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10 Lesser-Known Rock Stars Who Died Way Too Soon
Rock music has always been about having a good time. Ever since the end of World War II, conservative pockets in America have given way to youth culture, pop culture, and the world of rock ‘n’ roll. From acts like Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley to the Beatles and a plethora of 1970s counterculture stars, rock music has always been about living the exciting life. There’s no room for squares in that world!
Sadly, far too often, the brash music biz also seems to have been about dying young. Hard partying, hard drugs, and no shortage of alcohol have been parts of the popular music scene in America for decades. It has all brought about quite a bit of fun for the lucky few musicians who reach the top of the charts. The parties have always been the stuff of legend. But there’s always a hangover after—and it quickly becomes a dangerous downside for far too many artists.
This list is all about ten lesser-known rock musicians who died way before their time. We’ve all heard the stories of legends like Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin. But these ten tidbits tell the tales of some other rock icons who aren’t as commonly cited. Some of them passed in grisly ways. Others met more mundane fates. But they all moved on from this world far too soon. In these ten cases, the party-centric “live fast and die young” motto of many rock musicians down through the years became a chilling foretelling of what fate would have in store.
10 Eddie Cochran
Longtime rock ‘n’ roll fans know all too well about “The Day the Music Died.” That happened on February 3, 1959, when Buddy Holly, “The Big Bopper” JP Richardson, and Ritchie Valens were killed in a plane crash while on tour in the Midwest. For many young rock fans, that accident marked the first awful music tragedy of their lives—and the first of many, many more to come.
But those three rock legends aren’t the reason we’re mentioning the plane crash now. Instead, it’s to talk about another rock music star who grew up in the shadow of those three. Eddie Cochran also died prematurely, just a little more than a year later.
Along with Holly and the others, Cochran was part of the very first set of rock ‘n’ roll sensations. He released classics in the 1950s, including “Summertime Blues” and “Twenty Flight Rock,” which were loved by a fast-growing teenage fan base. He crossed over into acting too.
By the late 1950s, he’d appeared in films like Go, Johnny, Go and The Girl Can’t Help It. His star was shining brighter every year. As Cochran’s popularity steadily increased, it seemed as though he would break through and become the next big rock superstar.
Then, the 1959 plane crash happened. Eddie was emotionally destroyed by the deaths of Holly, Richardson, and Valens. Those closest to him looked on to see Cochran become darkly obsessed with his own death. After the plane crash, he thought his demise was sure to come right around the corner. Sadly, he was right.
In April 1960, Cochran was touring the United Kingdom with fellow rocker Gene Vincent. The pair played a Saturday night gig and then hopped into a car to go to their next show. While driving on a rural backroad, the car lost control and skidded off the road. Cochran was severely injured in the accident. First responders came as quickly as they could, but it was all for naught. The 21-year-old up-and-coming rock star died in a local hospital the next day.
9 Don Rich
“Dandy” Don Rich was one of the greatest guitar players you’ve never heard of. He was an expert on the guitar, steel guitar, and fiddle, and he put those otherworldly talents to good use. Through the 1960s and 1970s, he was part of the Buckaroos—the backing band that played with Bakersfield Sound legend Buck Owens.
However, Don was a frontman at times, too, and released a few of his own singles to rapt reactions from country music fans. But it was his innocent, almost childlike aura on stage that really captivated listeners. He clearly loved what he was doing, and he loved being part of Owens’s outlaw music show.
Sadly, it all ended for Don one day in July 1974. He had been recording new music with Owens in their Bakersfield studio that week. When they got to a stopping point, Don hopped on his motorcycle and headed north. He was rushing to California’s central coast to join up with his family for a beach vacation. Sadly, he never made it.
On the night of July 17, 1974, something happened while Rich was driving on Highway 1 in the coastal town of Morro Bay. His bike skidded out and hit a center divider. There were no skid marks at the scene, and investigators found no evidence of a mechanical malfunction on the bike. But it didn’t matter—Rich was severely injured. First responders rushed him to the hospital, but he died in the ambulance on the way there.
Rich’s family was heartbroken at his loss, and so was his dear friend Buck Owens. The king of the Bakersfield Sound had long been pleading with Don to give up his motorcycle in favor of something safer. For years after, Owens was too grief-stricken to ever speak about his dear friend.
Then, after 25 years, Buck finally broke his silence. “He was like a brother, a son, and a best friend,” Owens said in 1999. “Something I never said before, maybe I couldn’t, but I think my music life ended when he died. Oh yeah, I carried on, and I existed, but the real joy and love, the real lightning and thunder, is gone forever.”
8 Richard Manuel
If America was to have its own version of The Beatles, many rock insiders and fellow musicians pointed to one group: The Band. With lead guitarist Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko playing bass, Levon Helm on drums, and multi-talented instrumental whiz and soulful singer Richard Manuel up front, The Band had a unique but marketable sound combined with some of the deepest and broadest technical music knowledge in all of rock ‘n’ roll.
They were a force through the 1970s, wowing fans and also leaving other musicians in awe. But there was trouble on the horizon. It all began in 1977 when the group abruptly split up. For a while, they all went their separate ways, and fans believed the heyday of The Band was long gone.
Then, in 1983, a resurgence: the group reformed that year. They were without their former leader in Robertson, so the sound was somewhat different. But their production caught on quickly, and fans followed in droves. For a few years, it appeared like this new lineup was going to succeed. Then, in 1986, tragedy struck. The trio had performed a show in Winter Park, Florida, on the night of March 3.
Hours after that, at some point in the early morning of March 4, Manuel died by suicide in the central Florida town. He had struggled for years with drug and alcohol addiction. He was also depressed over the death earlier that year of his longtime business manager and music mentor Albert Grossman. Sadly, Manuel wouldn’t be the last to die early while mourning that mogul.
Manuel was 42 years old when he passed—certainly no young up-and-comer like Eddie Cochran. But his musical output was both popular and critically acclaimed. And the fact that The Band had waded through the mess of a breakup and reunited gave fans hope. Sadly, in a moment during that long, fateful night, it was all snuffed out.
Then, as listeners and followers mourned, other musicians put pen to paper to share their grief. Many rockers penned tributes to Manuel after his tragic death, including longtime pal Eric Clapton in the song “Holy Mother.”
7 Paul Butterfield
Paul Butterfield was a teenage blues prodigy. He was touring the country with the legend Muddy Waters before he could vote, join the army, or buy a beer. Then, after developing his sound with the help of icons like Waters and others, Butterfield struck out on his own. He started the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and today is credited with helping popularize the unique genre with middle-class and upper-class white audiences.
Butterfield lived in Chicago for years and was constantly surrounded by other blues legends. He routinely played with artists like Waters, Little Walter, and Willie Dixon. And he always kept good company on the road; the two rhythm musicians hired onto the Paul Butterfield Blues Band—Jerome Arnold and Sam Lay—were poached from Howlin’ Wolf. That’s not a bad group to be around when it comes time to make blues music, and Butterfield made the most of it.
During the mid-1960s, Butterfield also showed a progressive tilt to his music and life. He insisted on always having a racially integrated band perform with him. White concertgoers didn’t like that, and Butterfield often engaged in shouting matches with racist critics. Slowly, the era’s social situation, the pressures of touring, the nights playing on the road, and the high-profile life of being a one-of-a-kind musician started to catch up with him.
By the early 1980s, Butterfield was addicted to heroin. The drug put a financial strain on his once-powerful touring life. It also held him back physically. He wasn’t just in it for the drugs, though; he needed the mental escape. Butterfield was heartbroken over Muddy Waters’s death in 1983. And just like Richard Manuel before him, Butterfield had been mourning the loss of music manager Albert Grossman by the middle of 1986.
Unfortunately, a little over a year after Manuel’s untimely death by his own hand, the late Albert Grossman’s other charge—Butterfield—also passed. Paul died on May 4, 1987, of a heroin overdose. He was just 44 years old.
6 Duane Allman
The Allman Brothers rose to prominence in the late 1960s, but it wasn’t until they released their third album, At Fillmore East, in July of 1971 that they really hit it big. The live album blew up across America and put the band in the sights of millions of new fans. Today, that album is viewed as a masterpiece and regularly ranks on lists of the greatest albums of all time.
And if there was one person to thank for it, even among the supremely-talented band, it would be guitarist Duane Allman. The clean-picking guitar aficionado had spent much of the 1960s working as a studio musician for many high-profile artists. He recorded guitar samples and full-length tracks for Aretha Franklin, Eric Clapton, Wilson Pickett, ZZ Top, and many more.
In fact, ZZ Top’s own Billy Gibbons praised Duane for his unique ability to craft new sounds on the guitar. “Duane began doing things no one had ever done before,” Gibbons once said. “He was just a stunning and singular musician who was gone way too soon.” Sadly, the second part of Gibbons’s quote is why Allman is on this list.
On October 29, 1971—just months after the Allman Brothers struck gold with that third album—Duane died in a motorcycle accident. He had been driving on a highway in Macon, Georgia, when his bike collided with a truck. Duane was sent flying into the air before landing hard on the pavement. The motorcycle landed directly on top of him, causing significant internal injuries. He was rushed to a local hospital, but the accident was too severe. Hours later, Duane was dead. He was just three weeks shy of his 25th birthday.
5 Berry Oakley
After Duane Allman’s death, the rest of the band tried to continue on without him. They were deeply affected by his sudden passing, but after months of public and private mourning, they got back to playing music. And then, without warning, another untimely and awful death occurred. On November 11, 1972, Allman Brothers bassist Berry Oakley was riding his motorcycle through yet another part of Macon, Georgia, when he crashed into a bus.
The talented picker was also seriously injured. Like Allman almost exactly a year before him, Oakley was eventually taken to the hospital, but doctors couldn’t save him. Oakley died in the hospital hours later following a brain bleed caused by a skull fracture from the accident. Just like Duane Allman, Berry Oakley was just 24 years old when he died.
The eerie similarities between the two tragedies have fascinated rock fans for years. Oakley’s crash scene occurred just three blocks away from the one where Allman died. The crashes were almost exactly one year apart, too, with Oakley missing Allman’s macabre anniversary by less than two weeks. It is even more heartbreaking to consider that Oakley potentially could have been saved.
At the scene of the accident, he initially turned down an offer of treatment from first responders. He was conscious and alert and believed he was going to be fine with just a few bumps and bruises. But unbeknownst to Oakley, his brain was swelling from the accident. Hours later, after feeling severe pain, he was rushed to the emergency room. Sadly, it was too late. Now, Berry Oakley and Duane Allman are buried next to each other for eternity in Macon’s Rose Hill Cemetery.
4 Cass Elliot
The undisputed leader of the popular folk group The Mamas and the Papas was “Mama” Cass Elliot. She was a household name for her beautiful, sweet, and poignant songs—and for her weight. Cass struggled with her weight for pretty much all of her life. Even before she was famous, it nearly interrupted her road to stardom when bandmate John Phillips balked at putting Cass in the band because of it.
Eventually, bandmate Dennis Doherty helped convince Phillips that Cass’s musical talents were too great to ignore. She helped the band rocket to superstardom throughout the socially tumultuous 1960s. Then, after the group’s run ended, Cass transitioned to a steady solo musical career along with appearances on television. Sadly, on July 29, 1974, she passed away suddenly at a flat in the Mayfair district of London. She was only 32 years old.
And that’s where things get tricky. Cass’s death was untimely by any standard. Even with weight fluctuations throughout her life, 32 is far too young to die. It eventually came out that she had a heart attack inside the apartment and succumbed quickly. But that’s not what the public was told at first. And for a long time, rumors persisted about a completely different cause of death: a ham sandwich.
As the phony rumor went, Mama Cass supposedly died because she choked on a ham sandwich. It wasn’t true, but that didn’t matter. Major publications, including Time Magazine, ran with the story for a bit. The choking claim was debunked in short order, but by then, it was too late.
Mama Cass’s weight issues were once again at the forefront in her death—just as they had been in her life. But fake news and unfair reputations aside, no one can debate that her passing was certainly far too premature.
3 Keith Moon
There’s no question that Keith Moon was one of the greatest drummers to ever live. The driving force and the percussion section for The Who, Moon existed on another plane as an iconic rock star throughout his all-too-short life. He was an incredible performer with a knack for putting on a memorable show every single night out. And he was also the man on whom most later rockstar stereotypes would come to be based.
Smashing guitars, destroying hotel rooms, going home every night with a new woman, insane and lavish money moves, and, yes, a significant dependence on alcohol and drugs. Moon did it all in his crazy music-filled life. The problem was that he did quite a bit more, too. Regrettably, it ended up killing him long before his time should have come.
In a way, the troubles started all the way back in 1970. On a January day, Moon and his entourage were at an English pub when a group of skinheads mobbed the place. They started harassing Moon and his friends, so the drummer made a move to leave. As the skinheads became more violent, Moon rushed to jump behind the wheel of the car his pals had brought to the bar.
Unfortunately, Moon’s longtime friend and chauffeur hadn’t made it into the car yet. As Moon hit the accelerator, he ran the man over, killing him. Moon was devastated by the loss of his dear friend. He copped to the incident and later pled guilty to three charges, including drunk driving.
A judge took into account the circumstances of the pub brawl and cleared Moon of any criminal penalties. But the awful incident and sudden loss of a beloved and trusted friend affected the drummer for the rest of his life.
Over the next eight years, close friends saw Moon slowly start withdrawing into himself. They later reported him as being shell-shocked and deeply saddened over the 1970 tragedy. He turned ever more to alcohol and drugs to cope. Then, on September 7, 1978, the end came. Moon was in a London flat when he took a dose of the sedative Heminevrin. Whether or not he knew it was too much to take is uncertain.
Sadly, Moon lost consciousness with the effects of the drug and passed away. Friends later found him and called paramedics, who pronounced him dead. He was just 32 years old—the same age “Mama” Cass Elliot had been when she died in London four years before. And there’s a creepy footnote to that connection: Moon passed away in the very same room where Cass had died in 1974.
2 Kristy MacColl
Kristy MacColl may not be a name that’s known very well in the United States. During the 1980s and 1990s, she had plenty of hits in her native United Kingdom, but few crossed over the pond to America. It didn’t matter much, as she was a veritable superstar back home. And it wasn’t just fans who loved her; other musicians did too.
Famed U2 leader Bono called Kristy “the Noel Coward of her generation,” and Johnny Marr of the Smiths claimed she possessed “the harmonic invention of the Beach Boys.” That’s high praise coming from some very high places. So even though many Americans may not have heard her music—and many others haven’t heard of her at all—MacColl’s musical chops in the United Kingdom were second to none during her run in the biz.
But MacColl’s life was to be cut far too short—and by something completely outside of her own doing. On December 18, 2000, the singer was on vacation in Cozumel, Mexico, with her family. She was swimming with her two sons in a patch of open water that was supposed to be off-limits to boaters.
However, a speedboat entered the area and drove right toward Kristy and her kids. She rushed to push one of her sons outside the path of the oncoming boat. But in the process, she was struck. Kristy died instantly from massive injuries related to the accident. She was just 41 years old.
Her death kicked off a massive investigation by Mexican authorities. A rich local businessman named Carlos Gonzalez Nova owned the boat. He had also been on the boat when it illegally entered the water and crashed into Kristy. However, he put up a powerless deckhand as the supposed driver of the boat at the time. That man was eventually charged with culpable homicide and convicted.
Not surprisingly, the deckhand’s family is adamant that he wasn’t driving on that day, and Kristy’s family agrees. For years after the singer’s death until her own passing in 2017, Jean MacColl maintained that the Mexican government rushed through the accident investigation and then covered up the real culprit.
1 Keith Relf
The Yardbirds’ lineup ended up being one of the most talented collections of musicians ever put together. Think about it: the band featured young versions of Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page. All three of them would go on to star in future projects that were otherworldly. Of course, the Yardbirds weren’t so bad, either. But they were still up-and-coming at the time and not as famous as they would come to be.
But there was a fourth Yardbird in the mix with those three legends too. Keith Relf was the guy, and he was actually the leader of them all. He played guitar and harmonica while performing lead vocals for the group. His name isn’t remembered as well now like the others. But that’s because his life and music career were cut drastically short in a horrible incident at his home.
After a promising blues-rock run through the 1960s, the Yardbirds disbanded in 1968. From there, Clapton, Beck, and Page were off to solo successes and other group projects. (Ever heard of Led Zeppelin?) But for Relf, music stalled out a bit following the band’s demise. He played with several various bands over the next half-decade and released more music, but nothing came close to what he’d accomplished with the Yardbirds.
Then, after eight years away from the group, it all came to an end. On May 14, 1976, Keith was playing electric guitar in his basement in the London suburb of Hounslow. In a thoughtless move, Relf stepped up on a gas pipe that was exposed in the cellar. Because he was holding his ungrounded electric guitar, the pipe ran a voltage current through his body. He was killed immediately, with his body left behind for his young son to discover. Relf was only 33 years old.