Choosing the 13 unluckiest musicians, in honor of Friday the 13th, is an unlucky proposition. (How ironic.) You could make the case for hundreds of unknown folks who nearly got a recording contract or who released an album and watched their label doom its promotion. Every musician who died at the age of 27 is considered unlucky, and I tried to limit the damage from that as much as I reasonably could.
I liked the gentleman who suggested to me that the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson was unlucky because he’s spent his life dealing with Mike Love. It’s a good point.
Let’s get started.
Leonard Cohen, who passed away last year at age 82, was nearing 70 when his daughter suggested that his longtime friend and business manager might not be acting in good faith. Cohen began looking through statements and discovered that for nearly a decade his friend had been selling off his music publishing rights. What should have been a well-earned $5 million nest egg and growing was drawn down to a paltry $150,000. Cohen was forced back onto the road and back to writing and recording songs. This was a gift to his fans, but he lost a close friend, had his trust violated, and had little choice in the matter. However, being Leonard Cohen, he took a Zen-like approach to it all and embraced his late-career renaissance.
Dik Evans played guitar for a band called the Hype. But making it big in music is so unlikely that he went back to college. Music could wait. Sure enough, he eventually ended up in a band called the Virgin Prunes that didn’t make it big. Dik’s brother Dave (aka “The Edge”), however, being the more reckless one, continued with the singer from the Hype, someone they called by the silly name of Bono, and one night after the Hype played its final set together, Dave’s new band debuted during the second set as U2. U2 went on to surpass the Hype — and the Virgin Prunes — in terms of popularity everywhere.
Jimmy Page once asked Terry Reid to be the singer for his “New Yardbirds” project. Reid, thinking his solo career was about to take off, declined and suggested Robert Plant, and the combination became Led Zeppelin. Reid was also approached by the folks in Deep Purple, who needed a new lead singer after Rod Evans left the group. Again, Reid declined, and Ian Gillan joined just in time to become a “Highway Star” and do some “Space Truckin’” alongside the “Smoke on the Water.” Reid did make the first-rate solo album
River and several other fine recordings, but he never became the iconic hard rock singer that would’ve landed him in the record books.
With Creedence Clearwater Revival, John Fogerty had nine top 10 singles on the U.S. pop charts, including five that went to No. 2. He never had a No. 1 single in the U.S. Far more troubling, Fogerty, too young and naive to fully understand the implications of what he was doing, he signed away the rights to his own songs to his record label, which led to a substantial loss of income. However, even this pales by comparison to the bitterness that has seemingly ruled many of his decisions ever since. For years, he refused to play any of his Creedence hits and refused to perform with his former band mates at CCR’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, denying them their moment in the spotlight while Fogerty played with an all-star band.
“The House of the Rising Sun” is a traditional folk song, author unknown, that’s been covered by countless musicians over the years, including Clarence “Tom” Ashley, Gwen Foster, Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Dave Van Ronk, Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, and Frijid Pink. The Animals’ version was recorded in one take in 1964. Their organist Alan Price was given the “arranging credit” because there wasn’t room on the label to list all five band members. The “A” in Alan’s name put him first alphabetically. This, however, meant that only Price received songwriting royalties for the million-selling single. The remaining members missed out on sizable royalty checks. The British must be more civilized than the rest of us. I’m reasonably certain that had this occurred in a band I was in, Price would’ve been beaten to a bloody pulp unless he agreed to share alike.
Self-destruction gets less sympathy because, well, it’s self-destruction. However, it’s still an illness — otherwise intelligent people would never choose to throw their lives away on booze and psychoactive drugs just for kicks. The genetic predisposition towards addiction is magnified further when people who suffer from it are in positions where people hand them anything they desire and/or they have unlimited means to acquire it. Obviously, this list could be a list all to itself. I’ve chosen Amy Winehouse because she is a recent example of an ongoing issue that’s been taking lives for centuries. (Scott Weiland could have also taken this spot.) Like they say, poor people are crazy. Rich people are eccentric.
Drugs are a helluva drug. It’s impossible to determine whether these gentlemen would’ve succumbed to mental illness had they avoided using mind-altering substances. However, it’s highly likely that bad acid exacerbated their mental slide. Only Roky recorded interesting music after 1971 (though Spence did perform with Moby Grape in the late ’70s). You’d be doing yourself a serious favor — and countering all this unluckiness — by picking up copies of Spence’s
Oar, Barrett’s The Madcap Laughs, and Barrett and Erickson’s entire 13th Floor Elevators catalog and the 2005 anthology I Have Always Been Here Before.
An influential metal guitarist who was a founding member of Pantera and Damageplan, Dimebag Darrell was shot and killed while performing with the latter group in Columbus, Ohio on Dec. 8, 2004. The killer fired 15 shots in total, three hitting Darrell and the remaining killing three other people — the band’s head of security, a club employee, and an audience member who attempted CPR on Darrell — while wounding seven others. Mick Jagger may have sung about being killed onstage, but Dimebag Darrell suffered the awful fate.
Brian Jones had the most perfect hair of the ’60s. He was once the leader of the Rolling Stones, but as time went by he found himself squeezed out of his own band, as Mick Jagger and Keith Richards became the Stones’ songwriters and central powers. Once Keith had stolen Brian’s girlfriend, Anita Pallenberg, it was only a matter of time before he would leave the group. His suspicious death in his swimming pool just weeks later made for decades of rumor and speculation.
The Beatles went on to become a rather popular ’60s pop group. But in the years before they had their recording contract in hand, they played their gigs in Liverpool, England and in Hamburg, Germany, with Pete Best as their drummer. Many sources say Best was arguably the most popular Beatle in those days. His good looks brought in many young ladies who were less enamored by the band’s acerbic leader, John Lennon. Beatles producer George Martin, however, didn’t care for Best’s playing, and the fellas grabbed Ringo Starr to take his place. Even then, Martin was hesitant and had session drummer Andy White play most takes of the band’s first single “Love Me Do.” Ringo’s take ended up on the first album and Martin said Ringo never quite forgave him. But imagine how Mr. Best felt about Ringo and the late Sir George Martin!
It’s impossible to list every credible musician who lost his or her life to the ravages of AIDS. However, these unlucky seven represent a cross-section of performers who were lost far too early.
The loss of Ronnie Van Zant forever changed the fortunes of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Van Zant was a complicated man at the height of his songwriting abilities when he, along with Steve and Cassie Gaines, died in a plane crash. The band’s chartered plane ran out of fuel and fell from the sky. The other band members were seriously injured. Survivor Allen Collins was later in a car accident in 1986 that left him paralyzed from the waist down. He died in 1990.
Remember songs like “Come and Get It,” “No Matter What,” “Day After Day,” and “Baby Blue,” the song that came at the end of
Breaking Bad? Those were all hits for Badfinger, who in 1974 released an album called Wish You Were Here that was pulled off the market seven weeks after its release, because their manager was fighting with their record label. These arguments made it impossible for the group to release their next album. Three days before his 28th birthday, Pete Ham, co-author of Harry Nilsson’s hit “Without You,” committed suicide, partly in frustration with their business issues. Band member Tom Evans, the other co-writer of “Without You,” never quite got over Ham’s suicide and followed suit by hanging himself in 1983. Another member, Mike Gibbins, died of a brain aneurysm in 2005 at age 56.