Musicians Who Died Before Their Music Became Popular

If you've ever watched a rockumentary, you already know the dangers of being a rock star. Famous musicians tend to have short life expectancies. If you're a rock star who makes it to the age of 60 and you get to reminisce about all the crazy things you did that didn't end up killing you, there's clearly a rock star guardian angel out there somewhere who's looking after you. And if you make it to 35, you're still doing okay, considering. 

But what if you don't even make it to the stardom part before walking down the same road as Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Kurt Cobain? Well, that extra-sucks. Sometimes, stars who died too young don't even get to become stars until after they're gone, so there isn't even a consolation prize. At least Jim Morrison got to party a lot and hang out with Andy Warhol before making his way to the other kingdom. The musicians who died in obscurity were mostly just worried about paying rent and getting to the bus stop on time.

A not-so sublime exit

Bradley Nowell was the front man for Sublime, a 1990s ska punk band. Nowell seemed pretty sure the band was going somewhere, because according to Rolling Stone, he dropped out of California State University Long Beach just one semester before he obtained his degree so he could devote all his time to his music. At that point, the band had already achieved modest success — everyone in Southern California knew who they were, and they were sought-after entertainment for parties. By 1994 they were negotiating with MCA for an album deal.

For most of that time, Nowell was using heroin, which had started as experimentation and turned into a full-blown addiction. Nowell tried to get clean in February 1996, but he couldn't make it all the way through the recording sessions for their third album "Sublime," which would be their first major label release. He tried to get clean again for the birth of his child, but then he decided he deserved "a reward," and within a week he was addicted again.

Nowell died in a hotel room on May 25, 1996, after overestimating a dose of particularly potent heroin. It was seven days after he got married, 11 months after the birth of his child, and just under a year before the band's first No. 1 single.

What an unfair world

Eva Cassidy's album Songbird sold 5 million copies worldwide, reached six times platinum in England and was certified platinum in the United States in 2008. By the time that happened, Cassidy had been dead for 12 years.

According to the New York Times, Eva Cassidy died without a record contract. Her cause of death was a malignant melanoma that spread to her lungs and her bones. The singer had the melanoma removed in 1993, but failed to follow up with her doctor in the months afterward. By 1996, she was experiencing pain in her hip. When she had it X-rayed, doctors learned the cancer had spread. She immediately started on aggressive therapy, but it was too late. She died just two months later.

Cassidy gave her last performance less than a month before she died. She was bald from chemotherapy, her head covered in a black velvet cap, and she had to use a walker to get out on stage. Grab your tissues, because she sang "What a Wonderful World."

Much of Cassidy's music was released posthumously, and she has since been recognized as "one of the greatest voices of her generation." Too late, of course, for a woman who always worked temporary jobs and lived in rented apartments. Dear Fate, you bad.

Over the rainbow

Israel Kamakawiwo'ole (also called Iz, which is what we'll call him here) was a sensation in his native Hawaii, but didn't start to achieve worldwide recognition until the year of his death, when his album N Dis Life made it onto the Top World Music chart and stayed there for 39 weeks.

Iz is probably most famous for his hauntingly beautiful rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, which was popularized in several movies and television shows and got a lot of play after his death in 1997. Several posthumous releases continued to grow his fan base — the 2001 album Alone in IZ World debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard World Music chart, and in 2005 his first album, Facing Future, was certified platinum.

Like so many other musicians before him, Iz's vices ultimately led to his demise. According to ThoughtCo, Iz was morbidly obese for his entire life, maxing out at more than 750 pounds. He ultimately died from respiratory failure associated with obesity.

You should have got that in writing

Robert Johnson was such a brilliant blues performer that some people literally accused him of making a deal with the devil. If that was true, though, it really wasn't a very good deal because he died at the age of 27, without experiencing any real success during his lifetime.

Before that happened, Johnson was making a living as a traveling performer, booking any gig he could find, mostly playing the same 29 songs he had written and recorded between 1936 and 1937.

The deal-with-the-devil thing isn't just a quip — one of Johnson's contemporaries claimed he'd actually been a less-than-talented guitarist until he took a trip to Clarksdale, Mississippi, and sold his soul at the crossroads of Highways 49 and 61. When he returned a few weeks later, he'd been transformed into an amazing guitarist. A few weeks of guitar lessons seems more plausible than striking a deal with supernatural forces, but the devil-deal is significantly cooler.

Johnson died in 1938, and although there's never been a definitive cause of death, it's likely he was poisoned. It wasn't until a couple of decades later, when his work was reissued, that he finally achieved the fame he'd supposedly sold his soul to achieve. So, he was probably pretty soundly annoyed with the devil when it came time to pay up.

A deadly detour

Murder, suicide, and overdose seem to be the dominant causes of death for musicians who died young, but occasionally we also hear about artists who died just doing risky things. That was the case for Jeff Buckley, who drowned in the Mississippi River.

Buckley is probably best known for his cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," and what Biography called a "distinct multioctave voice." He released his first studio album, Grace, in the summer of 1994. Buckley and his band toured for three years after that, and as a result the album had some moderate success with fans and critics. By 1996 he was working on his second album, but en route to the recording studio one evening in May 1997, Buckley and his friend inexplicably took a detour to the Wolf River channel of the Mississippi River. Buckley got out of the car and jumped into the water, fully clothed.

So why would one do such a thing? If you've ever fallen into water in your clothing, you know how quickly you become waterlogged and how difficult it is to actually swim. Buckley's dip turned out to be fatal — a passing motorboat sucked him into its wake and he never resurfaced. His body was found six days later by a passenger on a boat.

Six years after that, Grace was named one of Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Albums of All Time."

Unhappiness division

Sometimes the death of an artist marks not just the end of a creative mind but the beginning of a morbid legend. Suicides in particular are susceptible to turning a victim into a bizarre sort of hero — after the death of Kurt Cobain, fans elevated him to a status of near godhood that he hadn't quite been able to reach before death. And after Joy Division's Ian Curtis hanged himself in his kitchen, he became a sort of prophet — The Independent described public perception of his suicide as an elevation "into some sort of philosophical victory of life through death." The fact that he was the front man of a popular goth band probably contributed somewhat to this legend, but the sad truth is that Ian Curtis' suicide was not a story of triumph over adversity, but a tragedy of a suffering young man who wasn't getting the help he needed, and a small child (his daughter) who was left without a father.

Curtis had epilepsy, and in the months after his death, bandmates remembered the profound negative impact the illness had on his state of mind and on his ability to perform. According to History, he committed suicide two days before Joy Division was supposed to embark on a U.S. tour. The band's second album was released just two months later, and the song "Love Will Tear Us Apart" reached the top 20 on Britain's charts.

Born before his time

Folk singer Nick Drake was especially well remembered for his stage performances, but not in a good way. The Atlantic says those who saw him perform remember an awkward, nervous guy who seemed horribly uncomfortable and mumbled his way through his sets like someone who would really rather be anywhere but the stage.

If there were ever an example of a person born before his time, Nick Drake was it. Take him off that stage and give him a trip forward in time and a YouTube channel and he'd have been a star.

Nick Drake was made for the internet, but he was born four decades too soon. He was basically a creative mind without an outlet — desperate to share his work with someone but too shy to do it. In his time and just afterward he had a small following, and critics generally acknowledged his talent. In 1972 one wrote, "The more you listen to Drake, the more compelling his music becomes — but all the time it hides from you. ... It could be that Nick Drake does not exist at all."

After he overdosed on antidepressants in 1974, his work sat mostly stagnant until it was rediscovered, by of all people, Volkswagen marketers. The car company used the song "Pink Moon" in a commercial, and people who saw the commercial liked the song, and pretty soon Nick Drake was on the Billboard charts, 40 years after his death.

Proof that critics almost never know what they're talking about

As it turns out, music could totally bomb back in the 19th century, too. Biography describes composer Georges Bizet as "moderately successful," apparently not successful enough to marry the daughter of his mentor but successful enough to not be living in poverty. 

In 1873 Bizet was working on an opera called Carmen, which was based on an 1845 novel of the same name. The project was somewhat risky for the time, since the title character was a gypsy girl who did offensive things like being provocative and making her own choices.  

The opera had an initial run of 45 performances, and it was hated by critics and audiences alike. All the seduction and thievery scandalized the polite society ladies, and critics said the opera was "immoral" and "superficial," probably mostly because they didn't want those polite society ladies to know they secretly enjoyed all the seduction and thievery. By the end of the opera's first run, the theater had to give tickets away because they couldn't convince anyone to buy them.

Just after opening night, Bizet became ill. By the 33rd performance of Carmen he'd had two heart attacks and died. Five months later, Carmen moved to Vienna, where the society ladies were evidently not quite so polite, and the critics felt differently about seduction and thievery. Carmen was a hit in Vienna, and it went on to become one of the most-performed operas in the world.

Even Bach was once underrated

No one today would dare say that Johann Sebastian Bach was anything but a musical genius, but there was a time when he was just "respected," and another time when he was just a guy who wrote impossibly difficult music and some exercises that were good for drilling music students.

According to Music Academy Online, Bach had a long career with plenty of ups and downs — at one point he was actually thrown in jail because Duke Wilhelm was annoyed at him for finding a new job, and later in life he began to lose his eyesight, probably as a result of diabetes. He died from a stroke in 1750 at the age of 65, and his manuscripts were divided between his sons, who probably stuffed them in a closet somewhere and forgot where they put them. It wasn't until a century later that anyone started to remember him — in 1850 there was a society dedicated to publishing his lost works, and musicians like Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann were instrumental in bringing his music back to the public's attention.

It's hard to believe there was ever a time when Johann Sebastian Bach's music was considered obscure — today it's hard to find anyone who doesn't recognize Bach's Cello Suite No. 1 or Minuet in G Major. Even Einstein (allegedly) had something to say about Bach: "Listen, play, love, revere — and keep your trap shut." Can't argue with the words of a genius.