Iron Maiden, Billy Joel, and Queen have all scored hit songs crooning the lyric, “only the good die young.” In the case of Texas’s music icons who have met untimely ends, the words couldn’t ring any truer. From the somber passing of a tejana queen to the day the music died, tragedy has left its deep mark upon the following handful of bright, talented musicians who called the Lone Star State home during their lamentably short lives.
Buddy Holly (1936-1959)
Memphis may be the official birthplace of rock and roll, but Lubbock deserves at least an honorable mention; on September 7, 1936, Charles Hardin Holley, popularly known as Buddy Holly, was born in the cotton farming town. The rock and roll pioneer propelled himself into the spotlight by the time he was in his early teens, plucking out guitar tunes that fused western, swing, rockabilly, and bop to create a groundbreaking popular rock and roll sound. Holly, ambitious and armed with a quirky hiccuping voice and youthful lyrics, was the original founding member of the Crickets, a Lubbock teenybopper band that shot onto the local music scene in the late fifties and later landed appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, American Bandstand, and the Arthur Murray Dance Party. As a group, the Crickets pioneered the world of radio-friendly songwriting with hits like “Oh Boy!” and “That’ll be the Day.”
Teen-band bonds are notoriously fickle, and by the fall of 1958, the Crickets had gone their separate ways. In January of 1959, Holly made the fateful decision to hit the road with a national Winter Dance Party tour, backed by a makeshift band whose members included future country and western legend Waylon Jennings on bass. Also on the trip were Ritchie Valens and Texas disc jockey J. P. Richardson, a.k.a. the Big Bopper.
Partway through the tour, an exhausted Holly decided to hire a charter plane to carry him and his band from Iowa to the next city rather than ride on the frigid tour bus—he wanted extra time for laundry and napping before his next gig. When the Big Bopper and Valens heard of his plan, they wanted in, so Holly’s band members, including Jennings, gave up their seats. Jennings’s famous last words to Holly would haunt him for years—he jokingly told his band mate before Holly boarded the aircraft, “I hope your ol’ plane crashes.” The red Beechcraft Bonanza took off from Mason City, Iowa, around 1:50 a.m. on the morning of February 3, 1959. The four-seater crashed almost immediately, killing everyone on board. Holly, dead at 22, was immortalized in the 1971 Don MacLean song “American Pie”; the tragic loss would go down in history as “the day the music died.”
Janis Joplin (1943-1970)
Port Arthur seems an unlikely breeding ground for the greatest white acid-blues mama of all time, but it was in this Texaco company town that Janis Lyn Joplin was born on January 19, 1943, into a middle-class family. Her early childhood bore no indication of the frenetic lifestyle she would later lead, but by the time Joplin graduated from high school in Port Arthur, she was a full-fledged outcast; she had built a sordid reputation in the conservative-leaning town, infamous for an insatiable alcohol habit, a rapid-fire arsenal of four-letter words, and a tendency to spend her nights across the state line with the town’s bad boys, soaking up Southern Comfort and bayou blues at Louisiana’s border town bars. It was there that she first fell in love with the raspy, sorrowful sounds she would later incorporate in her own brand of sultry, psychedelic blues.
Joplin’s time in Texas would also include a brief stint at Austin’s University of Texas, from 1962 to 1963, where her kaleidoscopic clothing and a tendency to go bra-less around campus earned her oodles of attention. But not everyone at UT was feelin’ groovy about Joplin’s alternative lifestyle; in 1962, a coalition of frat boys named her their winner in the Ugliest Man on Campus contest.
Within the year, Joplin dropped out of UT, and in 1963 she fled to San Francisco, where she immersed herself in the burgeoning counterculture movement, making a name for herself as a legendary blues singer and lifestyle swinger with a weakness for hard drugs, especially heroin. Her career took off; singing with Big Brother and the Holding Company, Joplin stole the show at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, and in 1968 she and Big Brother scored hits with “Piece of My Heart” and “Summertime.”
By this time, Joplin had given herself over to a demanding heroin addiction. On October 4, 1970, after a long day at the studio where she was working on a song called “Buried Alive in the Blues,” she administered a fatal dose of the drug; Joplin died alone in room 105 of the Landmark Hotel in West Hollywood, California. She was just 27.
Pearl, Joplin’s best-selling solo album, was released posthumously in January 1971, just a few months after her untimely death. Today it is widely regarded as one of the finest albums of the decade. Pearl scored Joplin her biggest hit single, “Me and Bobby McGee,” though she did not live to hear it dominate the radio waves.
Stevie Ray Vaughan (1954-1990)
Stevie Ray Vaughan’s journey toward guitar deification began on October 3, 1954, when he was born in the Oak Cliff community of Dallas. As a kid, Vaughan traced the footsteps of his big brother, Jimmie, into the world of blues guitar riffing and whaling. By the time he reached high school, the self-taught prodigy was a regular in Dallas’s Deep Ellum club district, playing late into the night instead of hitting the books. He eventually dropped out of school altogether, and worked as a dishwasher in a Dallas burger joint called Dairy Mart.
In 1971, Vaughan moved to Austin and made a name for himself in the flourishing music scene there, but he had trouble taking his act outside the city limits. In the late seventies, however, his career started to gel with a band called Triple Threat (the name was changed to Double Trouble after vocalist Lou Ann Barton dropped out in 1978); it was during this time that Vaughan sparked the interest of music biz superstars like Mick Jagger, Jackson Browne, and David Bowie. They encouraged him to record a solo album, and the result was his classic 1983 debut, Texas Flood, featuring traditional blues techniques and a crystal clear guitar tone. From that point on, Vaughan enjoyed critical and popular success.
The 35-year musical journey of Stevie Ray Vaughan came to a grim end on August 27, 1990, when he died in a helicopter crash en route from a concert in Wisconsin to Chicago.
Selena Quintanilla Perez (1971-1995)
On April 16, 1971, the future reina de la onda tejana—the queen of tejano music—was born in Lake Jackson, a small industrial town outside Houston. Twenty-three years later, her life would be cut short in a brutal murder, but not before she had mainstreamed tejano music and ignited an international Latin-culture craze that would span the course of the nineties.
Selena’s singing career began in the early days of the eighties recession, when her family fell on hard times and was forced to relocate to Molina, a working-class Corpus Christi neighborhood. To pick up extra cash, she postponed her high school education and hit the road with the rest of the Quintanilla sibling band in a dingy van with one foldout bed in the back. Under the name Selena y los Dinos, the young musicians performed in rural dance halls and urban nightclubs across southern Texas.
The troupe exploded in popularity, and in 1987, at the age of fifteen, Selena won the Tejano Music Award for female entertainer of the year. It was the break she had been dreaming of—over the next eight years of her life, Selena became the most popular tejana singer in the history of the genre; she scored a record deal with EMI, popularized Tex-Mex music in the states, won a 1993 Grammy for best Mexican American album, and was the first tejana to sell more than 300,000 records in the states—she would go on to sell a total of 3 million records before her death.
Despite enormous success, Selena stuck by her roots; she continued to live in Molina, and hired her family and friends to manage her business interests. One of these friends was Yolanda Saldivar, a distant acquaintance who ran Selena’s fan club and later on, her signature clothing boutiques. The relationship went sour when Selena’s father accused Saldivar of embezzling funds, and on March 31, 1995, during a confrontation between the singer and her fan club manager, Saldivar fatally shot Selena in the back as she was leaving Saldivar’s room at the Corpus Christi Days Inn.
Today, Yolanda Saldivar is serving a life sentence for murdering the queen of tejana in cold blood; Selena’s heartrending death was mourned by millions across the United States and Mexico.
Blind Lemon Jefferson (1893-1929)
There is a surprising dearth of facts about Blind Lemon Jefferson considering he was a sensationally popular blues artist in the twenties and is widely recognized as the father of Texas blues. Jefferson was born with no eyesight—hence the nickname—in Coutchman, sometime in 1893; he never bothered with schooling, and instead wandered from town to town, playing his guitar and peddling tunes to whomever would stop and listen. He eventually landed in Dallas’s Deep Ellum district, known in the twenties and thirties as the country’s race record hub. There Jefferson joined forces with twelve-string wizard Huddie Ledbetter, or Leadbelly, and the two played Southern blues duets together in Dallas’s whorehouses and bars.
Eventually, Jefferson was discovered by a Paramount Records talent scout who shipped him off to Chicago to make records. And make records he did—79 of them were released between 1920 and 1929. It’s estimated that each of the records sold 100,000 copies, making Jefferson one of the best-selling blues artists of the decade.
Sometime in December 1929, Jefferson’s streak of success abruptly ended—he died mysteriously on the streets of Chicago during a winter snowstorm. No official cause of death was ever recorded. He is buried in the Wortham Negro Cemetery, and his grave was marked as an official Texas historical monument in 1967.