The Nine Most Untimely Rock 'N' Roll Deaths

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Yeah, but how do you define untimely? Like this: The artists on our list died when they clearly had their best work ahead of them.

John Lennon, Marvin Gaye, Freddie Mercury and so many others left this earth before their time, but they’d each already made a masterpiece. Also, the artists on our list didn’t die by their own hand, whether the quick way (Ian Curtis, Kurt Cobain) or a slower, more accidental path (Hendrix, Charlie Parker, etc). The musicians here were basically minding their own business when their lives were cut short.

9. Cliff Burton (1962-1986)

Metallica’s original bassist died when the band’s bus flipped in Sweden in 1986, before …And Justice For All and the Black Album cemented the band, with replacement bassist Jason Newsted, as the kings of metal. Still, Metallica remained spooked by Burton’s death for decades to come. As recently as this year, longtime guitarist Kirk Hammett confessed to Metallica still being scared of buses.

8. Aaliyah (1979-2001)

The R&B starlet, who gave us the instant-classic “Are You That Somebody,” died in a plane crash in the Bahamas after shooting the video for a song called “Rock The Boat.” Her death sent shockwaves through the hip-hop and R&B communities, even making DMX sentimental.

7. Ronnie Van Zant (1948-1977)

In some ways the quintessential premature rock ‘n’ roll death, Van Zant’s story is well-known to any half-serious music fan. A plane crash killed Lynyrd Skynyrd’s lead singer in 1977, just as punk-rock was ramping up, but the band carried on without him—and indeed kept playing as Skynyrd after subsequent sidemen passed as well, with brother Johnny Van Zant helming the vocals.

6. Jeff Buckley (1966-1997)

In one of pop music’s most heart-wrenching gone-before-their-time stories, this budding singer/songwriter drowned while swimming in the Mississippi River shortly after the release of his album Grace, which became famous for its spine-tingling cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

5. and 4. Tupac Shakur (1971-1996) and Notorious B.I.G. (1972-1997)

Instantly sainted upon their mirror-image drive-by-shooting deaths, the definitive West- and East-Coast rappers embodied all the good and the bad of hip-hop—confidence mixed with hubris, warmth mixed with callousness, humor mixed with violence, smarts mixed with senselessness. They were talented, iconic, troubled men whose deaths caused an outpouring of grief that still hasn’t ended, and may never, because their passings are the very definition of squandered potential.

3. Otis Redding (1941-1967)

He wasn’t smooth like Sam. He wasn’t a visionary like Marvin. He wasn’t a genius like Ray. But the Georgia soulman could straight-up belt. He was the most rock ‘n’ roll of the rhythm-and-blues greats, tackling “Respect” and “Satisfaction” with equal gusto. The man was committed to turning every damned song into something funky. (As evidenced in the video below, Otis Redding could even shift a weepy ballad into a house-wrecker. And he once made a killer Coca-Cola ad.) He died in a plane crash at just 26 years old, never living to see his most enduring song, ”(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” become a #1 hit.

2. Sam Cooke (1931-1964)

He truly had it all: the looks, the voice, the business acumen. He could sing sacred and secular with equal swing. He was political and pop, silly and serious and, as Peter Guralnick’s exhaustive biography argues, he was poised for even greater glory. And then, at a shady Los Angeles motel, he was gunned down under suspicious circumstances. Like Redding, he died before he could see his own magnum opus, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” grow into an American landmark.

1. Buddy Holly (1936-1959)

As everyone who’s ever heard Don McLean’s “”American Pie (in other words, everyone who’s ever clicked on this website) knows, Buddy Holly died in yet another of pop music’s infamous plane crashes, this time alongside Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper, in the Day The Music Died. The startling thing about the video below is the almost off-handed comment about Holly’s age: He was only 22. As much as anyone not named Elvis, Chuck Berry or Little Richard, he invented rock ‘n’ roll—and he did it while still a kid.

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