Brian Wilson's new album, Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin, has put a spotlight on the legendary George Gershwin, who composed such standards as "Someone To Watch Over Me" and "Our Love Is Here To Stay." Gershwin was just 38 when he died of a brain tumor in 1937. Tragically, many of music's brightest stars and composers died before reaching their 40th birthdays.
To honor these artists, I created this list of 40 music immortals who died before turning 40, but whose music lives on. Bernie Taupin may have said it best in his lyric for Elton John's "Candle In The Wind": "Your candle burned out long before your legend ever did."
There were scores of candidates for this list. I tried to select 40 artists whose deaths were more than just sad stories, but significant losses for music. At the end of the list I mention about 20 other names that I wish I'd been able to include. I'm sure that many of you will suggest still more names.
Here are 40 key artists who died before reaching 40. They're listed in chronological order, by the date of their deaths.
Jimmie Rodgers. Rodgers, who is often dubbed "the father of country music," was 35 when he died of tuberculosis on May 26, 1933. His most famous song was "Blue Yodel No. 1 (T For Texas)." A compilation of his hits made the top five in 1949. Merle Haggard paid tribute to Rodgers on his 1969 album, Same Train, A Different Time.
George Gershwin. Gershwin was 38 when he died of a brain tumor on July 11, 1937. He left behind such masterful works as "Rhapsody In Blue" and the folk opera Porgy & Bess. Robert Alda played the composer in the 1945 movie Rhapsody In Blue. The all-Gershwin soundtrack to An American In Paris was #1 for 16 weeks in 1952.
Robert Johnson. Johnson, dubbed "the king of the delta blues singers," was 27 when he died of strychnine poisoning on Aug. 16, 1938. The singer/guitarist's works were collected on The Complete Recordings in 1990. Eric Clapton paid tribute to Johnson on his 2004 album, Me And Mr. Johnson.
Fats Waller. Waller was 39 when he died of pneumonia on Dec. 15, 1943. He kicked off a string of hits with "Ain't Misbehavin'" in 1929. Louis Armstrong paid tribute to Waller on his 1955 album, Satch Plays Fats. The 1978 Broadway musical Ain't Misbehavin' celebrated Waller's songs and spirit.
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)" and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." Tony Bennett hit #1 in 1951 with Williams' "Cold, Cold Heart." George Hamilton played Williams in the 1964 movie Your Cheatin' Heart.
Charlie Parker. The jazz alto saxophonist known as "Bird" was 34 when he died of pneumonia on March 12, 1955. Parker's band ushered in progressive jazz and the be-bop movement. In 1950, Parker had a top 10 album, Charlie Parker With Strings. Forest Whitaker played Parker in Clint Eastwood's 1988 movie, Bird.
Buddy Holly. Holly was just 22 when he died in a plane crash near Mason City, Iowa on February 3, 1959. He wrote such songs as "Peggy Sue," "Rave On" and the #1 smash "That'll Be The Day." Gary Busey received an Oscar nomination for playing the bespeckled singer/songwriter in the 1978 movie The Buddy Holly Story.
Ritchie Valens. Valens was just 17 when he died in the same plane crash that killed Buddy Holly (and the Big Bopper). Valens' hit "Donna," which was #3 on the Hot 100 the week of the crash, rose to #2 after his death. Lou Diamond Phillips played Valens in the 1987 movie La Bamba. Los Lobos hit #1 with the movie's title song.
Mario Lanza. Lanza had a #1 hit in 1950 with the operatic "Be My Love." He amassed 11 top 10 albums from 1949 to 1960 and starred in seven movies. Along the way, he became the most popular operatic tenor since Enrico Caruso. Lanza was 38 when he died of a heart attack on Oct. 7, 1959.
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." Jessica Lange received an Oscar nomination for playing the lead role in the 1985 film Sweet Dreams-The Life And Times Of Patsy Cline.
Dinah Washington. The R&B singer was 39 when she died of an overdose on Dec. 14, 1963. She had reached the top 10 with the classic "What A Diff'rence A Day Makes" and with a pair of duets with Brook Benton. She also had a top 10 album, Unforgettable.
Sam Cooke. The soul singer was 33 when he died after being shot by a 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 "Shake"/"A Change Is Gonna Come."
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 #1 hit of his own with "(Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay."
Brian Jones. The former guitarist for the Rolling Stones was 27 when he drowned on July 3, 1969. He died less than a month after he had been dismissed from the group, which had at that point amassed 11 top 10 hits, including such classics as "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" and "Ruby Tuesday."
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 a hit version of Bob Dylan's "All Along The Watchtower." A newly released Hendrix album, Valleys Of Neptune, made the top five this past March.
Janis Joplin. Joplin was 27 when she died of a heroin overdose on Oct. 4, 1970. 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."
Jim Morrison. Morrison, the charismatic lead singer of the Doors, was 27 when he died of heart failure on July 3, 1971. The Doors exploded in 1967 with the #1 smash "Light My Fire." They landed a #1 album, Waiting For The Sun, the following year. Val Kilmer played Morrison in Oliver Stone's 1991 movie The Doors.
Duane Allman. The lead guitarist for the Allman Brothers Band was 24 when he died in a motorcycle crash on Oct. 29, 1971. (Incredibly, just two weeks later, another founding member of the band, Berry Oakley, also died in a motorcycle crash.) Allman was featured on such albums At Fillmore East and Eat A Peach.
Gram Parsons. Parsons, who was a member of the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers in the late '60s, was 26 when he died of a drug overdose on Sept. 19, 1973. He never made much of a chart impact, but his blend of rock, folk and country was highly influential. His album, Grievous Angel, dented the chart five months after his death.
Jim Croce. The singer-songwriter was 30 when he died in a plane crash on Sept. 20, 1973. His 1972 breakthrough album, You Don't Mess Around With Jim, reached #1 in January 1974, four months after the crash. The album spawned a #1 single, the philosophical "Time In A Bottle."
Bobby Darin. Darin was 37 when he died of heart failure on Dec. 20, 1973. Darin was just 23 when he won the Grammy for Record of the Year for the snazzy "Mack The Knife." His other hits ranged from the teen novelty "Splish Splash" to the heartfelt "If I Were A Carpenter." Kevin Spacey played the singer in the 2004 movie Beyond The Sea.
Cass Elliot. Elliot, who was the heart of the Mamas and the Papas, was 32 when she died of a heart attack on July 29, 1974. In 1968, Elliot stepped out front with a classy version of a 1930s standard, "Dream A Little Dream Of Me." She went on to score a few solo hits, including "Make Your Own Kind Of Music."
Florence Ballard. As a founding member of the Supremes, Ballard notched 10 #1 hits before her 24th birthday. But she was dismissed from the trio in 1967 and died of cardiac arrest on Feb. 22, 1976. She was 32.
Lynyrd Skynyrd, was 29 when he died in a plane crash on Oct. 20, 1977. (The crash also killed two newer band members, Steve and Cassie Gaines.) Lynyrd Skynyrd's classic hits include "Sweet Home Alabama" and "Free Bird." The band was remembered with the 1994 tribute album, Skynyrd Frynds.
Terry Kath. Kath, who was one of three lead vocalists in Chicago (along with Peter Cetera and Robert Lamm) died of an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound on Jan. 23, 1978. He was 31. Kath sang lead on the group's hits "Make Me Smile" and "Colour My World."
Keith Moon. The drummer for The Who was 32 when he died of a drug overdose on September 7, 1978, just as the band's album Who Are You entered the chart. The group's most famous album was 1969's Tommy.
Led Zeppelin was 32 when he died of asphyxiation on Sept. 25, 1980. All nine of the band's albums to that point had been top 10 hits. Six of them had reached #1.
Bob Marley. The reggae legend was 36 when he died of cancer on May 11, 1981. Marley wrote such classic songs as "Stir It Up" and "I Shot The Sheriff." The 1984 compilation Legend is one of the best-selling albums in history. In 1990, Marley's birthday was proclaimed a national holiday in his native Jamaica.
Karen Carpenter. Carpenter, whose warm vocals graced a dozen top 10 hits in the '70s, died on Feb. 4, 1983 of heart failure linked to anorexia nervosa. She was 32. The 1994 tribute album If I Were A Carpenter, which consisted mostly of alternative acts, showed the breadth of the Carpenters' fan base.
Stevie Ray Vaughan The guitarist was 35 when he died in a helicopter crash on Aug. 27, 1990. Vaughan and his band, Double Trouble, had had a series of hit albums since 1983. A tribute album, A Tribute To Stevie Ray Vaughan, was a hit in 1996.
Steve Clark. The guitarist for Def Leppard was 30 when he died of alcohol-related respiratory failure on Jan. 8, 1991. The band's albums Pyromania and Hysteria logged a combined total of 116 weeks in the top 10 on The Billboard 200.
Kurt Cobain. The lead singer of Nirvana died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on April 8, 1994. He was 27. Nirvana hit #1 with two studio albums before Cobain's death and with two live albums after it.
Eazy-E. The rapper was 31 when he died of AIDS on March 26, 1995. He was a founding member of N.W.A., which had a #1 album, EFIL4ZAGGIN, in 1991. He also had two top 10 albums on his own. Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony paid tribute to Eazy-E with the title of their 1995 album, E. 1999 Eternal.
Selena. The budding Tejano star was shot to death by the founder of her fan club on March 31, 1995. Selena was 23. Her English language debut album, Dreaming Of You, opened at #1 four months later. Jennifer Lopez played the star in the 1997 movie Selena.
2Pac. The rapper was 25 when he died on Sept. 13, 1996 of wounds he had suffered six days earlier in a shooting in Las Vegas. 2Pac had two #1 albums before his death and has had three more posthumously. He also appeared in such movies as Poetic Justice, Gridlock'd and Gang Related.
The Notorious B.I.G. The rapper was 24 when he was shot to death on March 9, 1997, just days after the release of his album, Life After Death. Puff Daddy teamed with Biggie's widow, Faith Evans, on the posthumous tribute song, "I'll Be Missing You." Jamal Woolard played the rapper in the 2009 movie Notorious.
Aaliyah. The R&B star and budding movie actress was 22 when she died in a plane crash in the Bahamas on August 25, 2001. Her eponymous third album was released shortly before her death and climbed to #1 shortly afterwards.
And what about? Here are just a few of the many artists who I would have liked to have been able to include on this list. 40 spots fill up fast! Harry Chapin, Keith Whitley, Andy Gibb, Gene Vincent, Clyde McPhatter, Eva Cassidy, Tim Buckley and Jeff Buckley, as well as these high-profile group members: Layne Staley of Alice In Chains, Cliff Burton of Metallica, Brad Nowell of Sublime, Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, Michael Hutchence of INXS, Lowell George of Little Feat, William Powell of the O'Jays, Ol' Dirty Bastard of Wu-Tang Clan, Jam Master Jay of Run-D.M.C., Paul Williams of the Temptations, Jeff Porcaro of Toto, Hillel Slovak of Red Hot Chili Peppers and David Cole of C&C Music Factory.
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