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27 Club Members: 20 Musicians Who Died Far Too Young
List & Guides

27 Club Members: 20 Musicians Who Died Far Too Young

Reluctant members of the “27 Club”, these artists all died tragically young, leaving behind the “what if?” of unfulfilled potential.


It’s a tragic fact that enough musicians have died at the young age of 27 for them to be known, collectively, as members of the “27 Club” or “Forever 27”. Whether through misadventure, foul play or the hard-living lifestyle that some artists embrace, their deaths have left huge gaps not just in the lives of their fans, but in the lives of the loved-ones they left behind. Some of the causes of death remain unresolved, but all of them have left a bigger question behind: the “what if?” of unfulfilled potential – of losing a tragically young artist while they’re still in their prime.

Who is in the 27 Club?

Reluctant “members” of a unique group, the 27 Club includes everyone from blues pioneers to countercultural 60s icons, blossoming hip-hop stars and remarkable singers who, despite their short time on this earth, became hailed as voices for their respective generations.

This chronological – though not exhaustive – look at 20 members of the 27 Club spans a century of music-making, reminding us of the much-loved artists we’ve lost, and the sheer talent it takes to create lasting, world-changing music.

Robert Johnson (1911-1938)

All blues myths lead back to Robert Johnson, the man who allegedly sold his soul to The Devil at a crossroads, in return for the ability to play guitar like no other musician before him. Pioneering the Delta blues, Johnson left behind 41 recordings that went on to influence every generation of blues musician since, from Eric Clapton to Jimi Hendrix and Jack White. The Devil called in the debt in 1938 – but no one knows quite how. Theories ranging from the onset of Marfan syndrome to contracting syphilis or murder by poison fuel the mythology behind one of the earliest entrants to the 27 Club.

Cause of death: Unknown  
Must hear: Crossroad Blues

Brian Jones (1942-1969)

A committed blues acolyte, multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones worshipped at the feet of the original bluesmen like Robert Johnson. After forming The Rolling Stones, he added an array of instrumentation to their patented blues style, and the group covered Johnson’s Love In Vain on Let It Bleed, Jones’ final album with the band. In an eerie symmetry with his blues idol, Jones’ death is also shrouded in mystery. Drowning “by misadventure” in his own swimming pool, rumours of more sinister foul play have since left a question mark over the official verdict.

Cause of death: Drowning

Must hear: Paint It, Black

Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970)

If Robert Johnson sold his soul to The Devil, Jimi Hendrix cane on like an alien lifeform. Revolutionising the very notion of what the electric guitar could do, Hendrix’s psychedelicised blues still sounds light years ahead of anything else. No less of a sonic inventor in the studio, with his final studio album, Electric Ladyland, Hendrix came closer than anyone else to approximating an acid trip with sound. Two years after its release, he was found unresponsive in bed, having ingested barbiturates before falling asleep and aspirating on his own vomit.

Cause of death: Asphyxiation

Must hear: Voodoo Child (Slight Return)

Janis Joplin (1943-1970)

Experimentation with mind-expanding substances was actively encouraged in the 60s, but for so many 27 Club members synonymous with the decade, those same narcotics also led to their downfall – particularly when it came to those hard-living adherents of the blues. With a voice could destroy anything in its path, Janis Joplin was one of the hardest-living; pouring her pain into every emotion-drenched performance – on record and on stage – the outlet wasn’t enough to stop her from seeking further release in psychedelics, alcohol and heroin, of which the latter two contributed to her death in a hotel room.

Cause of death: Drug overdose

Must hear: Ball And Chain

Jim Morrison (1943-1971)

Inspired by the consciousness-expanding poetry of Arthur Rimbaud and the brain-rewiring of a good acid trip, the self-professed Lizard King’s lysergics-laced lyrics explored the dark underbelly of the 60s. Goading authorities and bringing a sense of danger and theatrics to his frontman’s role in The Doors, Morrison pushed the envelope for rock frontmen of his era. The legend overtook the life in Paris, where a burned-out Morrison, seeking solitude and recuperation away from Los Angeles, was found dead in a bathtub.

Cause of death: Heart failure

Must hear: The End

Ron “Pigpen” McKernan (1945-1973)

Seemingly in a state of permanent disarray, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan was allegedly nicknamed after the Peanuts character of the same name, who always appeared surrounded by a cloud of dust. Co-founder and original frontman of Grateful Dead, the blues-loving organist found himself at odds with the band’s increasing psychedelic leanings – both in terms of their music and choice of intoxicants. The hard booze he favoured took a toll on his health, which was exacerbated by the onset of primary biliary cholangitis, a rare autoimmune disease. After being hospitalised in 1971, McKernan was advised to stop touring. Holding out as long as he could, he quit the Dead in June 1972 and was found dead at home the following March.

Cause of death: Gastrointestinal haemorrhage

Must hear: That’s It For The Other One

Dave Alexander (1947-1975)

High-school dropout Dave Alexander was already hanging with sibling musicians Ron (guitar) and Scott (drums) Asheton when they fell in with Iggy Pop. Forming The Stooges in 1967, the group blitzed audiences with their confrontational live shows, essentially inventing punk a decade ahead of schedule. Even against Pop’s legendarily excess-fuelled antics, however, Alexander was a force of his own; he was sacked from the band in 1970, after getting too drunk to play their slot at Michigan’s Goose Lake International Music Festival. Five years later, having developed pancreatitis related to alcoholism, he was admitted to hospital, where he died of pulmonary edema – the accumulation of fluid in the lungs.

Cause of death: Pulmonary edema

Must hear: Dirt

Peter Ham (1947-1975)

Thanks in no small part to the Paul McCartney-penned hit Come And Get It, Badfinger had already made a name for themselves a late-60s power-poppers when they moved from The Beatles’ ailing Apple Records imprint to Warner Bros. Having penned earlier hits such as No Matter What and Day After Day, and co-written Nilsson’s chart-topping Without You, lead singer Peter Ham’s full potential was left unrealised when he hanged himself after the group’s manager absconded with their money, making him the rare 27 Club member that purposely died by his own hand.

Cause of death: Suicide

Must hear: I Miss You

Chris Bell (1951-1978)

After forming power-pop legends Big Star with Alex Chilton in Memphis, the failure of the group’s optimistically titled debut album, #1 Record, led a depressed Bell to seek success as a solo artist. Despite working with local bands and recording a slew of his own material, it took until 1978 for Bell to release his debut single, I Am The Cosmos/You And Your Sister. In December that year, following a late-night band rehearsal, Bell died on impact when his car span out of control and hit a lamppost. It took another decade and a half before his solo recordings emerged as the posthumous album I Am The Cosmos.

Cause of death: Car crash

Must hear: I Am The Cosmos

D Boon (1958-1985)

Singer and guitarist with California hardcore trio Minutemen, Dennis “D” Boon’s lean playing style was about as no-frills as it got – even in punk’s DIY world. The group’s angular Gang Of Four- and Wire-influenced music fuelled a frenetic discography that swiftly grew to four albums and six EPs before the band split following Boon’s death. He’d been suffering from a fever and lying in the back of a traveling van when the vehicle’s rear axle broke; thrown from the back door, his broke his neck on impact and died immediately.

Cause of death: Traffic accident

Must hear: Corona

Kurt Cobain (1967-1994)

A viscerally honest songwriter, the fact that Kurt Cobain struggled with demons was evident from his lyrics. Seemingly channelling an entire generation’s pre-millennial anxieties, the Nirvana frontman’s raw, confessional songwriting charted his own insecurities and conflicted feelings about being thrust into the limelight with grunge’s most successful band. A heroin addiction helped obliterate some of the pain, but using a shotgun to take his own life left countless others struggling to reconcile theirs – not least wife Courtney Love and daughter Francis Bean Cobain.

Cause of death: Suicide

Must hear: Smells Like Teen Spirit

Kristen Pfaff (1967-1994)

A little over a month after losing her husband to suicide, Courtney Love lost another 27 Club member, former Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff, to heroin. Seattle may have been the centre of rock music in the 90s, but it was also known for the scene’s heavy heroin use. As bass player for the Minneapolis group Janitor Joe, Pfaff brought some of the music world’s focus back to the Twin Cities, but fell into addiction after moving to Seattle and joining Hole for a brief spell. Reuniting with Janitor Joe she planned to return home, but was found dead of a heroin overdose before being able to turn her life around.

Cause of death: Drug overdose

Must hear: Limited Edition

Richey Edwards (1967-1995)

As Manic Street Preachers’ original lyricist, Richey Edwards dealt fearlessly with his own afflictions in song, allowing fans who suffered from similar issues to feel as though they weren’t alone (he infamously carved “4 REAL” into his arm after Radio 1 DJ Steve Lamacq asked how serious he was about his music). Another mysterious 27 Club death, Edwards went missing in 1995; though his body was never found, he is believed to have drowned himself in the River Severn. He was officially pronounced dead on 23 November 2008

Cause of death: Disappeared

Must hear: 4st 7lb

Fat Pat (1970-1998)

Screwed Up Click coalesced around DJ Screw, the Houston-based innovator behind the “chopped and screwed” sound that would gain a greater hold on Southern hip-hop in the years after his own death, in 2000. Screwed Up Click rapper Fat Pat was murdered outside a promoter’s apartment. His killer was never identified.

Cause of death: Murdered

Must hear: Tops Drop

Freaky Tah (1971-1999)

Lost Boyz gained recognition after contributing the song Renee to the soundtrack of the 1996 spoof movie Don’t Be A Menace To South Central While Drinking Your Juice In The Hood. A collaboration with Redman (Beasts From The East) and appearance on the America Is Dying Slowly charity album further raised the group’s profile, but their progress was cut short after Freaky Tah was shot to death in a case of mistaken identity while leaving the birthday party of bandmate Mr Cheeks.

Cause of death: Murdered

Must hear: Renee

Bryan Ottoson (1978-2005)

Defecting from Black Flood Diesel to join industrial metallers American Head Charge for their third album, 2005’s The Feeding, Bryan Ottoson seemed set to help the group follow a new course. While on the road in April that year, however, he died in his sleep on the band’s tour bus.

Cause of death: Presumed accidental drug overdose

Must hear: Just So You Know

Amy Winehouse (1983-2011)

As adept singing soul and blues as she was jazz and pop music, Amy Winehouse quickly became one of the greatest voices of her generation. While she poured her life into her songs, she also struggled in the glare of the spotlight, increasingly turning to alcohol and drugs to ease the pressure she felt. Winehouse died in her apartment after drinking and listening to music until the early hours of the morning. Her blood alcohol levels were five time the legal limit.

Cause of death: Alcohol poisoning

Must hear: Back To Black

Richard Turner (1984-2011)

2011 should have been a time of celebration for Richard Turner. A versatile musician as comfortable playing Friendly Fires’ disco-pop as he was fronting his own London-based jazz quartet, Round Trip, his breakthrough tour with the former was beset with problems relating to singer Ed Macfarlane’s “ongoing illness”. The serious tragedy came in the summer, however, when Turner suffered a ruptured aortic aneurysm while swimming.

Cause of death: Cardiac arrest

Fredo Santana (1990-2018)

Intimidatingly prolific in his early years – the Chicago-born rapper released three mixtapes and a full-length album, Trappin’ Ain’t Dead, in 2013 alone – Fredo Santana also counted Drake and Kendrick Lamar among his fans (he appeared in he video for Drake’s Hold On, We’re Going Home and snagged Kendrick for a guest spot on the Trappin’ Ain’t Dead cut Jealous). The latest entry to the 27 Club, Santana’s heavy use of Xanax and the homemade drug-drink cocktail lean exacerbated both a known epileptic condition and an undiagnosed cardiovascular disease, the latter of which killed him in January 2018.

Cause of death: Cardiovascular disease

Must hear: Jealous

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