Writing this website so long after many of the AAA bands were around is a plus in many respects – it really helps to get to the crux of a direction an artist was heading in when we know the final destination – but there are downsides as well. For instance, we’ve lost so many AAA stars, heroes and heroines all and the attrition rates for the under-30s are particularly poor, meaning that a fair percentage of the people I write about died before I was even born. No matter, their legends live on in their music as long as have ears to hear with and souls to empathise with – but it does mean that I lost the chance to pay tribute to some our leading lights at the time of their death. So here, for this week’s top 10, is a guide to the 10 AAA stars who died the youngest and whose musical journeys were cut the shortest, complete with mini-biographies and perhaps an attempt to work out where the next destination might have been. Notice that three of these are from the famous ’27 club’ , the age at which so many musicians die (at the time of writing Amy Winehouse’s death at that age has started the speculation over why all over again). Some of these legends are household names who’d already become stars by the time they died, others have grown in stature since their untimely deaths to eclipse any standing they had in life while others are known only to the diehard faithful.
All of them are missed, as are those who didn’t make this list and whose stories we might come back to at some later date (Brent Mydland, Grateful Dead keyboard player, who died aged 37; Beach Boy Dennis Wilson who drowned at the age of 39; John Lennon who was shot at the age of 40; Steve Marriott of The Small Faces who died in a house fire at the age of 44; Byrd Gene Clark who died aged 46; Byrd Michael Clarke who died aged 47; Alan Hull of Lindisfarne who died aged 50; Small Face Ronnie Lane who died aged 51, Beach Boy Carl Wilson who died aged 51; Jerry Garcia of the Dead who died aged 53; ‘The Ox’ and Who bassist John Entwistle who died aged 57; George Harrison who died aged 58; Buffalo Springfield Bruce Palmer who died aged 58; Pink Floyd guitarist and so much more Syd Barrett who died aged 60; Moody Blues bassist Clint Warwick who died aged 63; Searchers drummer Chris Curtis who died aged 64; Pink Floyd keyboardist Rick Wright who died aged 65 (see the obituary elsewhere on this site); Searchers bassist Tony Jackson who died aged 65; Jefferson Airplane drummer Spencer Dryden who died aged 66; Monkee Davy Jones who died aged 66 (see the obituary elsewhere on our site); Pentangle guitarist Bert Jansch who died aged 67 (see the obituary elsewhere on our site); Buffalo Springfield drummer Dewey Martin who died aged 68 (see the obituary elsewhere on our site); Kinks bassist Pete Quaife who died age 68 (see the obituary elsewhere on our site); Byrd Skip Battin who died age 69 and Jefferson Airplane violinist Papa John Creach who died aged 76).
Otis Redding (26 years, 3 months, 1 day)
“I’ve had nothin’ to live for, and it looks like nothin’s comin’ my way”
Many of the stars on this week’s list died of their own hand, either by design or drink or drugs, and many of them were at the stage in their careers when the first flush of fame seemed to be over. Not gentle giant Otis, though, whose death in a plane crash just six months after his ‘big’ break through at the Monterey Pop Festival came at a time when his profile had never been higher and many stars hadn’t found fame at all by such a tender age. Actually Otis seemed to do everything early on in his life, marrying at age 19 and becoming a dad at 20, not to mention releasing five records in his lifetime despite having had a recording contract for just a little over two years at the time. Otis was already making a name for himself when he appeared at Monterey in June 1967, six months before his death, but became an overnight star thanks to his fine performance. Alas his fame led Otis to buy his ‘own’ aeroplane, a Beechcraft H18, to allow him to cover the sheer demand for venues that wanted a piece of him. Otis’ last concert ended up being a small nightclub called Leo’s Casino in Nashville (eerily Otis’ band were supported that night by a band called ‘The Grim Reapers’) and Otis’ plane crash-landed just four miles from their next destination in Winconsin. The weather that night was dreadful and the pilot had been advised not to fly; no one is quite sure why Otis decided to go ahead after all (he had flown in worse weather before). The plane ended up crashing into Lake Mahona where Otis and members of his Bar-Keys backing band all died in the crash, apart from Ben Cauley who was asleep at the time of the accident and was never too sure what happened. The sadness for fans wasn’t that they’d just lost a legend but that Otis had recorded perhaps his greatest song ‘Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay’ just three days before the plane crash. A signpost towardsa towards a whole new era, with a new sound and a new persona to fit, who knows where Otis might have travelled next although his love of the Beatles’ ‘Sgt Peppers’ album and other concept works of the era hint that perhaps Otis might have gone on to make soul music’s first concept work. Hopefully Otis would have worked on his songwriting, too, having written many of his best songs late on in his career although at the time of his death most of these had only been hits for other people. Otis, having overcome his own poverty-stricken background, had also talked for a long time about setting up a ‘summer camp’ for disadvantaged kids from the same sort of slums he grew up in. Some 4500 people flocked to Otis’ funeral and his body was later buried at his ‘Round Oak’ ranch just outside the American town of Macon. Classic moment: ‘Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay’
Jimmy McCulloch (26 years, 3 months, 23 days)
“Keep on your feet, you won’t go far if you keep sticking your hand in a medicine jar”
The youngest member of Wings by some margin was already a show business veteran after having played as a teenager in Thunderclap Newman, the motley assortment of musicians whose only thing in common was that they were all friends of producer Pete Townshend. After stints in other bands like ‘One In A Million’ and the under-rated ill-fated ‘Stone Crows’ (where Jimmy replaced guitarist Les Harvey who’d died during a shocking freak accident on stage when his microphone was wrongly ‘earthed’), Jimmy probably came to McCartney’s attention after working with Beatles friend Klaus Voormann on a few studio sessions. Jimmy’s first work with Wings was on the single ‘Junior’s Farm’ (where Macca introduced his solo with the words ‘take it away Jimmy!’) and he ended up working on the studio albums ‘Venus and Mars’ and ‘Wings At The Speed Of Sound’ and the live album ‘Wings Over America’ before leaving the band partway through the making of ‘London Town’ (which features one last brilliant solo on ‘Cafe On The Left Bank’). Wings personnel came and went quite quickly although most fans agreed that this middle era (with Joe English on drums) was the best of the three long-lasting line ups. The younger Jimmy often butted heads with the older, more experienced McCartney and was often accused of being ‘unprofessional’ after nights of drinking and drug taking (even though Paul had done the same and worse with The Beatles). The final straw came when Steve Marriot of the Small Faces rang him up and asked if he was available for the band’s 1977/78 reunion tour – pleased to be playing on only harder, rockier material (Wings’ setlist was ridiculously varied back in 1976) McCulloch decided to leave the band altogether, Marriott reportedly sending McCartney a telegram that read ‘Sorry mate, Jimmy’s decided to work with me now!’) Alas the Small Faces reunion promised more than it delivered (with founding member Ronnie Lane pulling out at the last minute) and, adrift, Jimmy ended up forming his own band ‘White Line’ with his brother Jack on drums and then joined a band called ‘The Dukes’ , whose only album was released posthumously in 1979 and features Jimmy’s last work. Whilst in the band Jimmy wrote two songs with his friend Colin Allen (the drummer in ‘Stone The Crows’) which both deal with drugs: the pill-popping ‘Medicine Jar’ and the pain-of-an-addict lament ‘Wino Junko’, each of them possessing a ‘warning’ to the listener about how drugs are only a quick-fix solution for something deeper and darker in the soul. Alas that darkness caught up with Jimmy and he died of heart failure caused by a heroin overdose in his Maida Vale flat, an awful waste of a talent that had already done so much and seen so much at the age of just 26. Had he lived Jimmy might well have got back together with Stone The Crows and having stayed friends with Pete Townshend (and played on John Entwistle’s first solo album) might well have become The Who’s ‘second guitarist’ in their post-Moon tours of the 80s and 90s. Maybe there’d even have been a solo album, similar to the ones Denny Laine released during the last few years with Wings; whatever he’d have gone on to do one thing is sure though – Jimmy was one of the best guitarists in the business and had been getting better with every passing year. Surely his reputation would only have grown had he lived to an older age. Classic moment: the half-scary, half lovely ‘Wino Junko’ from ‘Wings At The Speed Of Sound’
Gram Parsons (26 years, 10 months, 14 days)
“It’s a hard way to find out that trouble is real”
The lack of tributes from the music press at the time of Gram’s death was shameful: despite ‘founding’ country rock, stints with The Byrds and The Flkying Burrito Brothers alongside ‘soul brother’ Chris Hillman, co-writing (uncredited) the Stones song ‘Wild Horses’ and releasing two well received albums with Gram’s discovery’ Emmylou Harris the world didn’t seem to ‘get’ Gram Parsons until decades after his death. Arguably his reputation has never been as strong as it is today, with even a hit film (‘Grand Theft Parsons’) made about his life and (mostly) his death. Unlike most rock and roll stars Gram was actually a rich kid with lots of money, something that used to infuriate his bandmates who’d struggled all their lived to make the money Gram would blow in one go. However, his dream was of updating country music with rock the same way other bands had updated the blues and r and b styles of the 1950s and a well received but short-lived group ‘The International Submarine Band’ had got him the attention of The Byrds. Hired in 1968, at the age of just 21, the plan was that Gram would be a versatile guitarist-come-keyboard player, equally able to play the traditional and futuristic numbers in the Byrds setlist around that time. Instead, Gram’s natural leadership and the band’s internal crisis (which had seen them become a duo after the fractuous sessions for ‘The Notorious Byrd Brothers’) meant that instead the Byrds got pulled much further in the country direction than they ever expected. Despite being a comparative unknown, Parsons gets more songs onto his sole Byrds album ‘Sweethearts Of The Rodeo’ than either of his employers Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman and should have ended up with more vocals too until the small matter of a contract he signed in his teenage years meant that McGuinn had to overdub his own vocals on many of Parsons’ choices for the record. The album was a poor seller but hailed as a masterpiece by many and was influential on so many of the 1970s country-rock bands that I could spend this whole article listing them all. Parsons left the band when the Byrds naively agreed to play a tour in South Africa (not realising that audiences would be segregated), although most people around at the time say he was just looking for an ‘excuse’ to leave the band. Hillman left the Byrds after his own row with the band’s direction and the duo formed ‘The Flying Burrito Brothers’, the first fully fledged country-rock band who never really found full flight but did at least pave the way for their successors. The band had to start from scratch as unknowns but the rich kid Parsons found the going too tough and was becoming more and more disheartened with the band by the time he left in 1971 to record his first solo album (with help from an unknown singer Emmylou Harris, who was all but ready to retire from the music business when she was discovered by Gram’s management playing in a club). He was also much more interested in hanging out with his new pal Keith Richards, who was himself a secret fan of country music and wanted Gram’s help in pushing the Stones sound in that direction (the pair wrote ‘Wild Horses’ together, although as ever the Stones were stingy about having another person’s name in the credits, and Gram reputedly plays on many of the songs on ‘Exile In main Street’). Things looked good when Gram’s first solo album sold respectably and a follow-up, waiting in the wings when Gram died, was acknowledged to be even better by those who’d heard previews of it. However, things had got a bit out of hand for Gram during the last year of his life. He was devastated to learn of the death of friend and fellow Byrd Clarence White (see below), had split up with his long-term girlfriend and had accidentally burnt his own house down with a cigarette and only just escaped with his life. Gram had always been infatuated with the ‘Joshua Tree’ desert (long before U2 made it famous) and would often shut himself away there to think. On one day in 1973, in mysterious circumstances still not fully explained, Gram died with morphine and alcohol found in his body. However things got stranger still when after Gram’s dead his body was ‘stolen’ from a aeroplane under the eyes of Gram’s authoritarian and distanced family by Parsons’ faithful roadie Phil Kaufman. Gram had reputedly told his friend that if he ever died he wanted to be buried in the desert, so that’s exactly what his Kaufman did, breaking the law in the process. This unexpected development became the basis for the ‘GT Parsons’ film, pitting Gram’s rich background against the friends he made as a rockstar. Had he lived Gram’s stock would undoubtedly have risen anyway thanks to the debts many country-rock stars owed him and his friendship with the Stones might well have led to greater career opportunities. A reunion with the Flying Burrito Brothers might also have been on the cards (Hillman has never been quite the same since the death of his friend in the final days of his ‘Manassas’ band with Stephen Stills) and Emmylou Harris’ gradual rise to fame would undoubtedly have had its own rewards. Classic moment: ‘100 Years From Now’ on Byrds album ‘Sweethearts Of The Rodeo’, a perfect blend of country and rock music with a catchy chorus and poignant lyrics.
Brian Jones (27 years, 4 months, 5 days)
“It’s so very lonely when you’re 2000 light years from home”
Like Gram, Brian Jones should have been the last person to become a ‘rock star’ and the least person likely to learn to play the blues. Born to rich parents, in an affluent area of Surrey, Brian’s upbringing was even richer than John Lennon’s, but he threw security and certain jobs away to join and indeed found the rock and roll travelling circus. To be fair, Brian’s life had already taken a strange turn before he tried being a musician having fathered six children by the time he reached 20 (many of them with underage girls) and being suspended from school several times for ‘disobeying authority’. Brian, styling himself ‘Elmo Lewis’ (‘Elmo’ after slide guitarist Elmo James and ‘Lewis’ which was his ‘real’ first name), left home for London and fell in with Alexis Korner’s crowd of blues musicians, vainly trying for years to put together a blues-rock hybrid sound that only clicked when he met Mick and Keith. Despite being the founding member and the powerhouse behind the Rolling Stones in the early days (Jones sought out most of the gigs and took a bigger share of the money!) Jones always felt himself to be something of an outsider in the band. You only have to look at the footage recently broadcast for the first time of the band on tour in 1965 (as part of ‘Charlie Is My Darling’) where Mick and Keith are rehearsing their songs and giggling while Brian stares past them or the band stuck on a train with Jones completely cut off from the others (as five people can’t sit on a four seat train). Brian’s lack of ability as a songwriter is cited by many as holding him back and his fierce temper another reason (Keith was so upset at seeing Brian beat up his girlfriend Anita that he ‘rescued’ her according to his autobiography, causing yet more friction between the former friends). Brian also handled the drugs of the period badly compared to his fellow Stones and was in such a bad condition by 1967 that the band reluctantly stopped touring to accommodate his poor condition. However, Brian was hardly the troublemaker so many books paint him as today: other bands, especially the Beatles, loved hanging round with him (the 1969 B-side ‘You Know My name, Look Up My Number’ features a posthumous performance by Brian on saxophone) and you only need to see a smiling Brian surrounded by fellow celebrities in the Monterey Pop Festival Film to see what a reputation he had amongst his peers. Out of all the AAA musicians we’ve covered only Paul McCartney can rival Brian in terms of being a multi-instrumentalist, able to coax a sound out of any instrument without even seemingly trying (Brian is in addition arguably the best bottleneck guitar and sitar player of the Western world, while his mellotron solo at the end of Stones single ‘We Love You’ is quite possibly the best ever use of this complex instrument). Even distanced from the rest of the band, Brian was always able to add a dash of colour or exoticism to what the band were working on and was a major talent right up until he fell apart in 1968. For years legend has it that Brian drowned himself in his own swimming pool (in ‘Christopher Robin’s House’ formerly owned by AA Milne) in a drunken stupor because he couldn’t bear the thought that the Stones had ‘sacked him’. Actually that’s nonsense: Brain had really found his mojo again the month before his death and was bursting with musical ideas, he was an expert swimmer (who’d won several medals in his youth) and there was no sign of drink or drugs in his body according to the autopsy report. The truth seems to be either that Brain had a bad asthma attack in the pool and was caught by surprise, unable to swim to safety or that his ‘builder’ and helper Frank Thorogood - present at the time - murdered him over money Brian hadn’t paid. Frank even made an alleged ‘deathbed confession’ and the story has become accepted as fact even without an official verdict on the case (the ‘Stoned’ biopic of Brian’s life even accepts it as gospel truth), but I’m not so sure (surely murdering your client is a sure way of not getting any money ever – and only one person ever heard the ‘confession’). Either way, Brian was on the up when he died and the tragedy of his death was that it came at a time when he seemed on the verge of making some of the greatest music of his life. Had he lived Brian would surely have become seen as the godfather of ‘world music’, beating Paul Simon by some 18 years in his quest to record the ‘Pipes Of Pan At Joujouku’ tribe (released posthumously in 1971) and might well have been at the ‘heart’ of the blues revival that took place in 1969 and 1970 (which even his fellow Stones got involved in). In my head at least Brian would have recovered himself sufficiently to have replaced Mick Taylor when he left the Stones in 1974 and taken his old job back, kick-starting another decade’s worth of great music with the band he founded. Classic moment: the ending of ‘We Love You’; never has a piece of electronic noise sounded more melodic, more threatening or more beautiful
Pigpen (27 years, 6 months, 0 days)
“Did I take a wrong turn on life’s winding road?”
Ron McKernan, known better by his ‘Pigpen’ nickname (allegedly after the mud-loving character in the Peanuts cartoons), was surely born in the wrong century to parents of the wrong colour. No one played the blues like Pigpen and few musicians ever had the same endless well of feeling to get out. Compared to most musicians Pig discovered his life calling early (his father was an R and B disc jockey, a rarity in itself in America at the time) and was obsessed by the blues records he bought, even though everyone else in his peer group was into lighter, whiter sounds. He was also addicted to alcohol, having discovered it as a young teenager and it haunted him throughout the rest of his life. Pigpen was a founder member of the wonderfully named Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions who eventually metamorphisised into the Grateful Dead. Originally the band’s set list was all blues songs but the other members gradually drifted away to rock and folk – however Pig stayed loyal to his first love, with his ‘cameos’ the highlights of many a Grateful Dead set. Like the others, Pig ended up writing his own songs to go alongside the originals and the last batch he made before his death in particular (many of them not collected on record until the 21st century) show a real blossoming of talent. For a while Pig’s boozing got in the way of his abilities (along with guitarist Bob Weir he was kicked out of the band for a while, but kept turning up to shows so eventually found his way back in). A compromise was sought whereby the band hired another keyboard player, Tom Constanten, who played the complex parts the more earthy Pig couldn’t play (interestingly Pig’s ‘replacement’ of sorts became great friends with him, the ‘college professor’ like Constanten as annoyed by the amount of drug use in the band as Pigpen was). Outside the band Pig struck up a close friendship with Janis Joplin – the next musician on this list – and according to some accounts may well have been closer to Pig than any other person (the pair had similar ‘outsider’ status in their youth, were teased for their love of music and their belief that they should have been black blues singers). Her death hit Pigpen hard and he developed cirrhosis of the liver that same year, slowing him down and shrinking his immense frame into a wizened, weakened state. A fighter to the end, however, Pigpen defied doctor’s orders to stay at home and rest by accompanying the rest of the Dead on their first European tour in 1971 and 1972 – several of the shows from that period have been released (at the time or later as part of the Dead’s archives) and Pig’s performances, though fewer in number, are often the highlight. The band hired Keith Godchaux as his replacement (yet another figure on this list, sadly) and after Constanten had left the band to get back to his studies, although Pig continued to play alongside whenever he could. A visibly moved Garcia, when asked about Pig’s absence on this 1972 tour replied that Pigpen had been ‘given a choice by doctors, over giving up the booze and it’s a choice between whether he lives or dies. I know Pig, he’s intelligent, he’ll choose to live’. Alas Pig probably made that choice too late in life and he died in March 1973 of a gastrointestinal haemorrhage. Pig was buried in his home state of California, at the Alta Messa Memorial Park; the rest of the Dead were devastated and put together the ‘History Of The Grateful Dead’ compilation featuring several key Pigpen performances unavailable elsewhere in his memory. To be honest the band never got over the loss and there are several songs in their canon that are at least partly inspired by Pigpen’s death (‘He’s Gone’, the most famous of these, actually debuted shortly before his death and was about their manager Larry Hart absconding with their money, but it came to mean much more after 1973). Had they both lived I’m convinced Pig and Janis would have worked together at some point (alas their schedules meant they only ever played together on stage) and Pig would no doubt have gone with the Dead, adding a bluesy earthy twist to their setlists whenever the band came down from a psychedelic high and writing more and more of his own excellent songs. Classic moment: Few fans know it but ‘Two Souls In Communion’ is a gorgeous Pig ballad, added to the Dead sets months before Pig’s death and clearly with both Janis’ death and his own impending doom on his mind (‘Please show me the right way to go!’) You can find it as a bonus track on the CD re-issue of ‘Europe ‘72’.
Janis Joplin (27 years, 9 months, 15 days)
“Every day I die a little baby, every day I lose me someone in my heart”
Never has a singer been more misunderstood than Janis Joplin. See the actual performances, read the biographies and view the interviews and you’ll probably get quite a different view of the supposedly boozy choosy singer than you’d get from her reputation. Like so many on this list of names, Janis was an outsider seemingly from birth, born to rich parents and encouraged to be an old fashioned housewife with a boyfriend her parents ‘chose’ for her. Janis rebelled from it all, especially her nasty classmates who teased her over her powerful voice and her skinny, masculine looks. (Little did they know that in years to come looking like Janis was the in-look!) Joplin left home in a huff when she was a teenager and tried to become a folk singer for years, despite idolising the blues singer Bessie Smith – however her voice was too powerful for most folk clubs and she came home, dejected, to her family and seemed to take up her old way of life again. It wasn’t long before the call of hippiedom called out to her again, however, and she left home once more on the proviso that she’d come back if nothing worked out for her this time. Luckily it did: promoter Chet Helms, who managed a band called Big Brother and the Holding Company thought her voice with their music would be perfect – and it was! A so-so first album and a few bottom of the bill gigs did enough to get the band a spot at the bottom of the bill at the Monterey Pop festival in June 1967 and Janis rose to the occasion, blowing away the crowds with her voice (not for nothing does Mama Cass mouth ‘oh wow!’ as she launches into ‘Ball and Chain’. Second album ‘Cheap Thrills’ was an absolute classic – and yet too many people were grooming Janis for stardom that she left Big Brother at the peak of their success to work with a more ‘polished’ band. Unfortunately while the material was still often superb the polished sound of the Kozmik Blues Band made Janis sound far too much like every other singer in town and lost some of her style and character; another band in 1970 (the Full Tilt Boogie Band) promised better but alas it was not to be. Janis had always had a fascination with drugs and alcohol and one night she simply pushed herself too far. She died in the middle of recording her fourth album ‘Pearl’ (with one more date to go, a vocal to record on the eerily named ‘Buried Alive In The Blues’ – the backing track was left on the record as a tribute), with her producer Paul Rothschild discovering her body in a hotel room after she failed to show up. The official verdict was misadventure, with a powerful amount of heroin found in her blood. The story doing the rounds in 1970 was that Janis was simply naive and took a purer form of the drug than she meant to; however Janis was an experienced junkie even at 27 and would have known what to expect. My view is that this was, if not quite suicide, then a cry for help: despite her fame she’d been stood up twice that week already by potential boyfriends (Janis often said that she ‘made love to thousands of people on stage and then go home alone’, unable to find the right person in her life), a high school reunion had gone disastrously wrong (swanning in as ‘the big star’ ready to take revenge on her bullies, she was devastated to find out that they couldn’t care less about what had happened to her and still treated her abominably) and perhaps doubts about her musical direction (‘Pearl’ is heralded as a grand success now but some of the tracks are a little too polished and mainstream for my tastes) all might have contributed. Whatever the cause, Janis’ death was a tragedy, robbing the world of the chance to see the intelligent, articulate, lonely singer behind the tough facade and the best tributes to Janis came not from her fellow rock and roll stars but chat show host Dick Cavett, who admitted years later she was his favourite guest because she spoke so well and knew so much about everything. Janis was cremated and her ashes scattered across the ‘Pierce Brothers Westwood Mortuary’ in Los Angeles and Stinson Beach, although her family requested a private funeral so no fans attended. Janis to the end, however, her will left $1500 for a ‘wake party’ to be held in her honour and this duly took place a month after her death in California, with several friends and bandmates attending. Had she lived I truly hope that Janis would have re-captured her muse, done a blues album (maybe with Pigpen or Brian Jones) and gradually been accepted by the general public as an intelligent, articulate spokesmen for her generation. We fans only have four albums of varying quality, but we know what a giant talent she was and how great she truly could have become; a voice a personality and a talent we will never see the likes of again. Classic moment: ‘Work Me Lord’ a less well known example of Janis’ amazing talent, weaving a remarkable amount of emotion into a simply song about wanting a better life
Clarence White (29 years, 1 month, 8 days)
“Dry your eyes and stand up straight, bugler’s got a place at those pearly gates”
Despite being surrounded by wild rock and rollers for much of his life, Clarence was a calming presence onstage famous for his poker face (White’s first love was bluegrass where musicians hardly ever let their emotions show) and its deeply ironic that he should die before almost all of his booze-swilling, drug-taking friends and not of his own hand. He didn’t look much like your typical rock star, either, with his short stature and his unusual looks (covered by the beard he grew a year after joining the Byrds) but to rock music fans he’s a legend, as great a guitarist as any the world had ever seen. His first band ‘The Kentucky Colonels’ might only be known to Byrds fans nowadays but during the early 60s they were a huge, making folk music mainstream until, ironically, enough the folk-rock boom pioneered by The Byrds killed off their sales and made them seem old hat. Clarence drifted to session work, where he played on the Byrds album ‘Younger Than Yesterday’, worked with ex-Byrds in the ‘Flying Burrito Brothers’ and performed with ex-Byrd Gene Clark on his first solo tour in 1966. When first Gram Parsons and then Chris Hillman left The Byrds in quick succession McGuinn called in every favour he knew to get the band up and running again and struck gold with the hiring of White, who blossomed as a guitar player and did much to make the post-Crosby Byrds one of America’s biggest live acts of the late 60s. His duels with McGuinn on the band’s live recordings show a fire and energy he rarely displayed on record, however, White preferring to stick with a looser, laidback feel in his choice of covers (most of which were ballads). White was also quite a talent spotter, bringing several of the later members of The Byrds into the band and championing singer-songwriter Jackson Browne before most people had heard of him (The Byrds cover of his ‘Jamaica Say You Will’ sung by White is often credited as being his big breakthrough). The Byrds battled on into 1973 before McGuinn had an offer to re-form the original Byrds and – realising he couldn’t compete with himself – ended the ‘new’ Byrds. The band had been a bit out of sorts for a time anyway, with McGuinn hiring all in the band except White by their final few months. White was in heavy demand, however, going back to session work, forming the bluegrass band Muleskinner and a surprise one-off reunion of The Kentucky Colonels. It was this last gig that resulted in his death, Clarence having been hit without warning by a pickup-truck that hadn’t seen him in the dark loading his guitar and amplifiers onto a van. His death went largely unheralded at the time (the papers were too busy discussing the original Byrds getting back together) but those in the music world were shaken by his death, not least Gram Parsons who had grown ever closer to White in his last few months and may well have spurred him on to his own needless death. Had he lived I’m convinced he’d have ended up back with McGuinn sooner or later (the Byrds reunion fell apart almost as soon as it began) and he’d have landed on hi
s feet somewhere – possibly as a respected session musician, possibly with his own band, maybe even with the other Byrds (The Flying Burrito Brothers, Roger McGuinn’s ‘Thunderbyrds’ and Gram Parsons’ band would all have loved to have had him onboard). White was also something of an inventor, creating the guitarist’s gadget ‘The B-Bender’ (along with fellow Byrd Gene Parsons) which gives a ‘normal’ guitar the sound of a pedal steel. Perhaps White might have done more in the technical line of guitar-work – he certainly had the brains and the talent for it as a playback of any of his amazing effortless guitar solos down the years will attest. Classic moment: the 20 minute live version of ‘Eight Miles High’ from ‘Untitled’, a masterclass in guitar improvisation
Danny Whitten (29 years, 6 months, 10 days)
“Pretty bad when you’re dealing with the man and the light shines in your eyes”
All these stories are sad, but none is sadder than the untimely death of Danny Whitten. After spending most of his struggling for fame despite his obvious talents he finally made the big time as part of Crazy Horse backing Neil Young and then watched it all fall away, becoming hooked to heavy drugs seemingly overnight. Largely unheralded at the time, Whitten’s death seems like a tragedy now with almost everyone who worked with him recalling how much they believed in this young guitarist’s talent and how much he still had left to give the world (in Neil Young’s words ‘you only get one guy who you can play with better than anyone else and for me it was Danny. After that there was no one’). Whitten had a rough childhood with music his one great escape and he tried everything he could to become a star. There’s a clip on Youtube of a young Whitten (the star of ‘Danny and the Memories’) updating the ‘Four Freshman’ style on a cover of ‘Land Of A 1000 Dances’ (mentioned in Neil’s new book); after that band never went anywhere Danny formed ‘The Rockets’ as a six-piece psychedelically tinged rock and roll band – again the world wasn’t interested despite their obvious promise. It was only when Danny met Neil Young that he entered the world he’d always dreamed of, backing Neil up superbly on the ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ album (containing almost all of Neil’s best loved songs from the early 70s) and adding his distinctive earthy harmonies. Meantime he was writing his best material too, a wonderful collection of songs that ended up on the first eponymous ‘Crazy Horse’ album in 1971. However the Danny who wrote them and sang them were two very different people. Whitten had longed for fame for so long that he didn’t know what to do with it when it came and fell into a perilous drug habit, one that friends say came on so quickly they didn’t take it seriously enough. Whitten, formerly one of the most trustworthy and gentle of souls, hadn’t earned enough to sustain his drug habit and ended up stealing from friends, even those who had given him lodgings out of the kindness of their own heart. The vocals he gives on the Crazy Horse album (finished with the help of Nils Lofgren) are a masterpiece, sung with a mixture of the optimism he felt when creating and the resignation that he knows he’s going to die (just listen to the scary vocal round of ‘Look At All The Things’, a song about the beauty of life sung by a man who know he won’t be around to experience it much longer). His best known song, though, is the weary ‘I Don’t Want To Talk About It’ (finished with Lofgren’s help) which was his stock answer when people pushed him about his drug use. Neil, having halted the band to work with CSNY and not knowing how badly his friend had fallen, hired Crazy Horse to back him on the ‘After The Goldrush’ album, but Danny was too far gone to keep up with the pace. Alarmed, Neil sent Danny back home to ‘recuperate’, giving him the money for the flight home. Danny never took it – he used the money to buy one last score of heroin although it was actually a combination of valium pills (taken for a knee injury) and alcohol that killed him according to the coroner (the heroin had weakened his system, however). Neil was never quite the same again, the incident inspiring the infamous ‘doom trilogy’ of the mid 70s and Crazy Horse became a pale shadow of their former selves, even with the addition of Poncho Sampedro in 1975 (a great and gifted guitarist who suited the band’s sound remarkably well, but not to Danny’s level). Whitten left a last batch of demos for a possible follow-up album that have never been officially released but are said to be bone-chilling, the sound of a man battling against time to get his final message out to the world. Had Danny lived his songwriting would only have got better, he’d have surely gone on many more guitar battles with Neil (often coming out the better) and he’d have been praised for his own talent, not simply the talent he had to make others around him shine so brightly. Classic moment: ‘Down By The River’, an incredible 10 minutes of cat-and-mouse tension from Neil and Danny, with a sixth sense about where to go that only the Dead on a good day could match.
Keith Godchaux (32 years, 0 months, 4 days)
“What fatal flowers of darkness bloom from seeds of night?”
The second of three musicians who sat in the Grateful Dead’s ill fated keyboard chair and didn’t live to see the age of 40 was Pigpen’s replacement Keith Godchaux. Fans have argued long and hard over his suitability and talent, but for me he was an integral part of the band’s renaissance in the early to mid 70s and undeniably shared the band’s amazing sixth sense of improvisation during his first few years (before drink and drugs got a hold of most of the band by 1980). Keith was a protégé of Dave Mason, once part of the 60s band Traffic, and like many on this list had married young (at 22) with a kid at 26. Wife Donna Godchaux had an even greater musical pedigree than her husband, having sung on some of the early 70s Elvis hits as a backing singer as well as some of Cher’s. It was at her urging that Keith got the job with the Dead when she met Garcia backstage at one of his solo gigs in 1971 and hearing of the band’s problems with an ailing Pipgpen announced ‘I want you to meet your next piano player’. The three met up later but at first the interview wasn’t a success – Godchaux was too shy to even speak to Garcia and only really came alive when he was invited to jam with the band soon afterwards. Donna ended up in the band by association too, adding some of her distinctive harmonies to the Dead sound. Keith only managed to get one song and one vocal on a Dead album (the under-rated ‘Let Me Sing Your Blues Away’ with lyrics by Garcia’s usual writing partner Bob Hunter) but his distinctive ‘rolling’ flowing feel can be heard on many of the band’s most famous numbers both live and in the studio. For my money Keith’s jazzy harmonic licks is a key part of the ‘Blues For Allah’ album and some of the more electronic synthesiser keyboards on later albums like ‘Terrapin Station’ and ‘Shakedown Street’ all but steal the show. Keith and Donna even joined in with the Dead’s new found freedom when they started their own record label in 1973, creating their own joint album (with Garcia playing most of the guitar) ‘Keith and Donna’ in 1975 (with a picture of their son Zion –later a member of the band ‘Boombox’ – on the sleeve). They also backed Jerry in the Garcia Band during the band’s 18 month hiatus in 1974-75. However all was not well by the end of the decade, with the Dead sound starting to get into a rut and a general feeling that the band’s on-stage jams weren’t working together so well. Keith had often felt an ‘outsider’ as the one member of the band who hadn’t been there from the very beginning and Donna’s occasionally off-key vocals were coming in for criticism from fans. The pair were simply unhappy and asked to leave the band in 1979, forming their own unit ‘The Heart Of Gold Band’ after a line from the Grateful Dead song ‘Scarlet Begonias’. Reports say that the band’ early rehearsals sounded magnificent and after years of shying away from the spotlight it finally seemed to be falling on Keith just a few short months after leaving the Dead. However whilst driving back from a second rehearsal session Keith and a friend (no one seems to know who) drove into the back of a parked pick-up truck and Keith, in the passenger seat, died of his wounds. Donna, devastated, retired for some years until she discovered Christianity and a new husband in the shape of bassist David McKay (whose name she occasionally uses onstage). She never played with the Dead again but did release a few albums under the band names of ‘The Ghosts’ ‘The Donna Jean Godchaux Band’ and ‘The Heart Of Gold Band’, often with names familiar to Dead fans from solo work with the other members. Had Keith lived the Heart Of Gold Band mark one might well have been a force to be reckoned with, thanks to tales of those who heard the band rehearsing sounding like a more modern and complex take on the duo’s sole album together. They might well have joined up forces with the Dead again too (who were notorious for keeping ties with past members and friends), perhaps playing as a warm-up act or even as part of the Dead again. Keith’s loss, before the world had properly got to know him or his music, was an awful loss to the world and his contribution to some of the best Grateful Dead records cannot be underestimated. Few people can join a band already some eight years old without the joins showing somewhere – and yet Keith filled the void well, more than playing his part in creating the band’s sound despite doing everything he could to shy away from the eyes of the audience. Classic moment: the ‘Europe ‘72’ live medley of ‘China Cat Sunflower’ > ‘I Know You Rider’ which shifts so subtlety you can’t see the join, a good part of which is down to Keith’s flowing keyboard riffs
Keith Moon (32 years, 0 months, 14 days)
“Would you drink some tea in the theatre with me? One of us gone, one of us mad, one of us me – all of us sad”
Whole books have been written about Keith Moon and even more general books on The Who or rock drummers in general invariably spend whole chapters discussing Moony’s antics on stage and off. The fact is you can’t condense a larger than life character like Keith into a few lines: dismissed by many as a lunatic, his practical jokes and tales of blowing up hotel rooms and driving limousines into swimming pools masked a more complex character, desperate for attention and love. The simple fact is that Keith wanted everyone around him to laugh and never ever knew when to stop or when the joke might have fallen on him. It surprises many people to learn that Keith hadn’t actually joined The Who until mid 1964, just a year before their debut single although years spent in a surf band called ‘The Beachcombers’ had already made him a star on the local London circuit. No one else from that band wanted to turn professional (Keith, perhaps, overshadowing everyone even back then) and hearing The Who needed a drummer sat in on drums. Keith being Keith, he’d died his hair ginger for the day and was dressed in an all ginger suit to make an impression. His propulsive style was exactly the missing link the band had been looking for and the band were so convinced he was ‘one of them’ that they never actually told Keith he was in the band (he joked up to his death that he was just ‘sitting in’ until someone else came along). The Keith Moon stories over the next decade have been much discussed and seem unbelievable – but those who are there are adamant that a good 99% of them are true and several hotel chains actually banned the group from staying there. My favourite story, however, is a more serious one. Hurt by music press comments that he was a madman who couldn’t actually play the drums Keith thought he would take up lessons and booked an appointment to see a ‘professional’. After asking Keith to play something to see how well he could play Keith absolutely demolished the set of drums and turned proudly to the open-mouthed tutor (who said that anyone who could play like that never ever needed to learn to play in any other way!) Keith’s drumming, much copied but never bettered, seemed to have a sixth sense with Pete Townshend’s crashing chords and to not only keep the beat but play several passing notes as well, turning the drums into a lead instrument (John Entwistle’s bass, more often that not, plays the ‘melody line’ between Keith and Pete). The harsh drum sound gave exactly the bravado that Pete’s frightened-kid-putting-on-a-big-pose songs needed and yet its often on Townshend’s most subtle, highbrow songs that Keith comes into his own, showing off his own subtlety and intelligence. However the gap between Who tours got longer and longer and Keith was left with nothing else to fill the gaps. On one occasion he took an injection of animal tranquilisers to keep him going through a Who gig, in which he played ridiculously fast for five minutes and then collapsed (a shaken band were left asking if there was anyone in the audience who could play the drums – luckily there was although he only had the stamina for three songs). Moon became increasingly wild and partied hard with friends, with the dark side of life catching up with him in a big way in 1970 when Keith and his driver/assistant were caught up in a crush of fans and passers by outside a club. Enjoying the attention at first, Keith gradually became scared. He urged his assistant Neil Boland to go and sort matters out but the situation got worse. Really panicked by now, Keith leapt into the driver’s seat and drove quickly out, knocking down and killing his friend in the process. Although magistrates quickly cleared Keith of any wrong doing, the matter haunted him for some time afterwards and although on the surface he remained a practical joker to the end friends and colleagues noticed that his character got substantially darker and less affable. In the meantime Keith made a great cameo playing the wicked Uncle Ernie in the Who film of Tommy and made a typically eccentric solo album ‘Both Sides Of The Moon’ in which he ‘sings’ several Beach Boy and Jan and Dean classics (surf music forever being his first love). The idea allegedly inspired John Lennon, one of his drinking buddies, to record his own rock and roll covers album. By 1978 Keith had been waiting three years for the band to get together and in the meantime had got very out of condition, putting on weight and not having the stamina of days of old. The band were worried enough about Keith to stop touring their 1978 album ‘Who Are You’, which poignantly featured a dishevelled Keith pointing away from the camera to hide his face and sat on a chair marked ‘not to be taken away’. Unfortunately he was, just weeks after the album, from an overdose of tablets he was taking to keep him off the booze (Keith was meant to take three tablets – in the end he took 32, possibly forgetting how many he’d taken earlier, although autopsy reports discovered that six had been all it had taken to stop his heart). Keith had spent the night as the guest of Paul and Linda McCartney at the premiere of ‘The Buddy Holly Story’ (Macca had purchased the rights to Holly’s songs and helped with the film) before retiring to a London flat leant to him by another drinking buddy Harry Nilsson. Remarkably, Mama Cass had died from a heart attack in the very same flat four years earlier. The shock among his bands and fans was immense – Keith, surely, was indestructible after so many years pushing his body to its limits and the thought that something so mundane could have killed him was staggering to those who knew him. Had he lived, The Who might well have been soldiering to this day (or at least up to Entwistle’s own untimely death in 2002), perhaps with a few more film roles and solo albums along the way. No doubt he would now be a cackling grand-dad, delighting in blowing up his millionaire rest-home and teaching the boy and girl bands of today how to put on a real show. We will never see his like again – something for which every Hotel chain will no doubt be breathing a sigh of relief – but for which his fans mourn every time they hear some synthetic rubbish on the radio and think ‘what could Keith Moon have done to liven up this song?’ Classic moment: So many to choose from but we’ve plumped for ‘Love Reign O’er Me’ – Keith’s delicate touch is never better than in this ‘grower’ of a song that builds every single verse and ends with a true crescendo of battering ram drumrolls and syncopated madness, with Keith finally reaching a climax by hurling his whole drumkit into a gong!
All these heroes and heroines are much missed but at least their music lives on – not least on this website. More news, views and music next week!