History is ripe with stories of artists, musicians, performers, and other gifted geniuses whose lives were cut short. Nowhere is this more common than when we talk about great musicians. There are countless stories of talented musicians where we always wonder, what could they have achieved had their lives not ended in tragedy?
Music has always been important to me, but never so much as when I was in high school. Unlike a lot of my peers, I was not discovering new artists and musicians. Instead I delved back to times before I was even born and scoured my local library for CDs and books about musicians from the past. I used the expansive library collection of music, books, and movies about classic rock and pop musicians and bands to learn as much as I could. Unfortunately, a common theme with many of my favorite musicians from the past was their tragic life stories.
However, these life stories were always ones that made me more aware of the impact of our life choices. These stories also moved me to appreciate the talent of others when I see it, since you never know what turns life will bring. If you are interested in reading about musicians who were gone too soon, check out the list I have put together:
Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing by Ann Angel (2011 Nonfiction Award winner)
Ann Angel examines the life and music of Janis Joplin, a rock singer who rose to fame in the sixties. Angel takes the reader through the ups and downs of Joplin’s life and gives an intimate look at her personality and the self destructive behavior that led to an early death due to heroin overdose at 27 years old.
Jaco: the Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius “The World’s Greatest Bass Player” by Bill Milkowski
Music writer Bill Milkowski, who personally knew Jaco Pastorius, gives us one of the definitive biographies of a talented jazz musician who just could not handle the genius he was given. Jaco revolutionized the jazz world with his masterful bass playing when he came on the scene in the seventies. However, once famous, Jaco’s addictions to drugs and alcohol ruined him and he was homeless and broke when he was “accidentally” beaten to death outside of a club.
Rave On: the Biography of Buddy Holly by Philip Norman
Perhaps thought of as one of the first great musicians to die tragically, the death of Buddy Holly had a huge impact on early rock and roll. Don Maclean immortalized the death of Buddy Holly and the two other musicians that died in a plane crash in 1959, in his song, “American Pie.” In Norman’s biography of Holly, he not only gives an account of the “nerdy” musician’s life but also a detailed account of his influence on rock and roll in its infancy.
Dream Brother: The Lives and Music of Jeff and Tim Buckley by David Browne
This novel gives a side-by-side look at a father and son, both gifted musicians and both whose lives ended tragically. Tim Buckley was a moderately successful singer/songwriter in the late sixties and early seventies, but his life ended with an accidental overdose in 1975. His son Jeff Buckley, only a young boy at the time of his father’s death, followed in his father’s footsteps and found success as a singer/songwriter in the early nineties. With a unique voice and a gift for songwriting, many fans were saddened by Jeff Buckley’s accidental death when he drowned in the Mississippi river.
The Lizard King: the essential Jim Morrison by Jerry Hopkins
This biography, by Jerry Hopkins, is the basis for Oliver Stone’s famous biopic of The Doors frontman, Jim Morrison. Hopkins looks at the life and music career of Morrison, depicting him as a talented but troubled musician. Morrison’s contributions to rock and roll are endless, especially to future frontmen, but there still remains some controversy as to the specific circumstances of his death by accidental heroin overdose at 27 years old.
Jimi Hendrix: Kiss the Sky by Edward Willett (a 2008 Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers selection)
Jimi Hendrix’s talent and impact on rock and roll was huge and can still be seen to this day in young and rising musicians. Chronicling the life of the guitarist that everyone aspires to be, Willet’s biography does an excellent job of portraying Hendrix’s life, from his early ancestors to his impactful performances and finally to his mysterious death at 27 years old.
This photobiography traces Lennon’s life from his birth to his untimely death, when he was murdered by Mark David Chapman outside of The Dakota building where he lived with Yoko Ono. Partridge provides quotes by Lennon to go along with expressive black and white portrait photos to provide the reader with an intimate look at the life and music of this Beatles frontman.
Last Train to Memphis: the rise of Elvis Presley (paired with) Careless Love: the unmaking of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick
Elvis Presley was hailed as the King of Rock and Roll in his heyday. Peter Guralnick has written two excellent biographies of the King. One, Last Train to Memphis, focuses on the Presley’s early years from his rise to fame as a poor southern boy with a passion for blues and gospel songs to the height of his fame when he had the world at his fingertips. In his second volume, Careless Love, Guralnick looks at the last decades of Presley’s life, including his comeback and his untimely death due to years of drug abuse.
Journals by Kurt Cobain (a 2003 Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers selection) and Cobain by the editors of Rolling Stone (a 1999 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults selection)
Both Journals and Cobain give readers an intimate look at the tortured soul that was Kurt Cobain. Rising to fame in the ’90s with the grunge band Nirvana, Cobain’s personal struggles could not be quelled by the immense success he found with his music, and he took his own life in 1994. Journals, released after his death, reproduce Cobain’s personal notebooks and contain notes, letters, drawings, and other writings by the Nirvana frontman. In Cobain, the editors of Rolling Stone magazine, compile photos and interviews that show Cobain’s personality as well as his and Nirvana’s contributions to music history.
Billie Holiday by Stuart Nicholson paired with Becoming Billie Holiday by Carole Boston Weatherford (a 2009 Best Books for Young Adults selection)
Stuart Nicholson’s biography of Billie Holiday, chronicles the life and impact of this famous jazz singer. Regarded as one of the great singers in history, Billie Holiday had a very hard life including troubles with prostitution, rape, time in jail, violence, and drug and alcohol use. All of this led to an untimely death due to liver and heart disease. Becoming Billie Holiday, is a fictional memoir written in verse, that gives a realistic portrayal of Holiday’s early life, and also shows how strong the singer was to overcome all the struggles of her life to achieve her dreams.
Moon: the Life and Death of a Rock Legend by Tony Fletcher
Keith Moon was the uber-talented drummer for The Who. He is said to have revolutionized the way drums were played when The Who gained fame in the sixties. Fletcher’s biography takes a look at the drummer’s life and contributions to music, and it also examines Moon’s excessive and self-destructive behavior that led to an early death as a result of an overdose of prescribed medication.
El Sid, Saint Vicious by David Dalton
Sid Vicious was the bassist in one of the most famous punk bands, The Sex Pistols. His life was filled with excess and controversy and mimicked the raucous music he produced with his bandmates. His tortured relationship with girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, is almost as famous as his time in The Sex Pistols. Mystery and controversy surrounds her death, as Vicious is believed to have murdered her but was never convicted and died from a heroin overdose in 1979 at the age of 21.
Catch a Fire: the life of Bob Marley by Timothy White
Bob Marley brought reggae to the masses. Timothy White worked with Marley’s widow to provide an extensive biography of a musician, as well as a spiritual and political leader. Marley succumbed to cancer at the age of 36, and left behind a undeniable impression on fans of his music as well as those who were fans of his lifestyle.
To Selena, With Love by Chris Perez
Selena was an adored and accomplished singer/songwriter when she died tragically at the hands of Yolanda SaldÃvar. Her career and music were an inspiration to many, and even though her death was gruesome, her life remains the focus of Selena’s fans. In this biography, Selena’s husband, Chris Perez recounts many happy memories of the singer as well as a firsthand account of her life and the circumstances of her death.
-Colleen Seisser, currently reading The War at Ellsmere by Faith Erin Hicks
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