(October 30, 2023). In the past twelve months, we’ve lost several members of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame bands, including Gary Rossington (Lynyrd Skynyrd), David Crosby (Crosby, Stills & Nash, the Byrds), Christine McVie (Fleetwood Mac), Robbie Robertson (The Band), Randy Meisner (Eagles), Rudolph Isley (Isley Brothers), Jeff Beck (Yardbirds) and Fred White (Earth, Wind & Fire).
All eight of those people were key parts of the RRHOF groups for which they were known and all of them were inducted right alongside their band’s other members.
In most of the above cases, however, those groups had either disbanded long ago (Yardbirds, The Band, Byrds, CSN) or the member had already left the group for which he or she became famous (White, Meisner, Isley).
At the time of their passings, only Rossington and McVie were still active members of their respective bands, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Fleetwood Mac, both of which had toured extensively with those members in recent years.
In Skynyrd’s situation, the group continued what was already expected to be its final tour in the wake of Rossington’s death, with nearly a dozen shows completed on its final leg after his March 2023 passing.
In Fleetwood Mac’s case, longtime bandmate and close friend Stevie Nicks has said of her deceased colleague in interviews that, although no official breakup has been announced, there’s no need for Fleetwood Mac to continue touring—a sentiment echoed by founder Mick Fleetwood—without McVie, who wrote and sang lead on more of the band’s biggest hits than any other member.
It is in that spirit that djrobblog has come up with this list of 30 Rock Hall of Fame bands (or vocal groups) whose members’ deaths have had the most devastating impacts on their ability to continue as they were or, in cases where they’d already left the band, their ability to forge a reunion of some sort down the line.
Several factors were taken into account in creating this list. Key among them were the member’s role in the group, followed by the band’s inability to continue without the deceased member, whether by force or by choice. Also, only groups with three or more members were considered for this article.
In cases where the band continued recording or performing, the degree to which they were able to achieve previous levels of success was a factor in the below rankings.
Whether or not a person was still an active member of the group mattered in the weighing, but it wasn’t prohibitive if he or she had already left the group at the time of death, especially if the prospect (or fantasy) of a reunion still loomed.
Other, more subjective criteria like how a band’s identity was forever altered by the death of a key member, whether or not the band continued performing, were also considered.
And finally, while every life holds equal value, the impact of one’s earthly departure on their band undoubtedly differs, which is what this list is all about.
So, without further ado, here are the 30 Rock Hall of Fame members whose deaths had the most devastating effect on the groups for which they were inducted, counted down in order from the 30th most impactful to the one most catastrophic to their group, in this blogger’s opinion.
Honorable mention goes to the late Robbie Robertson, whose band The Band disbanded nearly 25 years ago, but whose passing in August inspired this article. (Oh, and see what I did there with the word “band” and its variations?)
Now for the list:
30. Terry Kath – Chicago.
Founding Chicago member and guitarist Kath sang lead on such classics as “Make Me Smile,” “Colour My World,” and “Wishing You Were Here.” His death from an accidental, self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1978 threatened to end the band. Instead they forged on, albeit with less success in the first few years following Kath’s passing. It wasn’t until they connected with Warner Brothers and producer/songwriter David Foster in 1982 that the hits started coming again (even bigger than before), but by then the band’s brass infused musical style was changing forever.
29. Keith Moon/ John Entwistle – The Who.
It’s difficult to say which member’s death, if either, had more impact on The Who’s ability to continue as a band. In both drummer Keith Moon’s case (1978, from drug overdose) and that of John Entwistle (2002, cardiac arrest with cocaine a contributing factor), the band’s surviving original members Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend vowed to carry on the band’s legacy with tours and new music, which they’ve done remarkably (including this orchestral stop in Chicago in 2019).
28. Bobby Smith – Spinners.
As the most recent group inducted to the RRHOF, The Spinners have had many lead singers, including perhaps most famously the late Philippé Wynne, who left the band in 1978 and died six years later. But it was late founding member Bobby Smith who sang lead on hits like “I’ll Be Around,” “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love,” “One of A Kind (Love Affair),” “Games People Play” and many others. He was with the group until his passing in 2013. The Spinners have continued to tour since then with lone surviving original member Henry Fembrough carrying the torch.
27. Eazy-E – N.W.A.
The controversial rap group N.W.A. owes much of that controversy to Eazy-E, the Gangsta Rap Godfather who died in 1995 from complications of HIV/AIDS. While the group had broken up four years before Eazy’s passing, they were able to set aside personal beefs and forged several mini-reunions in the years that followed. One can only imagine what a reunion featuring all five original members—including Eazy—would have been like.
26. Glenn Frey – Eagles.
Founding member Glenn Frey was still with the Eagles when he died in January 2016. As the singer of such classics as “Take It Easy,” “Lyin’ Eyes,” “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” “New Kid in Town” and “Heartache Tonight,” it seemed as if he could never be replaced. The Eagles have forged on since, with other vocalists—including country legend Vince Gill—filling in superbly on Frey’s parts. Frey’s son Dillon has also been with the band on-and-off since his father’s death.
25. Mary Wilson – Supremes.
While Mary Wilson didn’t have a lead singing role in the group’s biggest hits, she clearly was the glue that held the Supremes together, long after Diana Ross’ departure in 1970 and throughout many personnel changes and brief reunions. Her 1977 departure from the band prompted Berry Gordy to officially end the Supremes, and her 2021 death from cardiovascular disease ensured that the Supremes would be never more.
24. David Ruffin/ Eddie Kendricks – Temptations.
A few of the groups here have dual entries because it would be difficult to parse which member’s passing had more impact. Such is the case with David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks of the Temptations (you could arguably throw any number of deceased former Temps in this mix, including Paul Williams, Melvin Franklin and Dennis Edwards, who replaced Ruffin in 1967). But Ruffin and Kendricks—original members who sang lead on many of the band’s biggest early hits—get top billing here. Their entry is based on the fact that a reunion was always on the horizon while they were alive. Their relatively modest ranking is owed to the many years the band was able to continue performing successfully after their departures.
23. Ric Ocasek/ Benjamin Orr – The Cars.
Which model of the Cars did you prefer? The one driven by late singer Benjamin Orr (on songs like “Just What I Needed,” “Drive,” and “Let’s Go”), or the one that fellow late leader Ric Ocasek revved up (for hits like “Magic,” “You Might Think” and “Shake It Up”)? Both members’ deaths likely had equal impact on their band’s future, as both came during various periods of inactivity for The Cars. Orr died in 2000 from pancreatic cancer, some 12 years after he’d first left the band. Ocasek died in 2019, about eight years after the last album he recorded with them and more than 20 years after the group’s first disbandment. Of the two, only Ocasek was alive to see the group be inducted into the RRHOF in 2018.
22. Jam Master Jay – Run-DMC.
When Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell was killed 21 years ago today (Oct. 30, 2002), it officially put an end to Run-DMC, the second hip-hop act inducted into the RRHOF (in 2009) after Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five. While the remaining duo of Rev Run (Joseph Simmons) and Darryl “DMC” McDaniels have occasionally reunited in the past ten years, mainly on awards shows and tributes, it just wasn’t the same without their pioneering DJ. The trial for the two suspects in Mizell’s murder is slated to begin next month (November 2023).
21. Carl Wilson – Beach Boys.
Carl Wilson was the youngest of the Wilson brothers that formed three-fifths of the Beach Boys, with oldest brother Brian largely considered the band’s leader and most musically inclined member. However, as Brian’s creative participation became more sporadic as the 1960s gave way to the ’70s and beyond, Carl took on an increasing role within the band, including serving as its stage musical director until his death from lung cancer in 1998. His passing followed middle brother Dennis’ drowning in 1983. While the Beach Boys have continued with Brian and cousin Mike Love along with Al Jardine and Bruce Johnson, they’ve only released one album since Carl’s death (2012’s That’s Why God Made the Radio), and their touring days appear to be over.
20. David Crosby – Crosby, Stills & Nash.
You can’t have Crosby, Stills & Nash without David Crosby, Stephen Stills or Graham Nash. As long as all three of them were alive, there was always the prospect of a reunion, which the harmonizing trio had done so many times in their career after previous breakups. With Crosby’s passing earlier this year from Covid-19 complications, that hope was dashed, and CSN (and sometimes Y) would become immortalized as rock and roll history.
19. Charlie Watts – Rolling Stones.
Stones fans could hardly claim that Watts’ death in 2021 spelled the end of the group for which he’d been drumming for nearly 60 years. To the contrary, the band launched a tour in 2022 and released their first album of all new studio material in 18 years (Hackney Diamonds). The album debuted in Nov. 2023 at No. 3 on the Billboard 200. Still, Watts’ passing was a stark reminder that the group is indeed mortal, something many of us had forgotten given their unprecedented endurance.
18. Levi Stubbs – Four Tops.
The Tops have continued touring for nearly 60 years, seemingly undaunted by the fact that only one of its original members remains. Still, no one could replace the voice of Levi Stubbs, whose powerful lead singing buoyed the group for more than 40 of those years. He passed in 2008, and Abdul “Duke” Fakir is the only remaining original member.
17. Jimi Hendrix – Jimi Hendrix Experience.
In the vein of bands like Van Halen, Bon Jovi, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and Crosby, Stills and Nash, there could be no Jimi Hendrix Experience without its namesake leader. That said, two other members of the Experience (besides the guitar god himself) were inducted into the RRHOF in 1992: Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding. That alone makes them eligible for this list, despite the fact that the Experience was already in various stages of disbandment at the time of Hendrix’ death in 1970 at age 27 (from drug-related asphyxia). It’s Hendrix essentiality to the group, though, that gets him and them to No. 17 in this ranking.
16. Adam Yauch – Beastie Boys.
The highest ranked hip-hop act here is that other raucous trio out of NYC, the Beastie Boys, whose longtime member Adam Yauch died of cancer in 2012, prompting the group’s immediate disbandment. The group’s breakthrough album, Licensed to Ill, was the first hip-hop album to top the Billboard 200 in 1987. Its last studio album, Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, was released on May 3, 2011, almost exactly one year before Yauch’s death on May 4, 2012. Unlike many of the groups on this list, the Beasties have neither recorded an album nor attempted a comeback tour since Yauch’s passing at age 47.
15. Gregg Allman – Allman Brothers Band.
When guitarist and group leader Duane Allman, older brother to Gregg, was killed in a motorcycle crash in 1971, it was left to Gregg to carry on the namesake band’s legacy, which he did successfully during the band’s various incarnations over the subsequent four-plus decades. Under Gregg’s leadership, the band scored some of their biggest hits, like “Ramblin’ Man” (one of this blogger’s personal favorites) and “Melissa.” The band had essentially already called it quits when Gregg died of liver cancer in 2017, with his last personal concert performance occurring in Atlanta on October 29, 2016, exactly 45 years to the date after his brother Duane’s death and almost seven years ago to the date of this article’s publishing.
14. Robin and Maurice Gibb – The Bee Gees.
The Bee Gees’ biggest hitmaking days had gone out with disco (unfortunately and unfairly) after 1979. While Barry forged a successful songwriting career in the 1980s for acts like Andy Gibb, Dionne Warwick, Kenny Rogers, Diana Ross, and Barbra Streisand, the Bee Gees had only a few scattered modest hits during the decade. Still, while the twins Robin and Maurice were alive, the band remained active and would have been a huge draw in the nostalgia-driven 2010s and beyond. Maurice’s death in 2003 and Robin’s in 2012 changed all that.
13. Maurice White – Earth, Wind & Fire.
When EWF founder Maurice White died in 2016 after a long bout with Parkinson’s Disease, he had long since stopped touring with the band on whose many hits he shared lead vocals with Phillip Bailey. Bailey has taken over White’s mostly baritone vocal duties on tour, while continuing to handle his own trademark falsetto workload as well. The Elements of the Universe have barely missed a beat with Bailey, but it still doesn’t feel the same without their original leader’s smooth counter-vocals setting the tone.
12. Marc Bolan – T. Rex.
The British glam-rock band Tyrannosaurus Rex, later T. Rex, was almost the complete mastermind of singer-songwriter and guitarist Marc Bolan. The band’s impact on rock, pop, punk and new wave is legendary and owed almost solely to Bolan’s vision and musical uniqueness. When he died in 1977 from a car crash in London, his band’s management did the noble thing and disbanded the group altogether. Subsequent attempts to reform the group were met with thuds, and T. Rex is now no more.
11. John Lennon – The Beatles.
I know. The Beatles should never be No. 11 on anyone’s list. But the Fab Four had broken up ten years before Lennon was killed by Mark Chapman in December 1980. With the band’s legacy long intact, Lennon’s death only meant that any hopes of a reunion were completely doused. The three surviving Beatles collaborated on George Harrison’s “All Those Years Ago,” a tribute to Lennon the following year. A long-awaited official reunion happened in 1996 when Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and Harrison recorded new vocals and instrumentation over earlier Lennon tracks to produce the songs “Real Love” and “Free as a Bird.” Their “final single,” a song called “Now and Then,” is slated for release as this article is being published.
10. Freddie Mercury – Queen.
It is nearly impossible to overstate the important role that the late Freddie Mercury played in the British glam-arena-pop-rock band Queen. All of their biggest hits were larger than life primarily because of his melodramatic performances, which were supported, no doubt, by over-the-top musical productions. That the band has found a “suitable” replacement in 21st century singer and former American Idol runner-up Adam Lambert is nothing short of astonishing, given Mercury’s unmatched flair for the dramatic. It’s Lambert’s presence, plus the commitment of guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor to continue the band’s legacy, that keeps them grounded here at No. 10, instead of residing somewhere even higher on this list.
9. Jerry Garcia – Grateful Dead.
While several members of jam band pioneers the Grateful Dead have died over the years, it wasn’t until founder Jerry Garcia’s passing in 1995 that the band, as it was famously known, called it quits. Since then, there have been various touring incarnations of the Dead, most famously under the name Dead & Company, featuring popular singer/guitarist John Mayer. Their 2015 trek through Chicago was the subject of one of this blogger’s earliest articles. Mayer has since announced that their summer 2023 tour would be the last.
8. Christine McVie – Fleetwood Mac.
Fleetwood Mac has not officially announced a breakup in the wake of McVie’s death in November 2022, but without her and Lindsey Buckingham (fired in 2018), its hard to imagine this venerable group ever hitting the road again. Key remaining members Stevie Nicks and founder Mick Fleetwood have said as much in recent interviews. Think about it, who else would sing such classics as “You Make Loving Fun,” “Songbird,” “Say You Love Me,” “Over My Head,” “Little Lies” and the newly omnipresent “Everywhere”?
7. Michael Jackson – The Jacksons
File this one in the “anything could’ve happened” category. Jackson, perhaps the biggest superstar on this list, meant more to the Jacksons than arguably anyone ranked here did to their respective bands. But the King of Pop hadn’t recorded with his brothers in more than 20 years at the time of his death in 2009 from drug overdose. Thus, his departure from the Jacksons in the 1980s had more impact than his passing. Still, there was always a glimmer of hope they would reunite, as long as the gloved one was alive (and if Mama Katherine could’ve convinced him to take one for the family).
6. Tom Petty – Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers.
While five other members of the Heartbreakers are in the RRHOF along with Petty, the band clearly wouldn’t have been bestowed that honor without the leader whose name was inextricably linked to it. The group rightfully shut it down after his untimely death in 2017 following an accidental overdose on opioids (including fentanyl), sedatives, and antidepressants–an all-too-common cause of death among older rock stars during the 2010s.
5. Eddie Van Halen – Van Halen.
Similar to Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, it’s hard to imagine a band continuing on without the leader (and guitar virtuoso) whose namesake it bears. Eddie Van Halen’s surviving son Wolfgang all but confirmed the end of VH in a 2020 interview with Howard Stern with these words: “You can’t have Van Halen without Eddie Van Halen.” This is all the more sad considering the band was contemplating a “kitchen-sink” reunion tour that would have included former lead singers David Lee Roth, Sammy Hagar, and Gary Cherone, as well as former bassist Michael Anthony, when Eddie passed away from a brain tumor in October 2020.
4. Ronnie Van Zant/ Gary Rossington – Lynyrd Skynyrd.
When songwriter and lead singer Ronnie Van Zant was killed in a plane crash in October 1977, along with two of its other members, the band Lynyrd Skynyrd called it quits. And for the next decade, it pretty much remained that way. Then Gary Rossington and other surviving members revived the group, and for 36 years until Rossington’s death in March, Skynyrd remained an important concert draw. It’s unclear whether the band will continue without Rossington, who was the last surviving original member of the venerable southern rock group.
3. Jim Morrison – The Doors.
Although the Doors had only been popular for a few years at the time, Jim Morrison was spiraling by the late 1960s and early 1970 due to various run-ins with the law and his extensive substance abuse. Still, the band recorded a final hit album with him (L.A. Woman) before his untimely death in July 1971. As with many of the groups here, several posthumous albums and reunions followed their leader’s death, but The Doors were never the same after Morrison, who is immortalized as a member of the 27 Club (celebrities–mainly musicians–who passed away at the age of 27).
2. John Bonham – Led Zeppelin.
Many might claim that the British supergroup Led Zeppelin had seen its peak days by the time drummer John Bonham died in September 1980 of pulmonary aspiration due to excessive consumption of alcohol. But the band’s decision to call it quits in the immediate aftermath proved Bonham’s value went beyond hitting sticks and pacing some of the greatest rock anthems of all time. Various one-off performances and reunions since then were met with mixed reviews, including from the surviving band members themselves, often with one of Bonham’s sons filling in for him on drums.
1. Kurt Cobain – Nirvana.
Cobain’s suicide in April 1994 immediately ended Nirvana, a group that was still in its ascendancy at the time of his death. It is the fact that Nirvana’s future seemed limitless–even as grunge was beginning to fall out of favor–and the band’s abrupt ending after his passing that made Cobain’s story most compelling. While several live and compilation albums were released afterwards, with a few reaching No. 1 on the Billboard charts, fellow members Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl had gone their separate ways, with Grohl forming Foo Fighters—another RRHOF band—later in ‘94. One can only imagine what might have been—and what wouldn’t have been—if Cobain had lived.
May he and all the others continue resting in peace.
DJRob (he/him/his) is a freelance music blogger from the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop, rock and (sometimes) country genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on X (formerly Twitter) at @djrobblog and on Meta’s Threads.
Feel free to share this article.
You can also register for free (below) to receive notifications of future articles.