Remembering the Greats Who Died at 27

Michael Ochs Archive

By Zoe Denenberg 

Some of the world's brightest stars are bound together by one strange and striking similarity: They died at 27 years old. Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain and Jean-Michel Basquiat are among the many famous figures in this "27 Club," and its members include musical trailblazers, innovative artists and celebrated actors who died from a variety of causes.

To this day, a great mystery surrounds the 27 Club – is there a larger force that binds all of these fallen stars together at the seemingly random age of 27? Whether or not the 27 Club is simply coincidental, it goes undisputed that each member played an instrumental role in shaping our culture. By remembering their great contributions, we can honor those who have gone too soon.

1. amy winehouse, 1983-2011

Amy Winehouse was the creative mind and vocalist behind the best-selling British album of the 21st century, "Back to Black." In 2008, Winehouse became the first British woman to win five Grammys in one night for this same acclaimed album. She was most active in the early 2000s, winning countless awards for her soulful, expressive and eclectic music. Winehouse died from alcohol poisoning on July 23, 2011 in London and remains a highly celebrated musician to this day. 

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2. Jim morrison, 1943-1971

Jim Morrison, the lead singer of The Doors, is regarded as one of the most influential artists in rock and roll history. Some of his most famous songs, such as "Light My Fire" and "Hello, I Love You," became emblematic of the generation of youths who were coming-of-age in the 1960s. Morrison's wild, rebellious and mysterious persona inspired his cult-like followers, who looked to him as a representation of youth counterculture. Consistent with his character, Jim Morrison's death remains a great mystery – he is said to have died in a bathtub from a heart attack, brought about by drugs, but nobody knows exactly what happened.

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3. kurt cobain, 1967-1994

Just as Jim Morrison represented the disillusioned youths of the 1960s, Kurt Cobain became the spokesman for Generation X. This passionate musician co-founded one of the most notable grunge bands of all time, Nirvana, and rolled out top-charting hits like "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Since Nirvana's debut in 1989, they have sold over 75 million albums worldwide. Cobain committed suicide in his home on April 5, 1994.

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4. Robert Johnson, 1911-1938

Commonly known as the king of blues, Robert Johnson pioneered new techniques to enhance the natural sound of the guitar. He is known to have faced a corner when he played, so the music would reverberate off the walls. Johnson, who was born in Mississippi and was rumored to have sold his soul to the devil, did not achieve notoriety until his music was reissued after his death. Johnson died from strychnine poisoning and pneumonia, which many suspect he caught from drinking out of an open bottle of whiskey.

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5. Brian jones, 1942-1969

Brian Jones was the original founder and leader of the Rolling Stones – he gathered the band with an advertisement in the Jazz News and is even credited for coining the band's name. However, resentment between the band members grew and, eventually, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards asked Jones to leave the band. When Jones's spot in the Rolling Stones was taken by guitarist Mick Taylor, Jones's life began to spiral downhill, and he drowned in his swimming pool in July of 1969.

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6. jimi hendrix, 1942-1970

Jimi Hendrix was the king of the electric guitar, shattering the typical pattern of rock at the time by drawing influences from other genres like blues, R&B and jazz. Hendrix used groundbreaking techniques, such as fuzz and controlled distortion, to create an electric, explosive sound. It is unclear exactly how Hendrix died – all we know is that he was ill, took some sleeping pills before bed and was pronounced dead the next day. His career only lasted four years, but his music is continuously replayed and honored to this day.

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7. janis joplin, 1943-1970

Like many members of the 27 Club, Janis Joplin rose to fame through rock music. She was recruited to the band Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1966, but two years later, she broke off on her own to pursue a solo career. Joplin soon gained national attention – in the summer of 1970, she was invited on the Festival Express tour alongside other musical trailblazers, such as the Grateful Dead and Buddy Guy. Janis Joplin died of a heroin overdose on October 4th, 1970. Today, she is remembered as a highly influential female rock musician.

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8. jean-michel basquiat, 1960-1988

Jean-Michel Basquiat was an innovative, cutting-edge and extremely gifted neoimpressionist painter. In a period of a few years, Basquiat went from sleeping on the streets of New York to selling his paintings for tens of thousands of dollars. He got his start in a tag-team graffiti duo with his friend Al Diaz, and in 1980, he broke out as a solo artist, achieving almost instant fame. Basquiat's art is full of symbolism and meaning – he used his paintings to make political statements and reclaim his African heritage. Basquiat died from a heroin overdose in his Manhattan art studio.

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9. jonathan brandis, 1976-2003

Jonathan Brandis gained his fame as a child actor in the 1980s and '90s. He made his debut at 6 years old on the popular soap opera "One Life To Live;" by the time he was 17, he had become a teen idol. He played a scientific prodigy in Steven Spielberg's science fiction series seaQuest DSV and even voiced Mozenrath in Disney's Aladdin. Fan mail poured in by the truckload as Brandis's career boomed. He committed suicide in his Los Angeles apartment in 2003, but his versatility in roles and dashing looks made him an unforgettable face in American cinema.

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10. anton yelchin, 1989-2016

Anton Yelchin was one of the most recent celebrities to join the 27 Club – he died in an accident in 2016. Yelchin first emerged as a child actor in Steven Spielberg's Taken movies, where he played Jacob Clarke. After his childhood debut, Yelchin starred in numerous other movies, but he is best known for his role as Russian Starfleet officer Pavel Chekov in three of the Star Trek films.

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