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Let's face it: Musicians don't exactly have the most dangerous jobs on the planet. They're certainly not comparable to, say, lumberjacks or soldiers or those people who live on oil rigs for some reason. In fact, usually, the most dangerous day-to-day things a musician might encounter are high stages, late nights, and grouchy sound techs.
Despite their relatively non-hostile workplaces, however, the deaths of musicians are often highly publicized and deeply mourned among the wider cultural community. These deaths don't usually come from mid-gig accidents or health and safety disasters, but from problems extending beyond the stage. Drug overdoses, plane crashes, and shootings have been counted among the disasters that have taken some of the world's finest musicians away from us far, far too soon. It may not be the riskiest job out there, but there can be little doubt that there is something about musicians that seems to invite tragedy.
Biggie Smalls — that's the Notorious B.I.G. to you — was born Christopher Wallace in New York in the early '70s. He attended the George Westinghouse Career and Technical Education High School, the same establishment that gave the world DMX, Jay-Z, and Busta Rhymes. He dropped out at the age of 17. After a small stint in jail for dealing cocaine in North Carolina, Smalls released a demo tape which was picked up by The Source magazine in 1992. Before the year's end, Smalls had been signed to Sean Combs' label, Bad Boy Records. Over the course of his career, he released two critically acclaimed studio albums, worked with icons such as R. Kelly and Michael Jackson, and developed a vicious rivalry with Tupac Shakur.
In 1997, however, after leaving a party in Los Angeles, Smalls was murdered by an unidentified gunman who had pulled up beside his SUV at a red light. Smalls' death marked the end of the East Coast/West Coast feud which had enveloped the hip-hop world. To this day, the mysterious nature of his murder has inspired endless speculation and countless conspiracy theories.
Janis Joplin was a titan of psychedelic rock and one of the true icons of the 1960s. By the time of her death in 1970 she was, according to Rolling Stone, one of the world's foremost female singers and musicians. She had found fame at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, where she fronted the band Big Brother, with whom she continued down the road to stardom over the next two years thanks in part to the patronage of Bob Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman.
By 1969, she had become far more well-known than Big Brother itself and left to form the Kozmic Blues Band. Her success grew further, making repeated appearances on television and touring pretty much without end. By 1970, she was preparing to release her latest album, Pearl, which she had recorded with the Full Tilt Boogie Band. Her career and her life, however, came to a swift and tragic end. On October 4, 1970, she was found dead in her Hollywood hotel room. She was 27 years old. After a short investigation, her death was ruled as resulting from an accidental heroin overdose. Pearl, which was released posthumously, ended up going quadruple platinum through the years.
Of the various members behind N.W.A., Eazy-E brought one thing to the group the others could not: authenticity. Whereas Ice Cube went to college and Dr. Dre was once in an electro-funk band called World Class Wreckin' Cru, Eazy was the member who, according to Will.i.am, "never seemed like he was playing a role." He personified the ideal of the gangster-turned-rapper and can be counted as one of the few figures who truly set the scene for the genre of gangsta rap.
Eazy-E began Ruthless Records with money he had flipped from dealing drugs, and helped front N.W.A. as they rose to fame (and infamy) on the L.A. rap scene. Just as his contribution to N.W.A.'s image can't be understated, neither can his impact on the revolutionary ideals of black communities during the '90s. In 1995, however, at a time when he was reportedly worth $50 million, Eazy-E checked into a medical center in L.A. with what he believed to be asthma. He was instead diagnosed with AIDS and died a month later.
Marc Bolan (born Mark Feld) began his career playing skiffle music that was inspired by Lonnie Donegan, the world-renowned "King of Skiffle." By the mid-'70s, he would become one of music's most famous glam rockers. He formed his band, T. Rex, in the late '60s, and, by the beginning of the next decade, had begun to perfect the rockier, psychedelic sound for which they'd become so well-known. Over the course of the '70s, T. Rex became some of Britain's most prolific glam rockers, releasing well over half a dozen chart hits and selling out gigs across the country.
After a brief career stumble and a foray into heavy drug use, Bolan came back to form in 1977 with the release of Dandy in the Underworld, a new tour, and a slot presenting an evening television show on ITV. In September 1977, however, Bolan's second wind was stopped in its tracks after he was killed in a car accident while coming from a night in a London club. His long-time friend and rival, David Bowie, described Bolan as "the greatest little giant in the world."
Aaliyah Dana Haughton, better known simply as Aaliyah, was an R&B singer from Brooklyn. She moved to Detroit with her family when she was 5, studied dance at the Detroit High School for the Fine and Performing Artists and by 14 had released her first album, produced by R. Kelly. Age Ain't Nothing but a Number sold over a million copies and put Aaliyah on the path to superstardom.
In 1996, she released her second album, One in a Million, which sold twice as many copies as her first. She soon branched out into modeling and acting and had just released her third album, Aaliyah, when she was killed in a plane crash in the Bahamas in 2001 while filming the video for her single "Rock the Boat." Eight other passengers, including crew members for the shoot and a close friend of Aaliyah's, were killed in the crash. Rolling Stone remembered her as "a driven, intelligent" and "unusually sweet and gentle spirit."
Hank Williams was to country music what Hendrix was to rock music, what Bowie was to pop, what Joplin was to psychedelia. A legend within his genre, he can doubtless be counted among what PBS calls "the most powerfully iconic figures in American music." Born in Alabama and afflicted throughout his youth with a severe spinal condition, Williams found solace in music, learning to overcome both his physical issues and his shyness by writing and recording songs inspired by the blues musicians, gospel songs, and folk ballads of his home state. He found success quickly: Within six years he recorded almost 66 songs, 37 of which were smash hits.
That same success battered him, though, physically and mentally. The stresses of touring worsened his back issues and the pressures of his career pushed him toward alcoholism. He missed shows and was unable to maintain his big gigs. In 1952, he hired a bogus doctor who supplied him with highly dangerous prescription drugs. In December of that year he died en route to a couple small shows that had been arranged for New Year's Eve and New Year's Day.
Selena Quintanilla-Pérez was, among other thing, a singer, songwriter, model, actress, designer, and speaker. She is one of the most prolific Hispanic musicians and celebrities ever, and is generally credited for bringing Latin music genres into the wider American mainstream. Born in Texas in 1971, Selena found fame in the world of Latin music in 1989 with the release of her self-titled debut album. Her second LP, Entre a Mi Mundo, was No. 1 on the Billboard Mexican Albums chart for eight consecutive months. All the while, Selena (who had barely left her teens) became a renowned community activist and civic personality.
In 1995, as the 23-year-old Selena seemed set to take the world by storm with the release of her first English-language album, she was shot dead by Yolanda Saldívar, the head of her own fan club, who had recently been fired for embezzling funds from the club. Within two years of her death, The New York Times was comparing her to Marilyn Monroe and Elvis, and a 2017 Hollywood Walk of Fame ceremony in her name drew the largest-ever crowd for those events. Her impact on pop music and contemporary fashion is still felt today.
Otis Redding wasn't merely a successful musician and a beloved artist — he was also a revolutionary. Born in Georgia in 1941, he grew up in a world that was white-dominated, to say the least. Even during the '60s, for a black musician to utilize his physicality and sexuality during performances as Redding did was, to many, nothing short of sacrilege. His courage, however, yielded great reward. By the time of his death, The New Yorker reported he was regarded by many as "the most charismatic and beloved soul singer of his generation."
He had toured in Britain, France, and Scandinavia as well as across America and had begun to record music that was growing ever more ambitious. This all came to a swift end, however, when Redding was killed in a plane crash in Wisconsin in 1967. The five teenage members of the Bar-Kays, the band backing him on his tour appearances at the time, were also killed. Redding was 26.
Described by AllMusic as "the most important soul singer in history," Sam Cooke was one of the first musicians to bridge the gap between white and black audiences. On top of this, he was also one of the first black musicians to found a record label (and a publishing company), and also became a stalwart figure in the civil rights movement. His career began in the 1930s, singing in the choir in his father's church; by the '50s he had released some of the decade's most successful hits. His music brought together the R&B, gospel, and pop genres into a sound that was utterly unique for the era.
His success grew during the '60s and peaked with a legendary show at the Harlem Square Club in Miami. But in 1964, Cooke was caught up in an altercation with the night manager of a motel. He was shot dead after — allegedly — attempting to attack her. The exact circumstances surrounding his death have since been questioned, and the truth of what happened that night still remains a mystery.
Duane Allman, in giving his surname to the band he helped found, secured for himself one of the most famous names in rock and blues. He began playing music with his brothers in 1961 and saw some success (Duane's band The Escorts even once opened for the Beach Boys), but he didn't find real fame until the foundation of the Allman Brothers Band. By the '70s, they were one of music's most influential rock groups, achieving considerable critical acclaim with their album At Fillmore East.
In 1971, the whole band took, according to Rolling Stone, their "first real vacation in more than two years." Duane had been celebrating the birthday of the wife of Berry Oakley, the band's bassist, and was on his way home when his motorcycle flipped after swerving to avoid a truck. He died after three hours of surgery at a nearby hospital. Nearly 300 people attended his funeral.
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