When the news broke Saturday that Amy Winehouse had died, most music fans simply reacted in shock and sorrow, saddened by the news of a talented singer dying young.
But for some, the fact that Winehouse died at age 27 felt ominously appropriate. Over the years, a disturbing number of pop stars have died at age 27, a list that includes Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain. It might be a coincidence, or it might be a curse, but either way, it’s creepy.
It’s also the subject of a book, The 27s: The Greatest Myth of Rock and Roll. In it, authors Eric Segalstad and Josh Hunter offer the stories of 34 musicians who died at age 27. As the title suggests, the book doesn’t make any great claims for the coincidence of these early deaths, and their list goes a bit beyond normal notions of rock stardom.
Robert Johnson, for instance, may have been a major influence on Eric Clapton and other rock guitar gods, but his death at 27 from strychnine poisoning came in 1938, well before the rock era. Likewise, the book includes the 19th century Brazilian composer Alexandre Levy and ragtime musician Louis Chauvin, who died in 1908. There are also some artists, such as Maria Serranno Serranno of the Eurodisco girl group Passionfruit, or Bryan Ottoson of the metal band American Head Charge, whose inclusion seems to stretch the notion of rock stardom.
Still, even if the 27s list is trimmed down from the book version, is it long enough to be statistically meaningful?
“If you want look at it from a statistical point of view, you can say, what’s the chance that that would happen by luck alone?” says Jeff Rosenthal, a professor in the department of statistics at the University of Toronto and author of Struck By Lightning: The Curious World of Probabilities. As he explains, the best way to do that is to compile a list of pop musicians who died young, and see if an unusual percentage of them died at age 27.
So the Globe did just that, compiling a list of 115 musicians from the rock era who died under the age of 50, and it turned out that 27 was by far the most common age, applying to 23 of the 115. The next most common age was 30, which covered nine deaths, followed by 25 (eight), 24 (seven), and 33 (six).
“Then, of course, there’s the whole issue of how do you interpret that?” says Dr. Rosenthal. In other words, is the frequency of death at age 27 due to lifestyle issues, or just dumb luck?
As might be expected, there are a good number of drug-connected deaths. Some were clearly overdoses – Janis Joplin, Alan Wilson of Canned Heat, and Kristen Pfaff from Hole – but others, such as Jimi Hendrix’s choking on vomit in his sleep, seem more misadventure than abuse. There are also a disheartening number of suicides, Kurt Cobain, Badfinger’s Pete Ham, Richey Edwards of Manic Street Preachers, and possibly Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones.
Many of the other deaths have no connection to mental health, or anything beyond simple bad luck. Car crashes claimed the lives of R&B singer Jessie Belvin, Big Star’s Chris Bell, Jacob Miller of Inner Circle, and D. Boon of the Minutemen. Punk singer Mia Zapata of the Gits was murdered by an unknown assailant; Dave Alexander of the Stooges died of pneumonia; Arlester “Dyke” Christian, of the sixties R&B act Dyke & the Blazers was shot to death.
Then there was Les Harvey of the British band Stone the Crows, who was electrocuted onstage when he touched an ungrounded microphone while holding his guitar. What did that have to do with his being 27?
As Dr. Rosenthal points out, probably nothing. Given the social aspects of the rock and roll lifestyle, “you could imagine that there is a bias toward roughly that age, at least, the mid- to late-20s,” he says. However, “If we ran the universe over again, we would probably find a concentration of people dying in their mid- to late-20s, but we wouldn’t find such a concentration at the same exact age.
“There’s probably a little bit of random luck going on there, would be my guess.”
J.D. Considine writes about music for The Globe and Mail. He has also been published by Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, Spin, Guitar World, Musician, The New York Times and The Washington Post.