Authors: Jeremy Simmonds
This book is dedicated to my daughters, Betsan and Lucy.
Cover design: Sarah Olson Front cover photo: Samir Diwan
Copyright © Jeremy Simmonds, 2006, 2008 Second edition © Jeremy Simmonds, 2012
First published by the Penguin Group, London, as
Number One in Heaven: The Heroes Who Died for Rock ’n’ Roll
This second edition first published in 2012 by
Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
814 North Franklin Street
Chicago, Illinois 60610
Printed in the United States of America
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‘Once you’re dead you’re made for life - you have to die before they think you’re worth anything’
Robert Johnson: Sold his soul but couldn’t buy it back
Through the haze of cigarette smoke and honest sweat, the whiskey didn’t so much look good as essential. Just one or two before sleep would do it for the guitar-slinger, already weary from a day’s labour, the musician now pushed to the limit by the roadhouse-owner’s demands. But though the atmosphere was tense, he was oblivious to anything that may have been afoot that night. He’d not noticed the stale, sour tinge upon the bottle’s rim – escaping the lights, the noise and the people was his only wish at this late hour. The faces of those who’d shared his performance that night were ecstatic yet strange. Then their eager voices began to waver, distort and finally become incoherent as the 27-year-old bluesman began to slump…
Thus, the night of 16 August 1938 kick-starts a timeline of death in popular music – with the strychnine-poisoning of
the Delta-blues pioneer considered by many the finest of them all. The likelihood is that his end came at the Three Forks roadhouse in Greenwood, Mississippi, belonging to his lover’s jealous husband; it is also highly probable that Johnson (born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, on 8 May 1911) had been with the woman in question that very evening – and it is beyond any doubt that the agony in which the writer of classics like ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ and ‘Come on in My Kitchen’ ended his days forty-eight hours later caused him to denounce the ‘evil blues’ and give his dying soul to Christianity.
So, with a holler to the devil himself, what better way to summon up a roll-call of the deceased? The sentiments uttered and spluttered by Johnson as he crawled back to the crossroads two nights later might equally apply to the further ungodliness that was to emerge in his wake. Upon its arrival in the fifties, rock ‘n’ roll was tagged ‘the music of the devil’ by the same God-fearing folk who dubbed the secular world of soul and R & B also inherently ‘wrong’ – particularly when its delights had tempted some of their own to wander. Similarly, folk, punk, dance music and hip hop have all incurred the wrath of the puritans at some point. All of which leads one to suspect that things might be getting a tad crowded ‘downstairs’.
But no matter where he is now, Robert Johnson’s in fine company. The above dramatization of his demise serves only to preface
The Encyclopedia of Dead Rock Stars
– the ultimate chronology of pop’s dead. What lies before you is the definitive register of those who arrived, rocked and pegged out over the past fifty or so years. Space demands that details in some cases might read like a perverse end-of-term report, highlighting where the subject performed admirably – and underlining specifically where he failed, and ultimately fell. In this school of rock, you have to be absent to attend – those who make it are those who
Who is included?
Naturally, there’ll be readers who’ll feel certain names have been unfairly brushed over (or, worse still, ignored completely), but the criteria for inclusion are simple. If an artist had a short but ‘unusual’ life, he’s in (step forward, Mr G G Allin); if he had an extraordinary demise, he’s
in (take a bow, Sam Cooke); if he made a significant contribution to his art, he’ll also get a paragraph (not you, Baltimora …).
Who isn’t included?
Well, 1938 was one hell of a long time ago and to list
demises in popular music before 1965 would (given the field’s infancy) be virtually impossible. Genres are blurred and embryonic at this point, thus this book’s apparent ban on certain musical styles is instigated for no other reason than that rock ‘n’ roll was supposedly sent to destroy them. (Until they cross over, of course.) Gospel, for example, manifests itself via such fabulous performers as the aforementioned Cooke and Mahalia Jackson – though one might have to scroll the small print pretty carefully for the lesser names. As one must also do to find those for whom detail is sketchy, those who enjoyed only the merest flirtation with musical success, or indeed those who survived beyond a completely arbitrary threshold of sixty-five years – apart from that special bunch who make up the book’s Golden Oldies. In this latest edition, readers will note that these become more plentiful as rock ‘n’ roll approaches a weary seventh decade. However,
still, of course, offers Lest We Forget to scoop up the many also-rans and sidemen at the end of each year.
Mortality can be a tricky subject, so should this unrelenting parade of the deceased cause one to pause for breath and check one’s own pulse, then relief is at hand. The expansive chronology section is broken by a smorgasbord of intriguing, lighter-hearted facts (Dead Interesting!) and lucky escapes (Close…Closer!), as well as a parade of completely subjective Top Tens (The Death Toll) featuring the most morbid tunes pop music has ever seen. So, not that much of a respite, it’s true.
But the chronicle cannot begin in earnest without first cataloguing those major names who fell during pop’s monochrome years …
This book isn’t really designed to carry exhaustive biographies of every entrant, so readers desiring such are encouraged to look elsewhere. It’s also fair to say that with thousands of dates to consider, one or two small errors may creep in – so do inform us if a mistake becomes apparent. (Similarly, any new information is also gratefully received.)
Despite Johnson’s apparent condemnation of his own lifestyle (he
painfully sick, remember), his earlier words and actions were set to inspire. Without his scratchy musings there’d be no Muddy Waters, no Hendrix, no Stones and – heaven forbid – no Gun Club. Similarly influential was Huddie Ledbetter – the Cajun-blues guitarist known as
who, in 1949, finally submitted to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a crippling condition known as Lou Gehrig’s disease (after the New York baseball star who’d died from the disease eight years previously). Ledbetter (born in Mooringsport, Louisiana, on 29 January 1889 (or 1885)) had been imprisoned regularly for violent crimes – including a thirty-year term for homicide. The abiding myth about the man is that he was pardoned from incarceration in 1925 when a recording of his musical plea for freedom found its way into the hands of the serving governor. Remarkable, if true; more likely is that standard parole terms were considerably more lenient then than they are now. Leadbelly, however, left behind a host of standards, including ‘Black Betty’, and a long-suffering wife.
But in those less-enlightened (and pre-AIDS) times, the unhealthy were picked off by a host of unlikely ailments. With little public health awareness, conditions now more associated with maturity were far more prevalent among the young. Of course, added to this was an increased availability of drugs and alcohol to the newly rich. In 1953, country music lost its finest ever exponent to a heart condition – or so it initially seemed. A defining figure of contemporary music per se,
(born Hiram King Williams in Mount Olive, Alabama, on 17 September 1923) would blueprint rock ‘n’ roll behaviour, his drinking and womanizing colouring the ‘Hillbilly Shakespeare’’s lyric-writing but also severely curtailing his relationship with the country-music establishment. He had not even reached his thirties by New Year’s Eve 1952, when the increasingly wayward and by-now out-of-favour star had been due to play a rare concert in Ohio. With bad weather cancelling all flights out of Tennessee, Williams – not wishing to miss out on one of the few opportunities still coming his way – travelled to the gig in a chauffeured Cadillac and attempted to sleep off the effects of alcohol, wrongly prescribed tablets and two shots of morphine. Stopping the singer’s young driver for speeding, a concerned police officer remarked that his passenger ‘looked dead’. On closer inspection it was discovered to be more than appearance: the man who’d declared ‘I’ll Never Get out of This World Alive’ was affirmed deceased from heart failure at 7 am on New Year’s Day 1953. Williams’s burial three days later at Montgomery, Alabama, drew the largest recorded US crowd since the inauguration of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, almost a century before.
Hank Williams: There was a tear in his beer
(born Eleanora Fagan Gough in Baltimore, Maryland, on 7 April 1915), on the other hand, combined her heart failure with cirrhosis of the liver when she entered the eternal nightclub. Holiday had had a shockingly hard life from day one, raped by a neighbour at eleven, forced into prostitution before she was out of her teens and preyed upon by countless parasites throughout her otherwise glorious career. A natural singer, Holiday oddly described her gift as ‘no more work than sitting down and eating roast duck’, though ‘cold turkey’ was more often on the Holiday menu. Her dependency upon heroin and alcohol precipitated a disturbing decline in her health that led ultimately to her death on 17 July 1959.
Four years down the line, a similar fate befell another blues/swing artist often overlooked in Holiday’s favour –
(born Ruth Lee Jones in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on 29 August 1924). Her personal life was, correspondingly, also far from a bed of roses: Washington’s rapacious drinking hardly helping matters, she recorded seven failed marriages over the years and hid an obsession with weight loss that caused her to consume dietary tablets in frightening quantities. Adding a bizarre spate of mercury injections into the mix, inevitably this combined mania finished her off, on 5 December 1963.