10 Rock Stars that Died from Drug Use

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A Brief History

On January 15, 2018, Irish lead singer of the Cranberries, Dolores O’Riordan, died in her bathtub, drowned while under the influence of alcohol and drugs.  She was only 46 years old.  Unfortunately for music fans, as well as the family and friends of the victims, too many singers have died before their time either directly or indirectly because of drug use and abuse.  Today we list 10 of those incidents, some of which have happened in the very recent past, mirroring modern society’s epidemic of deaths caused by drug overdose.  Please feel free to mention other singers and musicians you think deserve mention in this article.  (Note: Elvis Presley died of a heart attack but was compromised health wise by over medication of prescription drugs.  Several other rockers died by suicide while under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol, notably Kurt Cobain.)

Questions for Students (and others): Have any of your favorite rockers died from drug use?  Do you believe all drugs should be legalized?  Are you familiar with all the people on this list?

Digging Deeper

1. Dolores O’Riordan, 2018.

O’Riordan performing at Montreal in May 2012.  Photograph by Nat Ch Villa.

Authorities were reluctant to release a cause of death when the dynamic songstress was found dead in her bathtub, but finally word came out that O’Riordan had drowned while having a blood alcohol content of .33%.  While she also had prescription drugs in her system, those drugs were deemed to be of medicinal quantities, although combined with the alcohol would have made her sedated enough to drown.  Only 46 years old at her death, O’Riordan was famous for her songs “Linger,” “Zombie,” and “Dreams.”  Her beautiful voice with its Irish accent will haunt us forever.

2. Whitney Houston, 2012.

Houston performing at Welcome Home Heroes with Whitney Houston in 1991.  Photograph by PH2 Mark Kettenhofen.

A mega star of the highest order, Houston also starred in the feature film, The Bodyguard (1992) and other movies.  The most awarded female singer of all time, Houston is also the only person to chart 7 consecutive singles as #1 on the United States’ Billboard 200.  She also drowned in a bathtub while under the influence of cocaine, with heart disease a contributing factor.  Some of her huge hit singles included “I Will Always Love You,” “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me),” “How Will I Know?” and “The Greatest Love of All.”  Sadly, Whitney’s only child, Bobbi Kristina Brown, was found face down in a bathtub in 2015, and remained in a coma until her death a few months later.  Her autopsy indicated drug intoxication along with alcohol as leading to her passing out in the tub.

3. Michael Jackson, 2009.

Jackson performing in June 1988.  Photograph by Zoran Veselinovic.

The “King of Pop,” MJ was certainly on top of the musical world for most of his career, despite a couple of bouts with the courtroom over allegations of child abuse (civil and criminal), which he came out untouched by conviction or decision against him.  Jackson died at the age of 50, still on top of the music game of acute propofol and benzodiazepine intoxication leading to cardiac arrest.  The singer, writer and dancer was being administered the drugs by a doctor in order to help him sleep.  His doctor, Conrad Murray, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sent to prison for improperly using the drugs.

4. Prince Rogers Nelson (Prince), 2016.

Prince performing in August 1983.  Photograph by Joel Bremer.

Another musical writing, arranging and singing genius, Prince had an on and off history of drug abuse.  While friends thought he had been clean prior to his death at the age of 57, his autopsy found he had died of a fentanyl overdose at his Minnesota home.  He had sold over 100 million records and won 8 Grammy Awards among his many accolades.  Among his hits were “1999,” “Little Red Corvette,” “Purple Rain,” “Raspberry Beret,” “When Doves Cry,” and “Cream,” his last #1 hit in the United States.

5. Jimi Hendrix, 1970.

Hendrix performing on the Dutch television show Hoepla in 1967.  Photograph by A. Vente.

Born Johnny Allen Hendrix and later becoming James Marshall Hendrix, Jimi was a guitar virtuoso in the best of the psychedelic era.  Called “arguably the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music” by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Hendrix complimented his great guitar playing with moving vocals.  His death at age 27 came from an overdose of barbiturates, leading to suffocation.  Some of his greatest hits included “The Wind Cries Mary,” “Hey Joe,” “Purple Haze,” “All Along the Watchtower” and “Foxy Lady.”  Perhaps his most famous performance was an instrumental of the “Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock (1969).

6. Janis Joplin, 1970.

Joplin performing in 1969.  Photograph by Elliot Landy.

The raspy voiced rocker also died at the age of 27, this time from a heroin overdose.  Born Janis Lyn Joplin, but known as “Pearl” to her friends and family, Joplin was also a child of the psychedelic movement and is famous for some of her hit singles such as “Piece of My Heart,” “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Cry,” “Summertime,” “Ball and Chain,” and the author’s favorite, “Mercedes Benz.”  In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked her #46 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time

7. Jim Morrison, 1971.

Promotional photo of Morrison, 1968.  Photograph by Elektra Records.

Lead singer of The Doors, Morrison’s death has been shrouded in controversy over the details and rampant rumors of his “death” being faked abound.   Also known as “The Lizard King,” James Douglas Morrison was typical of the rebellious and irreverent rock and roll icons.  Sadly, this musical magician left us at the age of 27 in Paris, France, of an apparent drug overdose, but with no autopsy to study, we are just guessing.  His gravesite is often visited in the famous Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, bringing throngs of fans and tourists to the dismay of other family members of deceased people buried there.  His grave has been defaced and vandalized over the years.  Some of his most famous tunes include “Light My Fire,” “Love Her Madly,” “Touch Me,” “Riders on the Storm,” and “LA Woman.”

8. Sid Vicious, 1979.

Vicious in Winterland, 14 January 1978, final show of the Sex Pistols.  Photograph by Chicago Art Department c/o: L. Schorr.

As a member of the Sex Pistols, Vicious was on the cutting edge of the Punk Rock movement.  Born Simon John Ritchie in the Lewisham neighborhood of London, England in 1957, he was only 21 years old when he died in New York City of an overdose of heroin in 1979.  The mercurial Vicious (we see why he took that name!) was a suspect in the stabbing murder of his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, and while on bail after his arrest for that crime got into more legal trouble by assaulting the brother of rocker Patti Smith.  Authorities sent him to rehab, which obviously did not deter him from drug use, and incredibly the fatal drug overdose was administered by the singer’s own mother!  Sid allegedly wanted to die and was in the act of committing suicide to avoid going to prison.

9. David Ruffin, 1991.

David-Ruffin in 1970.  Photograph by Motown Records.

Lead singer of the mega-Motown group, The Temptations (1964-1968), Ruffin could be heard on such classic hits as “Aint too Proud to Beg” “I Wish it Would Rain,” and “My Girl.”  Born in the poetically named town of Whynot, Mississippi in 1941, Ruffin died at the age of 50 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1991.  Ruffin’s drug use, mainly cocaine, became such a problem for the Temptations that Ruffin was fired in 1968 after missing a show in Cleveland.  (He had decided to attend a show by his then girlfriend, the daughter of singer Dean Martin.)  A planned return to the Temptations was ruined when Ruffin arrived late to the show.  His drug use continued through his solo career and his death was attributed to “an adverse reaction to drugs,” namely cocaine.

10. Tom Petty, 2017.

Petty performing in June 2012.  Photograph by Ирина Лепнёва.

Thomas Earl Petty is the old man of this group, living all the way to the age of 66 before he died “accidentally from mixed drug toxicity” from a cornucopia of different drugs, including fentanyl, oxycodone, acetylfentanyl, despropionyl fentanyl, temazepam and alprazolam.  Oh, and citalopram as well.  (If you know of any rock and roller that died from drug ingestion from a greater variety of drugs than Tom Petty, please let us know.)  Family members reported that Petty had been in serious pain from knee and hip problems and was taking prescribed pain killers that were increasingly ineffective.  He had apparently been feeling rather well up until the day before he died.  Some of his memorable hits include “Breakdown,” “American Girl,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “Refugee,” “The Waiting,” “Runaway Train,” “I Won’t Back Down,” and “Free Fallin’” among others.  His group was known as The Hearbreakers.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Hagar, Sammy. I Killed Pink Floyd’s Pig: Inside Stories of Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll. Peanut Butter Publishing, 2015.

Lee, Chan. Defeating Drugs And Death: Helpful Info On Avoiding And Beating A Fatal Drug Addiction. CreateSpace, 2015.

McGreal, Chris. American Overdose: The Opioid Tragedy in Three Acts. PublicAffairs, 2018.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by Sergio Perez Perez from https://www.flickr.com/photos/133709534@N08/43865098132/in/dateposted/ of the grave of Dolores O’Riordan at Limerick in 2018, was originally posted to Flickr by bresergioperez at https://flickr.com/photos/133709534@N08/43865098132.  It was reviewed on  by FlickreviewR 2 and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.  This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.   You are free:

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.