The Day the Music Died

You want to hear something weird? While pondering column ideas this morning, the thought of Buddy Holly popped into my head. Being a Don McLean fan, I thought “why not write about the the day the music died?” So I set out to go to work.

It was after I had invested a half hour of my time that I finally realized that the infamous plane crash occurred 49 years this very day (Feb. 3, presstime).

Strange, wouldn’t you say?

Anyhow, rock and roll music, still in its infancy, received a shot in the arm of pure immortality that unfortunate day so long ago when three talented musicians, as well as a pilot, gave up their lives in a frozen Iowa cornfield. Many of us were too young to remember it, but the genre, which might have passed the way of other musical crazes, was cemented in place as the voice of not only the current generation, but that of future ones as well.

Buddy’s second album

Buddy Holly, inspired by seeing Elvis perform live in 1955, began playing clubs in hometown Lubbock, Texas shortly afterward. Within a few months, he appeared on Presley’s bill during a tour stop in Lubbock. Soon, he was cutting records at Norman Petty’s studio at Clovis, New Mexico with his newly formed backup group, The Crickets.

Artists have long been exploited by music industry fatcats, and Holly was no exception. Petty tried to muscle in on Holly’s royalties by claiming to be a cowriter of his lyrics. This was a fairly common practice among producers at the time. Well, Buddy got tired of it and moved to New York.

Litigation took place between Holy and Petty, and the artist felt a cash crunch. So the wildly successful musician agreed to take part in the Winter Dance Party Tour just so he could pay the bills.

In the meantime, Ricardo Valenzuela, born in California, had found an ear for his Latino-tinged brand of rock and roll. La Bamba, a traditional song, was a massive 1958 hit when the artist, now known as Ritchie Valens, belted it out. When he got invited to join the Winter Dance Party Tour, he jumped aboard.

Jiles Perry (J.P.) Richardson, Jr. was a successful disc jockey who was imbued with musical talent himself. He wrote a song called White Lightnin‘ which turned out to be a #1 hit for George Jones. He also wrote a novelty hit called Running Bear which was one of my favorite songs when I was a kid.

In 1958, he recorded a song he had written called Chantilly Lace. He had previously invented a DJ-singer persona called The Big Bopper, and that’s who was credited as the song’s performer. The song peaked at #6, and The Big Bopper also said yes to the 1959 winter tour.

Poster from Buddy’s last show

Dion and the Belmonts also joined up, and the tour was on its way.

It was the dead of winter, and the buses used to transport the artists had no heat. Drummer Carl Bunch ended up in the hospital with frostbitten feet. Disgusted, Holly chartered a plane to fly from Clear Lake, Iowa to Fargo, ND. The single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza had room for three passengers, and after begging, cajoling, and coin-flipping had taken place, the seats were occupied by Holly, Valens, and The Big Bopper.

The plane crashed shortly after takeoff, and, for better or worse, legends were born.

Holly was amazingly prolific during his short time. He wrote and performed nearly a hundred songs in two years, and many have been re-recorded by artists hundreds of times. One wonders what he, as well as Valens and The Big Bopper, might have accomplished with just a little more time.

By the way, if you find yourself in Vegas, stop in at the Hard Rock cafe to see some amazing candid color photos of Buddy.

The British Invasion

The Beatles arrive in New York in 1964

If there was one thing we Boomers saw a lot of, it was musical revolution.

Perhaps it all started with our parents. After all they ushered in the Big Band Era, pretty revolutionary in itself.

But rock and roll outlasted it by far. And the British Invasion is still being felt after forty years.

The Invasion is generally thought to have originated the moment this photo was shot in 1964, and the Beatles deplaned in New York for the first time. But it actually started earlier, with a trickle rather than a flood.

Dusty Springfield had a hit in November 1963 with I Only Want to Be With You. She even appeared on Sullivan to sing it. Other songs snuck across the ocean by the Rolling Stones, the Dave Clark Five, and the Tornados. Interestingly, the Dave Clark Five was the first British rock and roll band to tour the US.

But when the Fab Four set foot on the tarmac on February 7, 1964, the dam burst. Besides the prodigious pile of hits by the Beatles, others bands and artists to soon hit it big in the states included Manfred Mann, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Herman’s Hermits, the Animals, the Kinks, the Stones, the Who, the Yardbirds, the Spencer Davis Group, the Moody Blues, the Troggs, Freddie and the Dreamers, Petula Clark, Donovan, the Hollies, and even Irish group Them, from whence came the great Van Morrison. And yes, I left a bunch out who also deserve mention.

We loved them over on this side of the pond. Even the one-hit wonders were wonderful, including New Vaudeville Band’s Winchester Cathedral, Shirley Bassey’s Goldfinger, and the Honeycomb’s Have I the Right.

The original Invasion lasted through the 60’s, with second-generation groups like Led Zeppelin, Procol Harum, Traffic, Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, Faces, and Cream.

Really, a case could be made the Invasion never stopped, only slowed. As the 70’s ran on, Elton John, Alan Parsons, David Bowie, Queen, ELO, The Police, and Dire Straits appeared on the charts. Solo efforts by former groupmembers like Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart added to the mix. By the end of the decade, Punk was coming into vogue, including bands like the Clash, the Sex Pistols, and Elvis Costello and the Attractions.

MTV in the 80’s fanned the flames, and many of the New Wave and techno-pop sounds that we listened to in the Brat Pack movie soundtracks and on the radio came from Brits like Genesis, Joe Jackson, Thompson Twins, Spandau Ballet, Tears for Fears, Depeche Mode, Eurythmics, Duran Duran, and the Fixx.

I sort of lost track of what’s hot on the radio as the 90’s began. I’m thoroughly stuck in the 60’s through the 80’s, with the exception of any new releases by old favorites like Van the Man, Neil Young, the Boss, the Stones, and Elton John. But we Boomers can proudly look back at one of the biggest shakeups in rock and roll, the British Invasion, and say that we remember it well.

The Beatles on Sullivan

The Beatles’ first appearance on Sullivan

Ladies and gentlemen, THE BEATLES!

If your family had a TV that could pick up a CBS channel in the 60’s (or 50’s and early 70’s for that matter), you likely had Ed Sullivan on every Sunday night.

The show was aimed at entertainment for the whole family. And Ed reached out to teenagers, too.

Witness the four legendary appearances by The Beatles. My father, who enjoyed the circus acts and comedy, was aghast that these long-haired kids were on the stage and that you couldn’t even hear their music over the high-pitched screams of the younger female audience members.

I wouldn’t let him turn it off, though. I was mystified by the spell they cast over the audience, as well as the rest of the nation. I became a lifelong fan on the spot.

I’m not sure if I saw their first 1964 appearance. But I did see them after that, and news that they would be appearing on an upcoming episode would be the talk of the elementary school. Come the fateful Sunday night, life stopped for a while. The next morning, we were singing their songs, listening to them on the radio, talking about them, and buying little plastic guitars with rubber band strings with their names printed on them.

Man, I wish I had some of those Beatles memorabilia today.

The Beatles Cartoon

When the Beatles stepped off of that plane so many years ago, the entertainment industry changed permanently. The never-before-seen deluge of fan adoration was a bottomless well ready to be tapped. And no time was wasted in producing everything from little plastic guitars to Beatle-painted automobiles.

Little ABC, the perennial third-place network, cashed in on the Fab Four as well. They began showing The Beatles as a Saturday morning TV cartoon beginning on September 25, 1965.

And we Baby Boomer kids loved it.

The show maintained a basic premise: two adventures, and two songs, a kid’s version of Sing Along with Mitch, complete with a bouncing ball, as I recall.

I assumed it was really the Beatles doing the voiceovers when I was six. Of course, the bandmembers were far too busy conquering the musical world to do it. The actors who did the talking were Lance Percival (Paul and Ringo), and Paul Frees (John and George). What I remember (now keep in mind I haven’t seen the cartoon since Nixon was President) was Ringo’s distinctive laugh. Apparently, it was artistic license, as I never heard him laugh that way in real life interviews.

BTW, Frees provided the voice of Boris Badenov in the immortal Bullwinkle series.

Additionally, the Beatles’ Liverpudlian accents were Americanized a bit to make them more understandable to American kids, and this was not well received by Britons in general, the Fab Four in particular. The show was not shown in the UK until the 1970’s.

But I certainly remember the songs. They used some of the more obscure ones as well as the big hits. For instance, I remember belting out “Mr. Moonlight,” a definite non-best-seller, as that ball bounced endlessly across our black and white television. But I also remember “A Hard day’s Night.” However, I never did figure out what a hard day’s night meant.

There was also a riff played before each new adventure that I remember well. It must have been played by hired help, as I have never seen it mentioned on the most comprehensive Beatle anthologies.

The Beatles appealed to a very wide range of demographic groups. Could you imagine a Rolling Stones cartoon? And many Big Band fans and Bobbysoxers found the Beatles’ unique power pop sound appealing, much to their offsprings’ disgust.

But there was something about the original Fab Four, with their dry, slightly long locks that absolutely hooked many of us Boomer children, and continues to appeal to us many years later.

IMH(adult)O, the Beatles’ just got better with time. But that’s not how I felt back then. I was disturbed that the Beatles of 1969 looked so hairy and unkempt. I wanted them to be the clean, cartoon images that were on the television show. And apparently I wasn’t the only kid who felt that way. The show’s ratings had dropped precipitously by then and the last ABC episode aired that year.

Some blame the show’s demise on a newfound superhero obsession, sparked by Batman. But there was just too much genius involved to keep the whole Beatlemania phenomenon going. The previously mentioned Rolling Stones have had their ups and downs over the years, but their legacy is sustained quality. The Beatles, on the other hand, after their unbelievable debut in the USA, could not possibly last more than a few brief years.

Neil Young said “it’s better to burn out than to fade away.” When a supernova-sized flame burns as brightly as did the initial spark of the Beatles, that may well be true.

When the Beatles Broke Up

What a wild, crazy, turbulent, jubilant, tragic decade was the 1960’s. It began with lingering communist paranoia and ended with man walking on the moon.

However, nothing symbolized the end of the 60’s quite as effectively as the breakup of the group that we listened to and whose albums and singles we bought by the hundreds of millions.

The 70’s was definitely not going to be the same decade as its predecessor.

The Beatles were one of the most rapidly evolving rock and roll groups to have ever existed. By the time each new album was released, they were already heading a completely new and different direction in the recording studios. Their physical appearance changed as radically as their music, as hair began to grow profusely.

They began as a group, but by 1968, had developed an individually independent sound that resulted in The Beatles, more commonly known as The White Album. Indeed, the double album consists of the first solo projects of the soon-to-be-ex-Beatles. The fact that it stands on its own as a great work is a testament to the sheer immensity of talent of these working-class youths who met up in Liverpool all those years ago.

In late 1969, their last studio album was released: Abbey Road. Interestingly, the quartet had reverted back to a group sound. The traded guitar solos by Paul, George, and John on “The End”, in particular, are some of the finest examples of a group of performers performing as a group.

However, the bonds holding them together were already unraveling. Earlier that year, all agreed to a documentary chronicling the group producing an album. The album and the documentary would be be entitled Get Back, a reference to an attempt by the group to return to the early days when the songs and music flowed freely, with good will among all.

Instead, the movie effectively portrayed four guys who were tired of working together. The original Get Back is disturbing to fans in its depictions of carping, sniping, and all around nastiness three of the Beatles (Not Ringo, God love him) showed towards each other.

Phil Spector, a virtual stranger to the group, produced Get Back (which would eventually become the album Let It Be). However, after the Get Back sessions ended, Abbey Road was produced by old friend George Martin, and the group put their ill will aside for their buddy. The album’s near-perfection is as much a credit to Martin as it is to the Beatles.

In April, 1970, Paul McCartney released a solo album. Fans weren’t too worried, he had done other solo projects. But on the tenth of the same month, a few days after McCartney‘s release, Paul announced that he was through with the group.

Fans (including me) were greatly disturbed by the announcement, but were hopeful that it was just typical artistic crankiness that would pass. But it was all made official on December 31, when a lawsuit was filed by McCartney officially dissolving the Beatles.

Lennon and McCartney in particular traded nasty barbs back and forth, in the press as well as their solo albums. Paul assured his fans that he and Linda would not become a John and Yoko in his liner notes, and Lennon retorted with the song “How Do You Sleep,” a vitriolic shot of venom aimed back at his old friend.

But all of the group loved Ringo. His first solo album, one of my all-time favorites, enlists the help of all three other ex-Beatles. His own song “Early 1970” showed that he had absolutely no ill will towards his friends, and they had none towards him.

And so, the 60’s came to a close. A decade known for students doing something would be followed by the polyester era. Protest music would be replaced by disco. Gas wars would become gas lines.

But still, what a wondrous spectacle it was to witness pop-rock’s greatest group evolve from joyful naivete to cynical surliness, producing truly great music the entire time.

Sound-Alike Eight-Tracks

Man, this is an obscure one. I couldn’t find anything but a brief mention on a site or two. So I guess I will hereby become the official source of internet information on sound-alike eight-track tapes.

These things were hawked on TV commercials in the early 1970’s. One in particular I recall was “Summer ’71.” Instead of paying royalties to the original artists of the songs featured in these collections of hits, the producers of these tapes would hire a band that would do their best to sound exactly like them.

It seems like a strange concept now, but it was big business in the 70’s.

If you watched as much television in the summer as I did, you soon had the samples of the songs played in the commercials memorized. As I write this piece, I can hear those Summer ’71 songs streaming through my mind . . . Brand New Key . . . American Pie . . . Drowning in a Sea of Love . . .

What you had to do was look out for generic labels, like the one pictured. Many times, the buyer of such tapes was surprised to hear someone who ALMOST sounded like, say, Chaka Khan instead of the real deal.

But the funny thing was that you still listened to them. The songs still sounded pretty darned good. And presumably, money was made, even though the tapes cost about half the price of the genuine article.

Probably the least compensated were the bands themselves. One in particular I recall was called “The Sound Effects.” I tried to research them, nada. I imagine these gigs covered the cost of rent and hamburgers, that was about it.

So the next time you pop your flash drive full of mp3’s into your high-tech car stereo, pause for a moment and remember when you used to jam to “A Tribute to Helen Reddy.” It only cost $2.99.

Thanks to Elk Bugles for the images.

Snoopy Vs. the Red Baron

Royal Guardsmen EP

Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty or more
The Bloody Red Baron rolled up the score
Eighty men died trying to end that streak
Of the Bloody Red Baron of Germany

That irresistible chorus punctuated a novelty song that captivated the nation in 1967. The group that performed it, the Royal Guardsmen, while not one-hit-wonders in the strictest sense of the word, were equally blessed and cursed by the success of the tune.

The Royal Guardsmen were formed in Ocala, Florida in 1966. They played local gigs in the area, along with dozens of other garage bands.

At the same time, Peanuts was the most popular comic strip on the planet. It was buoyed by wildly successful TV specials, as well as images of Snoopy and the gang covering everything from lunch boxes to tee shirts.

Somewhere in Ocala, Florida, a light bulb went off over record producer Phil Gernhard’s head.

After hearing the Guardsmen play an opening gig at a local club, he approached the group with the lyrics to Snoopy Vs. the Red Baron scribbled on a notepad. “Come up with a military cadence for it” were his instructions.

They went to bandmate Tommy Richards’ house and laid down a recording on two-track tape that fit the bill. The group wasn’t crazy about it, but Gernhard said it was perfect. They cut the final product in a studio and turned it over to the producer.

Two weeks later, WLS radio was playing it every fifteen minutes, and a craze was started.

Snoopy Vs. the Red Baron single

Like every other kid in America, I fell in love with the song at first hearing. What’s not to love? An unforgettable chorus, airplanes, machine guns, everything a kid could want. Adults went nuts for it too, and the song peaked at #2.

What could the Guardsmen do for an encore? Sadly, they realized only more Snoopy fare would sell. Like talented actor Max Baer Jr.’s Jethro Bodine, they had been typecast.

They followed up with Return of the Red Baron. We kids snickered at the mildly racy “you’ll go straight to WELL watch out Red Baron!” It peaked at #15.

The Snoopy songs continued to roll out, the biggest subsequent hit being a Christmas song.

The Guardsmen tried to break out, but their non-Snoopy singles disappeared without a trace. Their final effort, “Baby, Let’s Wait,” actually cracked the Top 40, peaking at #35. But it was over. The group split up in 1969.

But my memories, and those of millions of others, of 1967 will forever have that classic song playing in the background.

Eighty men tried, eighty men died,
Now they’re buried together in the countryside . . .

Sing Along with Mitch

Mitch Miller and friend

On Independence Day, 1911, Mitchell William Miller was born in Rochester, New York. Naturally gifted at music, Miller went to the Eastman School of Music, where he excelled in the oboe and English horn. By the 1930’s and 40’s, he was working as a session musician, backing up many of the most famous artists of the day. In 1938, he was playing in the studio orchestra as Orson Welles was scaring the daylights out of our parents with his War of the Worlds broadcast.

Mitch got into the record production business. He proved to be a prolific producer of hits that, once again, our parents listened to. His first smash was Frankie Laine’s Mule Train.

In 1961, he became the host of Sing Along with Mitch. It was a very mainstream effort at keeping families singing together just like they had done in the previous decades. And, in fact, it was quite successful, lasting three seasons.

Once upon a time, families gathered around the radio to hear music. Woody Allen’s wonderful, overlooked classic film Radio Days summarizes the era perfectly. It seems strange today, when I listen to Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, and my son listens to Green day and Radiohead, and neither of us has a clue what the other’s favorites are all about. But, then again, we both listen to Counting Crows, so there’s hope.

1961 TV Guide

Mitch was judged by many to be an anti-rock and roll zealot. But the accusation simply doesn’t hold water.

Mitch stuck with his favorite music. While he didn’t go out of his way to promote the new sounds, that certainly didn’t make him an enemy. In fact, while heading Columbia Records, he tried to sign Elvis, but chose not to take up manager Colonel Parker’s offer. Nobody can fault him for not wanting to deal with a manipulative dictator.

Mitch lost his job at Columbia for not signing enough teen-popular acts, though. But his last hurrah was Sing Along with Mitch, where audiences at home were encouraged to follow the bouncing ball and join in with Mitch and His Gang.

The show was ridiculed by youngsters, one of the earliest manifestations of the Generation Gap. But I can only remember one song distinctly that I heard on the show, so many years ago. It was written by none other than Woodie Guthrie, held in such high esteem by Bob Dylan himself, who immortalized him in his own Song for Woody. The song was This Land Is Your Land.

Bruce Springsteen called this one of the first protest songs. And the fact that Mitch Miller encouraged all in the family, from Grandma to little Johnny, to sing it, tells me that this apparent middle-of-the-road music exec might have been just a bit more on the ball than the youngsters of the early 60’s might have thought.

BTW, Mitch is still around, 96 years young. Here’s to you, Mitch Miller. May you lead us with the bouncing ball for years to come. (update: Mitch died at the age of 99)

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Studio shoot for Sgt. Pepper. Look close, you can see Ghandi!

The Beatles were at a critical point in the summer of 1966. An offhand quip by John to a reporter friend about how the Beatles were more popular than Jesus had drawn the ire of conservative self-titled Christians all over the world, but particularly in the US Bible Belt. Their protests often included public burnings of Beatle albums. Let’s face it, when angry people burn ANYTHING, it ain’t pretty. Plus, the rigors of the road had all of them thoroughly burned out on touring. So in August of the year, they all agreed live performances were no longer in their plans, and they sat down and got to work on their next album.

With Beatlemania’s flames no longer fanned by concerts, and with John’s remark carrying a bad taste in many people’s mouths, the group’s continued success depended heavily on their next album’s reception.

Their decision not to tour probably was very influential on their decision to create a massively produced album which could never be performed live. And this would reveal hidden talents the Fab Four had for making absolutely stunning music.

The group had become familiar with many instruments since the days when all was recorded on two guitars, bass, and drums. The new album would incorporate sitars, calliopes, Hammond organs, electric pianos, and orchestras of strings, brass, and woodwinds.

The album would also include massive overdubbing via the four-track recording system. And the themes of its music would extend far beyond teenaged love.

This trend actually began with 1965’s Rubber Soul, which stretched its wings a bit with Nowhere Man, In My Life, and Norwegian Wood, which was basically an account of an afternoon “quickie.” 1966’s Revolver likewise featured only three songs whose theme’s were simple romance, and also included Lennon’s LSD-influenced Tomorrow Never Knows, which invited us to “turn off your minds, relax, and float downstream.” Bloody hard to do while a herd of elephants is stampeding by in the background!

So the public had every reason to expect the Boys to spread their creative wings with their next release. And they didn’t disappoint.

When fans finally saw the album in June, 1967, they were blown away by the cover. it featured dozens of characters from movies, yogis, writers, historical figures, and strangely morose looking Madame Tussuad’s figures of the Beatles themselves. Uh oh, that would contribute to future rumors that Paul was dead. By the way, here’s a nice site that will let you identify all of the subjects on the cover.

But the music inside would be even more stunning. The heavy production work at Abbey Road Studios was evident in the opening track, which featured a crowd in the background as well as a brass band. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds wove a magical path around an imaginary world. Yes, its title just happened to start with L, S, and D, but the always bluntly honest Lennon maintained to his dying day that the song was based on a picture son Julian drew him and titled. I believe him.

She’s Leaving Home was a maudlin tale of a daughter’s deciding to hit the road, leaving a note informing her parents of the fact. Its musical accompaniment was a simple harp and strings. That one hit home hard when my own son departed the household in the same manner.

George gave the world a good dose of Indian music with Within You, Without You. A droning tambura in the background, multiple sitars, and other exotic instruments played by Indian musicians accompanied George’s spacey vocals.

The album’s magnum opus was the coordinated medley of its last three songs. Good Morning, Good Morning was a slightly less cacophonous song than Tomorrow Never Knows, but was pretty noisy in its own right. Its lyrics referred to death, a US breakfast jingle, and a British sitcom (Meet the Wife), among other mundanities. It was accompanied by loud brass, guitars, livestock, dogs, birds, and a clucking chicken that wonderfully became the opening guitar lick for the next song.

The reprise of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band follows. It was allegedly recorded in one take, in stark contrast to the rest of the album. As it fades into the sunset, the first gentle guitar strums of A Day in the Life can be heard.

This amazing song, actually two songs in one, was a joint effort of Lennon and McCartney (actually one of a very few, despite all of their Beatle songs being credited to both of them). John wrote the surrealistic opening and closing, which referenced plans to fill potholes, a horrific car crash, and one of his own movies, How I Won the War, while Paul wrote the middle about being late for work and hopping on a double-decker bus and having a “smoke.”

Bringing the lyrics to life was a full orchestra which was stretched rubber band-taut by mixing-board-magic. The first time, it allowed for a segue into Paul’s section. The second, it climaxed the song, which ended on a doom-laden piano note that was held for almost a whole minute. As if that weren’t enough, there was also a few seconds of incomprehensible chatter on some versions, but not on my original US album.

The album lifted the Beatles to new heights of artistic popularity, and every album they would release afterwards saw them going massively different new directions, both as individuals and as a group.

Sgt. Pepper has grown in time, as all great works should, and sounds as fresh today as it did in 1967, IMHO. We were lucky, indeed, to have the Beatles to listen to as we grew up.

Rock Star Deaths

It’s a bit sad that death is so much a part of our Boomer memories. We learned at a very early age that famous people die. We also learned, through the Vietnam war, that loved ones die. And as we kids grew up listening to and loving rock and roll music, we likewise learned that the makers of that music die.

Airplane crashes have taken many musical stars from us. The first one to shake up the world of the newly-invented genre of rock and roll was the one that took Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and The Big Bopper in 1959. Nine years later, Otis Redding took off in his own plane (his manager was the pilot) and ended up losing his life in an icy lake near Madison, Wisconsin. Thus was the world robbed of a rising star who had redefined soul music, and had in fact taken on the title of the King of Soul.

Otis was a clean-living family man who was raised in Georgia, and who never left his roots. However, the deaths that would soon follow would show the world that rock and roll music had transformed from innocence to worldliness as its participants found themselves at risk from deaths from decidedly hedonistic causes.

The victims were young people who found themselves thrust into the bright spotlight and simply had problems handling all of the success. While they struggled, they produced some of the most beautiful and prized art that the world has ever seen, art in the form of music.

Jimi Hendrix was born in Seattle, Washington in 1942. His father, a WWII veteran, instilled strong family values in him. Jimi got into some trouble later on, riding in a couple of stolen cars, and chose enlisting in the army over going to jail. He served for a year with the 101st Airborne Division, then left after (his own account) breaking his ankle and sustaining back injuries. Others claim that he was discharged for being an ineffective soldier. Hendrix bounced around for a while until Animals bassist Chas Chandler suggested he give England a try. Hendrix was practically an overnight success in Europe, and came back to the US triumphantly as leader of The Jimi Hendrix Experience.

The pressures of success, touring, and being in the public eye caused him to seek relief through alcohol and drugs. He kept things finely balanced for a time, generally appearing onstage sober enough to dazzle audiences with his talent, but eventually he overdosed in London on September 17, 1970, and the world lost the greatest guitarist in history.

In the meantime, a soulful blues singer by the name of Janis Joplin had been climbing the ladder of success. Born in 1943 in Port Arthur, Texas, she grew up listening to records of blues singers like Bessie Smith and Leadbelly, and soon found herself a social outcast for her liberal views on race relations, as well as her fascination with art, poetry, and reading, things that went against the grain of Texas teens in the 1950’s.

Janis was a rebel, and she began living her life in a self-destructive manner, similar to many of the blues artists she held in high regard. She was soon washing down speed with Southern Comfort, and by 1965, had a full-fledged addiction problem.

But she was also pouring out some of the most soulful music ever heard, and her popularity rose. She moved to San Francisco and joined a group called Big Brother and the Holding Company. While in the group, she developed a taste for heroin.

She would succeed in weaning herself off of the hardest drugs for a time, then once again succumb to temptation. Finally, just a couple of weeks after Jimi’s death, she overdosed on heroin and died.

According to the book No One Here Gets Out Alive, when Jim Morrison heard that Janis had passed, he told friends “You’re drinking with #3.”

Morrison was born in 1943 in Melbourne, Florida. Similar to Janis, he was tortured by personal demons at an early age. His father was in the military, and as a result Jim lived all over the country. He ended up graduating college from UCLA, and in 1965 formed The Doors. The group was successful from the start, playing Sunset Boulevard clubs like the Whisky a Go Go, and were soon selling hundreds of thousands of records.

As the group’s success rose, Morrison’s excesses followed along. Unlike Jimi Hendrix, Morrison would frequently be stoned or drunk during onstage performances, forcing the band to improvise around his inability to perform. On one particularly out-of-control evening in Miami, Florida, Morrison was arrested for indecent exposure onstage. The evidence was sketchy, and the case was never tried, but for a sinister reason.

On July 3, 1971, Jim’s alleged prophecy came true, and he died in a bathtub in Paris. Jimi, Janis, and Jim had all died at the age of 27.

They were the Big Three, but others also passed about this time. Brian Jones’ excesses had gotten him booted from the Rolling Stones, and he died soon afterwards (at the age of 27) in July, 1969. On October 29, 1971, Duane Allman, the undisputed top guitar player in the world after Jimi’s passing, died when a truck stopped abruptly in front of his Harley Sportster. Besides being a younger 24 years old, Duane was also not known for the same excesses in drugs and alcohol that had decimated the ranks of talent during this time. His death was simply a tragic accident.

Thus ended a very bad streak. Other musicians would die during the decade, including Keith Moon, John Bonham, and Bon Scott (actually he died in February 1980), but the stretch of years from 1967 to 1971 would be sadly remembered as a great thinning of the ranks of some of the greatest musical talent the world has ever known.

Rock and Roll Heaven must have a hell of a band.