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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: About that stupid club

by Philip Martin | April 20, 2021 at 2:00 a.m.

You have no doubt heard of the 27 Club, a commonly held notion that an inordinate number of musicians die at the age of 27. It stems from the fact that over a two-year stretch beginning in 1969, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison died at the age of 27. All these deaths may have involved misadventure, as all of the deceased were known to live rock 'n' roll lifestyles that included a lot of drugs and alcohol.

The coincidence of these deaths seemed eerie at the time, but the idea of 27 being an especially dangerous age for prominent rock musicians didn't really take hold in the public imagination until 1994, when Kurt Cobain decided to end his life at the age of 27.

Cobain's mother issued a statement in which she wrote: "Now he's gone and joined that stupid club. I told him not to join that stupid club."

Mama Cobain's statement is interesting in that it suggests Kurt Cobain was conscious of "the stupid club," which suggests the possibility of joining it may have played a part in his grim decision, that his suicide was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Nevertheless, when you consider the artists who have died at the age of 27, it does seem uncanny.

Amy Winehouse was 27 when she died in 2011. Robert Johnson (1938), Grateful Dead keyboardist Ron "Pigpen" McKernan (1971), Canned Heat guitarist-singer Alan "Blind Owl" Wilson (1970), Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff (1994), Gits singer Mia Zapata (1993), K-Pop star Jonghyun Kim (2017), and Badfinger singer-guitarist Pete Ham (1975) all died at the age of 27.

Jesse Belvin, an R & B singer best known for co-writing the doo-wop standard "Earth Angel," also died at 27 in an early morning head-on collision on U.S. 67 just west of Hope after playing--with Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke and several others--Little Rock's Robinson Auditorium on Feb. 5, 1960.

On the Internet, Belvin's last show is often referred to as "the first racially integrated concert" in Little Rock. As Scott Whiteley Carter pointed out on his blog Little Rock Culture Vulture (lrculturevulture.com), there would have been both whites and Blacks in the crowd at Robinson that night, but it "was not until August 1961 that the first concert took place in Robinson that did not have segregated seating, and that was a one-time only event. It would not be standard practice at Robinson Auditorium until the 1965 passage of the Civil Rights Act."

There are other myths surrounding the Belvin case; many believe he was the victim of a racially motivated hate crime. Some accounts of the concert say it wasn't supposed to be an integrated show, that there were actually two shows scheduled for that night, an early one for a Black audience and a later one for whites.

Trouble supposedly erupted when a party of whites showed up and Wilson reportedly refused to play for them. The entertainers were allegedly run out of town at gunpoint. And the tires on their cars were somehow sabotaged.

This makes no sense. First of all, the newspaper advertisement for the show indicates a single show starting at 6:50 p.m. (Advance tickets were $1.75 plus tax.) Wilson and the other entertainers were used to playing for segregated audiences. There's no mention of any disruption at the concert, and in 1960, a racially charged incident at Robinson Auditorium would have certainly attracted attention.

A more plausible account is that the show was disrupted a couple of times by racists yelling at the white teenagers in attendance to leave. The Los Angeles Sentinel, a venerable Black-owned weekly newspaper, may have played a part in muddying the waters around the Belvin case, for two weeks after the crash it ran a story that suggested the tires on Belvin's car "had been willfully slashed hours prior to the fatal accident."

It reported that the tires on Wilson's car were also slashed, though this seems not to have been the case. Wilson traveled on to Dallas to the next venue, and was said to be distressed when he discovered Belvin had not. (Rebecca Miller, on her Jackie Wilson Lovers blog-- jackiewilsonlover.wordpress.com--has a thorough account of the rumors surrounding Belvin's death and reasons to be skeptical of them.)

What seems most likely is that, as the Hope newspaper reported, around 6 a.m. Feb. 6, Belvin's Cadillac drifted across the center line and slammed head-on into a car carrying Max Gene Nohl and his wife Eleanor of Milwaukee, who were returning from vacation in Mexico. The Nohls died, as did Belvin.

Nohl was a salvage diver, adventurer, a graduate of MIT and a member of the International Scuba Divers Hall of Fame who had in 1937 made a record-setting dive of 420 feet to the bottom of Lake Michigan. He also discovered the still-unexplained stone pyramids beneath Wisconsin's Rock Lake. Except some archaeologists, like the Wisconsin Historical Society's Robert Birmingham, say they're "nothing out of the ordinary and nothing that could not be well explained by geology."

That's usually the way it goes. Max Nohl probably saw funny-looking but natural rock formations. Jesse Belvin probably died in a terrible accident caused by driver error. And the 27 Club is just a way our pattern-seeking species looks at things.

When you look at the data, you find there's nothing all that special about 27; there's no statistical spike suggesting the age is any more dangerous than any other.

When Dianna Kenny, professor of psychology and music at the University of Sydney, examined the data, she concluded that probably because of lifestyle choices, "popular musicians have shortened life expectancy compared with comparable general populations."

Musicians were just as likely to die at other ages. Otis Redding, Gram Parsons, Nick Drake, and Fats Navarro all died at the age of 26. Sublime frontman Bradley Nowell, Blind Lemon frontman Shannon Hoon, J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson and Bix Beiderbecke were all 28 when they died. It's interesting that these famous rock stars died when they were 27, but it's not particularly significant. Things just worked out that way.

Maybe it's more satisfying to believe in luck and mystery, in clutch hitting and hot hands. It's certainly true that much occurs beyond the limits of our perception, that the more we come to understand about the world, the less confident we are in what we think we know.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at pmartin@adgnewsroom.com and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.

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