab. Unfortunately, the stay was cut short when he jumped the fence and went back Seattle. During the first week of April Cobain’s wife, family, and friends searched for him in vain.
April 8, 1994, an electrician found Kurt Cobain with a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head. According to the coroner’s report, Cobain died April 5, 1994. He was 27 years old. For those interested in learning more about the conspiracy theories surrounding Kurt Cobain’s death, be sure to read Love and Death: The Murder of Kurt Cobain.
Born: May 26, 1967 in New York
Born in New York, Kristen Pfaff picked up bass at Boston College and ended up studying women’s studies at the University of Minnesota. After graduation she founded and toured with a local trio called Janitor Joe.
Died: June 16, 1994 in Seattle, Washington
Bands: Janitor Joe, Hole
While playing a club gig in California, Courtney Love and Eric Erlandson asked if she wanted to play bass for Hole, and after a few days she accepted. Kristin Pfaff moved to Seattle to be close with the band and almost immediately joined the band for the recording of Live Through This, Hole's first major label debut. The record went platinum and many feel Pfaff's bass playing, piano, and backup vocals that helped elevate the overall sound. Moving to Seattle was both good and bad: Pfaff became successful, but developed a heroin habit too (which she kicked for a while in 1993).
Pfaff was deeply affected by Cobain's suicide, whom she was friendly with, and decided to quit Hole and move back to Minneapolis where she had a new band lined up called Palm. Courtney Love supposedly didn't take the news lightly. Kristin Pfaff was found stiff in the bathtub from an apparent overdose the morning she was supposed to leave. Over the course of two months Love lost a husband and her band's bass player. Conspiracy theories about Love’s supposed role in the deaths abound.
Richey James Edwards
Born: December 22, 1967, in Blackwood, Wales, UK
Disappeared: February 1, 1995, in Wales, UK
Band: Manic Street Preachers
Richey James Edwards of the Welsh Manic Street Preachers was a huge fan of Cobain and thought of him as a kindred soul who was also suffering from existential depression. After a post-gig interview in 1991 with New Musical Express’s Steve Lamacq—who inferred that the band’s image was an artistic mask and that the music alone should say enough—Richey took him aside and said, “Believe me, we are for real.” He carved “4real” into his left forearm using a razor blade. “I was really fucked off,” Richey explained later. “I didn’t know what I could possibly say to him to make understand.”
Edwards suffered from vicious bouts of depression, anorexia, alcoholism, and self-mutilation. The latter started when a fan handed Richey a cutlery set before a gig in Thailand with a note that urged him to cut himself on stage that night. He did.
“I’m on my own, I’m very selfish,” Richey said in an interview. “Self disgust is self-obsession—that’s the truest line on there, probably.” Richey referred to “Faster,” a song he wrote for Manic’s monumental The Holy Bible from 1994. The lyricist (and second guitarist) cut his wrists on the eve of the record’s release, but he convinced his bandmates that it wasn’t a suicide attempt. “In terms of the S word, that does not enter my mind. And it never has,” Richey insisted in an interview, but few outside of his closest circle believed him.
The Holy Bible is one of the top three records of the 1990s. 4real.
It’s a creative collaboration, a defining masterpiece with a fat sound, hard flanging hooks, and sinewy leads accentuated by drummer Sean Moore. The stark lyrics about religion, eating disorders (“4st 7lb”), and iconoclasms were emancipated from Richey’s troubled head, while bassist Nicky Wire filled in the last quarter. Guitarist James Dean Bradfield says he struggled to set music to the dire stanzas, but the result is astonishing.
Even though the record climbed to number six on the UK album charts, it took a few years for critics and listeners to wrap their heads around it. The Manics are virtually unknown in the US (partly because their US distributor insisted on censoring songs and album designs in the name of morals and decency), but the Brits revered them as the hippest in Brit pop. In a way the Manics filled the same role on Britain’s musical landscape as the Bunnymen had before them. Not coincidentally, the quartet sported military fatigues and draped their amps with camouflage nettings a la Echo & the Bunnymen anno 1980.
The controversy surrounding Richey and death continued with the Bible track “Die In the Summertime,” but Richey spun that one too, claiming it was written before he experienced self-destructive tendencies: “Die In the Summertime was basically an old man looking back over his life, over his favorite period of youth, his childhood, basically. Everybody’s got a perfect mental time of their life and that’s what that song is about. And it was written last summer.”
Sure, that’s one interpretation. Although mentally ill, Richey commanded an incredible intellect. He was drawn to very heavy stuff such as the Holocaust, Albert Camus, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, and Joy Division’s Ian Curtis. His artistic, literary, and musical heroes lived short, depressed, yet productive lives.
“He’s just a mess. Fucking nutter, the boy is,” Nicky Wire said after Richey was interred at the Priory, the same mental institution that Brian Jones had stayed at in 1967.
In 1995, the day before a promotional visit to the US, Richey disappeared from the hotel where he was staying. A note addressed to his sometime girlfriend read, “I love you.” His passport and wallet were found at his apartment in Cardiff Bay, which proved he had stopped by there after he left the hotel. But no more clues were discovered until two weeks later when Richey’s abandoned car was found near the Severn Bridge. The battery was flat, and it looked like someone had spent several nights in the vehicle. Could he have jumped from the bridge, his body dragged from the Severn into the Bristol Channel and from there to the Atlantic Ocean? “That’s the only time that I genuinely ever thought that, you know, he’s dead,” Moore said.
Despite no confirmed sightings since February ’95, the remaining band members still deposit Richey’s royalty shares into an escrow account in case he resurfaces. Richey’s heroes fall into two categories: they either staged their own disappearance or they committed suicide. More than a decade has passed since he vanished, but The Manics, Richey’s family, and innumerable fans still believe he’s alive. Is he peaced out in a monastery somewhere, or was that Richey James Edwards someone spotted on the beach in the Canary Islands or Goa, in Mexico or Iceland? “He was a very intelligent guy,” says Simon Price, who wrote Everything (A Book About The Manic Street Preachers). “If he wanted to disappear, he could’ve done it.” At the end of 2007 New Musical Express, Britain’s leading music mag, named the Manic Street Preachers recipient of the 2008 God Like Geniuses Award in honor of their outstanding, unique, and innovative career. Prior recipients include The Clash, New Order, and Primal Scream.
Patrick Lamont Hawkins ("Fat Pat")
Born: December 4, 1970, in Texas
Died: February 3, 1998, in Houston, Texas
Member of: Screwed Up Click
Thanks to DJ Screw and his Screwed Up Click, Houston’s rap scene rose to the top among late nineties Southern rap. An early member and collaborator was Mr. Fat Pat (or P.A.T), nee Patrick Lamont Hawkins, who went to Sterling High with Screw. The two were buds through thick and thin and slowly built the Screwed Up Click to underground prominence.
Fat Pat released Ghetto Dreams in 1998, and its single “Tops Drop” scored at number five in the US rap charts. Riding the wave he quickly put out Throwed In Da Game. An Austin promoter and notorious drug dealer known on the streets as Weasel (his real name is Kenneth Eric Watson) failed to pay the Screwed Up Click for a show, but taped, filmed, and hustled it without permission.
Shortly thereafter Weasel’s safe house was robbed, and he suspected Fat Pat had something to do with it—a payback of sorts. Fat Pat denied it and said he was no longer in the game—strictly music from now on.
A little later Weasel invited Fat Pat to an apartment under the pretense to pay him for the show. “I’m like, don’t mess with that cat,” Screw said later in an interview. Fat Pat went to the meeting anyways, and Weasel killed him with a shot in the head. DJ Screw: “Basically, because he thought Fat Pat had something to do with him getting robbed.” Fat Pat was 27 years old when he was murdered by Weasel.
Raymond Rogers ("Freaky Tah," "Tahleek")
Born: May 14, 1971, in Queens, New York
Died: March 28, 1999, in Queens, New York
Member of: Lost Boyz, 134 Allstars
Like the blues, hip-hop’s ethos is to create something from nothing, makin’ a way outta no way, and it’s not surprising that a lot of hip-hop’s brightest came from the front lines of urban decay.
Take New York City’s E Line to the end and get off at Jamaica in the South Queens borough. In the early nineties rappers threw down hip-hop jams in Baisley Pond Park there. One of the young men who made a name for himself was Raymond Rodgers who called himself by Freaky Tah.
Tah’s high school buddies DJ Spigg Nice, Pretty Lou, and Mr. Cheeks were there too, and the crew began to jam as a unit. The Lost Boyz appropriated its name from The Lost Boys (a teenage vampire movie that featured Echo & the Bunnymen’s version of The Doors' “People Are Strange” on the soundtrack).
The Boyz slung drugs to get by but quit after another dealer they knew was shot. The Lost Boyz soon debuted the single “Lifestyles Of the Rich & Shameless,” and it climbed up Billboard’s Hot 100 thanks to its hypnotic creed “some died wit the name, some die nameless, it’s all the same game, all the same pain.” Based on the single and the promise of more party jams, Uptown Records added the Lost Boyz to its roster. “Renee” followed and was included in the spoof movie Don’t Be A Menace To South Central While Drinking Your Juice In the Hood.
“Cheeks and Freaky were the star players on the team,” Pretty Lou says. Freaky Tah’s throaty voice was the response to Mr. Cheek’s call, the story’s chorus, the adlibbing backup—the hype man. “He was that big spark that started the engine,” says his brother Tito. “He loved his fans and loved being on stage.” Like Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav, Tah’s role in the group was irreplaceable. Tahleek’s deep rasp is found all over their ’96 debut Legal Drug Money; he even rocked the mike on “1,2,3.” The record is part contemplation and part celebration of the Queens they emerged from. Even the song titles speak collectively of a greater story with “Get Up,” “Music Makes Me High,” “Jeeps, Lex Coups, Bimaz & Benz,” “All Right,” “Straight From Da Ghetto,” “Da Game,” and so on.
The album commanded the top spot on the rap/hip-hop charts and climbed to number six on the Billboard 200, going gold in the process. Several cuts from Legal Drug Money charged up the singles charts, such as “Music Makes Me High,” which outsold LL Cool J, Outkast, Jay-Z, and Mary J. Blige in November ’96.
The Lost Boyz managed to stay out of the East Coast / West Coast beef that claimed the lives of Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, and many others. In an otherwise bling-filled scene, the Lost Boyz pioneered plain white tees as part of the hip-hop uniform.
Tah never forgot about who he was and where he came from and invested time in prepping kids from his hood in the rap game. His crew was known as the 134 Allstars and included 50 Cent.
When Tah wasn’t hanging with his crew, he might ride the bus so he could sign autographs or pass out CDs and t-shirts. He was in the street all the time, and on his birthday he’d throw a BBQ for the south side of Queens. “That’s why 95 percent of everyone knew who Tah was,” Tito says.
In 1997, the Lost Boyz followed up with Love Peace & Nappiness and Tah stepped up on two of that album’s essential tracks “Why?” and “Get Your Hustle On,” while “My Crew” paid homage to their hood. The album went gold, and the single “Me & My Crazy World” placed in the middle of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.
March 28, 1999, the Lost Boyz entourage celebrated Mr. Cheeks’s birthday at the Sheraton Hotel in Queens. Well after midnight Tah said goodbye and left the party. As he walked through the main doors of the hotel, a man on the street shot him in the head and escaped in a car that sped off.
Freaky Tah was pronounced dead at 4:20 a.m.; the incredible hype man was only 27 years old.
In 2001, Kelvin Jones pleaded guilty to murdering Raymond Rogers and received fifteen years to life, while driver Raheem Fletcher was sentenced to seven years for chauffeuring the getaway car.
The socially conscious Talib Kweli pays his respects in “Good Mourning” off Reflection Eternal’s 2000 album Train of Thought. He raps “Freaky Tah, rock rock on.”
November 13, 1972, in Pennsylvania
Died: August 28, 2000, in Indiana
Band: Ink & Dagger, Crud is the Cult
Philadelphia’s Ink & Dagger was an unusual hardcore band. Over the course of its career, the band played a hypnotic fusion of aggro punk riffs and noisy techno. Ink & Dagger dented the indie circuit with this sonic stew coupled with, at least in the beginning, a dramatic vampire theme that Vampire Weekend picked up on brought fame a few years later.
“It was very discouraging to have people only see us as ‘that emo-goth-core band that wears makeup’ when there was much, much more to the puzzle,” singer Sean Patrick McCabe said in an interview with Ink19, a fanzine. “I can understand that some people never really took this band seriously,” he added.
The group might seem odd to the uninitiated, but behind the noise and makeup it was a reflective punk unit fuelled by McCabe’s fiery but intelligent lyrics and a propensity to shock. “Think of a vampire as a metaphor for the world,” says Robby Redcheeks, Ink & Dagger’s former roommate and road manager. “Blood is a person’s energy and vampires feed off of it. It had nothing to do with vampires per se, but was more a metaphor for punk rock and the society.”
“Sean McCabe was an unexplainable force,” Robby says, “ One of the most intelligent people I’ve ever known and also one of the craziest.”
Ink & Dagger were extremely influential in the Philly hardcore scene, but it was only later that they reached a wider audience—a few years after they disbanded when the creators of Amped, a the snowboarding video game for Microsoft Xbox, snatched three songs from The Fine Art Of Original Sin without permission. The theft was settled out of court in 2006.
In 2000, shortly after finishing Ink & Dagger’s third and final album and on his way to a new job, McCabe asphyxiated in an Indiana motel room. He was 27 years old.
Born: November 26, 1973, in Madrid, Spain
Died: November 24, 2001, in Bassersdorf, Switzerland
Band: Passion Fruit
If you’ve lived in or visited Europe in the last fifteen years, you’ve heard the cheesy bubblegum sound of Eurodance. The beats, lyrics, and choruses are designed like a clever virus to rule dance floors and airwaves from Ibiza to Tromsø for a month or so—just long enough to record and release something new. Passion Fruit was one of these pop groups, and in ’99 it released “The Rigga-Ding-Dong-Song,” which charted Top 10 in fourteen countries. Internal tension split the group, but management decided to continue with a fresh crop.
Over the course of 2000 and 2001, Passion Fruit released a trio of high charting singles (all big in Germany of course) and the album Spanglish Love Affairs, but the Eurodance fairytale ended grimly on November 24, 2001.
After a performance in Berlin they boarded Crossair flight 3597 to Zurich. On its way to landing, the pilot descended below the minimum descent altitude and crashed into a hill, killing twenty-four of the thirty-three on board. Passion Fruit members Nathalie van het Ende and 27-year-old Maria Serrano-Serrano were among the victims, while Debby St. Marteen survived.
Proceeds from Passion Fruit’s posthumous single, “I’m Dreaming of…A Winter Wonderland” went to families of the crash victims.
Jeremy Michael Ward
Born: May 5, 1976, in El Paso, Texas
Ward piped De Facto's dub and The Mars Volta's sonic output through an assortment of guitar effects, sculpting the sound of these two highly original bands in real-time.
Died: May 25, 2003, in Los Angeles, California
Bands: De Facto, The Mars Volta
He died of a heroin overdose aged 27 less than a month before The Mars Volta's debut De-loused in the Comatorium was released, but his influence on the band and its members linger. While working as a repo-man, Jeremy found a journal that became the main inspiration for Frances the Mute, and he also coined the term “amputechture,” the title for the band's third LP. After his fatal overdose, band mates Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez swore off hard drugs for good.
Born: March 18, 1978
Died: April 19, 2005
Band: American Head Charge
American Head Charge’s self-released debut album caught the attention of Rick Rubin, who signed and produced The War of Art in 2001. By then the group was a supporting act on Ozzfest and the Pledge of Allegiance tour with Slipknot and others. In April of the following year guitarist Dave Rogers quit and Bryan Ottoson was invited to join. Less than 24 hours later Ottoson landed in Los Angeles to play guitar on the “Just So You Know” music video.
Over the next couple of years, three of the band members drifted out to the deep end with drug use, but after rehab stints and a few new faces on board the band recorded The Feeding, which Bryan co-wrote ten out of twelve tracks for. The album was released in early ’05, but disaster struck a few months later when Bryan was found cold on the bus. The night before, he downed a few drinks after a gig, popped penicillin and a pain med he was prescribed for strep throat, and went to bed in a bunk on the bus. They found the 27 year-old dead April 19, 2005. His death was ruled an accidental prescription drug overdose.
Bryan Ottoson’s “333” tattoo on the back of his neck represented the synchronicity of his life’s events that seemingly happened in threes. He said he looked at the time every day at 3:33 p.m. and 3:33 a.m. inexplicably and without fail. Bryan died almost three years to the date after he joined the band. But the significance of threes didn’t end with Ottoson’s death. Brian Ottoson was 27 when he died (a factor of three) and the band cancelled three shows following his death.
Despite powerful live shows, AHC never made as good a name for themselves as some of their nü metal peers. Nevertheless, tracks from The Feeding (2005) have popped up here and there in popular entertainment. “Leave Me Alone” was featured on an episode of HBO’s Entourage, while “Loyalty” was included in the multi-platform videogame NHL 06.
Valentin Elizalde ("The Golden Rooster")
Born: February 1, 1979, in Guadalajara, Mexico
Died: November 26, 2006, in Reynosa, Mexico
The latest 27 was the popular Mexican banda music singer Valentin Elizalde. Elizalde was ambushed and murdered along with his manager and driver after performing at a fair in Reynosa, Mexico, November 25, 2006 (Reynosa is across the border from McAllen, Texas). A van followed his Chevy Suburban, and once it was within range its passengers pumped more than seventy bullets from semi-automatic weapons, nailing Elizalde with eight slugs. The hit was most likely related to an ongoing drug feud between the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels over smuggling routes to the US.
Shortly before his death, somebody posted a provocative montage on YouTube that featured photos of assassinated Gulf cartel members set to Elizalde’s hit song “A Mis Enemigos,” which translates to “To My Enemies.” Elizalde was born in the Sinaloa region and once wrote a tribute song to its leader in the style of narcocorridos, songs about the deeds of narco traffickers that resemble old folk songs about real-life rum smugglers and gangsters.
It’s speculated that the killing was orchestrated by Los Zetas, a rogue group of Mexican commandos hired by the Gulf Cartel (The US Army’s School of the Americas in Georgia once trained many of Los Zeta’s officers—dangerous and well-equipped people who are now responsible for hits on US soil, kidnapping DEA agents, and shoot-outs with the US Border Patrol.) According to the BBC, more than 2,000 people died from Mexican drug cartel violence in 2006.
Valentin Elizalde was known as “El Gallo de Oro,” the golden rooster, and released ten albums between 1998 and 2006. He was found in the backseat of the car clutching his trademark rooster pendant that he always wore on a necklace.
In 2007, Elizalde was posthumously nominated for a Grammy for Best Banda Album.
Louis Chauvin ("Bird Face")
Born: March 13, 1881, in St. Louis, Missouri
Died: March 26, 1908, in Chicago, Illinois
Today, ragtime’s best-remembered musician is Scott Joplin, but at the time his friend Louis Chauvin was equally famous within the tightly knit rag scene.
Chauvin was born in St. Louis, Missouri, and although he died without leaving recordings, we know that his ivory chops were legendary in vaudeville circles all over the Midwest.
“Chauvin emerged from the urban subculture of St. Louis,” says Ed Berlin, a ragtime scholar and author of three books on the genre. “Chauvin’s reputation is astonishing when one considers it is based on his contribution to “Heliotrope Bouquet,” a mere 32 measures of music, less than three minutes including repeats. However, its ethereal beauty is unlike anything else coming from the ragtime years, and he certainly impressed Scott Joplin who was the era’s standout composer. This piece of music is unlike anything else ever composed.”
Louis Chauvin couldn’t read music, but his friend Scott Joplin notated “Heliotrope Bouquet” and added the latter half. We’re only left with two other compositions that bear Louis Chauvin’s name, but at least these glimpses provide context to his legend.
Chauvin frequently warmed up by hammering double-time octaves in opposing directions using the entire keyboard. In 1904 he won player Tom Turpin’s piano contest at the Rose Bud Club, and since Joplin was known as the “King of Rag Time Writers,” Chauvin was soon taglined “King of Rag Time Players.”
“The list of contestants demonstrates that as the winner, Chauvin’s talent must have been formidable,” Berlin says. If someone hummed him a composition Chauvin could sit down and play the piece note-for-note, adding harmonies and changing the arrangement to make it his own. Even though Louis’s best known talent lay in fast runs on the keys and incredibly technical impromptu compositions, he was also known as a fantastic singer and a fluid dancer. One account claims Chauvin “had an insatiable thirst for women, opium, and alcohol.”
Louis Chauvin died in Chicago March 26, 1908. He was 27 years old, and the cause of death was complications from syphilis.
Born: November 10, 1864, in Sao Paulo, Brazil
Died: January 17, 1892, in Sao Paulo, Brazil
Brazilian composer Alexandre Levy spent most of his life in São Paulo where he pioneered a fusion of classical composition with Brazil’s popular folk music and rhythms. Levy died prematurely at 27 and Levy’s hometown grants a prestigious award in his name.
Born: January 1, 1918 in New York City
After a childhood spent in Germany, pianist Nat Jaffe became part of the NYC jazz scene. In addition to heading his own bands, Jaffe recorded with Joe Marsala, Louis Armstrong (1938), Jack Teagarden (1939-40), Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan (1945).
Died: August 5, 1945, in New York City
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