Once the shock of Michael Jackson's sudden death started to fade, it occurred to me that this is hardly the first time that a top male African American artist has died in his prime. Many of the top male soul stars of the '60s, '70s and '80s have been struck down in middle age (or even earlier). Think I'm exaggerating? Let's take a look back.
All of the following artists had #1 albums on Billboard's R&B chart from the '60s through the end of the '80s. All, sadly, died before reaching their 60th birthday.
Luther Vandross was 54 when he died in July 2005. He had suffered a massive stroke in April 2003. Vandross was the king of classy, romantic R&B in the '80s and '90s, thanks to such hits as "Never Too Much" and "Here And Now."
Rick James was 56 when he died of a heart attack in August 2004. James was the hottest funk star of the late '70s and early '80s, with such hits as "You And I" and the unforgettable "Super Freak (Part 1)."
Barry White was 58 when he died of kidney failure in July 2003. White had two #1 hits in 1974, his own "Can't Get Enough Of Your Love, Babe" and Love Unlimited Orchestra's lush instrumental "Love's Theme," which he wrote and produced. The deep-voiced singer experienced a resurgence in 1994 with his album The Icon Is Love.
Curtis Mayfield was 57 when he died in December 1999, nine years after being paralyzed from the neck down when a stage lighting tower fell on him. Mayfield wrote and sang the Impressions' classic "People Get Ready" in 1965, but had his biggest album seven years later, the chart-topping Superfly soundtrack.
Grover Washington Jr. was 56 when he died of a heart attack in December 1999 (in the green room at CBS' The Early Show). The jazz/R&B saxophonist landed his biggest hit, the silky "Just The Two Of Us," in 1981.
Roger Troutman was 47 when he was shot to death by his brother in April 1999. Troutman found success both with the band Zapp and on his own. Roger (as he was billed) had his biggest solo hit with 1988's "I Want To Be Your Man," though he was also featured (along with Dr. Dre) on 2Pac's 1996 hit "California Love."
Jam-Master Jay, a founding member of Run-D.M.C., was 37 when he was shot and killed at a recording studio in Queens, N.Y. The rap trio's biggest hit was 1986's "Walk This Way," which featured Aerosmith's Steve Tyler and Joe Perry. The rap-rock fusion was one of the most influential recordings of the 1980s.
David Ruffin, Kendricks' one-time partner in the Temptations, was 50 when he died of a drug overdose in June 1991. Ruffin had a pair of top 10 solo hits, "My Whole World Ended (The Moment You Left Me)" and "Walk Away From Love."
Philippe Wynne, the former lead singer of the Spinners, was 43 when he died of a heart attack in July 1984. (He suffered the heart attack while performing on-stage in Oakland, Calif.) Wynne was with the Spinners during its heyday, when it scored such marvelous hits as "I'll Be Around" and "Then Came You" (with Dionne Warwick).
Marvin Gaye was 44 (one day away from turning 45) in April 1984 when he was shot to death by his father. The Motown legend turned out pop and R&B classics for 20 years. His biggest hits were "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" and "Let's Get It On," but his most enduring work is the landmark What's Going On album.
Otis Redding was just 26 when he died in a plane crash in December 1967. Just 18 days before he died, Redding recorded "(Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay," which became a posthumous #1 hit and a classic of the first order.
Sam Cooke was 33 when he was shot to death by a motel manager in December 1964. Cooke topped the chart with the silky "You Send Me" in 1957 and also wrote and sang "A Change Is Gonna Come," which became a posthumous hit in 1965 and remains a potent civil rights anthem.
What's behind these early deaths? It's always risky to generalize, but I think it's fair to say that middle age can be hard on American men, and especially African American men, who are, statistically, at higher risk for certain diseases. And show business isn't an easy life for performers. The unceasing pressure to stay on top (or get back on top) can wear a person down.
The age 60 is, of course, an arbitrary cut-off. These days, a man in his 60s or 70s need not be considered old. Look at the great B.B. King, who is still going strong at 83. Or Quincy Jones, who has a finger in every media pie at 76. But certainly, there's an added poignancy when someone is taken when they are just in their 20s, 30s, 40s or 50s.
Thank goodness for "Pops" Staples, the patriarch of the Staple Singers, who lived to the ripe old age of 85. May many of today's top soul men live as long.