This Sunday Elder Music column was launched in December of 2008. By May of the following year, one commenter, Peter Tibbles, had added so much knowledge and value to my poor attempts at musical presentations that I asked him to take over the column. He's been here each week ever since delighting us with his astonishing grasp of just about everything musical, his humor and sense of fun. You can read Peter's bio here and find links to all his columns here.
Okay, this one’s pretty tasteless.
It’s a cliché that rock & rollers live fast and die young, usually at age 27. It may be a cliché but there’s some truth to it which is probably why it became a cliché in the first place.
So, today is about dead ‘uns, if I may be flippant (of course I may; it’s my natural state) who carked it at age 27.
It wasn’t just rock & rollers either. Generally considered the founder member of the 27 Club is ROBERT JOHNSON.
You could say that there’s not much known about Robert’s life. You could also say that a lot is known. The first is true, for the second there are a lot of myths, rumors, tall tales and true about him, almost certainly inventions.
He may be the most influential blues musician of all time in spite of having recorded only 29 songs (plus several different takes of some of those). He would have been 100 years old in 2011 if he hadn’t been poisoned (most likely), shot (possibly), stabbed (maybe) or met his death in some other fashion or all of the above.
You know Robert was a real bluesman because he “woke up this morning” or he did the day he recorded this song, Walking Blues.
I can go back even further than Robert and consider LOUIS CHAUVIN.
Louis was a ragtime pianist and composer and was considered the best pianist in St Louis around the turn of the century (that’s the 19th into the 20th).It’s a bit hard to judge his abilities as he left only three published compositions.
His death certificate seems to suggest that he died of multiple sclerosis, probably syphilitic and starvation due to coma. Well, that’s different from the causes of death of the other folks here today.
His most famous composition is Heliotrope Bouquet published in 1907, for which he shares credit with Scott Joplin. This isn’t Louis playing the piano; I’m sorry, I don’t know who it is.
Okay, now to the ones you expected to appear. The first of these is BRIAN JONES.
Brian was the one who formed the Rolling Stones and was the band’s leading light and driving force until the Glimmer Twins started writing songs together and pretty much eased him out of his dominant position in the group.
He was a multi-instumentalist, playing not only guitar but also saxophone, trumpet, harpischord, oboe, autoharp, accordian, sitar, organ and several other instruments on various records.
He lived the life of a rock star to the full and unfortunately, that meant an inordinate intake of booze and drugs. He was found drowned in his swimming pool a month after the others sacked him from the group.
Here are the Stones with Brian playing sitar, guitar and various other things. Paint it Black.
Here’s the one we were all really expecting, JIMI HENDRIX.
James Marshall Hendrix or Johnny Allen Hendrix, take your pick, was born in Seattle and is generally considered the finest player of the electric guitar who ever plugged in. He certainly came up with things that no one else had thought of before on his instrument.
Early on Jimi played in Little Richard’s band but Richard fired him for being too flamboyant. Too flamboyant for Little Richard? Lordy.
He was modest about his enormous talent, claiming he was just carrying on from T-Bone Walker, Buddy Guy, B.B. King and others. Well, in the case of Buddy and B.B., they’re still out there doing it themselves.
He said he didn’t like his singing voice and tried to get out of singing whenever he could. Well, when you can play guitar like that, why not?
Jimi died of an accidental overdose of sleeping pills. They were his girl friend’s and these were German and considerably more powerful than those he was used to.
This is May This Be Love.
JANIS JOPLIN was from Port Arthur, Texas, and wasn’t popular at school, to put it mildly. She pretty much said, “I’ll show you, lot” and she did.
She arrived in San Francisco in the mid-sixties with a love of the blues and teamed up with the rock group Big Brother and the Holding Company. They recorded an album for an obscure record label that sank pretty much without a trace.
After their searing performance at the Monterey Pop Festival and, more likely, their appearance in the excellent film of that event, they were signed to a major record label and recorded the iconic album “Cheap Thrills.”
Not too long after that, Janis went out on her own as a solo performer at the urging of her manager. She recorded two albums, the second of which was unfinished when she died.
Janis was known for a fondness for alcohol and more than just dabbled in drugs. She was found dead of a heroin overdose in a hotel room where she was staying during the recording of “Pearl.”
This isn’t from “Pearl,” but from her previous album. It’s Little Girl Blue.
JIM MORRISON was born in Melbourne. Yes, really. That’s Melbourne, Florida - not where I live. The Floridian version was named after the one in Australia by its first postmaster, Cornthwaite Hector, who spent much of his life in the one here in Oz.
Legend has it, and possibly truth as well, that Jim met Ray Manzarek on the beach in Venice (the Californian one, not the Italian one) and Ray was impressed by Jim’s poetry and Jim was impressed with Ray’s musicianship. ”Let’s form a band,” they said or something like that.
They grabbed a drummer and a guitarist and The Doors were born. The Doors were like a supernova - they blazed brighter than anyone else for a short while and then exploded leaving behind artifacts for us all to mull over.
The official cause of Jim’s death was heart failure but no autopsy was performed. He was known to enjoy a drink or two and he dabbled, if that’s the right word, in drugs of all kinds. Here’s Jim with The Doors, People Are Strange.
RON ”PIGPEN” McKERNAN was from San Bruno, California, and grew up with a love of the blues. He taught himself piano and harmonica at a young age.
Pigpen met Jerry Garcia around the various coffee houses and other places where music was played and they formed a group called The Zodiacs.
This evolved into Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions and this in turn, after adding Bob Weir and Bill Kreutzmann, became The Warlocks. Then Phil Lesh joined them and the Grateful Dead was born.
Pig was the keboard player and occasional singer for the group and a pretty nifty blues singer he was. I managed to see them a few times when he was still with them.
He died as a result of a gastrointestinal haemorrhage, brought about by his alcoholism. Here are the Dead with Pig singing and playing harmonica on Easy Wind.
LINDA JONES was from New Jersey and she started her singing career in the family gospel group called the Jones Singers.
After going out on her own, she had a few unsuccessful singles under various names. She signed to Warner Brothers and started using her real name. This led to some success and her career was in the ascendancy.
After returning home following a successful gig at the Apollo, she fell into a diabetic coma from which she didn’t recover. This is Linda with Doggin' Me Around.
AL WILSON died around the time Jimi Hendrix kicked the bucket so there wasn’t much said about it then, or since for that matter.
Blind Owl, as he was called by the rest of the band, was the lead guitarist, occasional singer and main songwriter for Canned Heat. He was the elfin looking one with the thick Buddy Holly style glasses, thus the nickname.
He was the singer on most of their hits, Goin’ up the Country and On the Road Again especially. Al was also a noted conservationist.
He died of a drug overdose that might have been suicide. As the two songs mentioned are quite well known, I’ll play another where he sings and plays lead guitar, Time Was.
JESSE BELVIN was from San Antonio but his family moved to Los Angeles when he was five.
His musical career began when he joined Big Jay McNeely’s group as a backing singer in 1950. A couple of years later, he went out on his own and recorded several songs that weren’t very successful.
He was drafted and upon his return, he signed up to several different record labels using different names. I don’t know what would have happened if he’d been booked on a bill with himself, although I guess he could go backstage and change his suit or some such.
Anyway, he recorded smooth soulful songs in the manner of Nat King Cole and Billy Eckstine. He was a model for Sam Cooke and other such singers.
Jesse died with his wife in a car accident in 1960, just after performing in a concert he had organised in Little Rock. This was the first integrated concert in that city and there had been several death threats on him because of that. There was speculation that his car was tampered with. Nobody checked.
Instead of one of his more famous proto-soul songs, this is the old Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer song Blues in the Night.
A little more recent was Kurt Cobain. I thought of playing Smells Like Teen Spirit but decided it was a bit much for a quiet Sunday morning.
Also, in somewhat unusual circumstances, was Michael Hutchence of INXS.
Coming right up to date, several rappers also met their demise at 27, all of them shot...
...and quite recently and not too unexpectedly, Amy Winehouse.
I wanted to include Otis Redding and Gram Parsons, but they didn’t even make 27, both dying a year too early.