Hank Williams, the Hillbilly Shakespeare, died at 29, thereby making him ineligible for membership in the “27 Club,” but I think he should be an honorary member, anyway.
While thousands of 27-year-olds die each year, because of accident, disease, or fate, the “27 Club” is a cultural phenomenon, highlighting the famous musicians, actors, athletes, and other famous people who died at the age of 27, with many of the deaths linked to high-risk lifestyles, suicide, homicide, drug and alcohol abuse, or automobile-related accidents.
To be factual, however, statistical analysis does not support this popular urban myth. According to insurance actuary tables, 27 tends to be a safe age for most people, the above group included. A phenomenon known as “conformation bias” describes the tendency of people to ignore facts that refute a preferred hypothesis while emphasizing the ones that support it. While the claim of a statistical spike for the death of famous persons at age 27 has been repeatedly disproven by research, it remains a favorite folk tale, and probably has more to do with selective reporting because of the individual’s notoriety than fact.
In my opinion, the rules should be waived for Hank Williams because he was already a dead man walking at 27; it just took him two more years to die in the back of that Cadillac Coupe de Ville in Oak Hill, West Virginia, in 1953. If there was ever a case of delayed suicide by alcohol, his unfortunate death qualified. I once owned a Cadillac like his, which I rescued from a Tijuana junkyard, and I often felt like we were riding together, me in the front and Hank in the back, especially when songs like “I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry” came across the radio. To this day, I can’t drive by the old Municipal Auditorium site in New Orleans without thinking how that was the location of his second marriage to Billie Jean Horton, although he still loved Audrey Shepherd, the mother of Hank, Jr. So, I vote to let him in the Club.
When you start looking into the membership of the 27 Club, you find some interesting people. For example, there’s Joseph Carey Merrick, also known as the “Elephant Man.” You are probably familiar with the 1980 movie of that name, starring Anthony Hopkins, but Merrick was a real person. Born in 1862 in Leicester, England, he suffered from severe deformities caused by the Proteus Syndrome. Disowned by his family, he performed in English freak shows before dying in hospital of a broken neck in 1890. It was long thought that he died of asphyxia, having choked to death after he expressed the desire to “lie down and sleep like other people.” But the autopsy showed that he died of a broken neck. He had usually slept sitting up, and his neck couldn’t take the strain of lying down with his heavy head.
Rupert Brooke (1887-1915) was an English poet known for his idealistic war sonnets during the First World War. He was also known for his good looks, which prompted the Irish poet, W.B. Yeats, to describe him as “the handsomest young man in England.” A product of the elite English public (private) schools, no less than Winston Churchill procured him a commission as a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. His military career was cut short, however, when he died on a hospital ship in Greece from sepsis brought on by an infected mosquito bite.
Even today, the first stanza to his poem, The Soldier (1914), is well-known by most every schoolboy in England:
If I should die, think only
this of me:
That there’s some corner
of a foreign field
That is forever England.
The only opening lines to a poem of that period which might be as popular are these from In Flanders Fields (1915), by the Canadian physician, John McCrae, who survived the war:
In Flanders Fields
The poppies blow,
Between the crosses
Row by row.
Possibly the most famous member of the 27 Club from Mississippi is the Delta bluesman, Robert Johnson (1911-1938). Unless you are a die-hard aficionado of the genre, you might have first heard of this famous guitarist and singer in the Coen Brothers’ movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000), which was mostly filmed in and around Canton, Mississippi. Born in Hazlehurst, Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in exchange for musical success. Playing at juke joints as far north as Memphis, he eventually cut some 29 recordings which brought him regional fame. Opinions vary as to the nature of his death, but the most accepted one is that he was poisoned by the owner of a juke joint with whose wife he was having an affair. He is buried in Greenwood. Regardless of how he died, and whether the devil collected his soul, he is recognized as one of the founders of rock and roll, and artists ranging from Chuck Berry, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Robert Plant, and Keith Richards have acknowledged their debt to him.
Regarding Keith Richards and the Rolling Stones, the World’s Oldest Rock and Roll Band, many don’t realize the debt they owe to Brian Jones (1942-1969), who is best known as the founder and first leader of the band. He also named the band and assembled the original members. Unfortunately, Richards and Mick Jagger slowly began to differ with Jones over the direction the band’s music was taking, with Jones preferring a more blues-oriented approach, and Jones receded into the background. He became increasingly unreliable, more and more involved in drugs and alcohol, and was reluctantly dismissed from the band. Not long afterward, he was found dead, floating in his swimming pool. At the band’s insistence, he was included when the Rolling Stones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Janis Joplin (1943-1970) first came to my attention when her song, Mercedes Benz, was climbing up the charts. I was in Hong Kong at the time, over on the Kowloon side, and I was in a mall where a new Mercedes sedan was for sale on a turntable, going around and around, while the song played in the background:
Oh Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my
So Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?
I had a wife and two children to feed, plus I doubted the Old Man would let me bring it aboard the ship, but I became a Janis Joplin fan that day.
She was born in Port Arthur, Texas, and, as you might expect didn’t fit in at high school, nor at the University of Texas at Austin which she attended for a few semesters. A singer all her life, she then moved to California at the height of the “flower power” movement, and sang with several bands, most notably “Big Brother and the Holding Company.” Her breakout as a solo artist came at the Woodstock Festival in 1969. Anyway, Joplin was a lost soul from the beginning: a bisexual who never found a meaningful relationship with either sex, an alcoholic, and a drug addict, turning increasingly to hard drugs. For all her popularity, she only made one solo album, Pearl, which was released three months after her death from an overdose, alone, in a Los Angeles hotel room.
As an aside, I am amazed in my advanced years that about half the men my age I talk to were either at Woodstock or in Vietnam. For the record, I wasn’t at Woodstock.
At least Jim Morrison (1943-1971) died in Paris, my favorite city. It’s not well-known, but his girlfriend had also just passed away – also at 27. Frankly, it’s hard for me to find a sweet spot for Morrison, considering his actions during the Vietnam War. It’s a matter of record that, at his induction physical for the draft, he stuffed himself full of drugs to raise his blood pressure, temperature, and upset his balance. For good measure, he announced that he was gay. To be honest, I saw some of the same thing at the induction station in the old Customs House on Canal Street in New Orleans. People were chain smoking, doing jumping jacks, anything they could think of to get their blood pressure up. I was just the opposite: trying to be calm and think quiet thoughts, because I was trying to get into officer candidate school. What burns me is that I can think of at least five friends, all poor country boys, who are dead now because they stepped forward to serve their country. Ironically, Morrison’s father was a highly decorated Navy Rear Admiral during the Vietnam War.
Someone who might surprise you, who did step forward, is Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970). He was in the Army, went to paratrooper school, and served briefly in the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, the same unit as my son, and the group that’s in Poland today. He was ultimately discharged for insubordination, which is not surprising, and his “unique” rendition of the National Anthem at Woodstock caused a lot of flak; but at least he showed up when it counted. I visited my son in his barracks at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, years ago, and one of the first things he showed me was the “bunk where Jimi Hendrix used to sleep.”
Another military guy who gave it all up for his country is Pat Tillman (1976-2004). He was an NFL football player (Arizona Cardinals) who joined the Army in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack. After graduating from Ranger School, he was sent to Afghanistan, where he distinguished himself in several encounters with enemy forces. Although the Army first announced he was killed in action, it was later admitted that he was killed by friendly fire.
On the flip side of the coin is a guy like Aaron Hernandez (1989-2017), someone you would think who had it all – good looking, first team All-American in football at the University of Florida; a tight end who played for three seasons for the New England Patriots alongside teammate Rob Gronkowski – he goes out and murders a man who is dating the sister of his fiancé. For this, he is sentenced to life in prison without parole. He was also indicted for two other earlier murders for which he was acquitted. Two days after this acquittal, he hanged himself in his cell. He had John 3:16 written in red on his forehead. Controversially, his autopsy showed evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which can be caused by concussions and repeated blows to the head – such as those often suffered by professional football players.
There are obviously more members of the 27 Club that many, especially younger readers, would be familiar with. In fact, I saw one list that contained over 50 modern names. I just wrote about those that I know something about. A complete list would no doubt contain the names of Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, and many other important people. I know nothing about grunge music, for example. I was once on a ship out of Seattle, Mr. Cobain’s home, but that’s all I know about him. I do know this: I am nobody’s judge, and every life is precious. I have had three suicides and several untimely deaths in my own immediate family, and the pain never goes away. There’s not much we can do about accidents, but suicides are preventable. The best place to start, even if you only have a suspicion, is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255. Save this number and don’t hesitate to act.
Light a candle for me.
Benny Hornsby of Oak Grove is a retired U.S. Navy captain. Visit his website, bennyhornsby.com, or email him: firstname.lastname@example.org.