With all of the joy that has sprung from rockabilly music, it’s sometimes difficult to fathom the tragedy that seems to have plagued the early pioneers. Many of the greatest rockabilly artists had their careers–and in many cases their lives–cut short by accidental injury and death. Many others succumbed to the tragedy of substance abuse and other problems that came between them and the happiness they sought. Here is a list of several rockabilly artists who we lost much earlier than we should have.
Buddy Holly: Probably the most famous rock and roll tragedy of all came in the frigid early morning hours of February 3, 1959 when Buddy Holly’s small chartered airplane crashed in a cornfield near Mason City, Iowa. Holly had played the night before in Clear Lake Iowa at the Surf Ballroom as part of the Winter Dance Party tour that he and several other rock and rollers where part of. By the time of his death, Holly had been performing for only a few years and had already progressed beyond his rockabilly roots, but his early rockabilly recordings are among he greatest recordings of the genre. Holly was only 22 when he died. Also killed in the plane crash (in addition to the pilot, Roger Peterson) were Ritchie Valens and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson.
Eddie Cochran: Among rockabilly fans, Cochran’s death might be considered the most significant tragedy of them all. Even younger than Holly when he died at age 21, Cochran hadn’t yet come near reaching his full potential. He’d had several hits, but had never really broken through as the mega star everyone knew that he would eventually become. Cochran had been deeply affected by the death of his friends Holly and Richie Valens and it seemed to those close to him that he was convinced his time was almost up too. Just a little more than a year after the fatal plane crash that killed his friends, Cochran’s time did indeed come up. He died in London on April 17, 1960 as a result of injuries sustained in a late-night car crash the night before.
Gene Vincent: Although he wasn’t killed that night, Vincent was in the car along with Eddie Cochran the night of the crash that killed Eddie. Naturally, Vincent was deeply affected by Eddie’s death as the two had become very close during their tours together. Already suffering from a bad leg, he sustained severe injuries in the crash and never really recovered either physically or emotionally. Although he went on to record several more records after the crash, he never realized the kind of success he had in the early rockabilly years. Vincent died of a ruptured stomach ulcer in October of 1971. He was just 36 years old.
Johnny Horton: Horton was known more for his later country story-song recordings like “The Battle of New Orleans”, “North to Alaska”, and “Johnny Reb”, but he recorded a number of fantastic rockabilly records early in his career. Like Cochran–only even more so–Horton felt that the end was near. He’d begun telling those close to him that he would soon be killed by a drunk. After a show on the night of November 5, 1960–just a few short months after Cochran’s death–Horton was killed when his car was struck head on by a truck driven by…a drunk driver.
Johnny Burnette: Burnette was the victim of a different type of accident. He drowned on the night of August 14, 1964 when his fishing boat (which had no lights) was struck by a cabin cruiser on Clearlake in California. Johnny’s rockabilly career was over by this time as the initial rockabilly craze had pretty much run its course long before then, but he had just started his own record label earlier that year. Burnette was just 30 years old when he died.
Elvis Presley: Although Elvis lived to be much older than the other rockabilly performers on this list, his later life could be considered tragic as he struggled to deal with his excessive fame and addition to the pills he often took in order to try and deal with it all. He’d become grossly overweight and very unhealthy with a host of physical ailments either caused by or exacerbated by the excessive use of prescription drugs. Still, he kept up a frantic touring schedule. Nearing his death however, his concerts were becoming barely more than an exhibition to see whether he could remain standing for the hour or so he was on stage. He was found dead on August 16, 1977 on his bathroom floor the day before he was to leave for yet another tour. Elvis was only 42 years old when he died.
We can only wonder what wonderful music would have been made had each of these musicians lived long and healthy lives. Thankfully, they each left a wealth of wonderful recordings behind.