The F’ed Up Deaths of Soul Singers

It was a Sam Cooke Pandora station kind of day.
Where silky-voiced soul singers played roulette on my computer.
Sam Cooke. Otis Redding. Marvin Gaye. Tammy Terrell. Curtis Mayfield. Jackie Wilson.
All unparalleled talent that died way too young.

Then I realized, “Wait a minute- they all died in some really f’d up ways too.”

Plane crashes, shootings, falling stage equipment, brain tumors, hot grits (nobody actually died from having hot grits thrown on them, but Al Green did become a born again afterwards). There was no shortage of colorful murders and deaths in the soul world.

Let’s start with the most insane first:

Sam Cooke– Cooke was one of the most prolific R&B singers of his time. With 19 albums and 29 Top 40 singles under his belt by the age of 33, it looked like nothing was going to stop this young man from taking over the world. Except for maybe a seedy motel manager in South Central with a gun and a broom. Cooke loved his ladies and his booze and unfortunately the two did not mix well the night of December 11th, 1964. The official story is that Cooke brought a lady against her will back to the Hacienda Hotel in South Los Angeles with the intention of raping her. The woman fled and in a rage, Cooke busted into the hotel manager’s office half-naked and all like, “Where the f did my lady friend go?”. The pant-less Cooke tussled with the hotel manager and out of fear for her life, she shot him in the gut and then beat him with a broom. Shortly thereafter, the validity of the lady friend’s account came into question since she was a prostitute and many feel she had stolen Cooke’s money. Regardless, the talented singer, who brought so much music to the world, died in terrible vain. Luckily for him, his contribution to the music world has mostly overshadowed the fact that his last minutes on earth were looking at broom bristles smacking his naked body.

Marvin Gaye Jr.– Unlike Cooke, Gaye’s murder has stuck more in the mind’s of music lovers for decades. Another gentleman who liked his ladies and recreational drugs, Gaye found his life spiraling out of control by the late 70’s. He battled depression and suicidal thoughts (there is suggestion that the death of his good friend/singing partner Tammi Terrell ignited this). Wanting to make a change, Gaye decided to turn his life around by the early 80’s and moved in with his parents to watch porn. Yeah, bad move. Gaye often fought with his father, Marvin Sr., and during a particularly heated argument, Jr. started smacking Sr. around and then Sr., gettin’ all pissy, up and shoots Jr. in the chest. The bullet made an epic journey through his lung then heart then diaphragm then liver then stomach then kidney then taking a rest stop in his torso. Gaye was 44 years-old when he died and on his way to making a comeback. Lesson here? Moving back in with your folks can cost you your life.

Otis Redding–  Outside of Tammi Terrell, Redding was the youngest of the soul singers to pass away. It’s amazing to think all that Mr. Sitter on the Dock of the Bayer offered in the 26 years of his life. Redding got his start by joining the R&B group, The Pinetoppers, in 1960. Soon enough, he was recording his own solo work. Back then, Redding impressed the shit out of his peers with his melancholic voice and knack for writing his own songs. In 1967, Redding and his band were in a puddle jumper en route to Wisconsin when it crashed in Lake Monona. Redding’s manager and band (all except one) were on the plane. Everyone on the plane died except for trumpeter Ben Cauley. You know what happens when you’re a kick ass soul singer who dies in a plane crash? You get a stamp and a creepy bronze statue made of you.

Curtis Mayfield– Unlike the others, Mayfield’s death didn’t happen immediately, but over many painful years. Mayfield had lived a pretty solid life up until August 13th, 1990 when lighting equipment fell on him onstage and paralyzed him from the neck down. I know, right? If that weren’t bad enough, the poor dude had his leg amputated eight years later. That didn’t keep ol’ Superfly from recording though. According to his Wikipedia page, that motherf’er would record vocals on his back line-by-line. Mayfield died in 1999 due to complications from his paralysis and I firmly believe he should win a posthumous superhero award.

Tammi Terrell– Brain tumor at the age of 24
Jackie Wilson– Heart attack while appearing onstage at the age of 49
Dave Prater (Sam & Dave)- Single-car accident at the age of 50
Michael Jackson– Imploded into oblivion at the age of 50
Rick James– Heart attack in my old apartment building at the Oakwoods in Burbank, CA at the age of 56
Barry White– Stroke at the age of 58
Ike Turner– Crack overdose at the age of 76 (and bff with my friend Chris)

Who am I forgetting? Who is your favorite soul singer?

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  • Reply Just Plain Tired October 26, 2010 at 3:19 pm

    While I'm not a big fan of soul music this was a fascinating read. I only knew of the death of Gaye prior to reading this.

  • Reply Christine Macdonald October 26, 2010 at 4:28 pm

    Great post — and how true — major F-ed up ways.

    I think all creative people are tortured in some way. We appreciate them more for the ache. And in this case, their early demise.

  • Reply Big Mark 243 October 26, 2010 at 4:36 pm

    Lesson here? Moving back in with your folks can cost you your life.

    I had to LOL at that one. You actually got two of my faves on here, Sam Cook and Otis Redding (man,I will fight over Otis!).

    I sometimes think that the tragic deaths and the tortured lives of some of the hypertalented is the cost due on the balance for their gifts. Were they supposed to do more with them? Perhaps they were actually MEANT to change the world with their talents?

    Sometimes, an obligation is attached to having gifts and many of us would have quaked beneath its weight as well. It is one of those hidden responsibilities that people who may scratch the surface of their skills (thinking of a promising writer I know) but for some reason cannot get to a point where they can let all of their gift out into the world.

    Nada Surf said it best… 'The Weight Is A Gift'… and it is also capable of burying us beneath its weight.

  • Reply Jenn - There's Your Karma October 26, 2010 at 6:11 pm

    I'm gonna go ahead and throw in Donny Hathaway. He was brilliant. Unfortunately, he was also a schizophrenic who thought "white people were trying to kill him and had connected his brain to a machine, for the purpose of stealing his music." He committed suicide by jumping out of a window in 1979. Sad.

  • Reply theTsaritsa October 26, 2010 at 7:19 pm

    Don't forget the legend Isaac Hayes, killed by Scientology.

  • Reply Hannah Miet October 26, 2010 at 8:05 pm

    Nothing like soul.

    Th beauty of the ruin. It makes sense.

  • Reply Sam's Neph October 26, 2010 at 8:52 pm

    The whole shot-by-a-motel-manager-in-self-defense story was a ruse. Sam Cooke was killed because he was worth more dead than alive to certain parties. That was the true tragedy.

    Erik Greene
    Author, "Our Uncle Sam: The Sam Cooke Story From His Family's Perspective"

  • Reply Christopher October 26, 2010 at 9:09 pm

    articles like this remind me how much modern mainstream music has lost all of its talent… no one with any talent has died prematurely since the 90's

    by the way i love some otis redding

  • Reply KeLLy aNN October 27, 2010 at 1:33 am

    Sam's death was a conspiracy and I'm sticking to it…
    On a lighter note, Sam ROCKED! or crooned, but I grew up listening to Sam Cooke and have several of his songs on my phone.

  • Reply Mikael Behrens October 27, 2010 at 3:40 pm

    Your account of Curtis Mayfield's death affected me the most. As a kid now and then I heard "SuperFly" and wondered if it was some kind of super hero like Spiderman. It wasn't until adulthood that I finally figured out fly was an adjective! 🙂 Then I discovered the movie and Curtis Mayfield's sublime music.

  • Reply This Is Kami October 27, 2010 at 10:37 pm

    What is lightening equipment, Lauren?!

  • Reply Effed Up Article August 27, 2015 at 9:37 am

    I don’t like your description of these legendary singers at all! It almost sounds as if you were smiling as you were writing about their untimely deaths. Not a good read at all!

    • Reply hipstercrite August 30, 2015 at 9:59 pm

      I’m sorry you feel that way. That was not my intention.

  • Reply Arby June 30, 2016 at 1:16 pm

    Tammi Terrell was well on her way to owning the game before her sickness & passing. So little time, so, so much greatness! Not a typical girl singer of her time, people don’t realize how musical she really was and multi-instrumental. More than her unusual beauty & stylish personality, there was a unique blossoming talent that made so many greats of her time meaningfully bond with her. Man, has this world been cheated!

  • Reply Aaroncoal July 27, 2016 at 4:55 pm

    Little Willie John. Age 30. Heart Attack or Pneumonia depending on who you believe.. Major abuser of alcohol and had a crazy temper.

  • Reply Wesley Willis August 27, 2016 at 9:57 am

    Teddy Pendergrass was also paralyzed in accident and didn’t get to 60.

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