If you had a dollar for every rock/soul/ jazz/country or pop star who died by drug overdose…well you’d have quite a few dollars. Death by heart attack is also a safe bet in the musical dead-pool, as are assorted deaths by misadventure.
But if you want to bet a long shot, lay your money down on a rock star dying live. Er, on stage. Death-while-playing-before-the-masses is every performer’s wet dream and the show we’d all want to catch. There’s a reason why Ozzfest sells out every year and it’s not to watch Ozzy stumble around the stage singing Crazy Train. Ozzy may outlive us all but on the off-chance…?
Death in concert just does not happen that often. However when it does happen, it is truly a memorable moment.
1. BANG! BANG! - Dimebag Darrell
Easily the most dramatic and horrifying death of a rocker onstage came in December 2004. Ex-Marine but all-around-loser Nathan Gale jumped on the Alrosa Villa club stage in Ohio just as the band Damageplan, a side project of legendary Pantera guitarist ‘Dimebag’ Darrell Abbott, was beginning their set.
Gale shouted something about Pantera before opening fire on the band. The deranged “fan” pumped 9 shots from a semi automatic into Dimebag and then turned his weapon on the audience. An off duty police officer, with the biggest balls on the planet, heard the shots-fired call, raced to the club and ended the carnage with one well placed shotgun blast to Gale’s body.
The Beretta weapon was reportedly bought by Gale’s own mother to reward him for his military service. Gale was medically discharged after being diagnosed with paranoid-schizophrenia. Friends of Gale said that he believed Pantera was trying to steal his identity.
In all, a total of four dead in Ohio, numerous injuries, and the horrifying scene of Dimebag lying dead on the stage in a pool of blood as hysterical fans made futile attempts to revive him.
Video footage as it was reported on the news in 2004. WARNING – THIS IS GRAPHIC:
Betrayed, by Avenged Sevenfold, is a song about this death told from several perspectives, including the shooter himself:
2. FIRE! FIRE! - Ty Longley; Great White
Great White had never really risen above the level of grade B rock act in the ‘80s but had always managed to make a living and post a handful of minor hits on the meat and potatoes club circuit.
It was during such a gig at a Rhode Island club called The Station that the music quite literally died. Inside a packed club of 300 fans, the band had barely started into their set when the wall behind the stage caught fire. Soon, the nightclub was engulfed in flames.
When the fire was finally put out, a total of 97 people had burned to death or had been overcome by the smoke. Among them was Great White guitarist Ty Longley who had disappeared from the stage when the fire started. Originally unaccounted for, Longley’s body was identified the next day. A lot of fingers were pointed, and at least one person did some jail time. Great White has continued to tour sporadically since that night. But for the band that night in 2003, it was the night that rock and roll fantasy took a backseat to a fiery reality.
Here’s a video taken that night:
3. AIN’T IT A BITCH - Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson
Only an old school blues guy could kick the bucket with this much style. Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson was on tour in Japan and playing a Yokohama dive called the Ocean Blvd Blues Cafe. He was well into this May 17, 1996 gig when, right in the middle of a blistering guitar solo on a trademark number, Superman Lover he suddenly clutched his chest, yelled out “ain’t it a bitch!” and collapsed onto the stage.
Of course Watson being an old style blues guy, everybody in the audience assumed it was just part of the act and gave him a rousing applause. Irony of ironies, Watson was already dead when the applause kicked in.
4. ANYBODY HAVE A TOWEL? - Les Harvey; Stone the Crows
Stone The Crows. British blues band with a great pedigree. Big in Europe, bupkis here in the states. Seek out their albums.
Their lead guitarist was Leslie (Les) Harvey – little brother of the Sensational Alex Harvey, and linked romantically with Crows lead singer Maggie Bell.
Stone The Crows were playing a gig at the prestigious Swanseas Top Rank Suite. It was a hot and sweaty night. So much so that musicians and audience alike were covered in schwitz. At one point in the set, Harvey had a decision to make. Wipe his hands or grab an ungrounded microphone. He chose the latter and was instantly electrocuted. Unlike the aforementioned Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson incident, the audience for Stone The Crows immediately knew that Les was a goner.
5. ATTACK OF THE COUNTRY DICK - Dick Montana; Beat Farmers
Beat Farmers drummer and singer Country Dick Montana (not to be confused with Handsome Dick Manitoba of The Dictators) went belly up on November 8, 1995 in a little place called The Longhorn Bar in Whistler, British Columbia.
The Beat Farmers were three songs into their set and beloved Country Dick was wrapping his tonsils around The Girl I Almost Married when he died of a heart attack. The band had been together since 1983 but could not go on and officially disbanded the next day.
Montana’s stage-persona had always been the rowdy, beer-swilling, profanity-spewing party animal. His death might be one of those few cases where one could say “he would have wanted it that way.”
6. THE MYSTERIOUS DEATH OF JOHNNY ACE
It wouldn’t be a story about dead rock stars and their ilk if there wasn’t a down and dirty mystery to throw into the mix. Such was the demise of rhythm and blues singer Johnny Ace. Although Johnny didn’t exactly die on stage, he expired on the premises – which qualifies with an *asterisk.
What is known was that Ace was fond of guns – was always packing some kind of heat, often taking pot shots from his tour bus. What was also known was that, on the night of his death – Christmas 1954 – he was doing a gig with Big Mama Thornton at the City Auditorium in Houston, Texas. This is where things get a little hazy.
Depending on what you choose to believe:
1. Long-held theory: Ace shot himself backstage while playing a game of Russian Roulette. (Not credible now, according to most sources.)
2. Newest theory: Ace was actually shot dead by an angry and equally armed record company owner. Not many supporters, here.
3. Best theory: A drunken Ace was playing around as usual, flashing the gun at a number of women. Claiming his gun wasn’t loaded, he tried to prove that it wasn’t. But it was. Living witnesses give this account the most value.
Take your pick but, when it comes to Johnny Ace, dead is still dead. He was only 25.
7. LET’S HEAR IT FOR THE BAND - Judge Dread
Judge Dread? Never heard of him? Well you should have. In no particular order: The first white Reggae artist to have a hit in Jamaica. Had 11 BBC chart hits. Coincidentally, 11 songs banned by the BBC, although his nursery rhyme novelties were tame by most any standard in any era.
But since this tale is all about dying, here comes the big finish. Judge Dread was laying it down March, 13, 1998 in a Canterbury England club called The Penny Theater. He had just finished his final song of the night, yelled out to the audience “Let’s hear it for the band!”, took three steps toward the exit and dropped stone cold dead of a heart attack.
The band, it should be noted, was thankful that Dread’s last words were to their credit.
8. HAPPY ANNIVERSARY!? – Lord Ulli; The Lords
The Lords were one of the earliest German rock bands, and one that could boast 11 hits from 1965-1969 on the West German charts. In 1999, they were older than dirt. That’s when they got the old gang together in Potsdam, Germany for a show to celebrate their 40th Anniversary.
Things were going swimmingly until lead singer, Lord Ulli (Günther), got so worked up that he passed out, hit his head and immediately lapsed into a coma and never awoke again. The remaining members of The Lords decided that a 50th Anniversary gig was not such a good idea.
Several of Ulli’s friends have suggested that he had often said he’d like to go out by dying on stage. Although Lord Ulli technically died in the hospital two days later, it’s still worth saying “be careful what you wish for.”
Here’s a video of Lord Ulli in 1999 when he was old, but not yet dead:
and one from The Lords in their 1965 heyday:
9. PLAY YOUR HIT - Miriam Makeba
Although she had a long successful career, and released many albums worldwide, songstress Miriam Makeba had only one big hit in America, the African inspired Pata Pata.
And so it seemed only right that on November 9, 2008 that the politically and socially aware Makeba sing her hit during a benefit concert in Italy. Makeba (nicknamed “Mama Africa) was only a few bars into her signature song when she had a fatal heart attack and collapsed on the stage.
This video is from her early appearance on The Ed Sullivan show:
10. DEATH COMES TO SLUGS – Lee Morgan
Veteran Jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan had a renowned career spanning 16 years which included work with Dizzie Gillespie, John Coltrane, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Hank Mobley, and Wayne Shorter. He also released close to 30 records under his own name and with his own bands.
On February 19, 1972, Morgan had just finished a heated argument with his common law wife Helen backstage at the New York jazz club Slugs. The argument began over a girlfriend that was with Morgan that night, and ended with Helen being tossed out by a bouncer into the freezing night.
As Morgan began to climb the stage to play his set, a cold, dazed and enraged Helen stormed back in. Just as Morgan began to play, Helen ran up to him, pulled a pistol and fired one shot into Morgan’s heart, killing him instantly. He was 33. This event has been dubbed “The Most Famous Murder in Jazz History.”
Here’s a video of Lee Morgan live, playing with the Jazz Messengers; 1958:
11. IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED – Tiny Tim
Tiny Tim (real name Herbert Khaury) was admittedly a rock star from a different age and even when the sands in the hourglass in his 15 minutes of fame were running out, there were still places where a Tiny Tim show was standing room only.
In September, 1996, Tiny had just begun a performance at a regional ukelele festival when he had a heart attack. He survived and, after three weeks of hospitalization, was released with the warning that he was in too weak a state to perform again. Tiny ignored medical advice and on November 30, 1996, suffered another heart attack while performing a benefit show for The Women’s Club Of Minneapolis. This time it was fatal.
Here’s a clip recorded just before his September heart attack:
And here’s Tiny Tim in a classic performance from Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In: