A true giant of popular music, and the possessor of one of the finest voices ever to grace a song, Freddie Mercury, born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar, died at the age of 45 after a protracted struggle with AIDS. An openly gay man, Mercury had contracted the disease some years earlier, being diagnosed in 1987, but chose to conceal his illness from all but his nearest and dearest, including the other three members of Queen, until relatively shortly before his death. This desire for privacy has unfortunately tainted his legacy somewhat, as he arguably could have done much to promote awareness of AIDS had he announced his infection sooner – although this would likely have taken a greater toll on his health and seen him die even sooner.
Mercury left behind him an incredible range of musical accomplishments, both as singer and songwriter. In particular, he wrote 10 of the 17 songs on Queen’s Greatest Hits volume one: “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Seven Seas of Rhye”, “Killer Queen”, “Somebody to Love”, “Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy”, “We Are the Champions”, “Bicycle Race”, “Don’t Stop Me Now”, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Play the Game” – all of them still played frequently on radio to this day. He was also a consummate showman in concert, rivaled only by Bowie and Jagger in his ability to charm a crowd.
Born John Ritchie, the man best known to history as Sid Vicious is one of the names most associated with the punk rock movement of late Seventies England. He played bass for the legendary Sex Pistols (replacing their original bassist), and became one of the faces of the movement, alongside Pistols’ lead singer Johnny Rotten. (Of all the world’s most famous rock stars – and Sid would rank pretty highly – he holds the distinction of being the single least technically proficient).
But Sid had a problem: heroin addiction. He’d been on the horse since he was young – his mother was one of his major suppliers, and his relationship with Nancy Spungen was largely based on their shared addiction. In October 1978, Spungen was found dead of stab wounds in their hotel room, and Sid was briefly charged with her murder, although the charges were later dropped for lack of evidence. It remains unclear whether Nancy committed suicide or Sid killed her, but Sid’s reaction to her death is undisputed: he attempted to kill himself ten days later.
Sid’s death was due to an overdose of heroin (supplied to him by his mother), and to this day, whether his death was accidental, suicide, or even murder remains disputed.
Just one more day, and he would have been touring again. But as it happened, Elvis Presley’s lifestyle caught up with sooner than that. Over the preceding few years, he had become seriously overweight, and also addicted to drugs. By the time of his death, Presley was sick enough that he was having difficulty staying upright throughout his concerts. His friends and crew were doing their best to conceal his difficulties, but things had been slipping for some time.
Elvis was buried in Memphis, next to his mother’s grave, two days after his death – although even today, decades later, sightings of the King of Rock and Roll continue (it’s just barely plausible that a man born in 1935 might be alive today, although in Elvis’ case it would seem to be less the years than the mileage).
Ellen Naomi Cohen, better known to the world as Mama Cass, was only 32 years old when she died. Mama Cass was a member of the Mamas and the Papas, best known for their 1965 hit, “California Dreamin'”. Stardom had been good to the band, most of them living among the other musicians and artists of Los Angeles, but bad for Cass in many ways.
She had an addictive personality, and being able to afford basically any drug she wanted had led her to behave like a kid in a candy store. Cass was also known for her appetite, being considered somewhat fat (even by the more generous standards of the Sixties for most of her career). At the time of her death, she was fasting four days a week – the coroner speculated that this may have stressed her heart, leading to her fatal heart attack. No food was found in her windpipe – the story that she choked on a ham sandwich is simply an urban myth.
Morrison died on July 3, 1971, at age 27. In the official account of his death, he was found in a Paris apartment bathtub by Courson. Pursuant to French law, no autopsy was performed because the medical examiner claimed to have found no evidence of foul play. The absence of an official autopsy has left many questions regarding Morrison’s cause of death.
Many believed that Morrison had in fact faked his death, as he had occasionally talked of doing over the preceding few years, but if so, he has yet to reappear. And it’s hard to believe that a man with Morrison’s ego and drug use could have stayed anonymous for nearly 40 years now…
Widely acclaimed as the greatest guitar player of all time, Jimi Hendrix was only 27 years old when he died. He had released only 4 albums before his death, but he was already one of the iconic figures of the Sixties. He popularised the use of the Fender Stratocaster, the guitar on which he played, and he played some of the greatest live sets of all time at Woodstock and Monterey.
Although occasional allegations of murder or suicide have been made, it seems most probably that Hendrix’ death was a tragic accident. He asphyxiated on his own vomit after taking a combination of an overdose of sleeping pills (Hendrix was unfamiliar with the brand and it was stronger than he likely realised) and red wine. He died in London, but his body was returned to his native Seattle for burial.
Brian Jones was the original Rolling Stone. He coined the band’s name and recruited its members in 1960. But as their fame grew, Jagger and Richards outshone him in the media, especially as their songwriting partnership developed. In 1969, he was asked to leave the band by the other members, as his drinking and drug use were taking a toll on his abilities, and on June 9, he did so.
In the last month of his life, he kept writing songs and reached out to other musicians, including John Lennon, about forming a new band. At around midnight on the night of 2–3 July 1969, Jones was discovered motionless at the bottom of his swimming pool. The coroner’s verdict was death by misadventure, although he also noted that the condition of Jones’ organs was deteriorated due to his drug and alcohol intake. Two days later, the Rolling Stones dedicated a free concert in Hyde Park to his memory. Conspiracy theories about him being murdered swirl to this day.
The facts, as generally agreed upon, are these:
At appoximately 1AM on February 3, 1959, Holly, Valens and Richardson (‘the Big Bopper’) boarded a plane in Clear Lake, Iowa, intending to fly to their next concert, in Moorhead, Minnesota. The three, flown by pilot Roger Peterson, were killed a short time later when their plane crashed.
The major cause of the crash appears to have been a combination of poor weather conditions and pilot error. Peterson was not qualified for nighttime flights, and it also appears that he may have been given incorrect information regarding the weather conditions on that fateful night.