Top 10 Musicians Who Suddenly Died in the 60’s

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In North America, Europe and Oceania, the 1960s was a revolutionary decade in terms of popular music. The industry underwent major changes as rock evolved. Talented musicians from all over the world began to try new techniques and produce a different sound. For this reason, a large number of extremely influential rock and roll, country, soul, R&B, and jazz musicians emerged during the 1960s. The revolution caught the attention of top record executives who often saw the freedom of expression as a problem during this hectic time of war, protest, and the Civil Rights Movement.

Similar to other decades of music, a large collection of important musicians suddenly died in the 1960s. Some of the people died under mysterious circumstances, while others experienced a tragic accident. All of the musicians included in this article were killed at an extremely young age. As you can imagine, it was hard to limit the entries to only ten names. For this reason, I will include an extensive list of people who were considered.

Otis Redding (soul singer), Jesse Belvin (R&B singer), Elmore James (blues guitarist), David Box (rock and roll singer), John Coltrane (jazz saxophonist), Nat King Cole (jazz pianist and singer), Judy Garland (actress and singer), Stuart Sutcliffe (bass player), Johnny Burnette (country singer), Little Walter (jazz harmonica), Eddie Sulik (country singer), Frankie Lymon (blues singer), Bud Powell  (jazz pianist), Luigi Tenco (Italian singer), Oscar Pettiford (jazz double bassist), Alexandra (German singer), Wes Montgomery (jazz guitarist), Dorothy Dandridge (actress and singer), Little Willie John (R&B singer), Eddie Brown (gospel folk singer), Peter La Farge (folksinger), Scott LaFaro (jazz bassist), Jan Johansson (Swedish jazz pianist), Magic Sam (guitar player), Ji?í Šlitr (Czech pianist), Hawkshaw Hawkins (country singer), Eric Dolphy (bass clarinetist), Don Drummond (ska trombonist), Jack Anglin (country singer), George “King” Scott (R&B singer), Ricardo Aguirre (Venezuelan folksinger), Tooter Boatman, Violeta Parra (Chilean composer), Catherine Warnes (Australian singer), Mark Leeman (R&B singer), Dickie Pride (rock and roll singer), Bill Black (bassist), Nick Pantas, Paul Clayton (folksinger), Roy Hamilton (R&B singer), Shorty Long (soul singer), Benny Benjamin (drummer), Ken Errair (singer), Luther Perkins (folk guitarist), Paul Chambers (jazz bassist), and Martin Lamble (drummer).

10. Johnny Horton

Johnny Horton was an American country music singer most famous for his semi-folk, so-called “saga songs” which began the “historical ballad” craze of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Horton released several successful records during his career, most notably during 1959 with the song The Battle of New Orleans, for which he was awarded the 1960 Grammy Award for Best Country & Western Recording.

During 1960, Horton had two other successful songs with North to Alaska and Sink the Bismarck. He was an influential musician who had a direct impact on the country music scene in the late 1950s. It should also be noted that Johnny Horton was a devoted follower of the writings of Edgar Cayce. In early 1960, he is said to have experienced a premonition of his death, telling friends and family that he would soon die at the hands of a drunk.

Untimely Death

On November 5, 1960, Johnny Horton went to Texas in order to perform a duet with Jerry Kennedy. During the visit, Horton stayed in his dressing room almost the entire time, saying that a drunk would kill him if he went near the bar. After the show, Horton and a group of friends started the 220-mile (350 km) journey back to Shreveport. While on the road near Milano, Texas the men crashed the car into a truck that came upon them on a bridge. The truck lost control, hit both sides of the bridge, and then plunged into Horton’s Cadillac.

Johnny Horton had practiced avoiding head-on collisions by driving into ditches, but on the narrow bridge, he had no opportunity. Johnny experienced severe head trauma in the accident and died on the way to the hospital. The 19-year-old truck driver, James Davis, was intoxicated. At the time of his death, Johnny Horton was only 35-years-old. He will be remembered for his major contributions to both country and rockabilly music. When Johnny Cash, a good friend of Horton’s, learned about the accident he said, “I locked myself in one of the hotel’s bathrooms, and cried. Johnny Horton was a good old friend of mine.”

9. Richard Fariña

In 1937, Richard Fariña was born in Brooklyn, New York, of Cuban and Irish descent. In the late 1950s, Fariña became a regular at the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village, which is an area of New York often frequented by poets, artists, and folksingers. At the tavern, Fariña met Carolyn Hester, who was a successful folk singer and his first wife. In 1961, Fariña was present when Hester recorded her third album at Columbia studios. The album includes Bob Dylan on harmonica. After the recording session, Richard Fariña and Bob Dylan became good friends. In 1963, Fariña met Mimi Baez, the sister of Joan Baez, and the two were married. Like Bob Dylan, Richard Fariña was considered a protest singer, and several of his songs were overtly political.

Untimely Death

On April 30, 1966, two days after the publication of Richard Fariña’s book Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, which is based largely on his college experiences and travels, Fariña was killed in a motorcycle accident. He was only 29-years-old. On the day in question, Fariña was attending his wife’s 21st birthday party. At the party, Richard decided to take a motorcycle ride with a friend up Carmel Valley Road. At an S-turn in the road, the driver lost control of the motorcycle and Richard was thrown from the bike. The driver survived the accident, but Fariña was killed instantly. The police said the motorcycle had been traveling at 90 miles per hour (140 km/h).

Richard Fariña was buried in a simple grave at Monterey City Cemetery. Due to his brief life, Fariña’s musical output was limited. However, several critics consider him a major folk music talent of the 1960s. Ed Ward has been quoted: “If Richard had survived that motorcycle accident, he would have easily given Dylan a run for his money.” Fariña’s best-known songs are Pack Up Your Sorrows and Birmingham Sunday, the latter of which was recorded by Joan Baez and used as the theme for Spike Lee’s film 4 Little Girls, a documentary about the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Alabama. At the time of his death, Richard Fariña was also producing an album for Joan Baez, which has never been released.

8. Bobby Fuller

In 1964, Bobby Fuller moved to Los Angeles with his band The Bobby Fuller Four. He was signed to Mustang Records by producer Bob Keane, who was noted for discovering Ritchie Valens and a collection of surf music groups. During this time in history, the British Invasion and folk rock dominated the music scene, but Fuller decided to stick with Buddy Holly’s style of classic rock with Tex Mex flourishes. His first Top 40 hit was the self-penned Let Her Dance. During the week of March 12-19, 1966, Bobby Fuller’s second hit, I Fought the Law, peaked at #9 on the Hot 100. The song was written by Sonny Curtis, who was a former member of The Crickets.

Untimely Death

On July 18, 1966, Bobby Fuller was found dead in an automobile parked outside his Hollywood apartment. He was only 23-years-old. The Los Angeles deputy medical examiners report indicated that Bobby’s face, chest, and body were covered in “petechial hemorrhages,” probably caused by gasoline vapors and the heat. His body was drenched with gasoline and the windows of the car were rolled up. The cause of death was listed as asphyxiation, “due to the inhalation of gasoline.” The report indicated that Fuller’s body had no bruises, no broken bones, no cuts, and no evidence of beating.

The boxes for “accident” and “suicide” were checked, but next to the boxes, the examiner left question marks. Despite the official cause of death, some people feel that Bobby Fuller was murdered. A collection of conspiracy theories have examined the similarities between the death of Bobby Fuller and Sam Cooke, the connection with Charles Manson, and the fact that Fuller often dated women related to the mafia. After his brother’s death, Randy Fuller took over lead vocal in the Bobby Fuller Four, but the group quickly broke up. The case remains closed and sealed under California law.

7. Fred Buscaglione

Fred Buscaglione was an Italian singer and actor who became very popular in the late 1950s. During his career, Buscaglione developed the public persona of a humorous mobster character with a liking for whisky and women. During World War II, Fred was incarcerated in an American internment camp in Sardinia. His musical talent was apparent and Buscaglione was allowed to join the orchestra of the Allied radio station of Cagliari. This gave him the rare opportunity to experiment with sounds and rhythms coming from the United States. At this time in history, most foreign music had been officially forbidden by the Italian Fascist regime.

After perfecting his routine in night clubs and theatres, Fred Buscaglione started recording songs in 1955. His first single (a shellac 78rpm record containing ‘Che bambola’ and ‘Giacomino’) sold 1,000,000 copies with close to no promotion. This fact caught the attention of people all over the world and Fred was propelled to a degree of fame he never considered possible. By the end of 1950s, Buscaglione was one of Italy’s most wanted entertainers. He appeared in advertising campaigns, on television, and in movies.

Untimely Death

Little is known about the events that caused the death of Fred Buscaglione, but on February 3, 1960, he was killed in a car accident just outside the U.S. embassy in Rome, Italy. The accident occurred in the early morning while Fred was driving his pink Ford Thunderbird. He collided with a truck and was killed instantly in the accident. He was only 38-years-old. In an important note, Fred Buscaglione deserves an honor for having encouraged musicians and singers from the 1960s to stand up against the conservative producers and discographers of the time. He demanded recognition for his art and style. In this role, Buscaglione proved to be an important figure in the rise of the “yellers” scene, which started to revolutionize Italian popular music in the 1960s.

6. Johnny Kidd

Johnny Kidd was an English singer and songwriter. He was the front man of the rock band Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, which was one of the few early British rock groups to achieve worldwide fame. The Pirates scored a number of hit songs in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Johnny Kidd’s most famous song as a composer was Shakin’ All Over, which was a #1 UK hit in 1960. However, the bands style and influence far outshines their chart performance. The Pirates stage act was theatrical in a way that anticipated rockers of the 1970s, such as Alice Cooper. They used full pirate costumes, complete with eye-patches and cutlasses.

More importantly, and unusual for bands of the time, the Pirates had only one guitarist (not two), alongside a bassist and a drummer. Kidd didn’t play any instruments on stage and was only the vocal presence. This style was very influential on the rock bands of the 1970s, including Led Zeppelin and The Who. Johnny Kidd was also known to swing around on stage and would often damage the wooden framework. By 1964, when the British Invasion was taking shape, Kidd was left in the shadows. By 1966, it seemed that he was on the verge of a reemergence, but this was stopped by his sudden death.

Untimely Death

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On October 7, 1966, Johnny Kidd died in a car accident on the A58, Bury New Road, Breightmet, near Radcliffe, Lancashire. He was only 30-years-old. Kidd was traveling as the passenger in a car that experienced a head-on collision. He was killed instantly in the crash and was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium, London. The Pirates’ bassist Nick Simper, who later became an original member of Deep Purple, was also in the car with Kidd and suffered a broken arm. In hindsight, Johnny Kidd and the Pirates are seen as an extremely important band in the history of rock music. They recorded music with an increased emphasis on electric blues and R&B, which is a style that influenced acts such as The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, and The Animals.


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6 Comments

  1. Interesting list. One gripe, though: Johnny Burnette wasn’t a country singer, he was a rock’n’roll/rockabilly and later pop singer. He never recorded any country music.

  2. Dinah Washington was one of the all-time greatest singers in the world. Her last husband was Richard “Night Train” Lane, feared linebacker of the Chicago Cardinals and Detroit Lions. Sam Cooke (another great talent) was trying to get away from the husband of the woman who he was with at the motel. He ran into the lobby,totally naked. and the woman clerk shot and killed him. It was not self defense. (Though the clerk may have thought it was)-Sam Cooke was not a violent man.
    The list is ok as far as it goes ( I’ve never heard of Buscaglione or Farina) but I have to wonder why you would omit Jim Reeves.

  3. Side note for Eddie Cochran :-
    The car crash that killed Eddie Cochran was attended by a Wiltshire Police Cadet called Dave Dee. Cochran’s Gretsch guitar was impounded for safe keeping, and Dee practiced on it when he had the chance. Dave Dee then went on to form Dave Dee, Dozey, Beaky, Mick & Tich.

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