Celebrity Deaths That Changed Music History: Gone Too Soon

Early, untimely deaths – and the questions and legacies left behind – from Janis Joplin to Elvis Presley to Whitney Houston to Chris Cornell

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Janis Joplin
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Janis Joplin Terry O'Neill/Hulton Archive/Getty6/32

Janis Joplin

Year: 1970; Age: 27

Joplin was the first woman rock star, bushwhacking through a buttoned-down and sexist culture with no script – just desire, pain, an astonishing white-light vocal attack, and a mighty appetite for drugs and alcohol. As a teen, she fled Port Arthur, Texas, where she'd been routinely humiliated by hometown peers, arriving in San Francisco just in time for hippie culture's blossoming. She became a star with Big Brother and the Holding Company in the wake of a spectacular Monterey Pop festival appearance, and soon broke off to do her own thing.

She formed a band and soon completed her first solo LP, Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama! Working on a follow-up in 1970, after a summer that included a media fiasco around her high school reunion and a tumultuous relationship with a 21-year-old coke dealer, she overdosed on heroin alone in room #105 of the Landmark Motor Hotel in Hollywood, just two weeks after Jimi Hendrix's death. Though she hadn't fully completed work on it, the posthumous Pearl, featuring "Me and Bobby McGee" (her only #1 single) and "Mercedes Benz" (the last song she ever recorded), would be her great crossover success.

"She held nothing back. She went to the edge every time she opened her mouth," said Rosanne Cash, whose first-ever album purchase was Pearl. "She was a very fierce, very beautiful bright light that burned out way, way too quickly." WH

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