Respected musicians who were actually terrible people

Some musicians just have a freakish amount of talent. Most of us learn at a young age that we are not those people. The realization probably came as soon as you were old enough to read social cues and you tried showing off your amazing talents to anyone except your pet. (Daisy is a very good dog, but maybe not a very good judge of musical ability.) Those who do have that freakish amount of talent are the singer-songwriters, the people who can play any instrument they pick up, the ones who get lost in the music of their own making whether they're in the studio or on stage. There's something almost magical about listening to a true musical genius, and they've definitely earned our respect. But it's easy to forget that behind all that music is a very ordinary person, and sometimes, that ordinary person is a terrible human being. 

Johnny Cash's troubles with women

There's a lot of dark stuff in Johnny Cash's life, but let's talk about just how horrible he was to women. Vivian Cash's book I Walked the Line: My Life with Johnny was a heartbreaking tell-all detailing how she continued loving her husband even through the drugs and the affair with his more famous second partner, June Carter Cash. It was Vivian who gave him four daughters, raised them, and who stuck with him through the worst of the arrests and the accidental forest fires (via USA Today), but Johnny gave all the credit to June. 

Behind closed doors, June Carter didn't actually have it any easier, in spite of the storybook romance performed in the public eye. Biographer Robert Hilburn (via Esquire) says he was stunned when he found out Cash had cheated on her when she was pregnant with son John Carter. There were more than a few women, but the one that had to hurt the most was June's own sister, Anita. John Carter has also gone on record talking about his parents' less-than-perfect marriage, and has said (via Reuters) his mother's drug addictions and descent into paranoia came from a near-constant fear he was cheating yet again. That fear spread to their son, who grew up well aware that his family could fall apart at any time because his father couldn't stay faithful.

Chuck Berry's icky past

Chuck Berry was a legend who helped shape rock and roll, and when he died in 2017, The New Yorker described him as "a proud and difficult man" who "was also a genius." He also once punched Keith Richards in the mouth for touching his guitar while they were getting together to organize Berry's 60th birthday party. That's the attitude that got him into all kinds of trouble, and Berry even had a name for those incidents: his "naughties."

It started when, as a teenager, he did three years in a reform school for stealing cars and a bit of armed robbery. Fast-forward to 1962, when Berry was 36 years old. He was tossed in the clink for violating the Mann Act, a law that prohibits taking a woman across state lines with "immoral" intentions. Oh, and the girl was 14. He served 20 months of the three years he was originally sentenced to (via NPR), getting out because they appealed after the judge made racist comments.

Let's not forget about the 1989 accusations, either. That's when law enforcement raided his property and found a few weapons, some pot, and videotapes of women in what they thought was the privacy of bathrooms and changing rooms of his properties. The official suit, says Riverfront Times, accused him of filming women in compromising positions for "entertainment and gratification." Berry's camp eventually settled, but that seriously tarnishes any legacy.

Lead Belly's penchant for violence

Lead Belly died in 1949, and if you don't remember him, you should at least be glad groups like Creedence Clearwater Revival and artists like Bob Dylan didn't forget him. Even George Harrison once said, "No Lead Belly, no Beatles." You know the songs he recorded, too — like "The Midnight Special" and "Goodnight Irene" (via The Telegraph).

Huddie Ledbetter was born in 1888, and he picked up the name Lead Belly in prison. He did several stretches in jail, starting with 30 days on a chain gang in 1915 for getting in a particularly violent fight. Two years later he was arrested again, this time for killing his cousin's husband and nearly killing another. He was pardoned in 1925 but went back in jail in 1930, this time for stabbing and what Black History Now says was "assault with intent to murder." It was during this stint he was discovered by a pair of musicologists who were recording songs for the Smithsonian, and Lead Belly recorded hundreds for them. The rest of his life was a combination of performing at venues of all sizes across the country, and more time in jail. There was another stabbing incident in 1939, assault in 1940 … you get the picture. He was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease only months before he died from it, and he left behind an incredible legacy. And some dead people.

Elvis's underage flings

It's impossible to describe the effect Elvis had on music history, so let's get right to the dirt. He was 21 when he became ridiculously famous with the success of "Heartbreak Hotel," and after that, all bets were off when it came to how far he was going to go. Along with the fame and fortune came the admiration of countless women, but according to biographer Joel Williamson (via Broadly), there was a particular type of woman Elvis liked: the really, really young ones.

The right age to be an Elvis girl was 14, and when the 22-year-old megastar went on those early tours he took along a little group of 14-year-olds. Williamson says he was a huge fan of tickling and wrestling, along with everything else short of actual intercourse. Future wife Priscilla was 14 when they met (he was 24), and just what went on behind closed doors is debated. What's not debated is that he lost interest in her after Lisa Marie was born, and went on to court another 14-year-old named Reeca Smith.

There was a bit of violence in Elvis, too. Years later, he was engaged to a 21-year-old who claimed he once pulled out a gun and put a bullet in the headboard of the bed she was sleeping in, saying it was "an attention getter." The Guardian says in between those major relationships there were a ton of others, many with underage girls who preferably had tiny, tiny feet.

Carlo Gesualdo's murderous rampage

Carlo Gesualdo was a 16th-century composer who wrote some of the era's most powerful compositions, and they're pretty dark. The Guardian says it's no wonder he wrote such dark stuff because he was a pretty dark guy.

Let's start with an account of the murder, via The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross. Ross says the double murder happened on October 16, 1590, and officials first found the body of the Duke of Andria. He was covered in blood, shot several times, and stabbed in the chest, neck, face, arms, hands, shoulders, and kidneys. Then they found Gesualdo's wife. She'd had her throat cut, and was also covered in wounds. There was absolutely no doubt as to who the murderer was, as witnesses saw Gesualdo enter the apartment and shout, "Kill that scoundrel, along with this harlot!" Those witnesses testified he came out covered in blood, said he wasn't sure they were quite dead, and went back in.

Since Gesualdo was a prince as well as a composer, the justice system didn't quite do its thing. More stories started popping up about other horrific acts Gesualdo committed, and while a lot of them aren't true, it is true that he married again and had so many affairs his new bride eventually put his mistresses on trial for witchcraft. They were found guilty and locked up in Gesualdo's castle, which presumably wasn't what his long-suffering (and, by all accounts, abused) wife was hoping for.

Frank Sinatra's destructive temper

Frank Sinatra was iconic on stage, but there was a lot of shady stuff that happened off-stage. Let's talk about one part of that: his temper. According to The Telegraph, it was so bad that one of his wives once described him as a sort of Jekyll-and-Hyde character, and there's a whole list of physical altercations he was involved in. First, the ones where someone got seriously hurt.

He punched a reporter in 1948, eventually settling the assault and battery charges filed against him. He was staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel when he threw a phone at a random businessman who was also there, and cracked the man's skull. He nearly killed his then-wife Ava Gardner by throwing a champagne bottle at her so hard it cracked the bathroom sink.

Sinatra destroyed an insane amount of stuff, too, usually in fits of rage. He took a knife to a Norman Rockwell painting and shredded it, threw a malfunctioning TV out a window at Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, and smashed a car radio when The Doors' "Light My Fire" came on. GQ says some of the stuff that met an untimely end under his boot was pretty priceless, too, like the Ming vase he destroyed at a Hong Kong hotel after someone missed a lighting cue. That's what happens when you get too used to having things your way. 

Peter McNeal's child molestation charges

Cake is one of those groups you probably forgot you used to listen to all the time, but before you go back and dig out your CDs, let's talk about what drummer Peter McNeal has been up to. McNeal — who was also the drummer for Norah Jones — made Rolling Stone headlines in 2014 for one of the most despicable reasons you can imagine. The verdict of his court case was in, and he was sentenced to 15 years to life in jail and was a permanent addition to the sex offender registry.

Noisey said it wasn't just because of a single incident, either. The details are way, way too terrible to repeat, so let's just say one incident happened while he was volunteering at a school in Los Angeles. Another one of his victims was only 3 years old at the time, and that's as terrible as it gets.

Jerry Lee Lewis's rage-hate

Talking about the sins and vices of Jerry Lee Lewis is a little difficult, for one simple reason: He's got pretty much all of them. He changed the face of rock and roll, he helped shape decades of music, and he also has a ton of shadiness in his past. A lot can be traced back to a nasty temper and a violent streak, but finding it all is tricky. The Guardian interviewed him in 2015, and said it's almost impossible to figure out what's truth and what's legend, including the circumstances around his nickname: the Killer. The story Lewis tells is that he got it after playing pool, but it's also possible it came after he tried to strangle and kill one of his teachers, an act he fully admits to.

Lewis has had seven wives, and two died mysteriously: one by drowning and one by overdose. The latter incident went to court, where Lewis was ultimately cleared of wrongdoing. But the law was not on his side after he shot his bass player in the chest and had to pay out $125,000. Lewis's seventh marriage was to the ex-sister-in-law of his third wife, the most infamous. Myra was 13 years old, and the daughter of Lewis' cousin. Oh and, Medium says, he was still technically married to his second wife at the time. It's no wonder Lewis lies awake at night and worries whether he's going to heaven or hell.

Spade Cooley's domestic sorrows

Spade Cooley was born in 1910, so you get a pass if you're not incredibly familiar with his name. He was huge in the 1950s, declared he was the "King of Western Swing," led a 30-piece band, hosted his own TV show, and made appearances in more than 50 movies. He's even got a star on Hollywood Boulevard, and you may have had a better chance of remembering him if his career hadn't been derailed by alcohol, pills, jealousy, and murder.

Weirdly, he was the one who filed for divorce from his second wife, Ella Mae. According to Taste of Country, they were on the verge of getting back together when he killed her on April 3, 1961. It gets worse, believe it or not. The murder wasn't just incredibly violent (the LA Times says Cooley choked, beat, and stomped her to death), but he did it in front of their 14-year-old daughter, Melody. He also reportedly put a cigarette out on her to make sure she was dead, then sat around in bloody clothes for a few hours before finally calling someone.

Melody's testimony ultimately led to his conviction, and he was actually up for parole in 1970. He was granted permission to perform at a charity concert in 1969, but collapsed and died backstage. It's a weird end to the tale of the only celebrity with both a Walk of Fame star and a murder conviction.

Johnny Paycheck's attempted murders

Johnny Paycheck — originally named Donald Eugene Lytle — was one of the Grand Ole Opry's most respected members, and an icon who helped build country music. He was known as something of a country music outlaw, too, says CMT, and his entire career was colored by drug and alcohol use. His difficulty staying out of trouble started way before he was a star, though, and when he was still a teenager he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, punched a superior officer, and spent a few years in prison. The record deal came after that, and so did the check forgery and the attempted murder.

That happened on December 19, 1985, says Rolling Stone. Paycheck was on his way home for the holidays when he stopped off at a Hillsboro, Ohio, bar for a drink. He was recognized by a local named Larry Wise, they got to chatting, and … no one's entirely sure what happened next. Whatever offenses were caused, it ended with Paycheck pulling out a gun and shooting. The bullet grazed Wise's head, and he'd later testify the music legend had "blowed my hat off."

The case dragged on. Paycheck eventually served nine years and even tried to revive his career post-prison before he died in 2003.

James Levine's predatory behavior

You can't get much bigger than the Metropolitan Opera, and for more than 40 years, conductor James Levine was at the head of it. He sported titles like director emeritus and worked with the company's young artists program as artistic director. The last one is particularly creepy, given that the New York Times announced in March 2018 the Met was officially — and loudly — ending its association with him amid accusations of "sexually abusive and harassing conduct."

Not a lot of details were released, but sometimes, just a few details are enough. The Met's investigation involved interviews with 70 people, and it ended with an official statement saying there was "credible evidence that Mr. Levine engaged in sexually abusive … conduct toward vulnerable artists in the early stages of their careers." Levine didn't comment on the firing — which came after a December 2017 suspension prompted by four men who came forward to say they had been targeted by the conductor when they were still teenagers. Levine denied the accusations then, but things started looking very, very bad with the revelation it wasn't the first time he'd been accused of that sort of thing. There were rumors of abuse as far back as the 1960s, when Levine was working at the Meadow Brook School of Music. With accusations firmly out in the public eye now, one of his accusers was quoted as saying, "The truth can be very useful. The truth creates good."

Cee Lo Green's views on consent

Cee Lo Green hit something of a rough patch in 2012 and 2013, and it gets a little complicated. According to The Guardian, his troubles only started when he was accused of both giving a woman ecstasy and later raping her. Green ultimately pleaded no contest to the drug felony and got three years of probation, along with 45 days of community service. The rape charges simply went away because Green's lawyer argued there was no proof it wasn't consensual.

That's skeevy, and it gets worse. Green took to Twitter to voice his opinions on rape, and saying they're horrible opinions is a huge understatement. He wrote, "People who have really been raped REMEMBER!!!" and "If someone is passed out they're not even WITH you consciously! So WITH Implies consent."

The Twitterverse's meltdown was immediate, and even though he deleted the tweets, other Twitterers saved them to prove that once something's on the internet, it's definitely not going away. That's true for everything, and it's especially true when it's a sentiment like that. Green apologized, saying he'd "never condone the harm of any women," but he still became another poster child for proof of just how healthy modern rape culture is (via Mic).

Steven Tyler's child girlfriend

There are two sides to every story, and really, both sides to this one are uncomfortable. When Aerosmith front man Steven Tyler wrote his 2011 memoir Does the Noise in My Head Bother You?, he talked a bit about early girlfriend Julia Holcomb (and managed to misspell her name in the book's acknowledgements, notes the Boston Globe). Tyler wrote he had nicknamed her Little Bo Peep, said they liked to get it on in public, and left out a lot of the other details.

Holcomb wanted to clear the air about what she says really happened, so she took to Life Site to tell her side of the story. According to her, she was a 16-year-old from a broken family when she met Tyler and kicked off a relationship with him that really started when her troubled mother signed documents making Tyler her legal guardian. Holcomb says she was already pregnant by the time he asked her to marry him, and plans for a family started to fall apart when his grandmother refused to pass on her ring. Five months into the pregnancy, Holcomb was trapped in a house fire and sent to the hospital, where she says Tyler convinced her to have an abortion. (Jezebel notes that he also talks about it in Walk This Way, Aerosmith's autobiography.) Holcomb left him — he had already moved on to other women — and returned to her parents. Tyler returned to the rock star life.

Alexander Scriabin dances with the devil

Alexander Scriabin was a Russian composer who — according to the Julian calendar — was born on Christmas Day. He eventually came to see that as a bit of extra proof that he was the Messiah.

Scriabin was brilliant but troubled, and the Houston Press shares one particular anecdote of just how troubled. His hands were too small for him to play some of the piano pieces he wanted to, so he practiced until they broke, and kept practicing until the bones stretched enough that he could reach the keys. That's the kind of personality we're talking here.

After he got interested in religious philosophy and the occult, he became more and more convinced he was destined to change the world … and by "change," he meant "bring about the end times." He started writing a massive composition called the Mysterium, which Gramophone says he envisioned as including music, dance, choreographed perfumes and incenses, and more than a few bells. The goal was to stage the entire, seven-day performance in the Himalayan Mountains, then kick open the door to the end of days and wipe out humanity. His plans were thwarted in the most anti-climactic way possible: He cut himself shaving, it got infected, and he died.

Miles Davis, drugs, abuse

If there was ever a human being who embodied the spirit of music, that human was Miles Davis and the spirit was jazz. But he was also such a horrible human that when the New York Times reported there was going to be a movie made about his life, they also said it presented some problems.

First, let's mention the fact he used to play with his back to his fans, and God help anyone who was brazen enough to walk up to him. There was the insane vanity, to the point where (via The Atlantic) he condemned music critics for writing pieces that sang the praises of anyone else, claiming they were just out to take away his spotlight. Then there were the heroin and cocaine addictions, stories of pimping, and his abusive relationships with the women he married.

Ex-wife Frances Davis has claimed she wasn't just terrified of him, she ran away a few times convinced he was going to kill her. He admitted to the whole sordid trend of beating his wives in his autobiography, Miles, and even admitted he approved of other men hitting their wives and girlfriends to keep them in line.

Richard Wagner's maniacal anti-Semitism

Wagner died in 1883, decades before the rise of Hitler and his Nazis. That means he wasn't around to see his music heralded as the soundtrack of the rise of the anti-Semitism, but he probably wouldn't have hated the association.

According to DW, Wagner got more and more vocal about his anti-Semitic views as he got older. He wrote a ton jaw-dropping stuff, believing Jews couldn't produce art, only mimic what they'd seen and heard from others. When he struggled as an up-and-coming composer, he blamed Jewish critics for keeping him from success. Later, he did form associations with Jewish philosophers and patrons, but that led into his other bit of shadiness.

Wagner and wife Cosima (who continued his anti-Semitic crusade after his death) so relentlessly demanded money from the King of Bavaria that The Telegraph says banks started paying them with thousands of coins in hopes of sending a message. It didn't work. Cosima herself was originally a wife of one of the men in Wagner's entourage, and they only married after a long-term affair resulting in a daughter. It's still debatable just how devoted to her he was. He was carrying on with at least one other mistress while he was courting her, so there's that.

Brian Jones: anti-establishment and abusive

Brian Jones died when he was 25, and when Rolling Stone reported on the mysterious circumstances of his death, they did it in an article subtitled Sympathy for the Devil. That's not just a clever play on one of the Stones' songs — Jones made Keith Richards look like the one you'd choose to bring home to meet your parents.

There were, of course, the drugs and the pills that ultimately led to him parting ways with the rest of the band not long before his drowning death. His troubles started long before that, though, and he was kicked out of his grammar school for inciting rebellion. He held down a ton of random jobs, got in the face of the popular press who didn't understand — or particularly like — what they were doing, and behind closed doors he had a violent streak a mile long.

Anita Pallenberg was one of the original muses for the Stones, and she'd eventually go on to have a long-term relationship with Richards. But she started out with Jones, says Rolling Stone, and it was an abusive relationship that ended when Jones hit her so hard he broke his hand on her face. Sympathy for the devil, indeed.

Pretty much everything about Morrissey

If you want to talk about a guy who's been very vocal about some unpopular opinions, Morrissey is your guy.

In 2007, the Independent picked up an interview he did lamenting what he saw as the death of British-ness. While he denied being either xenophobic or racist, he was still quoted as saying things like, "Although I don't have anything against people from other countries … the price (of immigration) is enormous. Travel to England and you have no idea where you are." (For the record, the Manchester-born Morrissey is the son of Irish immigrants.) Three years later, The Guardian ran an interview with the vegetarian, who went on record condemning the animals rights abuses going on in China. He then continued, "You can't help but feel that the Chinese are a subspecies."

When the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, Morrissey (via the Independent) had this to say: "I hate sexual situations that are forced on someone. But in many cases, one looks at the circumstances and thinks that the person who is considered a victim is merely disappointed." He's targeted so many people Rolling Stone did a round-up of his most controversial opinions, and it included blaming Kate Middleton for the suicide of a nurse, shrugging off a massacre that left 77 people dead as "nothing compared to what happens in McDonald's … every day," and called for Elton John's head to be served to him on a plate.

James Brown and domestic abuse

James Brown's daughter, Yamma, released her memoir Cold Sweat: My Father James Brown and Me in 2016. It was a heartbreaking, cautionary tale of a girl who grew up in a family where domestic abuse was the norm, a girl who ended up in an abusive marriage of her own. She says even though he never turned on her, she grew up terrified he would. She described some insane incidents, including one (via the Independent) where she wrote, "Blood spurted from my mother's face. She started thrashing around, kicking her legs, holding up her arms to ward off the punches and trying to break free, trying to save herself."

There were other incidents, too. In 2004, Rolling Stone reported Brown was arrested for shoving then-wife Tomi Rae Brown and sending her to the hospital. That mean streak didn't keep him from having an indeterminate amount of illegitimate — and often unacknowledged — children, as The Telegraph reported after his death, forgotten sons and daughters started coming forward with DNA proof they were Brown's kids.

Brown was also at the heart of a change in legislature. Jacque Holland came forward in 2005 and accused Brown of a 1998 rape, but the case was refused because of the time that elapsed. NME reported the laws were changed to give victims more time to report a crime, a result Hollander was happy with.

Michael Brewer: total predator

Chetham's school of music is a prestigious school in Manchester, and until 1994, the director of music there was Michael Brewer. Brewer — who was also the director of the National Youth Choir and was awarded an OBE for his services to music — was handed a jail sentence in 2013. The charge was sexual abuse, and the story gets even darker.

According to the BBC, it started for Frances Andrade when she was 14 years old. Brewer was her teacher, and repeatedly assaulted her between 1978 and 1982. Brewer's then-wife, Hilary, was also involved in the assault and was arrested, charged, and convicted separately. None of this came to light until years later, and when it did, law enforcement stumbled into other complaints that had been covered up, and another affair with a 17-year-old student.

Andrade testified in court, and several of the charges against Brewer and his ex-wife were dropped mid-trial. Only six days after hearing that news, Andrade committed suicide. The Telegraph reported her son blamed not only Brewer, but his defense counsel, too, for taking the route of calling his mother a "liar" and a "fantasist." Even as the judge declared Brewer to be a "predatory sex offender," law enforcement was still tracking down former students and taking more statements about all that had gone on behind the orchestra curtain.