It’s almost a blessing to do as the old saying goes and “die doing what you love.” Well, sure, that’s all well and good, to get to enjoy the things that make you happy up until the bitter end, except for the fact that you’re dead at the end. And if it’s a musician, actor, or television performer, they die in front of a whole bunch of witnesses who could be traumatized forever. Here are some famous folks who literally worked until the end, dying while on stage or on live television.
‘Dimebag’ Darrell Abbott
Part of what makes a concert — particularly one in a small club or venue — so exciting is the intimacy between band and audience; nothing separates the musicians from the crowd. The downside? Sometimes, there’s less emphasis on security. On December 8, 2004, the rock band Damageplan took the stage at Alrosa Villa, a club in Columbus, Ohio. After the breakup of the popular metal band Pantera, that band’s guitarist, “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott, formed Damageplan. A 25-year-old ex-Marine named Nathan Gale sneaked into the club with a gun and made his way onto the stage, opening fire on Abbott just 90 seconds into Damageplan’s set. Abbott, 38, died that night, and so did three other people: concert-goer Nathan Bray, band crew member Jeff Thompson, and Alrosa Villa employee Erin Halk. Gale, whose mother said he was discharged from the military due to mental health issues, also died, shot and killed by a police officer. Though several theories about Gale’s motivations were floated, none of them could be conclusively proven.
How’d we get this far without mentioning an opera? In January 1996, opera singer Richard Versalle was performing in The Makropulos Case. The tenor sang the role of Vitek, an old man who works in a law firm. In the opera’s opening scene, Versalle stood perched high atop a library-style ladder to put away a case file. Versalle sang the line, “Too bad you can only live so long” and then, inadvertently proving his point, the 63-year-old singer fell off the ladder. Versalle reportedly suffered a heart attack that caused him to fall.
There’s nothing more metal than dying on stage while playing metal. Nick Menza was so metal that he was once a member of Megadeth. He was behind the kit for the major metal band throughout the ’90s, playing on highly regarded albums like Rust in Peace and Countdown to Extinction. Apart from Megadeth, Menza played with several bands, including Chodle’s Trunk, Fear Assembly, Orphaned to Hatred, and OHM. It was during a gig with OHM in May 2016 that Menza’s heart gave out. The 51-year-old collapsed onstage during the third song of the band’s set at a show in Studio City, California, and he was pronounced dead upon arrival at a nearby hospital.
As an original member of Boston, drummer Sib Hashian played on two of the best-selling rock albums of the ’70s: Boston (17 million copies sold) and Don’t Look Back (7 million moved). But that was then and this is now, and Boston wasn’t as in-demand as it once was. In recent years, Hashian joined the classic rock nostalgia circuit and the Legends of Rock Cruise. Music fans on board were entertained by bands that included various and assorted members of Foreigner, Kansas, the Beach Boys, Boston (obviously), and more of your dad’s favorite bands. While performing at sea in March 2017, Hashian collapsed behind the drums. Hashian was 67.
In the mid-20th century, Jerome Rodale (also known as J.I. Rodale) advocated some health habits considered pretty out-there at the time but which are totally normal now: eating foods that weren’t loaded with antibiotics or eating local. Rodale wrote and spoke for years about how those and other healthy practices would extend his life span. On a taping of ABC’s The Dick Cavett Show on June 7, 1971, for example, the 72-year-old longevity guru claimed that he “never felt better” and that he’d “live to a hundred.” Unfortunately, Rodale didn’t quite make it to 100 — he died a few minutes after making that statement. Rodale stayed on stage while Cavett interviewed another guest, staying quiet until he let out some kind of ghastly, guttural noise. He’d gone pale and his mouth hung open, and yeah … Rodale died right there on the set of The Dick Cavett Show in front of a live studio audience.
Col. Bruce Hampton
Whether you love or hate jam bands like the Grateful Dead, Phish, and the String Cheese Incident or their crunchy, 45-minute-long guitar noodlings, you’ve got Col. Bruce Hampton to thank. Known as the “grandfather of the jam band scene,” Hampton tirelessly played with lots of bands, including the Quark Alliance, the Late Bronze Age, and the Hampton Grease Band. His many friends, collaborators, and fans converged on Atlanta’s historic Fox Theatre in May 2017 for “Hampton 70: A Celebration of Col. Bruce Hampton.” Staged the day after Hampton turned 70, the all-star jam session celebrated the man and his music. As a teenage guitar wizard named Taz Niederauer showed off some tasty licks, Hampton fell to his knees, resting his arm on a speaker on stage. Niederauer and members of Blues Traveler and Widespread Panic played “Turn on Your Love Light” while totally unaware that Hampton’s light had just gone out. As banjo player and concert participant Rev. Jeff Mosier said in a Facebook post, he thought Hampton had initially fallen to his knees to do a “we’re not worthy” to Niederauer. Nor was he taking a little break. Hampton had collapsed, and he died that night in an Atlanta hospital.
Comedian Dick Shawn put together a full evening of entertainment for the audience of 500 or so people that paid to see him perform at UC San Diego in April 1987. First, he did a sketch where he played a disembodied head on a dinner table, then he comically danced out of time to some music. Next, Shawn launched into a routine about the end of the world, during which he lay down on the stage and stayed completely still. The audience thought it was part of the bit, that Shawn was pretending to be dead. The end of the world is about people being dead, after all. Tom Wartelle, a guy in that audience, told the LA Times that, “There were comments from the audience like, ‘Take his wallet.'” Wartelle said “it all blended in very well” with Shawn’s act. But then, after five minutes of Shawn not moving, the heckles and laughter pretty much stopped. A doctor rushed onto the stage, tried to find a pulse, and then flipped Shawn onto his back. The audience was ordered out while Shawn received CPR. An ambulance arrived in short order and took Shawn to the nearby Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, California. Less than two hours after Shawn first took the stage, he was pronounced dead at age 57.
In April 1984, Welsh prop comedian and magician Tommy Cooper appeared on the variety show Live from Her Majesty’s, which was broadcast live to viewers throughout the U.K. from Her Majesty’s Theatre in London. Cooper did his famous magic cloak skit, in which he wore a huge gown, stood in front of a curtain, and had an assistant pass him increasingly larger objects that he’d “magically” pull out from under his gown. Cooper’s assistant that night was Live from Her Majesty’s host Jimmy Tarbuck, who told Wales Online that the bit was supposed to end with Tarbuck emerging from the curtain with a stepladder and handing it to Cooper because it was too big to fit under the dress. (Cooper’s act was a little corny.)
But then Cooper did a bit of what Tarbuck thought was some improvised physical comedy — a Cooper habit. After a “lovely assistant” came onto the stage, Cooper suddenly fell hard onto his rear-end. The in-house audience laughed, but this wasn’t comedy — it was tragedy. Cooper, 63 had suffered a heart attack on live TV. The director sent the show to an unscheduled commercial break so home viewers wouldn’t see Cooper’s lifeless body getting pulled through the curtain. He was taken to a hospital and pronounced dead upon arrival.
Remember when Britney Spears danced with a giant snake draped around her neck during the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards? Now, imagine if that cobra had not been properly handled and bit Spears and killed her. Sadly, this is actually what happened to an Indonesian singer named Irma Bule. While performing in Karawang, Indonesia, in 2016, the 29-year-old was handling a live cobra “stage prop” she’d used for years. During just her second song, the snake bit Bule on the thigh. She didn’t think much of it, assuming that someone had defanged or de-venomed the cobra. No one had. Around 45 minutes later, Bule was still doing her show when she started vomited and seizing. She was pronounced dead at a local hospital.
Tiny Tim was one of the most unique performers to ever score a hit record. A tall (hence the ironic stage name), stringy-haired man with a high, vibrating, lilting voice, his version of an old standard called “Tip-Toe Thru’ the Tulips with Me” hit No. 17 on the Billboard pop chart in 1968. (Adding to the bizarro, Tiny Tim accompanied himself on the ukulele.) A year later, the unlikely celebrity married a 17-year-old fan, Vicki, on The Tonight Show, a moment seen by 21.4 million households, then a ratings record for Johnny Carson.
Tiny Tim was a memorable guy and he died as he lived: entertaining others. On November 30, 1996, Tiny Tim played a benefit show for the Women’s Club of Minneapolis. While singing “Tip-Toe Thru’ the Tulips with Me,” Tiny Tim abruptly stopped playing, then told his wife (Susan Khaury; he and Vicki had divorced years earlier) he didn’t feel well. Then the 64-year-old performer collapsed, dying a few hours later at a Minneapolis hospital from what a nursing supervisor attributed to cardiac arrest.
French singer Weldens was a star on the rise — only to have her career (and life) end because of a freak stage accident. In 2017, the 35-year-old singer had just released her first album, Le grand H de l’homme and was a big draw to the Léo Ferré Festival, performing at a church in the village of Goudron, France. According to eyewitnesses, Weldens put on a terrific show and earned a standing ovation. She was soaking it all in when she suddenly lurched forward and fell lifeless to the ground. While early reports of what happened could only provide speculation, “electrical malfunctions” were likely to blame for why Weldens’ heart stopped. As to how she was electrocuted in the first place, it’s notable that Weldens performed barefoot.
There are all kinds of potential dangers on stage. A light could fall and hit a performer, or a musician could slip and fall off the stage, to name two possibilities. There’s also a lot of electricity going on to power all those electric guitars and amps. That’s what killed Les Harvey, guitarist for the up-and-coming Scottish blues-rock band Stone the Crows. Prior to the start of a concert in Swansea, Wales, on May 3, 1972, Harvey was tuning up his instrument in front of about 1,200 fans and made the fatal mistake of grabbing a microphone. It hadn’t been properly grounded, and a volatile, fatal jolt of electricity shot through his body. He died at the hospital, and, like so many other tragically lost stars, Harvey was just 27 years old.
When a professional daredevil dies in front of an audience, it’s just as horrifying and sad as when an actor or singer dies, but really, the odds are a bit greater that a performer will die jumping off a waterfall than playing guitar. In 1827, Sam Patch became one of the first famous daredevils. He jumped off a ledge over Passaic Falls in New Jersey into the water below. As time went on, his jumps became ever more ambitious, so he attracted larger and larger crowds. In 1829, Patch and his team announced the entertainer’s “last jump”: On November 13, (a Friday, by the way), he would hurl himself 125 feet off a platform overlooking the High Falls of the Genesee River in Rochester, New York. Now, “last jump” was supposed to mean it was Patch’s final attempt of the season. But fate, the universe, or whomever or whatever, took that word far too literally. According to a report of the jump from New York’s Evening Post, in mid-descent, Patch’s body “began to droop, his arms were extended, and his legs separated.” In other words, his form was way off … and then he hit the water wrong. He never emerged. Four months later and 6 miles downriver, Patch’s body finally surfaced in a block of ice. An autopsy concluded that Patch had suffered a ruptured blood vessel mid-fall due to the sudden shock of the cold November air.
Dying while living out one’s lifelong passion is actually kind of beautiful. It’s sad and shocking for witnesses, but it’s also very romantic. Such is the case with musician Jane Little. The double-bass player joined the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in 1945 at the age of 16 and stayed with the group for more than seven decades. In February 2016, Guinness World Records recognized Little for a big achievement — 71 years with the ASO, a record for orchestral musicians. Just a few months later, in May 2016, Little was playing in a symphony pops concert called “Broadway’s Golden Age,” a collection of show tunes. According to the Washington Post, near the end of “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” Little, 87, collapsed while playing her bass. She was carried backstage and passed away.
Morphine was one of the most unique alternative rock bands of the ’90s, which is to say their music was challenging and unsettling. That’s due in large part to singer and bass player Mark Sandman, who pioneered a slow, droning playing style, which added a spooky and unnerving element to Morphine’s tunes. Also spooky and unnerving: he suffered a deadly heart attack onstage. Morphine was performing in the Giardini del Principe festival outside Rome in 1999 when the 46-year-old suddenly stopped playing and fell to the ground, as reported by MTV. A few minutes later while in an ambulance en route to a hospital, he was pronounced dead.