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For many musicians, drugs and alcohol become a way of life. Whether it was in an attempt to find inspiration, or to drown out a deeper pain, a culture of using has developed in the music industry. This lifestyle has become so normalized, there’s a group of musicians called “The 27 Club” who all died at the age of 27 in a substance-related tragedy.
Check out Sober Nation’s 27 Club Playlist While You Read!
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Charles Rudolph Harrell (August 23, 1936 – May 20, 1964), known as Rudy Lewis, was a rhythm and blues singer in The Drifters, known as the lead vocalist in the song “Some Kind of Wonderful.” His soulful tunes came from his life of struggle. He lived in New York City as a closeted homosexual, suffering from a binge eating disorder and a heroin addiction, which were all kept a secret until his untimely death.
On May 21, 1964, he was found dead in his Harlem hotel room. Though no autopsy was performed, friends and family believe his death was a mixture of a heart attack, asphyxiation, and a drug overdose. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, after his death, in 1988.
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Lewis Brian Hopkin Jones (February 28, 1942 – July 3 1969) founded the Rolling Stones, helping to form their unique sound with traditional and folk instruments, like the sitar, marimba, and harmonica. Jones was the band’s original leader, before Mick Jagger and Keith Richards overshadowed him. As his role in the band became less important, Jones developed a serious drug problem.
He lived the life the Rolling Stones wrote about—partying and getting in trouble with the law—until June of 1969, when the band asked him to leave. Jones died less than a month later, discovered motionless at the bottom of his own swimming pool. The coroner’s report read “death by misadventure,” and “drowning while under the influence of drink and drugs.”
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James Marshall “Jimi” Hendrix (November 27, 1942 – September 18, 1970) is remembered for his innovative electric guitar style—his huge amplifiers and wah-wah pedal shaking the walls—and he became one of the most influential musicians in the history of rock music. His album Are You Experienced changed the musical world with its fusion of electric blues, R&B, and rock music—often called “psychedelic rock”—and he headlined at the Woodstock music festival.
Hendrix was closely associated with the culture of drugs, and was known to become angry and violent while drinking despite the message of love in his lyrics. On September 18, 1970, Hendrix had been drinking all night and was found unconscious and unresponsive in the morning. The autopsy revealed barbiturate intoxication, and that Hendrix died of asphyxiation from choking on his own vomit.
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Janis Lyn Joplin (January 19, 1943 – October 4, 1970) was an “electric” stage presence—first as the lead singer of the psychedelic rock band Big Brother and the Holding Company, and later as a solo artist with her own backing groups. Joplin was one of the main attractions at the Woodstock music festival and was known as “The Queen of Psychedelic Soul.”
Her music is remembered for her vulnerable, raw music that transformed pain into beauty. Joplin died just sixteen days after Jimi Hendrix. She was found dead on the floor beside her bed of a heroin overdose.
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James Douglas Morrison (December 8, 1943 – July 3, 1971), lead singer of The Doors, was one of the most iconic front-men in rock music history who embodied hippie counterculture. In the 1960s, Morrison developed an alcohol habit that began to affect his performance on stage, and his drug use increased throughout the decade.
In 1971, Morris and his long-term companion, Pamela Courson, traveled to Paris to rest from the hard and fast lifestyle of Los Angeles. Four months into his extended vacation, he was found dead in an apartment bathtub. Though no autopsy was performed, the official report listed “heart failure” as the cause of death. Years later, the true course of events surfaced: Morrison snorted Courson’s heroin, thinking it was cocaine, and died of a hemorrhage while Courson nodded off and was unable to help him.
Ron “Pigpen” McKernan
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Ronald Charles McKernan (September 8, 1945 – March 8, 1973) was a founding members of the Grateful Dead and played with them from 1965 to 1972. He was the band’s original frontman, and played harmonica and electric organ. As the band embraced more psychedelic rock, McKernan’s folk style struggled to keep up and his role in the band diminished.
Unlike the rest of the Grateful Dead, McKernan stayed away from psychedelic drugs and preferred to drink whiskey and wine. By 1971 his health began to decline from alcoholism and liver damage, and he was forced to retire from touring altogether in 1972. McKernan was found dead March 8, 1973 of gastrointestinal hemorrhaging near the liver, while he was under a doctor’s care for cirrhosis.
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Kurt Donald Cobain (February 20, 1967 – April 5, 1994) is an alternative rock legacy, the former lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter of the band Nirvana. Radio stations today are still playing songs like the 1991 hit, “Smells like Teen Spirit.” Cobain started out smoking weed and dropping acid as a teen, which followed him into the music scene along with alcohol. Just before he was 20, Cobain tried heroin and used it sporadically for several years, claiming that it helped to soothe his chronic stomach condition.
By the end of 1990, heroin became a full-fledged addiction which began to affect his ability to perform with the band. Cobain tried several stints at rehab, overdosed multiple times, and his wife, Courtney Love, even staged an intervention. During that last treatment, Cobain disappeared from the facility and was missing for days. He was eventually found, dead in his Seattle cabin, with a reportedly self-inflicted gunshot wound and a high concentration of heroin in his body. The circumstances of his death are still debated by some authorities.
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Amy Jade Winehouse (September 14, 1983 – July 23, 2011) reinvented soul, rhythm & blues, and jazz music for the modern era with her resounding vocal performances. Her 2006 album, Back to Black won five Grammy Awards in 2008, including Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for the single “Rehab.” In 2007, Winehouse had to cancel numerous shows due to ill health and was hospitalized for a reported overdose of heroin, ecstasy, cocaine, ketamine, and alcohol.
She had publicly discussed her problems with self-harm, depression, and eating disorders, but often denied her issues with substance abuse, particularly alcohol. In 2008 Winehouse did finally go to rehab because of issues with her lungs and an irregular heartbeat, which were brought on by smoking crack cocaine regularly. After this, she did put down the drugs for some time but continued to drink. In 2011, after several days of drinking, she was found dead on her bed with a blood alcohol content of 0.416.
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Bradley James Nowell (February 22, 1968 – May 25, 1996) is remembered as the founder and former lead singer of the band Sublime. His love of reggae and dancehall music helped his band to define the ska genre that has become so well-known. As the band gained popularity, Nowell’s heroin addiction worsened. Nowell’s father explained, “His excuse for taking the heroin was that he felt like he had to be larger than life… He had heard a lot of musicians say that they were taking heroin to be more creative.”
In 1995, Troy Dendekker gave birth to their son, Jakob, which inspired Nowell to get sober for a short time. Yet, after some success in sobriety, he felt he deserved ‘a reward’ and moved back into old habits. He and Dendekker were married on May 18, 1996, but seven days later Nowell overdosed on and died. Though Nowell just misses the 27 club by 3 months, we had to respectfully include his story.
Also Check Out Sober Nation’s “Don’t Be a Statistic Tee” Inspired By The 27 Club