The Untimely Death Of
King Curtis, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and Sam Cooke
By Jack Coll
Over the years way too many of our music talents have been taken from us way too early. Most of us are more than familiar with the drug overdose deaths of, Hendrix, Morrison, Joplin and so-on. Some of us may have forgotten the drug deaths of Keith Moon of the Who, Brian Cole of the Association, and Gram Parsons, former member of the Byrds. Sometimes we lose our musical legends simply from old age, and sometimes it’s just a tragic accidental death, a motorcycle crash, like Duane Allman, lead guitarist for the Allman Brothers Band and band-mate Berry Oakley, the bass guitarist for the Allman Brothers Band killed a year after Duane in 1972 in a motorcycle crash. There have been dozens of plane crashes killing everyone from Patsy Cline to Jim Croce to members of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Band including Ronnie Van Zant, Dean Kilpatrick, and Steve and Cassie Gains. Car accidents have taken a good many of our performers like Eddie Cochran (Summertime Blues) back in 1960, that same year Johnny Horton was killed in a car accident, (“Battle of New Orleans,” “Sink The Bismarck,” among other hit songs) Johnny was married to Billie Jean Jones, widow of Country Music star Hank Williams who also died a mysterious death. Brian Jones (Rolling Stones) supposedly drowned in a pool at the age of 27. Gene Vincent, (Be-Bop-A-Lula) survived a car crash in 1960 that killed Eddie Cochran but eleven years later in 1971 Vincent died from wounds resulting from a car crash. Pete Ham of the group Badfinger hung himself, Del Shannon checked into a hotel room back in 1991 and committed suicide. Frankie Lymon also used a hotel room to take his life, Vernon Isley of the Isley Brothers was killed on a bike after being run over by a mysterious automobile, and of course there was the very strange case of Bobby Fuller, in which Conshystuff.com wrote about in a previous column. (You can go back in the archives of Conshystuff.com and look up “The Strange Case of Bobby Fuller).
Then we have the senseless tragic deaths, like King Curtis, a dynamic tenor sax player who first came into the spotlight back in 1958 while playing sax for the Coasters in the song “Yakety Yak,” (Don’t Talk Back.) King Curtis played for the likes of Lionel Hampton and Horace Silver’s Jazz groups. If you listen closely you can hear his trademark sax while playing for Clyde McPhatter, (who himself died under shaky circumstances, first the death report said heart attack, then it was changed to liver failure, then it was changed to kidney failure, I’ve never known a death report that changed three times). King Curtis also played for The Shirelles, Buddy Holly, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, Bobby Darin and so many other artists. King Curtis also wrote and produced albums with Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway, (Hathaway was a gifted artist who fell out a 15th floor hotel window, again a strange death) Delaney and Bonnie, Freddy King and Sam Moore, (of Sam and Dave fame)
King Curtis also had a number of hit instrumental songs on his own like “Soul Twist” and “Memphis Soul Stew.” In the late 1960’s he became a major studio performer and was highly sought after from the likes of Eric Clapton, the Allman Brothers, and Robbie Robertson of “The Band”. In 1971 King Curtis was working on an album with Aretha Franklin and had done a number of sessions with John Lennon for his “Imagine” album when he was going home on the evening of August 13, 1971, and found a couple of drug addicts sitting on the front stoop of his New York City apartment. During the brief argument the drug addict stabbed King Curtis to death, and the music world fell silent, shocked by his death.
King Curtis was later inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
If you’re a fan of the cult classic movie “Eddie And The Cruisers,” released in 1983, and the sequel movie, “Eddie Lives,” released in 1989, there’s a scene in “Eddie Lives” when the character Eddie Wilson, (played by Michael Pare) takes his best friend Sal Amato, (played by Matthew Lawrence) back to a church located in up-state New Jersey and reflects back and tells Sal about these mystery tapes that were found by the record company. The year was 1963 and Eddie’s telling Sal that he and Wendell Newton, the sax player in the Cruisers had visited the church on several occasions back in 1964 to jam with this black group of musicians, Eddie says to Sal, “Look Wendell knew these guys had a recording studio here, that’s the funny thing, there I was playing with the greatest, Bo Didley, King Curtis, thinking this is great, this is what I want. And ya know to them it was just another night of jamming.” All the while the song “Emotional Storm” played in the background. John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band cut the sound track for both movies. Nearly twenty years after his death, King Curtis was mentioned in a movie as one of the greatest.
Another very strange rock and roll death resulted from an accident on stage back in 1990. Curtis Mayfield was a soul, rhythm and blues, and funk singer, songwriter and record producer. Mayfield was a multi-instrumentalist singing vocals, and played guitar, bass, piano, saxophone and drums. He came to fame with a group called the “Impressions” featuring Jerry Butler, (for a short time), Sam Gooden, and Arthur and Richard Brooks, Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions turned out one big hit with “For Your Precious Love” with Jerry Butler on lead vocals. Following the departure of Butler, Mayfield became lead singer and composer for the band and ran a string of hits starting in 1961 and the hits just kept on coming for fifteen years. Several of the hits included “Gypsy Woman,” “It’s All Right,” “Amen,” a song featured in the movie “Lilies Of The Field” starring Sidney Poitier in 1964. Mayfield also composed hits like “Keep On Pushing,” “People Get Ready,” “It’s All Right,” “Talking About My Baby,” “Woman’s Got Soul,” and many others.
Mayfield had written many of the songs that became anthems for the Civil Rights Movement throughout the 1960’s, and along with James Brown he became the voice in the black pride movement. Songs like “We’re A Winner,” “Keep On Pushing,” and “Move On Up” had become anthems for Martin Luther King Jr. who was leading the Civil Rights Movement throughout the 1960’s.
After leaving “The Impressions,” Mayfield hit the commercial peak of his career with the album “Super Fly,” the soundtrack for the Blaxploitation film of the same name. Mayfield became entrenched in soundtracks for movies writing and producing for films like “Claudine” in 1974, Gladys Knight & The Pips performed the song, Aretha Franklin recorded the soundtrack for “Sparkle” in 1976, and Mayfield worked with the Staple singers on the soundtrack of a 1975 film “Let’s Do It Again.” Many of Mayfield’s songs have been used over the years in movies such as “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka,” Hollywood Shuffle,” “Short Eyes,” and many others. Throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s Mayfield was busier than a one armed paper hanger being a writer, producer, performer, arranger and businessman.
On August 13, 1990, Mayfield was performing at Wingate Field in Flatbush, Brooklyn, New York, when stage lighting equipment fell on him at the outdoor venue and paralyzed him from the neck down. Mayfield could no longer play his Fender Stratocaster guitar or any other instrument but continued to write and record for his final album “New World Order.” Mayfield’s vocals were painstakingly recorded, usually line-by-line while lying on his back.
Mayfield’s health steadily declined over the next nine years, on December 26, 1999 he passed away, the official cause was diabetes, but un-officially everyone knew, the lighting collapse a decade earlier was really the cause. Mayfield was a resident at the North Fulton Regional Hospital in Roswell Georgia, he was 57 years old when he died.
You know his songs,
“Pride And Joy”
“Can I get A Witness”
“How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You”
“I’ll Be Doggone”
“Ain’t That Peculiar”
“I Heard It Through The Grapevine”
“”Too Busy Thinking About My Baby”
“What’s Going On”
“Mercy Mercy Me”
“Let’s Get It On”
You might even remember some of his singing partners that sang duets with him including Tammi Terrell, (A Philadelphia girl who died of a brain tumor in the spring of 1970, after collapsing on stage in 1967. She was married for a short time to boxer Ernie Terrell, brother of Jean Terrell of the Supremes.)
He also partnered with Kim Weston, (It Takes Two) Diana Ross, and Mary Wells. Marvin Gaye had more than 40 Top 40 Hits in less than 20 years and was an international superstar.
On April 1, 1984 while at his parent’s home, in Los Angeles, Marvin got into an argument with his father and was shot and killed by him. Marvin’s father, Marvin Gay Sr., (The “e” was added to Jr.’s name) was a preacher in the Hebrew Pentecostal Church, (Marvin Sr. preached in Norristown Pa for a brief period). Marvin Sr. had issues as he was a proponent of a strict moral code he enforced brutally with his four children. However it was reported that he was also a very hard drinking, cross dresser who resented his son’s success in the music industry and Marvin Jr. resented his abusive father.
Marvin Jr. had moved in with his parents in 1983, in an effort to deal with his depression, debt, and cocaine abuse. In the early hours of April 1, 1984, Marvin Jr. was with his mother Alberta when Marvin Sr. entered the room and a physical fight broke out between father and son, Marvin Sr. went to the other room where he retrieved a gun, a present given to him by Marvin Jr. and shot him three times in the chest.
Marvin Gaye’s brother Frankie, lived next door and rushed into the house at the sound of the gun shots, Frankie ran upstairs and held Marvin during his final moments of life. Frankie later revealed in a book that Marvin’s final, disturbing statement was, “I got what I wanted, I couldn’t do it myself, so I made him do it.”
Marvin Gaye married Berry Gordy’s sister Anna in 1961 and the two stayed married until 1975, Gaye was shot and killed one day before his 45th birthday.
And now the long and winding strange death trail brings up to Sam Cooke. Cooke, (Born Cook, but he later added the “e” for unknown reasons ) was a Clarksdale Mississippi boy who went on to have 30, top 40 hits in just six years from 1957-1964. A few of Cook’s more recognizable hits included, “You Send Me,” “Cupid,” “A Change Is Gonna Come,” “Chain Gang,” “Wonderful World,” and “Twistin’ The Night Away.” Cooke was a pioneer in the music business becoming one of the first black performers to handle the business side of his musical career as a singer and composer. Cooke also took an active part in the Civil Rights Movement in the early part of the 1960’s.
Cooke died at the age of 33, shot to death by Bertha Franklin, the manager of the Hacienda Motel in Los Angeles, California on December 11, 1964, the shooting was ruled a justifiable homicide. However since the shooting the circumstances of his death have been widely questioned, with debates going on to this day.
The facts of the case are this, Sam Cooke checked into the Hacienda Motel on December 11, 1964, with a lady friend named Elisa Boyer. Boyer’s report to the police later that night was that she met Cooke earlier that night and spent the evening in his company. But after leaving a local nightclub together she had repeatedly requested that he take her home, but against her will Cooke drove her to the Hacienda Motel. Boyer claimed that once in the motel’s room, Cooke physically forced her onto the bed and that she was certain he was going to rape her.
According to Boyer when Cooke ran into the bathroom for a moment she quickly grabbed her clothes and ran from the room. She claimed that in her haste she grabbed several articles of clothing belonging to Cooke by mistake. Boyer claimed that she ran to the hotel manager’s office and banged on the door looking for help. No one from the office responded to the banging on the door so Boyer fled the hotel parking lot, put her clothes back on, then hid Cooke’s clothing and went to a telephone booth to call police. It should be noted that Boyer’s account of the incident is the only report; we’ll get back to that in a minute.
When Cooke came out of the bathroom and realized that she was gone, with his clothes and several thousand dollars of his money he threw on the only thing he had left, a pair of shoes and a sports coat and went running out of the motel room after Boyer, his clothes and money. (no shirt, pants, or underwear) When Cooke arrived at the hotel office, hotel manager Bertha Franklin told police that she shot and killed Cooke in self-defense because he had attacked her. Franklin claimed that Cooke had broken into the office in a rage in nothing but his sports coat, and shoes demanding to know the whereabouts of the woman who had checked in with him. Franklin said that she told Cooke that she wasn’t in the office but Cooke didn’t believe her and started attacking her demanding to know where the woman was. According to Franklin following a brief struggle that dropped both of them to the floor, Franklin got up from the floor and retrieved her gun, she then fired at Cooke in self-defense noting that she feared for her life, she also claimed that even after being shot Cooke continued to charge at her so she beat him with a broom until he fell dead.
The story reeks of controversy when you read on as the thousands of dollars that Cooke had in his possession when he entered the motel room have never been recovered. Boyer, the woman that accompanied Cooke into the motel room was later arrested for prostitution, and a third witness was the motel owner Evelyn Carr, who claimed to have been on the phone with Franklin, the motel manager and heard Cooke threaten her. However inconsistencies between the three witnesses story’s had widely varied, leading to talk of a conspiracy, between the three, with hints of the trio having possibly been running this scam for some time. Perhaps Boyer, the prostitute who accompanied Cooke, entered the room with him with the intention of robbing him rather that an actual kidnapping as she stated.
It should be stated that no evidence has ever been established that there was a conspiracy of any kind between the women involved. The case was ruled a justifiable homicide, and authorities officially closed the case on the death of Sam Cooke.
Months before his death Cooke’s 18 month son, Vincent, had wondered into a front yard swimming pool and drowned. In 1986 Sam Cooke was a charter member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
This, my music friends are just a few of the many musicians who have died way too young, and way too strange.
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