August 24, 2016

The Infamous 27 Club - Inception through the 1960s

The 27 Club:  a group or club of musicians/artists who died at age 27, often the result of drugs, alcohol or violent means.

Circa 1935; orig pub at
Robert Johnson.  The founding member of this notorious club is called the father of modern blues and the resulting rock and roll.   His unexplained death has become the stuff of legends, due to poison, womanizing and/or a deal with the devil, depending on who you ask.  Robert Johnson created his own songs, mixing his incredible guitar skills with blues of the existing lexicon of the day, turning out music that is still fresh, inspiring and groundbreaking to this day.  His skill and creativity was inexplicably high which led to the rumors both during his lifetime and after his death that he had made a deal with the devil for his amazing ability.  Some of his songs played into this myth, with Johnson singing about hellhounds, a crossroads and burying his body by the side of the road.  Truth or not, or whether he was incredibly media savvy long before others were, he was a gifted musician with a taste for the ladies and a taste for liquor.  His recordings were made only during the last two years of his lifetime, in 1936 and 1937 in San Antonio and Dallas; before then he was often playing on street corners, juke joints and Saturday night dances.  These recordings would change musical history although Johnson himself would never know as he experienced little success or public recognition during his lifetime.

In August of 1938, Johnson had been performing at a dance hall outside of Greenwood, Mississippi.  He was reported to have been flirting with a married woman or women and as he had been in the area for several weeks, his dalliances became well known and to the wrong people.  Some sources theorize that he was given poisoned hooch by an angry man or jilted woman but if the drink was laced with the suspected strychnine it seems that Johnson would have fallen and died sooner.  Not only that but strychnine has a very distinct odor and taste which would make it difficult to ingest unknowingly.  Whatever the means, on August 16, 1938 after three days of suffering, Robert Johnson died of unspecified causes on a plantation outside of town.  The investigation at the time noted that the plantation owner, while not knowing Johnson, opined that Johnson had died of syphilis.

The enigma of Johnson's life and death surround him to this day.  To add to the mystery, the location of Johnson's grave is unknown, with three different markers erected at cemeteries in Mississippi.  In all likelihood, he was given a pauper's grave and buried on or close to the land in which he died.

Jesse Belvin.   While Jesse Belvin's name is not well remembered today, his 1950s melodies of "Earth Angel" and "Goodnight, My Love" certainly are.   Like Robert Johnson, Belvin was a songwriter and singer but rather than strumming the guitar, he tickled the ivories of a piano.  Given the nickname "Mr. Easy," RCA began to mold him to rival Nat King Cole and be a crossover star to white audiences.

On February 6, 1960, following a performance in Little Rock, Arkansas with Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson and Marv Johnson, Belvin and his wife were killed in a head-on collision.  As this concert was the first integrated one in Little Rock's history, tensions had been high.  Belvin received death threats prior to the concert; during the show itself racial epithets had been shouted by whites, leading to interruptions of the concert.  These things had led to speculation that his 1959 Cadillac had been tampered with.  The true cause of the accident was the hired driver falling asleep at the wheel - - something he had recently been fired for by another musical act.  Jesse Belvin's death was a sad and tragic accident, cutting short a talented life.

Rudy Lewis.  Rudy Lewis started his career as a gospel singer before joining The Drifters in 1960 to replace Ben E. King as lead vocalist.  What should have been an incredibly good break, following King proved to be unfortunate for Lewis; King had redefined the group's sound, got the recognition for it and Lewis was never allowed to eclipse that despite singing most of King's repertory in concert.  Lewis was blessed with a rich, passionate voice that made The Drifters' songs vivid and undeniably sensuous.  

Sadly, his place with the group was cut tragically short on the night/morning of May 20-21, 1964.  The group was set to record "Under the Boardwalk," written specifically for Lewis, on May 21 but Lewis did not show.  A check to his Harlem hotel room found him dead in bed.  Strangely, an autopsy was never performed and the authorities ruled his death a probable drug overdose.   Acquaintances would say that Lewis was a binge eater and may have choked to death in his sleep,  His own family and friends believe he died from a combination drug overdose, asphyxiation and heart attack.  Johnny Moore would sing "Under the Boardwalk" in Rudy Lewis' stead and remain with The Drifters for the duration of their career.  The Drifters would record "I Don't Want to Go On Without You" in tribute to Lewis.

Malcolm Hale.  Malcolm Hale, of Spanky and Our Gang had one of the briefest musical careers and yet his death put paid to the band's life span.  Not much appears to be published on his early life, other than being born in Butte, Montana but Hale, along with Spanky McFarlane, was a founding member of the folksy band in 1967.  Officially their lead guitarist, the talented Hale also wrote songs, did some vocal harmonies and played the trombone, horns and keyboards.  The group's first album was released in August of 1967 and scored two hits -- "Lazy Day" and "Sunday Will Never Be the Same."   The spring of 1968 birthed their sophomore effort and this second LP contained big hits "Sunday Morning" and "Like To Get To Know You."  

The summer of 1968 saw the release of a single that would create much controversy, both publicly and within the band - -"Give a Damn."  Many radio stations would not play the single due to the word "damn" being used but the major sore spot was the basis of the song, which was about racial equality, complete with the use of an angry African-American's voice at the end.  The song did manage to become a minor hit, even without popular play; Spanky and Our Gang performed it live on The Smothers Brothers tv show, drawing ire and complaint from President Nixon, among others.

On October 30, 1968, while suffering from a terrible case of bronchitis, Malcolm Hale died of carbon monoxide poisoning in Chicago, due to a faulty space heater in a poorly ventilated bedroom.  With his unexpected death, it was discovered that he was the guiding force and glue holding the band together; without him, it quickly disintegrated, leaving only two albums in Spanky and Our Gang's library.  While Hale is not a well known musician today, his contributions and Spanky and Our Gang's music lives on.

Dickie Pride.   Dickie Pride has the questionable distinction of being the first British rock star to die of a drug overdose.   He began his career singing toward a possible opera career before joining a skiffle group known as The Semi-Tones.  At the age of seventeen he was heard by Russ Conway, who had him signed with Larry Parnes.  Parnes changed his name from Richard Kneller to Dickie Pride and he was soon signed by Columbia Records, who would dub him "The Sheik of Shake" thanks to the way he moved as he sang.  Still only 17, Pride began performing on stage all over England, collecting universal praise.  Not only did he have a splendid voice but he was a natural performer on stage; British TV soon followed.

Despite these successes however, Pride's behavior began to become erratic.  Other singers were fearful of his personality, which apparently could flip on a dime.  He would fight on a moment's notice and began drinking and smoking dope.  It wasn't uncommon for a drunk or stoned Pride to jump into an audience and began beating a heckler, just as it wasn't uncommon for a sober Pride to be kind and friendly.  By 1961, the year he turned twenty, he career seemed to be all but over.  He attempted to record an album of standards for Columbia but the label dropped him, to be followed by Parnes.  He married in 1962; tried to start a band in 1963, without success; and became the father to a son in 1965.  That same year he began performing with a band called The Sidewinders.  Despite this upturn, addiction had reared its ugly head and Pride began using heroin.  At the time he tried to get off the drug, there were only some 600 registered addicts in the entire country so it's safe to say that not much was known about heroin addiction and how to kick it.  The drug addiction, coupled with depression and his marital breakup, led to him being committed to a mental hospital in 1967 and given a lobotomy.  Despite the barbaric procedure, his family and friends claim that the procedure allowed him to return to his normal self for the next year.

On March 26, 1969, Dickie Pride would take heroin for the last time.  Upon arriving home from the jazz club where he had scored his hit, he took his prescribed dose of methadone, went to sleep, woke during the night to take sleeping pills to go back to sleep and never woke again, overdosing on the combination.  After his death, many of Pride's fellow artists came forward to say that he was the most talented of all of them and should have been a major star with a huge career if only fate hadn't been so unkind to him.      

Photo: Daily Mail
Brian Jones.  One of the most infamous members of The 27 Club, thanks to his unusual death happening within a month of cutting ties with The Rolling Stones, who were hitting their peak of success,  Brian Jones was the founder and original leader of the iconic British rock group and specialized in playing the guitar, harmonica and keyboards.  Eventually being overshadowed by the powerful duo of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Jones' drug addiction led him to become difficult and cruel at times. The increase of his drug consumption, combined with his girlfriend leaving him for Richards, led to sporadic musical contributions and a boredom with playing guitar.  After two drug arrests led to problems with Jones' visa, making it impossible for him to tour in North America with the group in the fall of 1969, he was fired although the band let him publicly say that he left of his own accord.

A month later, on the evening of July 2-3, 1969 Jones was found in the bottom of his pool, not moving.  Although his girlfriend would state he was still alive when pulled out, by the time doctors arrived it was too late.  The coroner ruled it "death by misadventure," noting his liver and heart were greatly enlarged from drug abuse.  Jones' body was embalmed, his hair bleached white and he was placed in an air-tight metal casket before allegedly being buried 10 feet deep to discourage trophy hunters.  Of his former bandmates only Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman attended his funeral.   It wasn't long after his death before theories on murder began surrounding Jones' end.  Despite the sensationalism of the claims and a 2009 reinvestigation by Sussex police, it appears that the initial ruling was correct and Jones likely died accidentally after tumbling in the pool while stoned/high/intoxicated.

Alexandra. Alexandra was the stage name of a German singer who was born Doris Treitz.  Her mother supported artistic endeavors and before she turned to singing, Alexandra studied to be a fashion designer and actress.  At 19 she fell in love with  the man who rented a room from her mother; the man was 49, Russian and stopping in Germany on his way to emigrate to the U.S.  Despite this, they married and had a son.  The marriage did not last long, with Alexandra's husband continuing to the States and a divorce resulted.

Feeling that her legal name of Doris Nefedov would not be helpful in a career, she took "Alexandra" in honor of her son, Alexander.  Alexandra began wooing Germany audiences with her melancholy voice and style and released her first hit single in 1967.  Several more followed but none became huge hits, in part according to her producer because they were ahead of their time.  Alexandra recorded songs not only in her native German but also French, English, Russian and Hebrew.  In the spring of 1969 she was awarded the Golden Europa award for best newcomer; shortly after she took a holiday in Davos and met a man named Pierre Lafaire.  Their affair was quick and intense, with Alexandra saying they intended to marry.  Her sisters opposed, suspecting fraud and caused the pair to break up.  Alexandra began receiving phone calls after the break-up that led her to sleep in the same room with her son, fearing he might be abducted.  She also decided to write her will, bequeathing everything to her mother and son.  

On July 31, 1969, she traveled to Hamburg to negotiate with her record company and then head out to a holiday on the German island of Sylt.  Alexandra was driving her fairly new Mercedes-Benz with her mother and Alexander in the car with her.  The car had been checked at a service center and yet she still failed to brake at a crossing, colliding with a truck.  Alexandra was killed instantly; her mother survived the accident but died in the hospital.  Alexander survived with minor injuries.  Rumor had it that the car might have been sabotaged.   As an interesting footnote, movie director Marc Boettcher wrote a biography on Alexandra in 1999 and says he received several anonymous threats while researching the circumstances of her death.  In 2004, he pushed for a new investigation into her death based on his research and claiming that state security documents revealed that Alexandra's former lover Pierre Lafaire had been an American secret agent in Denmark  To date, no further investigation has been ordered and no charges have been filed.

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