5 Unsolved Deaths of Music Legends We’re Not Saying Were Murders, But…They Definitely Might Have Been Murders

Some legendary music heroes have died under murky circumstances. Conspiracy theories are sometimes used to cope with the unspeakable, tragic loss of a loved one, so when the loved one is a famous musician? Rumors abound. 

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The mysteries below remain unsolved. Part of the intrigue of rock ’n’ roll is the public’s fascination with myth and legend. What’s more intriguing than the unsolved case surrounding a music legend’s death?

1. Sam Cooke (1964)

Pop and soul superstar Sam Cooke was shot to death in a Los Angeles motel. He was 33 years old. The hotel’s manager, who shot Cooke, claimed self-defense, and the coroner ruled the death a justifiable homicide.

Bertha Franklin, the hotel manager, claimed Cooke had rushed into her office frantically looking for a woman who had been staying in his room. The woman in question, Lisa Boyer, would claim Cooke kidnapped her and forced her into his motel room—a tryst gone bad. Cooke was said to have kicked in the door of the hotel manager’s office, accusing her of hiding Boyer. Franklin shot him dead.

Singer Etta James viewed Cooke’s body prior to his funeral. She claimed his body was ravaged by a beating, inconsistent with the quick scuffle claimed by Franklin. The intrigue surrounding Cooke’s death remains. 

[RELATED: Behind the Song: Sam Cooke, “A Change Is Gonna Come”]

2. Bobby Fuller (1966)

Bobby Fuller, inspired by Elvis Presley and fellow Texan Buddy Holly, formed his own four-piece band, the Bobby Fuller Four. In 1965, they had a hit song with “I Fought the Law.” A few months later, he was found dead, aged 23, in a car outside his Los Angeles apartment.

The initial cause of death was logged as suicide, but was later changed to “accidental.” His body was doused in gasoline and witnesses noticed bruises on Fuller’s body. It was later concluded the hemorrhages were caused by gasoline vapors and heat. Conspiracy theories ranging from Charles Manson to the Mafia persist, but the case remains unsolved. 

3. Johnny Thunders of the New York Dolls (1991)

The New York Dolls, while glammy in appearance, were really one of the earliest punk bands. They lived hard, and the original lineup imploded after only two albums released in the mid-’70s. While the Dolls never achieved commercial success, in hindsight they’re considered one of the most influential bands of all time.

The 1991 death of guitarist Johnny Thunders was ruled a drug overdose. His body was found at the Inn on St. Peter Hotel in New Orleans. According to the coroner’s office, Thunders died of an overdose of cocaine and methadone—which wouldn’t have shocked anyone, but toxicology reported later that the drugs in his system didn’t reach a fatal level.

Writing in his memoir, The Ramones’ Dee Dee Ramone said Thunders was “mixed up with some bastards.” Ramone claimed they were after Thunders’ methadone and murdered him. Thunders was also suffering from leukemia at the time of his death. He was 38 years old. 

4. Elliott Smith (2003)

Elliott Smith isn’t quite a universally known singer-songwriter, but he’s deeply loved. A confessional, indie-minded poet, Smith lived and worked in the time just before every aspect of life could be easily captured with a phone. Because of this, there’s a lingering mysteriousness about him, and especially about his death.

Few were surprised to learn Smith had died young, aged 34, of an apparent suicide. He famously struggled with depression and addiction and had openly talked of killing himself. Smith—it is assumed—stabbed himself in the heart after an argument with his girlfriend, Jennifer Chiba. Chiba found Smith with the knife in his chest. She pulled it out and called 911. He somehow survived for more than an hour after, but died at the hospital.

At the time, detectives concluded his death was “suspicious.” Further investigations didn’t provide answers, but the coroner’s report suggested murder and the investigation is ongoing two-plus decades later—the L.A.P.D. won’t close the case and fans continue to theorize, darkly, about his demise. 

5. Paul Williams of The Temptations (1973)

The Temptations, with their choreographed moves and worldwide super hits (“My Girl,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg“), will always be considered the definitive Motown soul group. But tragedy was to follow their superstar success.

In 1973, after retiring early due to health troubles, the Temps’ former baritone singer, Paul Williams, left his girlfriend’s house in Detroit after an argument. Later, he was found dead inside a car. The car was parked in an alley and a gun was found near his body.

The coroner reported Williams shot himself using his right hand. But the bullet entered the left side of his head. His family suspected foul play. Williams had expressed suicidal thoughts to his bandmates in the past as his life was spiraling out of control. He died at age 34.

Photo by Jess Rand/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

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