16 Music Greats Who Died Mysterious Deaths
With the 20th anniversary of Biggie Smalls' death, let's look at some other musicians who've died under suspicious circumstances
The Notorious B.I.G. was shot to death 20 years ago on March 9, 1997. The rapper’s murder will be forever linked with that of his peer Tupac Shakur, though the pair are just in a long line of musicians who’ve shuffled off the mortal coil under less-than-clear circumstances. Even if the ink has dried on the official paperwork, rumors still abound about …
Sam Cooke (1964)
Possibly the greatest “pure” soul singer in American history, Cooke’s career was on the rise after a string of hits when he was shot to death in a seedy L.A. motel, allegedly by the hotel’s manager in self-defense. A great number of alternate theories abound, however, most of which circle around the idea that Cooke may have been murdered: Etta James, for instance, saw Cooke’s body before he was buried and maintained his injuries were more consistent with those of a beating than a shooting.
Bobby Fuller (1966)
The “I Fought the Law” singer was found dead in his car only a few months after the song became a hit. His body had apparently been doused in gasoline, and several people indicated the presence of bruises on his body. Initially considered a suicide, Fuller’s death was eventually ruled accidental, though rumors circulated that he’d been killed by the Mafia, or, in one more outlandish theory, the Manson Family.
Brian Jones (1969)
The eccentric genius behind some of the most daring sounds on the early Rolling Stones records—including the marimba on “Under My Thumb”—Jones’ death was ruled an accidental drowning in his pool (and labeled “Death by Misadventure” by the coroner as a nod to his alcohol and drug abuse), but U.K. investigative journalist Scott Jones pinned Jones’ death on a builder named Frank Thorogood, the last person to see the musician alive. Sussex police reviewed the case in 2009 based on his evidence, but decided none of the new information was enough to overrule their initial decision.
Don Drummond (1969)
Skatalites trombonist Drummond was convicted of murdering his girlfriend, Anita Mahfood, in 1965. He was incarcerated in a Kingston, Jamaica insane asylum, where he died four years later. His death was put down to natural causes, but in the famously corrupt and wild Kingston music scene, virtually any of the theories put forth about his death — he was killed by gangsters as revenge for Mahfood’s death, the government was bumping off members of the music community who had become politicized — could be possible.
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Darrell Banks (1970)
One of the strongest soul singers of the ’60s to never achieve truly legendary status, Banks was shot by an off-duty policeman named Aaron Bullock. Banks’ girlfriend, Marjorie Bozeman, was attempting to leave Banks, and the two started fighting. Bullock, however, was also seeing Bozeman, and had been waiting for Banks to drop her off from work. Banks reportedly pulled a gun first when Bullock intervened in their argument, but there’s no way of knowing for sure. Bullock was not prosecuted.
Jim Morrison (1971)
Given Morrison’s legendary hedonism, considering his death “mysterious” might seem odd. But no autopsy was ever performed on the Doors frontman, and in 2014, Marianne Faithful fingered late drug dealer Jean de Breiteuil as the man behind Morrison’s death, administering a too-strong dose of heroin to Morrison.
Paul Williams of the Temptations (1973)
Williams was found dead in an alleyway with a gun nearby shortly after an argument with his girlfriend, and had reportedly spoken of suicide to friends in recent months. That said, the coroner’s report states that Williams used his right hand to shoot himself in the left side of his head — think about the logistics of that — and the gun used in the shooting had fired two shots that night, only one of which killed Williams.
Donny Hathaway (1979)
Hathaway suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, and was known to be not particularly attentive about adhering to his medication routine. Though his career was rebounding from a low point in 1979, he was behaving erratically during a recording session in January, after which he went back to his 15th-floor room at the Essex House Hotel and jumped to his death. Rumors persist that Hathaway owed money to the mob around this time, though it would have been hard to separate his ravings about “white men being after him” from the symptoms of his mental illness.
Gary Driscoll of Rainbow (1987)
Driscoll was found murdered in his Ithaca, New York, home, with no apparent motive. Separating fact from invention is difficult, but there are rumors that there was more than one murderer, the killing was drug-related and perhaps most disturbingly, that Driscoll was either dismembered or flayed alive. It remains an unsolved case to this day.
Chet Baker (1988)
Baker fell to his death from the balcony of a hotel in Amsterdam in 1988. A notorious junkie who was therefore usually in some kind financial struggle, it was easy to assume that Baker’s death had some malicious aspect to it. (After all, he was beaten over drugs so badly in the late 1960s that most of his teeth were knocked out.) Drugs were found in his system, and at this point, it is widely assumed that his death was accidental, but given Baker’s enduring legend, it’s likely to remain a point of rumor circulation.
Cornell Gunter of the Coasters (1990)
Gunter was shot and killed in his car in Las Vegas in 1990. He was shot through the windshield at an intersection, and witnesses reported Gunter arguing with a man from his car shortly before the shooting. No arrests were made and the murder remains unsolved.
Johnny Thunders of the New York Dolls (1991)
Like Morrison, Thunders’ death was hardly a surprise. But though it was ruled officially drug related, toxicology reports later determined the drugs in his system were not at a fatal level. (Thunders had also been suffering from advanced leukemia at the time.) The room, however, had been ransacked, and Dee Dee Ramone wrote in his autobiography that, “Johnny had gotten mixed up with some bastards … who ripped him off for his methadone supply. They had given him LSD and then murdered him.”
Mia Zapata of the Gits (1993)
Zapata was beaten, strangled and raped on the streets of Seattle, Washington, in 1993. Though members of the Seattle music community — Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden among them — raised $70,000 to hire a private investigator to look into Zapata’s murder, it took until 2003 for a break in the case, when Florida fisherman Jesus Mezquia was arrested after a positive DNA comparison from another case was made. Mezquia was convicted in 2004 and has been in prison since 2003.
Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers (1995)
Edwards had a long history of mental health issues, and went missing in February 1995, just before his band was supposed to fly to the U.S. for a promotional tour. Though his car was found abandoned near a bridge that was a common suicide spot in the U.K., Edwards become one of rock’s most famous missing persons for a time, with sightings in tropical islands and India. His sister criticized the police’s handling of the case, and his family never had him declared legally dead until 2008, when his status was changed to “missing, presumed dead.”
Tupac Shakur (1996)
Shakur’s death by shooting incurred its own spate of conspiracy theories. Often rumored as the victim of an inter-gang dispute, some have even fingered hip hop mega moguls of ordering the deed. In his 2011 self-published book, Murder Rap, former LAPD detective Greg Kading claimed to have proof that Sean “Puffy” Combs and Suge Knight were responsible for Shakur’s death, and the Los Angeles authorities suppressed the evidence. Combs, however denied the allegations in a 2011 email to L.A. Weekly, writing, “This story is pure fiction and completely ridiculous.” Though supposedly one of Shakur’s songs contains the hidden message “Suge shot me,” there has never been any conclusive evidence linking the rap tycoon to Shakur’s death. Knight himself has denied killing Shakur, and even claimed (presumably jokingly) to TMZ in 2014 that the rapper is, in fact, still alive.
Most bizarrely, FBI files released in 2011 revealed that Shakur had received death threats from the Jewish Defense League, an organization characterized as a terrorist cell. In any event, Shakur’s murder remains unsolved.
Biggie Smalls (1997)
A similar group of rumors surrounds Smalls’ death. While some have posited the unfounded theory that government agents killed both Smalls and Shakur to end the perceived “East Coast/West Coast” battle, the FBI’s files on the “Juicy” rapper’s death include a reference to rare ammo used in the shooting that was also found in the home of LAPD cop David Mack. At the time of the murder, Mack was moonlighting as a bodyguard for Suge Knight and was arrested for bank robbery that same year. The FBI also found a black Chevy Impala SS in Mack’s possession—the same vehicle the agency claims was driven by the killer. Smalls’ family named Mack in a 2005 wrongful death lawsuit, but the case was dismissed from court. Retired LAPD Detective Russell Poole was a vocal proponent of the theory that Knight ordered unknown assassins—possibly Mack—to commit the crime before his own death in 2015. To this day, Mack has not been prosecuted for any crime related to Smalls’ murder, and he continues to maintain his innocence. Knight also has denied ordering anyone to kill Smalls.
Elliott Smith (2003)
Smith died of what were two seemingly self-inflicted stabs to the heart. However, there were wounds on his hands consistent with defensive marks, and the coroner’s report made no mention of typical “hesitation wounds” seen in suicides by stabbing. Detectives concluded his death was “possibly suspicious” at the time, though nothing ever came of a further investigation.