R.I.P. Giants – The Dead Certs

How dying can be a good career move.

“Let’s forget about the cryin’ and a dyin’/And the shootin’ and the lyin’/And the fella with the switch-blade knife/Let’s think about livin’/Let’s think about life…”
— Bob Luman’s ‘Let’s Think About Living’, 1960.

JIM CROCE’S Photographs And Memories, His Greatest Hits, was number five in the American album charts a few weeks back. Nothing remarkable about that, maybe: someone has to fill the slot between four and six.

But there was something a little strange: Croce has been dead for fifteen months. Given the emphasis that record companies usually put on promoting their artists — complete with day-to-day snippets of info and tantalising suggestions of forthcoming tours and all the rest — how come a dead singer can notch up such extraordinary sales?

Jim Croce had topped the American singles chart with ‘Bad, Bad Leroy Brown’ just before he died in a plane crash on September 20, 1973. But, although his records were obviously selling well while he was alive, Croce’s death seemed to send his popularity soaring.

“When he died there was a tremendous surge of people buying his records,” says Croce’s record company, Phonogram. “In Britain, considering he had never been a number one artist, he’s still selling extremely well.”

Since he died, almost 25,000 of the three Croce albums available in this country have been sold. And that, although not big enough to put him in the chart, is a big achievement for an artist who has never really had much of a reputation in Britain. His current success in the US, indeed, seems to suggest that his popularity is still gaining momentum.

“It’s true that sales have stepped up considerably since his death,” comments the Phonogram spokesman. “There was a lot of publicity following his death, but whether it’s actually a macabre reaction to it all, I don’t know.”

WHEN BUDDY Holly was killed in a plane crash near Mason City, Iowa, on February 3, 1959, he was only 23-years-old. He had his first ‘solo’ hit in the British chart with ‘Peggy Sue’ in January 1958, and The Crickets’ ‘That’ll Be The Day’ had been a No.1 chart record in October the previous year.

But at the time of Holly’s death, he hadn’t been in the British chart for almost five months. Within four weeks of the plane crash, however, the ironically titled ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’ was on its way to becoming Holly’s first — and only — solo number one hit. And not only did it hit number one in April 1959, ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’ spent a total of 19 weeks in the chart, becoming Holly’s biggest record.

Maybe it was bizarre, but Holly had achieved only four solo hits in Britain before he died. After the crash, however, he had a further seven chart records, despite the fact that many of the later singles were musically weak.

And ALL eight of his hit albums made the charts only after his death — and the last one was a hit as recently as 1969.

Holly’s death, one of the first the rock’n’roll audience had to come to terms with, unleashed an orgy of teenage mourning which was to continue for years. Buddy Holly Appreciation Societies sprang up everywhere and the media coverage — after his death — was incessant.

Discoveries of previously unknown Holly tapes were heralded as major news. Suggestions that it was not, in fact, Holly singing on the records, were minutely examined and, eventually, declared to be false.

In October 1961, Mike Berry had a hit with ‘Tribute To Buddy Holly’, a song similar in mood and inflection to the original Holly records. With some justice, many fans were outraged by what they regarded as a cynical exploitation of the singer’s memory. But Berry stoutly denied this, claiming the record to be a sincere tribute.

A music poll in 1962 had Holly in fifth place in the World Musical Personality category, an achievement that poses some interesting questions about the meaning of “personality”. In the same poll, Holly also came fourth in the World Male Singer category — one place higher than the previous year! Even in 1972, Holly’s death could strike an evocative chord in Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’. Gone but not forgotten.

TRAVELLING IN that same plane when Holly died was the 17-year-old Mexican-born Ritchie Valens. His first — and only — British chart entry was ‘Donna’. And that was a hit seven weeks after the crash.

EDDIE COCHRAN, who was killed in a car crash on April 17, 1960, had his biggest-ever hit during the emotional backwash following his death. And, like Holly, his biggie also had a tragic dimension — it was ‘Three Steps To Heaven’. Cochran, again like Holly, also made the album chart only after his death, notching up three hits between July 1960 and January 1963.

JIM REEVES had been in the charts for some weeks with two singles when the small plane he was flying crashed into a wooded hillside on July 31, 1964. He was 39-years-old.

One of the singles, ‘I Love You Because’, had been sliding down the chart, selling about 10,000 copies a week. But, with Reeves’s death, the single jumped back up the chart with weekly sales rising to 40,000.

And the other single, ‘I Won’t Forget You’, shot up from 16,000 to 85,000 sales a week. Reeves had suddenly become extra-big business.

Reeves’s fans kept his predominantly gloomy ballads in the singles chart throughout the rest of the decade and right into 1970, even giving him a number one hit with ‘Distant Drums’ in October, 1966 — two years after his death.

Jim Reeves is undoubtedly the daddy of them all in the field of posthumous chart success. He has an astounding record: two hit singles before he died and TEN in the years after the crash. He also had two hit albums before his death and no less than SEVENTEEN afterwards — with one of them, According To My Heart, making number one in August 1969. And that was five years after the crash.

A spokesman for Reeves’s record company, RCA, says: “The extraordinary thing is that his album sales hardly seem to decline at all. But, because many of them are in the budget or mid-price range now, they don’t appear in the charts these days.”

One of the reasons for Reeves’s continuing success, of course, has been the wealth of previously unreleased material in the vaults. The material was recorded, as Reeves once told his wife, Mary, “as your insurance policies”.

It was an accurate assessment of their value. Mary Reeves still works in Nashville administering the extensive business activities that flow from her husband’s musical output.

JIMI HENDRIX’S career had declined both commercially and artistically by 1970. The Band Of Gypsys album had only been a moderate seller and his flawed set at the Isle of Wight would, ordinarily, have done little to enhance his musical reputation.

But it was Hendrix’s last major gig. A few weeks later, on September 18, 1970, he was found dead, having inhaled vomit due to barbiturate intoxication.

His death, like that of Brian Jones the previous year, seemed to vindicate all the middle-aged warnings about the rock’n’roll lifestyle. But unlike Jones, who was survived by a band that had little interest in exploiting his commercial potential after his death, Hendrix had a mystique that, even before his death, had carried his audience with him through some pretty sloppy performances.

Within weeks of Hendrix’s death, ‘Voodoo Chile’, a single from the Electric Ladyland album, had given him his first, belated, number one hit.

Then began the deluge of Hendrix memorabilia, films, posters, t-shirts, compilations, repackagings and all the rest. Several horribly rough demo tapes were put out, dreadful live performances saw the light of day on albums and the limited volume of his first-rate material was re-packaged.

On June 14, 1973, Jimi Hendrix, a movie compiled from snippets of film taken from the Monterey Pop Festival, the Fillmore East, the Isle of Wight and elsewhere, opened at the Warner West End cinema in London. Unbiased critics were forced to admit that even this movie — the best one made of Hendrix — was probably one for fans only.

THREE WEEKS after Hendrix, another rock star of the late-Sixties died. Staying at the Landmark Hotel, Hollywood, while mixing the tapes for the album subsequently released as Pearl, Janis Joplin was found on October 4, 1970, dead as a result of an overdose of heroin.

Attitudes to Janis had changed during her career. During the first phase of her upward climb she had received almost universal acclaim as the greatest white singer of our time.

But by 1969 and the release of the Kosmic Blues album, Janis was being increasingly criticised for her “vocal overkill” and one American magazine described her — all too prophetically — as “the Judy Garland of rock.” Her hard-drinking, self-destructive life style made her marvellous copy for magazine writers who loved to describe how she lived as if there was no tomorrow. When the day came when there really was no tomorrow, for a time all criticism was suspended and the Pearl album, released in 1971, sold in vast quantities.

Later, two poor albums, Joplin In Concert and Janis Joplin’s Greatest Hits, both compilations of previously issued material, were released. And both sold better than either deserved to do on musical merit alone. The mystique had replaced the reality.

ANOTHER CHARISMATIC figure, whose death came late in his artistic and commercial decline, was Jim Morrison of The Doors. His wife, Pamela, found him dead in the bath at their Paris apartment on July 3, 1971. Morrison, 27 years old, had died of a heart attack.

Not wishing to turn his death into a media circus, Pamela Morrison did not announce it until after the funeral had taken place in the so-called “Poets’ Corner” of Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. This understandable reticence, however, was the seed of some spooky stories.

In San Francisco, for instance, some fans declined to believe he was dead and one rumour suggested that Morrison was alive and well and living in the city. The man’s mystique still had its power beyond the grave, apparently. Fans still visit the cemetery and Iggy Pop, the former Stooge, has many of his personal effects.

THE ALLMAN Brothers Band had a broader creative base than The Doors and that has enabled them to survive not one but two deaths within 13 months.

On October 29, 1971, guitarist Duane Allman was killed in a motorcycle accident in Macon, Georgia. He was 24. But hardly had the band recovered from the shock of that death, when, in November 1972, Berry Oakley, the bass player, also crashed a motorcycle in Macon. Despite a badly bleeding nose and a shattered crash helmet, Oakley refused hospital treatment and drove home. That was at 2pm. By 4pm, he was in the Macon Medical Centre, dead.

Yet again, the band decided to carry on. The title of their next album was changed to Brothers And Sisters and was dedicated to Berry Oakley. It became the fastest-selling album of 1973 in the States. It is not hard to suggest that at least some of the vast sales were due to an emotional reaction to the deaths, which, of course, had nothing to with the merits of the music itself.

GRAM PARSONS, who had been with The Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, was found dead at the Joshua Tree Inn, California, on September 19, 1973.

His body was taken to Los Angeles Airport to be flown to New Orleans for burial. Two men arrived at the airport in a hearse and claimed they had been authorised to remove the body. Two days later, however, the body was discovered back at Joshua Tree, over 200 miles away, ablaze.

Parsons had died from a heart attack, but the funeral pyre “looked a bit ritualistic,” said the police. Two of Parsons’ roadies were subsequently found guilty and fined for removing the body. A posthumous album, evocatively titled Grievous Angel, sold well. The bizarre tradition of rock ‘n’ roll deaths had become even more macabre.

© Ed JonesMelody Maker, 25 January 1975

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