The Stories Behind Seven Deaths of the Infamous “27 Club”—Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, and More

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Videos by American Songwriter

If you’re a musician, the morning you turn 28 years old can be a special day.

Why? Because it means you avoided the dreaded “27 Club.”

To date, there is a myriad of big-name musicians who are a part of the (dreaded) 27 Club. Many of them died to reported drug overdoses or other sad results of lifestyles that included partying and excess.

While it’s likely a coincidence they all died at the age of 27—perhaps there are other “clubs” of big-name artists who died at 31 or 33—the fact that their deaths lined up at one age remains noteworthy.

For example, a study in the British Medical Journal in 2011 said that there was no increase in the risk of death of a musician at the age of 27—though the journal did say that musicians do face a higher risk of death more generally in their 20s and 30s.

Many of those who are part of the 27 Club died in the ’60s or early ’70s and while some research has claimed their overlap in age is not a symptom of a musician’s job, many anecdotally claim it is.

Legendary music writer Charles Cross, the biographer for Cobain and Hendrix, wrote of the phenomenon, “The number of musicians who died at 27 is truly remarkable by any standard. [Although] humans die regularly at all ages, there is a statistical spike for musicians who die at 27.”

While there are many notable musicians who passed away at 27 years old, we will dive into seven of the biggest names below. So, without further ado, let’s investigate.

1. Robert Johnson

The legendary blues guitar player was born in 1911. His life story includes the apocryphal tale that he “went to the crossroads” and sold his soul to the devil to be able to play guitar as well as he did. Truly, Johnson was capable of playing rhythm, bass, and lead all with just two hands.

In many ways, Johnson is also the first member of the 27 Club. While the club didn’t exist as it does today in pop culture, many look back and point to him as its founder. Johnson, who died in 1938 after drinking a poisoned bottle of whiskey, remains one of the greatest guitar players ever to live.

2. Brian Jones

Jones died at 27 years old and like several on this list, he did so between the years 1969 and 1971. Born on February 28, 1942, Jones, who was the founder and original leader of The Rolling Stones, died on July 3, 1969.

It happened around midnight, Jones was found motionless at the bottom of his swimming pool. His then-girlfriend believed when he was taken from the pool that he still had a pulse. However, he was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. The coroner’s report noted his liver and heart were greatly enlarged by drug and alcohol abuse.

Since his death, theories about his murder have arisen. In 1993, it was reported that carpenter Frank Thorogood killed Jones in a dispute over money. He was allegedly the last person to see Jones alive. The theory was never proven, however.

3. Jimi Hedrix

While many chalk up Hendrix’s death to a drug overdose, the events of his demise aren’t always so conventionally accepted.

Hendrix apparently spent his last day with Monika Dannemann in London. They had a meal and a bottle of wine. She later drove him to a friend’s residence where Hendrix and the acquaintance hung out for about an hour before Dannemann picked him up. She and Hendrix talked from about 3 a.m. to 7 a.m. when they fell asleep. When she woke up at 11, she found him breathing but unconscious and unresponsive. She called for an ambulance and he was pronounced dead at 12:45 p.m. on September 18. Doctors said he choked on his own vomit while intoxicated with barbiturates. Dannemann later claimed he had taken nine of her sleeping pills, which was 18 times the recommended dosage.

Others claim, though, that Hendrix may have been murdered because he wanted out of his recording contract and wanted to go into a new musical direction.

4. Jim Morrison

The frontman for the legendary band The Doors died at age 27 on July 3, 1971.

Said the band’s Robby Kreiger upon hearing the news, “I got a phone call and I didn’t believe it because we used to hear shit like that all the time – that Jim jumped off a cliff or something. So we sent our manager off to Paris, and he called and said it was true.”

After The Doors recorded their hit album, L.A. Woman in Los Angeles, Morrison said he wanted to go to Paris. In March of 1971, he joined his girlfriend Pamela Courson there at an apartment she’d rented for them. In Paris, he went for long walks, shaved his beard, and lost weight.

But soon after, he was found dead in the bathtub of the apartment at 6 a.m. by Courson. The official cause of death was heart failure, although no autopsy was performed. It wasn’t required by French law. Witnesses said he died due to an accidental heroin overdose. Morrison’s death came two years to the day after Brian Jones’.

And like the others above, since his death, a number of conspiracy theories have arisen due to the reason for his death, including the rumor he faked his own death.

5. Janis Joplin

Joplin died at 27 on October 4, 1970. She was found dead on the floor of her room at the Landmark Motor Hotel by her manager and friend John Byrne Cooke. Alcohol was in her system, and other narcotics were removed from the scene by a friend of hers. They were later put back, however, once the friend realized they’d be found in her system.

The cause of death was determined to be a heroin overdose, compounded by alcohol. Joplin had admitted to having problems with drugs and especially alcohol, drinking herself into “stupors.”

Though Cooke believed Joplin had been given heroin that was more potent than what she’d been used to. Her death, either way, was ruled accidental. Another friend, Peggy Caserta, has insisted that Joplin’s death was the result of a head gash she suffered after she fell, her heel caught on shag carpet.

6. Kurt Cobain

In some ways, Cobain started the 27 Club. While Jones, Joplin, Morrison, and others had all died at that age, it wasn’t until Cobain died at 27 in the early 1990s that people began to connect the dots in a way to “create” the club.

The frontman for the immensely popular grunge rock band Nirvana died on April 5, 1994. While the artist was struggling with a severe drug addiction, including the use of heroin, he died by suicide.

In 1994 while in Rome, Cobain’s wife Courtney Love woke up to find he’d overdosed on drugs and champagne. He was rushed to the hospital and released five days later. He flew back to his hometown of Seattle. Love said that was his first suicide attempt.

Later that year in March, Love called Seattle police saying that Cobain was suicidal and had locked himself in a room with a gun. Police arrived and confiscated several guns and a bottle of pills. Cobain said he was not suicidal but had locked himself in the room to escape Love.

Later that month, Cobain went into a detox program. He was visited by friends and his daughter Frances Bean. Later, he left the facility, walking out and hopping a fence after having a cigarette.

Over the next few weeks, Cobain saw friends and family, but many thought he seemed off. Nirvana pulled out of the Lollapalooza festival, as rumors swirled about the band breaking up. On April 8, his body was found by electrician Gary Smith, who’d arrived to install a security system. He noted a small amount of blood coming out of Cobain’s ear. He thought Cobain was asleep but then saw a shotgun pointed at his chin. A suicide note was found, addressed to Cobain’s childhood imaginary friend Boddah.

7. Amy Winehouse

The most recent name to be added to the tragic 27 Club is Winehouse, who died on July 23, 2011.

Those of a certain age can remember her rise to fame, with her big, glamorous voice and her sophomore album, Back to Black. But her rise coincided with the height of the internet and magazine tabloids and her frequent drug use and her messy romantic relationships became constant fodder. The documentary Amy shows this clearly and fans of the singer essentially watched her wither away and die publicly.

The official cause of her death was alcohol poisoning, though Winehouse was addicted to drugs, and famously went into rehab.

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