Rock stars are beloved figures in the world of music. The sheer talent that it takes to play a guitar like Eric Clapton or play the drums like John Bonham is phenomenal. However, the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle does take a serious toll. Touring the world and playing blaring loud music and facing legions of screaming fans is a very destructive way to live your life. That’s why a lot of them turn to alcohol and drug abuse to get through the day, but that’s also why a lot of them die young. The ethos of living fast, burning bright, and dying young comes from rock ‘n’ roll stars. They spend a few years creating some of the greatest music of all time and then they overdose on heroin or commit suicide or maybe just have a heart attack – that’s the way it goes. That’s what gives us music like Led Zeppelin and Nirvana and the Sex Pistols – they suffer for their art. The rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle puts serious pressure on the human body. Simply going on tour and performing shows and hanging out backstage is enough to melt your brain, dilapidate your body, and kill you. So, in that spirit, here are the 15 greatest rock stars who died far too soon.
15. Sid Vicious
Sid Vicious is the star of the Sex Pistols, one of the most awesome and rebellious rock ‘n’ roll bands to come out of Great Britain, who was dead from a heroin overdose by the age of 21. He spent his short life wrapped up in a tumultuous relationship with the love of his life, Nancy Spungen, which was punctuated by drug abuse and domestic violence. The relationship ended with Spungen dying from a stab wound. Whether or not Vicious was responsible will never be determined, since he killed himself with a heroin overdose before the trial. Even though he was only in the music game for two brief years during the fast and chaotic rise of the Sex Pistols, the influence that Vicious had on the punk rock genre is phenomenal.
14. Chris Cornell
Chris Cornell brought about the biggest rock movement since glam rock when he pioneered the grunge movement in the 1990s. His band Soundgarden was the very first grunge band to be signed by a major record label. Cornell performed the theme song for the James Bond movie Casino Royale called “You Know My Name.” The movie marked a shift in tone for the franchise as it went darker and grittier, and enlisting the unique musical talents of Cornell was indicative of this. Cornell has sold 14.8 million albums, 8.8 million digital songs, and 300 million on-demand audio streams in America alone, with more than 30 million records sold worldwide. After suffering from depression and substance abuse issues for years, Cornell was found dead at the age of 52 last year. His death was ruled as a suicide, having taken place just hours after a Soundgarden concert in Detroit.
13. Brian Jones
Brian Jones founded the Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger has been the face of the Rolling Stones for fifty years now, but if things had gone differently, Jones would’ve been. Stones bassist Bill Wyman explains, “He formed the band. He chose the members. He named the band. He chose the music we played. He got us gigs…He was very influential, very important, and then slowly lost it – highly intelligent – and just kind of wasted it and blew it all away.” As Jones developed a drug habit and dragged the band down, they kicked him out. A few weeks later, under the influence of drugs and aged 27, Brian Jones drowned in his swimming pool and died. Bo Diddley, the keystone in transitioning blues into rock ‘n’ roll, a guy who influenced everyone from Elvis Presley and the Beatles to the Clash and, yes, the Rolling Stones, described Jones as “a little dude that was trying to pull the group ahead. I saw him as the leader. He didn’t take no mess. He was a fantastic cat; he handled the group beautifully.”
12. Janis Joplin
One of the coolest chicks in rock ‘n’ roll, Janis Joplin blazed a trail with songs like “Cry Baby,” “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Ball ‘n’ Chain,” “Piece of My Heart,” “Mercedes Benz,” “Down on Me,” and “Summertime.” She became legendary for her charismatic charm as a performer. She played Woodstock and her final, posthumous album, Pearl, reached number one on the Billboard charts. With an “electric” stage presence, a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and RIAA certifications of 15.5 million albums sold in the United States, Joplin remains a truly brilliant musical legend. She died at the age of just 27 – as so many other musicians before and after her have – but as with all the others, her legacy lives on.
11. Keith Moon
In This is Spinal Tap, there’s a running gag that the band’s drummers keep dropping like flies. It’s grounded in real life, where many great bands have lost talented drummers – John Bonham, Eric Carr, Tommy Ramone, Cozy Powell, and Keith Moon of The Who. A readers’ poll by Rolling Stone magazine found that Moon is considered to be the second greatest drummer of all time. As a debauched alcoholic, the drummer earned himself the nickname “Moon the Loon,” and this reputation would eventually lead to his downfall. Ironically, he was killed by an overdose of Heminevrin, a drug intended to treat or prevent symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. He was going clear and it killed him. He burned bright and died young. Classic rock ‘n’ roll. He died aged 32, but his legacy lives on.
10. John Bonham
In Step Brothers, when Brennan Huff (Will Ferrell) rubs his testicles on a drum kit, he yells out, “John Bonham playing ‘Moby Dick’ for real!” This is a reference to Bonham’s insane drum solo in the middle of Led Zeppelin’s classic track “Moby Dick.” Bonham sure could play the hell out of a set of drums. He was ranked number one on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 Greatest Drummers of All Time. The thing about Bonham is, anyone can learn to play the drums, with practice it’s not hard, but Bonham had this uncanny ability to tap into a rhythm and really feel out the groove from within. He’d go crazy with it. Unfortunately, he also went crazy with his drinking. One day, at the age of 32, he had 40 shots of vodka in 24 hours, fell asleep, and choked on his own vomit. But his influence on the Led Zeppelin sound was so great that the band decided not to continue without him: “We wish it to be known that the loss of our dear friend and the deep respect we have for his family, together with the sense of undivided harmony felt by ourselves and our manager, have led us to decide that we could not continue as we were.”
9. Elvis Presley
Widely recognized as the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley was one of the pioneers of the entire rock ‘n’ roll genre along with the likes of Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Elvis has estimated record sales of about 600 million units worldwide, making him one of the bestselling musical artists who ever lived. When he was just 36, Elvis was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. There are few musicians who have achieved as much groundbreaking material and lasting influence in such a short space of time. The guy had 18 number one hits and 38 top ten hits, and his career was even marred by a short stint in the military right in the middle. Elvis died from a heart attack at the age of just 42 back in 1977.
8. Freddie Mercury
Rami Malek from Mr. Robot is currently starring in a biopic about the great Freddie Mercury, the lead singer from Queen. His voice brought us such timeless hits as “We Will Rock You,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “We Are the Champions,” “Killer Queen,” “Don’t Stop Me Now,” “Somebody to Love,” and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” Mercury is one of the most beloved and respected singers of all time, as well as a huge influence on the LGBTQ community in the entertainment industry by being an openly gay celebrity during one of the most homophobic times in human history: the AIDS epidemic. He died at the age of 45, a day after confirming to the world that he’d contracted the disease. He’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the UK Music Hall of Fame.
7. Jim Morrison
Jim Morrison is the frontman of the psychedelic rock band the Doors, whose trippy sounds permeated throughout the counterculture movement of the 1960s. Morrison has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and ranked number 47 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. Sadly, through his twenties, he developed a chemical dependency to alcohol, which led to his untimely death at the age of 27, although given that there was no autopsy, the cause of his death remains a mystery. Anyhow, Jim Morrison was more than just a man – he’s now a legend, and he lives on through his groundbreaking body of work. He’s been given a bunch of nicknames that prove he was the king of the hippies: The Lizard King, Mr. Mojo Risin, and the King of Orgasmic Rock.
6. Tom Petty
With more than 80 million records sold worldwide, Tom Petty is one of the highest selling musical artists of all time. When he died of cardiac arrest at the age of 66 in 2017, the grief was felt around the world. Standup comic Chris Rock tweeted to urge fans to “see your heroes perform live while you have the chance,” because he always planned to catch a Tom Petty show and now, he’s missed his chance. Now, the Peep Show quote, “You can’t be in two bands at once. Tom Petty tried that with the Heartbreakers and the Wilburys – nearly killed the fucking guy!” has a newfound melancholy to it. But it’s also a testament to Petty’s greatness. He was in the Heartbreakers and the Traveling Wilburys at the same time and it didn’t kill him – it took a lot more than that to bring him down.
5. Ronnie James Dio
Widely acknowledged to be the originator of the sign of the horns, which has become the signifier of heavy metal culture, Ronnie James Dio is a hard rock legend. He’s the star of many great bands, like Elf, Rainbow, Dio, and Heaven & Hell. He even took over Black Sabbath from Ozzy Osbourne and managed to win over even the most hardcore fans – a seemingly impossible feat. Throughout his life, he became famous for his versatile vocal range as a singer, being able to convey aggression through heavy metal and softer tones through lighter ballads. Sadly, he died in 2010 after coming down with metastasized stomach cancer. Rolling Stone magazine ran a touching eulogy: “It wasn’t just his mighty pipes that made him Ronnie James Dio – it was his moral fervor…what always stood out was Dio’s raging compassion for the lost rock & roll children in his audience. Dio never pretended to be one of the kids – he sang as an adult assuring us that we weren’t alone in our suffering, and some day we might even be proud of conquering it.”
4. Half of Lynyrd Skynyrd
In 1977, as Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane was flying over Mississippi on the way to Louisiana, it ran out fuel and crashed. There were twenty survivors, but we lost the band’s lead vocalist and founder Ronnie Van Zant, its guitarist Steve Gaines, and backup singer Cassie Gaines in the crash. The plane crash happened at the height of Skynyrd’s success as they blazed through the 1970s with hits like “Free Bird” and “Sweet Home Alabama.” The band would eventually bounce back with other members, and they’re still great, but it would never be the same again. Still, those albums and live recordings from the 1970s will be around forever, and they’ll never get old. But just think, if only that plane had been loaded with enough bloody fuel…
3. Jimi Hendrix
Easily the greatest guitarist who ever lived, topping even the likes of Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, according to Rolling Stone magazine, “pioneered the use of the instrument as an electronic sound source. Players before him had experimented with feedback and distortion, but Hendrix turned those effects and others into a controlled, fluid vocabulary every bit as personal as the blues with which he began.” He headlined the Woodstock Festival in 1969, a year before his tragic and untimely death at the age of 27, and he’s responsible for so many timeless tracks: “Purple Haze,” “The Wind Cries Mary,” “Hey Joe,” and many more. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame describes him as “arguably the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music.”
2. Kurt Cobain
The frontman of the Seattle garage band Nirvana, one of the forerunners of the grunge movement in the 1990s, is the star of the 27 Club. Under Cobain’s songwriting skills, Nirvana has sold over 25 million albums in the United States and over 75 million worldwide. In his first year of eligibility, Cobain was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He became a sort of deity following his tragic suicide 1994. Now, people go around wearing t-shirts bearing his suicide note, which ends, “I don’t have the passion anymore, and so remember, it’s better to burn out than to fade away. Peace, love, empathy. Kurt Cobain. Frances and Courtney, I’ll be at your alter. Please keep going, Courtney, for Frances. For her life, which will be so much happier without me. I LOVE YOU, I LOVE YOU!”
1. John Lennon
The influence that the Beatles had on the world of music can be heard in every single artist in the last half a century. After the band broke up, following a number of different reasons like having three songwriters producing far too much material and pulling the group in different stylistic directions (and, of course, John’s relationship with Yoko), Lennon went off on a solo career that continued to revolutionize music. He was murdered in 1980 at the age of 40 by lone gunman Mark David Chapman in Central Park, who shot him four times in the back at close range. Earlier in the day, Lennon had provided Chapman with an autograph. Chapman had planned the murder for months, having turned on his former idol Lennon after he insulted his Christian faith. A day after Lennon’s murder, Yoko Ono released a statement that said, “There is no funeral for John. John loved and prayed for the human race. Please do the same for him.”