A surprising number of artists whose lives were cut tragically short have been voted Lifetime Achievement Awards by the Recording Academy. Twenty-two solo artists who died before their 50th birthdays have received the honor. This is remarkable because it's obviously harder to leave a significant legacy if you're denied the luxury of time. But few would argue that these artists did just that.
Drug and/or alcohol abuse played a role in many of these deaths. Given how much performers travel, it's not surprising that four of the 22 artists (Holly, Otis Redding, Patsy Cline and Glenn Miller) died in plane crashes. But it is sobering to realize that three (Sam Cooke, John Lennon and Marvin Gaye) were shot to death.
Four of the 22 artists died less than four years after their making first appearance on Billboard's pop album or singles charts. Of these, Holly had the shortest chart career before his death (just 18 months), followed by Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Hank Williams. (Two other artists, Robert Johnson and John Coltrane, never appeared on the pop charts during their lifetimes, though both have charted posthumously.)
Here's a complete list of solo artists who have been voted Grammy Lifetime Achievement Awards and who died before reaching 50. They're listed in order of their age when they died-youngest first.Buddy Holly. Holly was just 22 when he died in a plane crash near Mason City, Iowa on February 3, 1959. But he left behind a rich lode of songs, including "Peggy Sue," "Rave On" and the #1 smash "That'll Be The Day" (credited to his group, The Crickets). Gary Busey received an Oscar nomination for playing the bespeckled singer/songwriter in the 1978 movie The Buddy Holly Story.
Otis Redding. Redding was 26 when he died in a plane crash in Madison, Wis. on December 10, 1967. He died just six months after Aretha Franklin hit #1 with her classic version of his composition, "Respect." Redding went on to have a posthumous #1 hit of his own, "(Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay." Redding recorded the soul-baring ballad just 18 days before his death. Robert Johnson. Johnson was 27 when he died of strychnine poisoning on August 16, 1938. The blues singer/guitarist's works were collected on the 1961 album, King Of the Delta Blues Singers, and even more definitively on the 1990 two-disc set, The Complete Recordings. In 2004, Eric Clapton released a tribute album of Johnson songs, Me And Mr. Johnson. Janis Joplin. Joplin, who busted down doors for female rock performers, was 27 when she died of a heroin overdose on Oct. 4, 1970. Like Jimi Hendrix, who had died of an overdose just two weeks earlier, Joplin made a huge impression at the Monterey International Pop Festival in June 1967. With Big Brother & The Holding Company, she had a #1 album, Cheap Thrills, in 1968. Joplin returned to the top spot on her own after her death with Pearl and its classic hit, "Me And Bobby McGee." Jimi Hendrix. The rock guitarist was 27 when he died of a drug overdose on Sept. 18, 1970. Hendrix hit his zenith in 1968 with the #1 album Electric Ladyland and its top 20 hit "All Along The Watchtower" (written by Bob Dylan). In addition to his star-making turn at Monterey, Hendrix played at the 1969 Woodstock festival, where he performed an iconic version of "The Star Spangled Banner." Hendrix followed The Jimi Hendrix Experience in 1969 with a new ensemble, Band of Gypsys. Hank Williams. The country legend was 29 when he died of alcohol and drug abuse on Jan. 1, 1953. He left behind such classic songs as "Jambalaya (On The Bayou)," "Cold, Cold Heart" and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." George Hamilton played Williams in the 1964 movie Your Cheatin' Heart. Williams and his son, Hank Williams Jr., were co-billed on a 1965 album, Father & Son. Mercury Records released a 10-CD collection, The Complete Hank Williams, in 1998.
Patsy Cline. The country balladeer was 30 when she was killed in a plane crash near Camden, Tenn. on March 5, 1963. Her hits include "Walkin' After Midnight," "I Fall To Pieces" and "Crazy" (written by Willie Nelson). Patsy Cline's Greatest Hits, released in 1967, is one of the best-selling country albums in history. Jessica Lange received an Oscar nomination for playing the title role in the 1985 film Sweet Dreams-The Life And Times Of Patsy Cline. Sam Cooke. The soul singer was 33 when died after being shot by a female motel manager on Dec. 11, 1964. Cooke was the lead singer of the gospel group The Soul Stirrers before he turned to secular music in 1956. His many classics include the silky 1957 ballad "You Send Me" and the posthumous, double-sided hit "Shake"/"A Change Is Gonna Come." Charlie Parker. The jazz alto saxophonist known as "Bird" was 34 when he died of pneumonia on March 12, 1955. Parker's band, featuring trumpet great Dizzy Gillespie, ushered in progressive jazz and the be-bop movement. In 1950, Parker had a top 10 album, Charlie Parker With Strings. He followed it three years later with a classic live album, Jazz At Massey Hall. Bob Marley. The reggae legend survived a shooting in December 1976 only to die of cancer on May 11, 1981. He was 36. Marley wrote such classic songs as "Stir It Up" (a hit for Johnny Nash) and "I Shot The Sheriff" (a #1 for Eric Clapton). He also led the Wailers on such prized albums as Natty Dream, Catch A Fire and Exodus. The 1984 compilation Legend has become one of the best-selling albums in history. In 1990, Marley's birthday was proclaimed a national holiday in his native Jamaica. Fats Waller. Waller was 39 when he died of pneumonia on Dec. 15, 1943. He died five months after the premiere of the movie Stormy Weather, in which he appeared as himself. Waller kicked off a string of hits with "Ain't Misbehavin'" in 1929. Waller's distinctive stride piano style, high-spirited vocals and engaging personality made him a star. The 1978 Broadway musical Ain't Misbehavin' celebrated his songs and spirit. John Lennon. The rock icon was 40 when he was shot to death by a deranged fan on Dec. 8, 1980. Lennon created a matchless legacy, both with the Beatles and, starting in 1969, on his own. Double Fantasy, a collaboration with Yoko Ono, and its lead single, "(Just Like) Starting Over," both soared to #1 in the wake of Lennon's murder. The Englishman was the subject of the 1988 movie documentary Imagine: John Lennon. Glenn Miller. The beloved bandleader was 40 and serving in the military when his plane disappeared en route from England to France on Dec. 15, 1944. Miller played trombone for Benny Goodman and Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, among others, before forming his own ensemble in 1937. It became the most popular big band of all time, with such smash hits as "Moonlight Serenade" and "In The Mood." Jimmy Stewart played the bandleader in the 1954 movie The Glenn Miller Story. John Coltrane. The jazz tenor saxophonist was 40 when he died of liver cancer on July 17, 1967. Coltrane played with Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk before going solo in 1957. He never reached The Billboard 200 in his lifetime, despite the release of such classic albums as Blue Train, Giant Steps and My Favorite Things. He charted for the first time with Expression four months after he died. Elvis Presley. The king of rock'n'roll was 42 when he died of heart failure caused by prescription drug abuse on Aug. 16, 1977. Presley first recorded for Sun Records in 1954. He moved to RCA Records in 1956 and launched a historic run of hits, including "Don't Be Cruel," "Suspicious Minds" and "Burning Love." He also starred in 31 movies and a legendary 1968 TV special whose impact is suggested by its nickname, "the comeback special." Kurt Russell and Jonathan Rhys Meyers played Elvis in separate TV movies. Bessie Smith. The Empress of the Blues was 43 when she died following an auto accident on Sept. 26, 1937. Smith got her start touring with blues singer Ma Rainey. She later worked with such top jazzmen as Louis Armstrong. Smith turned a lot of heads in 1923 when her "Down Hearted Blues" sold a million copies-a stunning achievement at a time when blues records were still condescending referred to as "race records." Billie Holiday. The jazz singer known as Lady Day was 44 when she died of cirrhosis of the liver, following years of drug abuse, on July 17, 1959. Holiday had dozens of hits in the '30s and '40s, including "What A Little Moonlight Can Do," "Strange Fruit" and "God Bless The Child." Diana Ross received an Oscar nomination for playing Holiday in the 1972 film Lady Sings The Blues. Marvin Gaye. The soul singer was one day shy of his 45th birthday when he was fatally shot by his father following a quarrel on April 1, 1984. Gaye recorded a long string of hits, from 1962's "Stubborn Kind Of Fellow" to 1982's "Sexual Healing," but his greatest legacy may be his groundbreaking early '70s concept albums What's Going On and Let's Get It On. Gaye also recorded hit duets with Mary Wells, Kim Weston, Diana Ross and, most memorably, Tammi Terrell. Nat "King" Cole. The jazz pianist turned pop balladeer was 45 when he died of lung cancer on Feb. 15, 1965. Cole broke through in 1943 leading the jazz combo, The King Cole Trio. He hit even greater heights as a solo artist with such #1 hits as "Nature Boy" and "Mona Lisa." In 1956, he became the first African American to headline a network TV variety show. His daughter Natalie Cole echoed his warmth and grace on her 1991 tribute album Unforgettable With Love. Judy Garland. The incomparable entertainer was 47 when she died of a sleeping pill overdose on June 22, 1969. Garland starred in such MGM classics as The Wizard Of Oz and Meet Me In St. Louis. In 1961, she recorded Judy At Carnegie Hall, which was #1 for 13 weeks and won the Grammy for Album of the Year. Judy Davis and Tammy Blanchard both won Emmys for playing Garland, at different ages, in the 2001 TV movie, Life With Judy Garland: Me And My Shadows. Art Tatum. The jazz pianist, a former child prodigy, was 47 when he died from complications of uremia as a result of kidney failure on Nov. 5, 1956. Art Tatum & His Swingsters had a hit in 1937 with an instrumental version of "Body And Soul." Two years later, Tatum scored with an instrumental version of the 1920s standard, "Tea For Two." He also appeared as himself in the 1947 movie, The Fabulous Dorseys.
Enrico Caruso. The tenor, regarded as the greatest opera star of all time, was 48 when he died on Aug. 2, 1921. His death, likely from peritonitis, prompted international mourning. Caruso, born in Italy, came to the U.S. in 1902 and began a long association with the New York Metropolitan Opera. He emerged as a recording star in 1904 with "I Pagliacci-Vesti La Giubba (On With The Play)." Mario Lanza, the most famous tenor since Caruso, starred in the 1951 biopic, The Great Caruso.
In addition to these solo artists, a number of group members who died before their 50th birthdays have been recognized with Lifetime Achievement Awards. They include Jim Morrison, lead singer for The Doors, who died at 27; Keith Moon, drummer for The Who, who died at 32; John Bonham, drummer for Led Zeppelin, who also died at 32; and Dennis Wilson, drummer for The Beach Boys, who died at 39. (Drumming would appear to be a risky vocational choice. Karen Carpenter, who died at 32 and who will probably receive this honor someday, was also a drummer.)
This list was fun to do, but sad to contemplate. What a tragedy to lose so many gifted artists so young. Neil Diamond had a hit in 1971 called "Done Too Soon." These 22 artists, and others like them, were "done too soon."
- Buddy Holly