The recent unfortunate death of David Bowie made me wonder, who was the first major rock & roll/pop music star to die? Did any major stars meet their demise before Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper (February 3, 1959)?
Hank Williams? 1 January 1953?
I’d categorize “Hey, Hey, Good Lookin’!” as a pop song.
Depending on your definition of “rock & roll star”, a few might predate the 2/3/59 crash - unsurprisingly, Wikipedia has a list:
If you’re going to make a suggestion predating the very notion of rock & roll, why not go all the way and name Robert Johnson?
It’s possible that there isn’t an answer earlier than the day the music died. The number of true rock & roll stars was in the low two digits at the time. Richie Valens and the Big Bopper had had exactly one top ten song each at the time. They may be the tiniest of footnotes today if they hadn’t died, and not "stars’ at all.
Of the names in zombywoof’s link, Danny Cedrone died before the Comets’ first single charted; Cecil Gant and Johnny Ace were R&B singers, and Chuck Willis was another with one top ten hit.
Buddy Holly was the first rock & roll star to die. Smebody had to be. Why not him?
Because Franz Liszt died before he did?
Agree that Valens would be forgotten not only by now but probably two years later.
This is from The Very Best of Ritchie Valens:
I’m voting Holly.
Paul Simon wrote a song about “the late, great Johnny Ace”, who died Christmas 1954 because he didn’t correctly know which chamber was loaded
Had Bix Beiderbecke died 5 months earlier, he would have been an early member of Club 27. His COD was officially pneumonia, but he was also a very severe alcoholic, and this means he was partaking in illegal drugs at the time.
I think we need to define “rock and roll” and “star”.
I think in all fairness to Ritchie Valens, we have to say the jury will always be out as far as what the continuation of his career would have been like.
He was only 17 when he died, just four months after his debut single. He hadn’t even put out a full album yet.
He was young, charismatic, had a good voice and guitar chops, and he had three bona fide hit songs in his 4 month career- one of them a B-side and one of them a #2 Hit that he wrote.
The reason everything else released sounds like crap filler is because, with his death, there was nothing to release except to just put out every available recording ever made of his voice whether it otherwise would have been deemed fit for release or not.
His career very well could have fizzled out but I think there certainly was a good chance he could have been something really special, especially if he developed as a songwriter (admittedly “Donna” was very simplistic, almost amateurish, but it was a #2 hit- so, it was really everything that it needed to be). And he definitely was showing some real personality in his guitar work at such a young age. Who knows what the guitar work of a 30 year old Valens would have sounded like. He was only a year and a half older than Jimi Hendrix. Valens would have been 27 in 1968 and could have been doing something amazing by then.
It’s also true that J. P. Richardson was talented. He wrote “Running Bear,” a cheesy song that nonetheless hit #1 for Johny Preston and “White Lightning,” a #1 country song for George Jones. Both appeared after he died. I wouldn’t call either one rock & roll, although “White Lightning” has more than a hint of Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis.
That’s the thing. The Big Bopper had a top ten song when he died. He was a flavor of the week, certainly, but not a star by any normal definition. What he or Valens could have been is speculation. At the time, neither were stars. Holly was.
Obviously not a rock n’ roll star (the term didn’t even exist yet), but Glenn Miller was a major pop star of sorts when he died in 1944.
Interesting concept, but Buddy Holly is the first that comes to mind.
Now, in the UK, the death of Eddie Cochran (and further crippling of Gene Vincent) had an impact there that was a bit bigger than here in the U.S., perhaps simply because it happened in England. But Cochran’s songs like Somethin’ Else, C’mon Everybody and of course Summertime Blues loom larger in the UK’s history of rock vs. the US, near as I can tell.
I think Danny Cedrone must be it. He earned it. 10 days after the session…cruel.
That is if you’re talking about “musician” and not “rock and roll star.” He was a star posthumously even so.
Johnny Ace has been mentioned. He died in 1954. Rock and Roll, at that point, was pretty indistinguishable from “race” (rhythm and blues) music except that they called it one thing when a white guy sang it and another when a black guy (like Ace) did, and white guys weren’t singing it so much yet. Stylistically, he was as rock and roll as it got in 1954.
Was he a star? He wasn’t a headliner; he toured with Big Mama Thornton. He had eight hits and sold 1.75 million records, but it’s unclear how much of that was posthumous. I think accidentally killing himself made him a much bigger star than he otherwise would have been. It’s what he’s most famous for.
For all the asterisks by his name, I think he’s the first dead rock star.