5 Blues Deaths: the Darkness in the Romance
The Blues are not always about bad times. There is triumph and bravado in many a blues song.
There does however seem to be a romance in the darkness that somehow finds its way into the blues. That for some is part of the appeal. For those morbid souls, here are Five Tragic Blues Deaths.
Most blues fans know the story – According to Son House, Robert was known as a pretty decent harmonica player but a terrible guitar player. Then he disappeared for a few weeks and came back as one of the best guitarists anyone had ever heard. Robert claimed he “ went down to the crossroads” just like Tommy Johnson (no relation) and let the devil tune his guitar, sealing a pact for the blues man’s immortal soul. Robert Johnson went on to become the most influential musicians of all time while only releasing a total of 29 songs. His death, like his life is shrouded in Mystery. The traditional tale of Roberts’ death is that he was playing at a dance hall near Greenwood, Mississippi when a jealous husband poisoned him by putting strychnine in a bottle of whiskey. In that account Robert fell to his knees outside , barking like a dog and foaming at the mouth and suffered for three days before his final breath. If he was poisoned it was probably something other than strychnine; someone given a lethal does of strychnine would probably be dead in a few hrs NOT suffer for several days. An alternative theory is that his death was from Late stages of Syphilis. At any rate the world lost Robert at 27 years old in a painful lonely death.
As one of the most influential Blues guitarists of the modern era, Roy was well respected among musical royalty. He had the kind of talent that had people like John Lennon and Merle Haggard talking about his amazing guitar skills. Like a lot of people with that level of artistic talent, Roy Buchanan also had demons. His alcohol and substance abuse were an ongoing problem in his life . In August of 1988, after Roy was arrested over a domestic dispute with his wife he hung himself in his cell with his own shirt.
Johnny was riding high in 1954 he had had a string of 8 hit records since 1952 when he signed with Duke records. Over a year long tour he had developed a habit of playing with his .22 pistol twirling it like a gunslinger. One night he was playing with it backstage before a show when someone asked him to stop. He pointed it to his head and said” It’s fine the gun is not loaded. When he pulled the trigger to demonstrate, it turned out he was wrong. After Johnny died of that self inflicted gunshot wound his song Pledging My Love was a posthumous number one hit .
One of the most influential female vocalists of her era, Bessie was nicknamed The Empress of the Blues. Smith had several hit songs; she appeared in a Broadway musical and even in a film called St. Louis Blues. All that success ended when she died in a car crash between Memphis and Clarksdale, MS in September of 1937. The legends of the time suggested that she bled to death because the ambulance took her first to a whites only hospital that refused to admit her because of her race. That story was so prevalent it was even the basis for a play in 1959 called The Death of Bessie Smith.
While no one alive today knows the real story firsthand, the accounts from actual witnesses suggest she was actually taken to the G.T. Thomas Afro-American Hospital where she died on September 26 ,1937. As a side note, despite all of her fame she was buried in an unmarked grave due to her estranged husband embezzling the funds raised to buy Bessie a tombstone. After many years of Bessie’s unmarked grave sitting ignored , Janis Joplin helped pay for a tombstone in 1970.
Pinetop was a piano player raised in Birmingham, Alabama. In 1920, he moved north and started entertaining for a living playing house parties and some on the Vaudeville circuit as a comedian. Pinetop was one of the inventors of the “ Boogie-Woogie “ piano style that eventually took the music world by storm. Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie, recorded in 1926, was a hit. Sadly, Pinetop himself was not around long enough to make his follow up recording. The day before he was scheduled to go back in the studio, Pinetop was killed by a gunshot in a barroom brawl in Chicago .