10 musicians who died before they got really famous

[This was my weekly column for GlobalNews.ca. – AC]

Overheard on British radio: a customer had this conversation with a shop assistant.

“Do you have any crucifixes?”

“Which kind? We have the plain ones and the ones with the little man on it.”

Had this exchange occurred around 40 AD, it would be understandable. Biblical scholars tell us that Jesus didn’t begin to become famous, at least beyond the places where he lived, until decades after the crucifixion. And thus ends my awkward Easter-themed way of leading into this list of musicians who didn’t achieve the fame they deserved until after they died.

1. Robert Johnson (died Aug. 8, 1938, age 27)

After failing to impress as a guitarist — he was terrible, if we’re honest — Johnson disappeared for a while to practise. When he turned up again, he’d become miraculously good, thereby sowing the seeds of Johnson selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads in exchange for guitar virtuosity. From 1932 to 1938, he was an itinerant musician, mostly sticking close to the Mississippi Delta but also travelling as far as Chicago, New York, and even up into Canada. He played juke joints, dances, and street corners.

Johnson didn’t leave behind a lot of recordings. There were sessions Nov. 23-25, 1936, in room 41 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Texas. More recording sessions were held in Dallas on June 19-20, 1937, for the Brunswick Record Corp.

A year later, he was dead, found by the side of the road near Greenwood, Miss. Was it poison by a rival? Congenital syphilis? No one knows.

Johnson remained a virtual unknown until 1961 when Columbia Records released a compilation of those recordings on an album entitled King of the Delta Blues Singers. That record brought him to the attention of blues players and nascent rockers like Eric Clapton and Keith Richards. A legend was born 23 years after his death.

There’s nine more. Keep reading.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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