• Dave McGuire

Our Curiosity with the '27 Club'

The Clarksvillian

The reason people find an unusual interest in The 27 Club varies from person to person. Is it the actual entertainers as the attraction, a conspiracy or just a set of uniquely odd statistical coincidences?

What do the following entertainers have in common? Otis Redding, Gram Parsons, Nick Drake, Jimmy McCulloch, James Ramey (aka Baby Huey), Bryan Osper, and Jon Guthrie.

How about Tim Buckley, Gregory Herbert, Zenon de Fleur, Nick Babeu, Shannon Hoon, Beverly Kenney, and Bobby Bloom?

Or Alan Wilson, Jesse Belvin, Rudy Lewis, Gary Thain, Kristen Pfaff, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Pete de Freitas, Raymond “Freaky Tah” Rogers, Helmut Köllen, and Linda Jones?

They are all musicians that passed away far too young. The first group died aged 26; the second group died aged 28; and the third group died aged 27.

An interesting perspective is uncovered by reviewing data of musicians experiencing untimely deaths. The sample of data spans and catalogs only those individuals having an actual age of death verified. We will apply a select data sample range of seven decades from 1950 to 2010:

  • 1.2% (n=128) died at 26

  • 1.4% (n=153) died at 28

  • 1.3% (n=144) died at 27

The best known “27 club” was Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, who died within 2 years of 1969-1971. The group's name defines each member as being a cultural icon who died prematurely at the age of 27.

It’s an interesting discussion when the larger picture is applied to multiple age ranges. Even with that data, “The 27 Club” has grown to be defined by a specific group of members, with others being compliments to the story. Below are the names most often associated with this legendary club.

Alan Wilson

Alan Wilson helped formed a band called Canned Heat in 1965 and quickly found serious success. It didn’t take long before the group became a favorite among the growing hippie community, and they were must-haves at many major music events. Though they’re still making music today, the lineup is quite different and Canned Heat is largely remembered for their original members.

Wilson, who also went by the nickname Blind Owl, was found dead by a tree on Hite’s property in Topanga Canyon. At the time of his death, Willson was estranged from his family and openly lacked self-confidence while suffering from depression. Wilson’s death was ruled a suicide by an overdose of barbiturates. Those around him also believed it was a suicide, as Wilson unsuccessfully attempted to end his life months earlier. Considering an explanation or suicide note was not recovered, it is impossible to say whether it was an accident.

The musician’s death happened just two weeks before Hendrix’s and only one month before Joplin’s.

Amy Winehouse

One tragedy of Amy Winehouse's unfortunate end? If Winehouse had overcome her demons, there would be no bargain basement Winehouses on the airwaves - read as Adele.

The U.K.-based singer-songwriter blended jazz, pop, and soul into something completely fresh, and her album Back to Black remains one of the best releases of all time. Sadly, during her noticeably brief time in the spotlight (she only released two albums during her lifetime, and only one while she was a global figure), she was known for her troubles with addiction to both alcohol and drugs. They would both be contributing factors to her eventual demise.

Winehouse’s bodyguard tried to rouse her on the morning of July 23, 2011, but she didn’t wake up. At first, this wasn’t surprising, as it was still early, but when he tried again several hours later, she hadn’t moved, and that worried the man hired to protect her. He quickly realized she wasn’t breathing, and emergency services declared her dead a short time later. The inquest found Winehouse had 416mg of alcohol per deciliter in her blood, which was enough to make her comatose and depress her respiratory system.

Brian Jones

He rarely receives the credit he deserves, but Brian Jones is responsible for founding one of the most successful and influential rock bands of all time: the Rolling Stones. He originally led the troupe, besides playing guitar. After a while, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards became more powerful, and they are now recognized as the two best-known names in the act.

Drowned in the swimming pool of his home in Hartfield, Sussex, England. After a second arrest for marijuana possession, sporadic contributions to the Rolling Stones (which he co-formed), substance abuse and mood swings, Jones was informed by the other members of the band that a new guitarist would be added to the lineup, and that a tour of the US would go ahead without him. The last known photographs show him looking bloated, with deep-set eyes, but other witnesses state that he was “happier than he had ever been” and “excited about his own plans.” Exact circumstances of his death are unknown. The coroner’s report stated, “Death by misadventure,” and noted his liver and heart were heavily enlarged by drug and alcohol abuse.

There are other theories surrounding Jones’ death, with associates of The Rolling Stones claiming that Jones was murdered. “And still the mystery of his death hasn’t been solved,” Keith Richards has said. “I don’t know what happened, but there was some nasty business going on.”

Dave Alexander

The Stooges’ founding bassist Dave “Zander” Alexander had the reputation of being a loose cannon before the group even came together: He dropped out of high school 45 minutes into his senior year to win a bet, and he and Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton once traveled to England hoping to run into the Beatles. He also contributed several outside-the-box ideas to the group, such as the Indian-inspired “We Will Fall” on their debut and clanging “Dirt” rave-up on 1970’s Fun House. But when Alexander took too many downers before a festival appearance and couldn’t play, a few days before Fun House came out, front man Iggy Pop fired him. Alexander spent the rest of his life battling addictions and health issues, according to the book The 27, Alexander began drinking so much that he developed pancreatitis and, after going to a hospital where his lungs filled with fluid, died of pulmonary edema in February 1975. “He was the catalyst for so much of the Stooges,” Ron once said. “He was so ahead of his time.”

Janis Joplin

Joplin died in a Los Angeles motel room of a heroin overdose, possibly combined with the effects of alcohol. She had recently become engaged and was involved in recording her band’s album Pearl. The song “Mercedes Benz” on the album was the last thing she recorded. (The producer of the album was Paul A Rothchild, who had previously worked with The Doors and who would later produce the soundtracks for The Rose (loosely based on Joplin and The Doors.)

On October 4, 1970, her producer Paul Rothchild, also Jim Morrison’s producer, was concerned for Joplin when she failed to show up for a recording session. At around 1am, she got her heroin kit out and injected a vein in her left arm. Then went to the cigarette machine in the hotel lobby, returning to her room. She closed the door and collapsed, hitting her face on the table as she fell to the floor, where she was found dead the next day.

The autopsy of the singer determined that the cause of death was a heroin overdose, which had been compounded by alcohol.

Jim Morrison

Morrison was found unresponsive in a bathtub in the apartment he shared with his girlfriend Pamela Courson. His cause of death was listed as heart failure, but some fans have taken issue with the idea without an autopsy being conducted (which was consistent with French law at the time). Several people around Morrison suggested the actual cause may have been a heroin overdose from an earlier visit to the notorious Paris nightclub, The Rock n' Roll Circus. His girlfriend, Pamela Courson, also died after ODing on the drug several years later, also at 27. Morrison's cause of death was listed as heart failure.

The Doors front man’s death followed Joplin’s and Hendrix’s by less than a year. Morrison died on 3 July 1971 - two years to the day after the death of Rolling Stones guitarist, Brian Jones. The fact of Jim's girlfriend, also dying at the same age, underlined the weirdness of the 27 Club coincidences.

Jimi Hendrix

Hendrix died September 1970 in London. The musician’s girlfriend, Monika Dannemann, woke to find him breathing but unresponsive. Hendrix had taken an excessive amount of sleeping pills, and while sleeping, vomited and subsequently choked to death. A post-mortem examination declared Hendrix choked on his own vomit and died of asphyxia while intoxicated with barbiturates, a drug that acts as a central nervous system depressant.

To this day, even the biggest and best guitar players cite Hendrix as an influence and as someone they look up to. Sadly, his career in the mainstream only lasted four years, but the work he released during that time made electric guitars more popular than ever.

Kurt Cobain

Within a few years, Cobain achieved a level of celebrity because of critical acclaim and an international media status. During his lifetime, Cobain faced many issues he could not overcome, which led to his premature death. Cobain became addicted to heroin, struggled with severe depression, and suffered because of his fame and his status as a symbol of, well, anything. In March 1994, he entered a detox program after an overdose, and one month later, he was found dead in his Seattle home. His death was ruled a suicide. However, his death has been the subject of much public discussion, with many theorizing that he was murdered.

Pete Ham

After Kurt Cobain, the most notable confirmed suicide is Peter Ham of Badfinger, one band the Beatles signed to their Apple label in the 1960s. As with suicides, Ham reached a point where death seemed to solve his problems. He met bandmate Tom Evans in a pub near his home in England on the evening of April 24th, 1975, three days before his 28th birthday, and told him: "Don't worry, I know a way out." Fortified with drink, Ham went back to his home, wrote a note in which he expressed his bitterness towards his manager and hanged himself in his garage. Evans hanged himself seven years later.

Robert Johnson

Drank whiskey laced with strychnine at a country crossroads near Greenwood, Mississippi. The details are unknown, and there are several accounts and theories. Researcher Mack McCormick claims to have interviewed Johnson’s alleged poisoner in the 1970s and got an implicit admission of guilt. When Johnson was offered an open bottle of whiskey, his friend and fellow blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson knocked it out of his hand and told him he should never drink from an open bottle. Johnson allegedly said, “Don’t ever knock a bottle out of my hand.” Soon after, he was offered another open bottle and accepted it. That bottle was laced with strychnine. Johnson is reported to have felt ill throughout the evening and had to be helped back to his room in the early morning hours. Over the next three days, his condition steadily worsened, and witnesses reported he died in a convulsive state of severe pain—symptoms which are consistent with strychnine poisoning. Strychnine was readily available at the time as it was a common pesticide and, although it is very bitter-tasting and extremely toxic, a small quantity dissolved in a harsh-tasting solution such as whiskey could have gone unnoticed but still produced the symptoms and eventual death that Johnson experienced.

Ron McKernan

Ron "Pigpen" McKernan was a sensitive, somewhat unsightly character with a drinking problem. Ron "Pigpen" McKernan was a founding member of the Grateful Dead. On March 3rd, 1973, he was found dead of a gastrointestinal hemorrhage, which was complicated by alcohol abuse.

Much like Brian Jones, McKernan was one of the early leaders of the band, steering them in a more R&B direction early on. Eventually, guitarists Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir took the band in an improvisational and psychedelic direction, a style that the group became known for. This caused McKernan to take a back seat at concerts, and his role continued to diminish until he was forced to step down from the Grateful Dead because of his worsening health.

McKernan also had a brief relationship with fellow 27 Club member Janis Joplin. On a couple of occasions, the two sang together on the Dead's live standard "Turn on Your Lovelight."

Rudy Lewis

Lewis brought the newly emergent voice of "soul" to the Drifters at the very time the group was transitioning out of their R&B roots into the mainstream. The buzz around The Drifters increased to the level of NYC studios, producers and distributors scrambling to get their best numbers sent to the group for consideration. Lewis was the lead vocalist for a string of hits: "Please Stay", "Some Kind of Wonderful", "Up On The Roof" and "On Broadway". He also featured on other countless other tracks.

On May 21, 1964, when the group was due to record ”Under The Boardwalk” which had been written for Lewis, he was found dead in his Harlem hotel room. An autopsy was never performed on Lewis and cause of death was suspected to be a massive heart attack linked to a heroin overdose. Former lead vocalist Johnny Moore was brought back to perform lead vocals for the recording. The next day, the Drifters recorded” I Don't Want To Go On Without You” which was led by Charlie Thomas in tribute to Lewis


Joseph Merrick - "The Elephant Man"

Merrick reportedly died from the accidental dislocation of his neck while sleeping. The cause of his deformities is still unknown. Elephantiasis, neurofibromatosis type I and Proteus syndrome have all been suggested. In an autobiographical note, Merrick mentioned that his deformity began developing at the age of three with slight bumps appearing on the left side of his body. Because of his condition, Merrick was unemployable (in the regular sense) for most of his life. In 1884, he took a job as a sideshow performer, where he was treated decently and earned a considerable sum of money. Later, he came into the care of the physician Frederick Treves, who arranged for him to be housed at the London Hospital. Merrick became something of a celebrity in Victorian high society. Alexandra, then Princess of Wales and later Queen Consort, demonstrated a kindly interest. He eventually became a favorite of Queen Victoria. Merrick could not sleep lying down because of the weight of his head, but may have tried to do so to imitate normal behavior, leading to his death. He was portrayed on stage by David Bowie and on film by John Hurt.