During the ’60s and early ’70s, narcotic experimentation, use, and abuse was at all all-time high and very prevalent in the entertainment industry. Young musicians and actors were passed pills and offered a variety of substances while on the road and at parties. Late nights and hotels led to bad decisions, and many stars fell to accidental overdoses. Many of the legends on this list were friends and passed away within months or a few short years of each other. Here are the unfortunate overdoses of legends and big names of the 1960s.
Monroe was one of the most revered beauties not only in her time but ever after. However, that doesn’t make her exempt from having demons of her own. The actress and sex symbol suffered from mental illness and substance abuse, constantly battling health problems behind the scenes of her success. Amphetamines and barbiturates were her go-tos, as she suffered from chronic insomnia, anxiety, low self-esteem, and depression.
Her death followed a string of bad reviews from her acting, which the studio blamed on Monroe’s addiction and lack of professionalism. Leading up to her death, Monroe was attempting to preserve her public image and gave interviews with magazines to salvage her career. On August 5, 1962 even while Monroe was being accompanied by her housekeeper Eunice Murray, and not long after her psychiatrist and publicist let her Brentwood home, Monroe locked herself in her bedroom where she quietly consumed enough sleeping pills to overdose and pass away. She was only 36 years old.
It’s no secret that many actors struggle after becoming a child star. Judy Garland is no exception. The incredibly successful actress who portrayed Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, as well as roles in Meet Me in St. Louis, The Harley Girls, and Easter Parade, began seeing a psychiatrist at the age of eighteen to help her deal with her personal life. As with many, she turned to drugs and alcohol to cope, as she experienced four failed marriages and owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in back taxes.
Her career started crumbling, and Garland desperately tried to get a grip, going on tour in Australia in 1964 proved to be a disaster, followed by being fired after missing rehearsals in Valley of the Dolls. Sadly, on June 22, 1969 Garland was found dead in the bathroom at a vacation home in London. The cause of death was an accidental overdose, having taken 10 Seconal capsules. 20,000 people paid their respects at her funeral.
You can’t talk about rock music without mentioning Jimi Hendrix. His soulful sound on the electric guitar was unlike anything heard before. While others avoided the feedback from the amplifier, Jimi embraced it and made it a part of his sound. His childhood was disheveled, and his parents had an extremely difficult time making ends meet in Seattle. Jimi (known as James) was the only child of his parents who lived with them. His younger three siblings were placed in foster care or adoption.
Hendrix experimented with drugs after being discharged from the U.S. Army and became a regular user of marijuana and psychedelics after 1967. Both of his parents had trouble with alcoholism, and it became evident that Hendrix’s personality changed dramatically when he drank too much or combined alcohol and drugs. On September 17, 1970, Hendrix ate dinner with a friend in London, drank some wine and visited a friend’s house before staying up all night, talking with Monika Dannemann. When she woke up at 11 am, he was breathing but unresponsive. She called an ambulance and he was pronounced dead a little over an hour later. He had died from asphyxia, vomiting while laying on his back and suffocating. It was a terrible loss for the music world and beyond. He was only 27 years old.
Another artist of psychedelic rock and blues who passed away at age 27 was the legendary Janis Joplin. Sadly she passed away less than a month after Jimi Hendrix. Both artists were at the peak of their career, Joplin’s fourth album, Pearl, had just been recorded and was released three months after her death. It hit #1 on the charts.
Joplin was a hit at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, where Hendrix was introduced to psychedelics. She also played at Woodstock and is one of the top-selling musicians of all time, with 15.5 million albums sold in the U.S., and #1 hits like “Me and Bobby McGee.” The Texas-born singer was an outcast in high school and headed to San Francisco in 1963 where her barefooted, psychedelic style was more accepted. She lived in North Beach, then moved to the Haight-Asbury district. The culture enabled her drug use and she was known for using heroin, speed, and injecting methamphetamine. It was rare to see Joplin without a bottle of Southern Comfort in her hand. Sadly, the road manager found Joplin dead in her hotel room on October 4, 1970. She died of a heroin overdose, most likely due to the high potency, since other customers of her dealer’s overdosed that same week.
The curse of dying at age 27 continued into 1971, as Jim Morrison, front man for The Doors, died of an accidental heroin overdose in Paris on July 3rd. Morrison also passed away during a highly successful time in his career. He co-founded the band in 1965, and hit #1 with “Light My Fire.” Before starting the band in Venice Beach Morrison graduated from UCLA’s film program, and was an excellent poet, even having a New York Times best-selling book, titled The Lost Writings of Jim Morrison: Wilderness.
Morrison’s dependency on alcohol was known, and he also took drugs like many other artists at the time, including cocaine. Although the details of his death are controversial and debated, it’s most likely that Morrison died of an accidental heroin overdose while in his bathtub at an apartment he rented in Paris. There was never an autopsy done on his body, and when questioned, his friends said he didn’t do drugs. Some even say he is still alive.
Comedian Lenny Bruce was famous for his comic routines centered around sexual fantasies, jazz, politics, race, abortion, and pretty much everything controversial. He married a stripper, and as most significant others of strippers do, tried to persuade her to quit her job. He failed and ended up working as a comedian in strip clubs as well.
Bruce was convicted of obscenity in 1964 and went to trial, ultimately receiving the first posthumous pardon in the history of the state of New York. The trail was an important milestone in the freedom of speech in the United States. He was also once arrested for impersonating a priest. On August 3,1966 Bruce was found lying naked in his bathroom, with a syringe, burned bottle cap, and drug paraphernalia. His cause of death was an accidental overdose of morphine. He was 40 years old.
Among her other pioneering achievements, Dandridge was the first black woman to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in the ‘50s. She was also nominated for Golden Globe Award for acting in Porgy and Bess. Dandridge’s second marriage led to domestic violence, and soon after the divorce, she discovered her financial advisors stole $150,000 from her, and sent her into debt.
She was forced to sell her home in Hollywood. The American beauty was known to have a drinking problem and was severely depressed. At only 41 years old she was found dead in her home due to an accidental overdose of alcohol and barbiturates.
As Billy Joel says, only the good die young. Brian Epstein was a manager and entrepreneur in the music industry, best known for managing The Beatles, who he signed to EMI’s Parlophone label in London in 1962. Many say Epstein’s strong and trusted relationships with The Beatles attributed to their major climb to success.
Epstein was also a Liverpool native and first saw the group perform at a mid day concert at the Cavern Club in 1961. Among his friends, Epstein was known to be homosexual and took a lot of pills, mostly carbromal, a barbiturate-like sedative that has hypnotic effects. Bob Dylan introduced him to marijuana in 1964, and it was all downhill from there. He tried to overcome his drug use problem and insomnia by going to rehab but was unsuccessful. Epstein was found dead in his bedroom, due to an overdose of Carbitral, a form of barbiturate on August 27, 1967. He had taken his normal dose of six pills to help him sleep, but the alcohol in his system made a lethal combination.
The Dangers of Barbiturates
Deaths due to barbiturates skyrocketed in the ’50s and ’60s. Many people were prescribed the drug by their psychiatrists and doctors, often times for insomnia and to manage anxiety and depression. People of the beat and hippie generations were constantly popping the pills, not fully aware of the risks involved.
The drug caused thousands of overdoses and was commonly abused by users. The pills were appealing to many, as they were relatively inexpensive, and were easily prescribed by doctors. The fatalities occurred when people didn’t pay attention to the doses and how the drug interacts with other substances, especially alcohol.
On October 21, 1965, actress Marie McDonald died of her second overdose, this time caused by the sometimes deadly sleeping pill, Seconal, which is known to “cause paranoid or suicidal ideation and impair memory, judgment, and coordination. Combining with other substances, particularly alcohol, can slow breathing and possibly lead to death.”
The blonde bombshell was known for her big bust and wild antics. She was arrested for a hit and run and DUI and had overdosed once before on sleeping pills. Only a few short months after McDonald died, her husband Donald Taylor also killed himself with the same pills, in the same room.
The famous poet and author of On the Road lived life on the edge, documenting the tales of the Beat Generation, alongside Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady. Kerouac had a burning passion for music, travel, and drinking. His writing was often alcohol-fueled with long strings of running thoughts, and a perspective that was altered by whiskey.
During his last appearance on television in 1968, he was drunk and mumbling, having recently suffered the loss of his good friend Cassady. At 47 years old Kerouac was sitting in his home, writing and drinking whiskey when he felt sick and began puking blood. He was rushed to the hospital and died after surgery due to excessive, long-term alcohol intake, with a severely damaged liver, complications from an untreated hernia from a bar fight, and internal hemorrhaging.
Frankie Lymon’s story is incredibly tragic. The young rock and roll and blues singer/songwriter was the frontman for the group, “Frankie and the Teenagers” who had a smash hit in 1956, “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?”
After the band broke up in the late ‘50s Lymon pursued a solo career, which did not pan out. Depressed from his quick rise and fall to fame, Lymon became addicted to heroin and performed in lounges late night. On February 27, 1968, Lymon was found dead of a heroin overdose in his grandmother’s New York City apartment. He was only 25 years old.
Eugene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb
Professional wrestler and defensive lineman for the NFL survived a tough upbringing. Born in Alabama, Lipscomb never met his father and moved to Detroit with his mother when he was three. When he was 11-years-old his mother was brutally stabbed to death in their Detroit neighborhood, and he was sent to live with his grandparents.
He played football for the Marines, the LA Rams, the Baltimore Colts and finally the Pittsburgh Steelers. Lipscomb died of an accidental heroin overdose at a friend’s house in Baltimore in 1963. They found five times the amount of heroin in his system that would typically kill a man. He was only 31 years old.
“Queen of the Blues” singer and pianist Dinah Washington was one of the most successful black female recording artists of the 1950s. She was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and is in the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame. Her single, “What a Diff’rence a Day Made” reached #4 on the charts and appeared on the Las Vegas strip to play shows on a whim, and always played a packed house, even at the last minute.
Washington married seven times, and was often the breadwinner in the partnerships, never adhering to the typical housewife role. She married other musicians and even fired her husband at the time, her saxophonist, while on stage. Sadly Washington passed away in her sleep, due to an overdose of secobarbital combined with amobarbital on December 14, 1963. She was 39 years old.
Another blues singer, and another overdose at 27 years old. Rudy Lewis was one of the members of the successful rhythm and blues band, the Drifters. He was a lead vocalist originally from Philadelphia and moved to New York City when he joined the group at the age of 24. Behind closed doors, Lewis was struggling with an eating disorder and hiding his homosexuality. His addiction to heroin only made things worse for the young musician in the big city.
On May 21, 1964, the group was set to record what would be a smash hit, “Under the Boardwalk.” Lewis was planned to be the lead vocalist on the track and was staying nearby the studio, at a hotel in Harlem. He was found dead that morning in his room. Although an autopsy was never performed, Lewis’ death was ruled a drug overdose, and died similarly to Hendrix, as his air passage was blocked by his own vomit.
The actor grew up in a poor family in New Jersey. He turned to acting when he was 17 years old, and when asked why he was interested in acting he replied, “For the money.” Adams acted in New York for a year, unpaid, then hitchhiked to Los Angeles and found success in film and television. Producers were pleased with his widely publicized friendships with Elvis Presley and James Dean. Adams and Presley stayed up all night riding their motorcycles and taking prescription pills.
His marriage fell apart, and he temporarily lost custody of his two kids. A film he was supposed to co-star in was canceled, and he couldn’t hide his disappointment. On February 7, 1968, Adams missed a dinner appointment, and his friend, who was also his lawyer, grew worried. He broke into Adam’s home and found the actor dead in his bedroom. The autopsy shows that his death is due to an accidental overdose of paraldehyde, sedatives, and other drugs.
Monterey Pop Festival of 1967
Close by San Francisco, the Monterey Pop Festival brought together music lovers, hippies, and psychedelic drug users for a three-day festival in June of 1967. Held at the Monterey County Fairgrounds, the festival was designed to showcase of the sound of the ’60s, and included performances by Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Otis Redding, The Who, and Ravi Shankar. The Rolling Stones wanted to be there, but Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were denied work visas because of recent drug arrests. Donovan was also refused a visa due to a drug bust.
The festival was organized by artists, and they even announced that they had dropped LSD and acid over the crowd. More than 200,000 people attended the festival, and incredibly there were zero arrests due to drug charges, and no overdoses.
797 Drug Related Cases at Woodstock, 1 Overdose
One major theme of Woodstock was drug use. Drugs were everywhere during the four day festival in 1969 and no police were allowed on the land. Marijuana and psychedelics were the drugs of choice being passed around. The Health Department reported 797 drug abuse cases at Woodstock, many were teenagers looking for an escape. Artist John Sebastian admitted to having smoked a joint and taken some LSD before his performance.
In an interview, Carlos Santana said he took a hit of mescaline that Jerry Garcia had given him right before he went on stage, and was high as a kite, trying to hold it together. Garcia was known to always have drugs on him, and was often high on acid. With over 400,000 people in attendance, it was incredible that only one person overdosed during the peaceful festival, due to heroin.
A successful actor and producer in the 1940s and early 1950s, Alan Ladd was known for his roles in Westerns, and performances in This Gun for Hire, The Glass key, The Blue Dahlia, Shane, and The Great Gatsby, among others. Ladd went to high school in North Hollywood, and as glamourous as it sounds, he had a challenging upbringing. His mother was an alcoholic and migrated from the UK, while his father died when he was only four years old. Ladd accidently burned down the family home while playing with matches as a boy, and the family relocated to a migrant camp in Pasadena.
In 1937 Ladd’s mother asked him for money, went into the store, and bought ant poison. Sitting in the backseat of his car, she drank it, committing suicide. Ladd overcame obstacles and broke into the film industry, however, working for Warner Bros., MGM, and Paramount. His career was a success, raking in $75,000 per film, but behind the scenes, he was troubled and had a hard time accepting his accomplishments. In 1962 he attempted suicide, with a self-inflicted gun wound to the chest. Having survived, his drinking increased. On January 29, 1964, he was found dead in his bed, after consuming a combination of alcohol, barbiturates, and tranquilizers.
Fans of blues music had a tough decade, as artists at the top of their game fell victim to drug abuse in the 1960s and early 1970s. Alan Wilson, the co-founder and composer of the band Canned Heat was another member of the 27 club. Wilson was all about the blues, his friends even deemed him an expert on the subject, having studied every blues musician that came before him. Wilson played the guitar, harmonica, and sang two of the Canned Heat’s biggest hit singles.
The band gave outstanding performances at the famed Monterey Pop Festival in ’67 and Woodstock in ’69. Despite his success, Wilson was depressed. He was briefly hospitalized after a botched suicide attempt, driving his car off the highway in Los Angeles. Months later, on September 3, 1970, Wilson was found dead, laying on the hillside of Bob Hite’s property in Topanga Canyon. He overdosed on barbiturates and alcohol. Jimi Hendrix died just two weeks later.