Music is an indelible part of human nature that has had a profound impact on us since time unremembered. It has a powerful ability to affect our moods, our thoughts, our minds, and indeed our lives. Few things have the power to shape and influence us as much as music, so it is no surprise that the world of music is often just as mysterious or even sinister as it is beautiful or influential. History is rife with strange spooky tales and legends attributed to musicians, songs, and even whole genres of music, many of which seem to transcend mundane explanations and propel themselves into the world of the supernatural. Here we will explore strange coincidences, curses, and even deals with the Devil as we work our way through the bizarre, mysterious realm that lurks behind the world of the known in music, and drips with hints of an ominous, supernatural dread.
One of the most recurring and pervasive types of curses within the world of music is that of cursed songs. One of the most infamous of these was a piece originally composed by the Hungarian pianist and composer Rezső Seress in 1933, and originally entitled Vége a világnak (The world is ending). The song, which later went on to be known as Gloomy Sunday, was a relentlessly sad, haunting piece meant to illustrate the deep despair of war, and ended with a somber prayer about the sins committed by man. The song would go on to be covered by other artists after its release, such as the poet László Jávor, who wrote an especially depressing new version of the song called Szomorú vasárnap (Sad Sunday), that emphasized a desire to commit suicide after a lover’s death, as well as the first English version of the song, Gloomy Sunday, which was performed by Hal Kemp in 1936. The song was well known for being a terribly sad song dripping with melancholy, but it would become notorious for a sinister series of events that would earn it its new nickname “The Hungarian Suicide Song.”
Not long after Gloomy Sunday’s original release, Hungarian authorities noticed a significant and alarming surge in the number of suicides occurring throughout the country, which coincided with the increasing popularity of the song. It was surmised that the song was so incredibly bleak, desolate and depressing that it was literally driving people to commit suicide. It was not long before the media caught on to this macabre link between Gloomy Sunday and the wave of suicides, and the story became major national news. With all of the fanfare and the ever escalating number of suicides that were being attributed to the song, authorities imposed a ban on the airing of Gloomy Sunday nationwide. This ban would be joined by a similar prohibition against the song in London, England; a ban that would not be lifted until 2002.
Eerily, in the wake of all of this bad publicity, the song’s original composer himself, Seress, would go on to make the chilling claim that he had written the piece in memory of his girlfriend, who had also committed suicide. Making things even more sinister was Seress’s own suicide attempt, when he leapt from a hotel balcony in Budapest. Although he survived the attempt, later when he was hospitalized for his injuries from the fall, Seress would strangle himself to death with a length of copper wire, his own suicide adding to the dark mystique and legend steadily congealing around his hit song.
The ban, lurid media reports, and the death and controversy surrounding Gloomy Sunday did little to stop the song’s popularity, and it became well-known across Europe and indeed even the United States, where it was covered by Paul Robeson and notably by the famous American musician Billie Holiday. Bizarrely, Holiday’s version was also blamed for an increase in suicides, further creating a whirl of rumors that the song still retained some dark, cursed ability to instill maniacal suicidal thoughts in listeners. In particular, the Holiday version of the song was blamed for a rash of deaths of people who would kill themselves days or even hours after listening to it. It got to the point that even in America the song’s airplay on radio stations and in nightclubs was curbed, and some states even unofficially banned the song. It was around this time that Gloomy Sunday accrued for itself the title of “The Hungarian Suicide Song.” The song’s lyrics are undeniably morose, reading:
Sunday is gloomy, my hours are slumberless Dearest the shadows I live with are numberless Little white flowers will never awaken you Not where the black coach of sorrow has taken you Angels have no thought of ever returning you Would they be angry if I thought of joining you?
Gloomy is Sunday, with shadows I spend it all
My heart and I have decided to end it all
Soon there'll be candles and prayers that are sad I know
Let them not weep let them know that I'm glad to go
Death is no dream for in death I'm caressing you
With the last breath of my soul I'll be blessing you
Was the song Gloomy Sunday actually cursed? Did it have a particular penchant for instilling in listeners madness and a desire to end their own lives? It is quite possible we will never know. Gloomy Sunday is certainly not the only song to have an air of supernatural menace to it. One song that seems to have crept up to become a sign of misfortune and death is the iconic 1969 Frank Sinatra tune My Way. Written by Paul Anka and performed by Frank Sinatra, My Way went on to become one of the most recognizable and famous songs in the singer’s library. Over in the Philippines, the song has gone on to become a favorite of the country’s ubiquitous karaoke clubs, but this is where a decidedly sinister quality to the song begins to take shape, which has launched it into the pantheon of the most dangerous songs ever made.
For some, ill defined reason, the Frank Sinatra classic has come to be synonymous with an uncommonly high number of fights, unruly behavior, and murder in the Philippines. Here, where karaoke is ridiculously popular, the singing of My Way seems to have a way of bringing out the worst on people. It seems that this song has a habit of instilling hate-fueled, vicious brawls that have ended with the senseless deaths of at least a dozen victims within the last decade, and no one is quite sure why. Authorities have attempted to come to some answers, chalking up the deaths to the already raucous, rowdy quality of the Philippine karaoke scene, alcohol, and a mix of the song’s popularity combined with the audience’s lack of patience for those who sing too off-key or who break karaoke etiquette, such as microphone hogging, choosing songs that have already be sung, or laughing or jeering at less than satisfactory performances. Is the death associated with My Way indicative of some mysterious curse inherit to the song itself, or a result of the country’s many infamous alcohol fueled nights of belligerent, raucous karaoke sessions?
Indeed, brawls and shootings are seemingly commonplace among the country’s many karaoke bars, but it is the song My Way that seems to incite the most rage. The song has become so infamous in the country that many people refuse to sing it, even at family gatherings, and the song has been banned from the playlists of countless karaoke establishments. The song My Way, and the violence it seems to drag in its wake, have given rise to numerous urban legends among Filipinos, and the killings have managed to create for themselves their own category of crime, called “The My Way Killings.” There are few people willing to dare to try out My Way in a karaoke bar here. No one is sure just how many have actually died due to Sinatra’s song, but it seems that when in the Philippines, it may be a good idea to not try and belt out the song at karaoke, just in case.
Another of the more infamous curses linked to a particular musical piece is what has come to be called the deadly Curse of the Ninth. There has long been a legend that those who have dared to tackle a Tenth Symphony have been cursed to an early death. The curse is confined to classical music, and seems to state that a composer will meet their doom upon completing their Ninth Symphony. Although the death of Beethoven after his Ninth Symphony is the most well known, there are numerous other classical artists who have allegedly met the same fate.
This particular curse can perhaps trace its beginnings to the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler, who, upon completing his Ninth Symphony and starting his tenth, died before the tenth was finished, even though he at first believed himself to be one of the few who could beat the curse. The famous composer Anton Bruckner was also known to have died before completion of his Tenth Symphony, and was aware of the supposed curse as he worked on it. Indeed, there is a long list of composers who have apparently fallen victim to the “curse,” including Schubert, Dvořák, Spohr, Kurt Atterberg, Elie Siegmeister, Alfred Schnittke, Roger Sessions, Egon Wellesz, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Peter Mennin, Jean Sibelius, Vaughan Williams, and Malcolm Arnold. Is the Ninth Symphony some ill-defined, mystical, and little understood limit to what a composer is capable of producing?
Incidentally, the number 9 seems to have a way of creeping its way into the creepy world of musical mysteries. Indeed, the great artist indelibly tied to the Beatles, John Lennon was apparently plagued by the number 9. Born on the 9th of October in 1941, Lennon was part of the Beatles, who were discovered on the 9th of November, 1961. The band would go on to perform on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 9th, 1964, would play together for 9 years, and Lennon would be shot and killed on December 8th in the U.S., but December 9th in his home town of Liverpool, England.
This brings us to another aspect of musical curses; that of artists that seem to have one hanging over their heads. Certainly one of the most insidious such curses can be tentatively linked to the late, great American musician Buddy Holly. On February 3, 1959, a plane carrying musical greats Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, of La Bamba fame, and Jiles Perry Richardson, “The Big Bopper,” best known for his hit Chantilly Lace, crashed during a musical event called The Winter Dance Party tour. It was a horrific tragedy that shook the music world so much at the time that the incident was commonly referred to as “The Day the Music Died.” This was also the beginning of what would be called the Buddy Holly Curse.
The ominous cloud hanging over the events of Holly’s death and the alleged curse was already forming before the plane even took off. Not long before the Winter Dance Party Tour, both Holly and his wife, Maria Elena, were allegedly plagued by bizarre, apocalyptic dreams. In one such dream, Maria claimed to have witnessed a cataclysmic fireball that smashed into a field to leave a smoking crater, and in another Holly claimed he dreamt he was in a plane and dropped Maria off on the top of a building with the full intention of coming back for her but never doing so. This dream reportedly deeply disturbed Holly. Other eerie premonitions occurred before the fateful flight as well. In 1958, a sound engineer, producer and songwriter by the name of Joe Meek allegedly warned Holly that he had gone to a tarot card reading and been informed that Holly would die on February 3rd. At the time, Holly sort of ignored it, as the 3rd had already passed, yet he would crash and die on February 3rd the following year.
In the days leading up to the crash, there were numerous mishaps and plentiful bad luck hanging over the Winter Dance Party Tour, such as tour buses breaking down, hotel heaters refusing to work, numerous technical difficulties, and Holly’s drummer, Carl Bunch, getting frostbite in his feet that forced him to pull out of the tour altogether. When the flight finally came, the tiny rented plane did not have enough space to carry everyone. The Big Bopper was able to secure a seat on the plane because he had a bout of the flu and convinced Holly’s band member Waylon Jennings to give up his seat. Valens, who was also sick, was able to board the flight after he won a fateful coin toss against band member Tommy Allsup.
The list of deaths and misfortune attributed to the Buddy Holly “curse” is long. Holly’s wife miscarried their only child shortly after his death, and the vocalist who was hired to replace Holly on the tour, Ronnie Smith, hung himself just a few years after the performance, on 25 October 1962, at the age of 24. Singer Eddie Cochran, who had supposed to be on the doomed Winter Party Dance Tour, was forever racked with guilt over having been spared, and truly believed that he had somehow cheated death. Perhaps he really hadn’t. On 17 April 1960, a car carrying Cochran, his girlfriend and songwriter Sharon Sheeley, and singer Gene Vincent, blew a tire and crashed on its way to London’s Heathrow Airport for return flight to the States. Vincent injured his leg and Sheeley broke her back and neck in the crash, while Cochran sustained major head injuries that would take his life the following day after being visited by members of Holly’s band The Crickets, who had also played as Cochran’s backing band. He was 22, the same age Holly had been when he had died. Then there was a member of Holly’s band The Crickets, David Box, who went out to attempt a solo career and died in a plane crash, also at the very same age that Holly had died, at age 22.
Joining the long list of deaths is Lloyd Estel Copas, also known as Cowboy Copas, who was a chart topping country singer who had performed with Buddy Holly and the Two-Tones in 1956. On 5 March 1963, Copas was flying in a Piper Comanche with fellow country musicians Hawkshaw Hawkins and Patsy Cline, when the plane crashed near Nashville, Tennessee, killing all onboard. There was also singer Bobby Fuller, most famous for his hit I Fought the Law, which was written by a former member of The Crickets, and he was a massive fan of Holly’s, with one of his songs, Love's Made a Fool of You, written by Holly himself. On 18 July 1966, Fuller was found murdered in a car at his house. The body was in a shocking state, as Fuller had been badly beaten and sprayed with gasoline. Although it seemed most certainly the result of foul play, authorities deemed it a suicide.
Other people connected in some way to Holly or The Crickets have similarly met bizarre ends. Joe Meek, the recording engineer and producer, who had given Holly the prophetic warning of his death back in 1958, became plagued with depression and grew to be obsessed with Holly to the point that he claimed that Holly’s ghost would visit him in his dreams. It was perhaps this guilt and depression which drove him to kill his landlady and then himself with a shotgun on 3 February 1967, exactly 8 years to the day after Holly’s death. Another death was that of the songwriter Bobby Darin, whose song Early in the Morning was performed by Holly and who also had performed with The Crickets. He would die of complications from heart surgery in 1973 at the age of 37. Continuing the curse was Clyde McPhatter, who had performed with The Crickets in 1958 and died of liver, kidney, and heart failure in 1972. Another tragic event happened when folk singer Phil Ochs, most well-known for his harsh stance against the Vietnam War, was brutally assaulted in 1973, and his vocal chords damaged beyond repair by strangulation. Eerily, the assault came just after he had recorded a tribute to Buddy Holly on his last album, Gunfight at Carnegie Hall.
The rabbit hole of the Buddy Holly curse goes even deeper still. In 1977, a movie about Buddy Holly’s life was released, entitled The Buddy Holly Story and starring Gary Busey, who would win an Oscar for his performance. Shortly before the film’s release, the screenwriter of the film, Robert Gittler, committed suicide and Busey was involved in a motorcycle crash that nearly killed him. Upon the film’s release, on 6 September 1978, The Who drummer Keith Moon went to see the movie with his girlfriend Annette Walter-Lax, after which they went out to dinner along with Paul and Linda McCartney. The next day, Moon was found dead of a prescription drug overdose, strangely on September 7, Buddy Holly’s birthday.
The 80s would see the curse continue. In 1980, John Lennon was shot to death in front of his apartment. The Beatles, which had actually been Holly’s original choice for the name of his band before settling on The Crickets, had been big fans of Holly and had recorded several of his songs, including Words of Love and That'll Be the Day. Also in the 80s was the death of singer and DJ Bill Pickering, who was good friends with Holly’s widow and had sang at his funeral. His band, The Picks, were also overdubbed onto several of Buddy Holly’s songs. Pickering would suffer a deadly aneurysm in 1985. There was also the death of singer Rick Nelson, who died along with his band when the plane they were on burst into flames after an emergency landing. They had just played Holly's Rave On at a concert in Guntersville, Alabama the night before, and Nelson’s final recording was, chillingly, Holly’s True Love Ways.
The sinister happenings continued well into the 90s and beyond. On the 31st anniversary of the crash that killed Buddy Holly, February 3, 1990, singer Del Shannon performed a concert backed by The Crickets and held at the very same place where Holly had made his last performance; the Surf Ballroom Clear Lake, Iowa. Shannon would kill himself with a gunshot to the head five days later at the age of 55. The guitarist and singer for The Small Faces, Steve Marriott, was also apparently targeted by the curse. Marriott was a long time Holly fan, and had even recorded a cover of Buddy Holly’s song Heartbeat in 1969. On 19 April 1991, Marriott was found dead in his room of smoke inhalation after falling asleep with a lit cigarette. One of the creepier deaths commonly associated with the Buddy Holly curse is that of Michael Welsh, the bassist for the rock group Weezer. On the hit album Weezer was the song Buddy Holly, one of the most popular songs on the album. Welsh would go on to leave the group in the wake of a nervous breakdown and be found dead in a hotel room in 2011 at the age of 40.
When looking at an alleged curse such as this, it seems that perhaps it is all mere coincidence and reading too much into things. After all, how many hundreds or thousands of people would have a link somehow to Buddy Holly and The Crickets, no matter how tenuous? Of all of these people, someone is eventually going to die, so is this curse merely the result of forming sinister, macabre connections where none exist? Undoubtedly one could probably look at any death and form a mysterious connection with something if they look hard enough. Is this all just coincidence and the spooky work of the imagination? Whatever lies at the heart of the Buddy Holly curse, it certainly is eerie to read through the long list of its supposed victims.
Buddy Holly and his band The Crickets would certainly not be the only supposedly cursed band in music history. 1967 saw the formation of one of the most beloved and best selling bands of all time, the British-American rock group Fleetwood Mac, which was originally founded by the original guitarist Peter Green. The group achieved phenomenal success throughout the 70s and 80s, with their breakout smash album being 1977’s Rumours, which remained at the top of U.S. charts for 31 straight weeks, produced four U.S. Top 10 singles, and sold around 19 million copies in the United States alone, and currently has sold over 40 million copies worldwide, making it the 8th best selling album of all time.
Fleetwood Mac has seen a lot of shuffling and changing of its members over the years, to the point that the only member who has remained consistent is drummer Mick Fleetwood. Yet while most of these departures and changes have been the normal evolution of a music group over the ages, one slightly spooky exception is the long series of bizarreness that has seemed to have befallen the position of the group’s guitarist. The original guitarist, Peter Green, was forced to leave the band after doing too much acid in the 1970s, after which he was replaced by Jerry Spencer, who ended up getting strung out on mescaline and joining a weird sex cult in 1971. In 1972, another Fleetwood Mac guitarist, Danny Kirwin, had a bizarre meltdown on stage wherein he bashed his head on a wall and then descended into the audience to taunt the other band members. Kirwin would be committed to an insane asylum and would die homeless years later. As recently as 2012, the band would see the deaths of two of their guitarists; Bob Weston, who died of an aneurism, and Bob Welsh, who committed suicide after losing the ability to walk. Indeed, the only Fleetwood Mac guitarist who hasn’t seemed to have been plagued with death and misfortune is Lindsey Buckingham.
If cursed bands are already spooky enough, how about a whole cursed age group of musicians? One of the most infamous alleged curses within the music industry is what has come to be referred to as the “27 Club,” with the number referring to the age at which a shockingly high number of famous musicians have met their doom. The first stirrings of this curse occurred between the years of 1969 and 1971, when iconic and beloved stars Brian Jones of Rolling Stone fame, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison of The Doors, all died at the age of 27. The death of Nirvana frontman Curt Cobain in 1994 at the age of 27 brought renewed interest in the alleged curse, as well as the well publicized death of pop star Amy Winehouse from a drug overdose in 2011, also at the age of 27. Eerily, Winehouse had been aware of the curse and had often expressed a fear that she would die at that age. The list of popular artists who have died at the age of 27 is vast, but is there anything to the alleged curse or is it just pure coincidence?
Some have pointed to the freewheeling, hedonistic lifestyle of these young musicians as having something to do with it, as these are the type of people already flirting with dying an early death. In this sense, it makes sense that a live fast die young lifestyle would claim more lives from between the ages of 20 and 30. Others have expressed the conspiratorial belief that some twisted artists may have even intentionally timed their deaths to coincide with the age of 27, as has sometimes been controversially claimed with Kurt Cobain. Others see something more ominous at work, and a noticeable increase in deaths at this age that goes beyond mere happenstance. Charles R. Cross, a biographer who has covered Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix, has given his thoughts on the purported curse, saying:
The number of musicians who died at 27 is truly remarkable by any standard. [Although] humans die regularly at all ages, there is a statistical spike for musicians who die at 27.
Others have been more skeptical and pointed out there there is no particular spike in deaths among musicians at the age of 27 and no statistical evidence for such a claim. Why has this age become so steeped in the mysterious? Is there any significance to this particular number and age? Just as with the Buddy Holly curse, is this all coincidence or something more? Whether this is just reading too much into things or a genuine supernatural curse, the legend of the 27 Club lives on.
When talking about cursed musicians, we inevitably come to the widespread notion that some famous stars have achieved their fame through decidedly supernatural means. There have been many bands that have been rumored to have somehow achieved fame and fortune through making deals with the Devil or conjuring it through some sort of magical means. One of the most infamous of these is the case of the blues artist Robert Johnson, who was famous throughout the 1930s, and about as well known for the spooky legend surrounding his career as much as for his music. The story goes that Johnson met the actual Devil on a crossroads on the outskirts of town one day and sold his soul in exchange for becoming a famous blues musician. This would eventually happen, but it was not until after his death that Johnson became known as a legend of Delta Blues and finally got the fame he had always sought. Eerily, he died at the age of 27, making him one of the 27 Club.
In addition to the tales of Johnson selling his soul to the Devil, it has widely been rumored that his popular song, Crossroads, is cursed. The song, which was written two years before Johnson’s death, is said to bring tragedy and misfortune wherever is goes. Eric Clapton covered the song with the band Cream, as well as in his solo career, shortly after which his 2-year-old son met a tragic end when he fell out of a window. The song was also covered by the band Lynyrd Skynyrd, who also would see tragedy befall them after doing so. Three of the band members, along with their manager, were killed in a plane crash, and Skynyrd guitarist Allen Collins saw his girlfriend die when they were involved in a horrific car crash. Another band who was well known for covering Crossroads was the Allman Brothers. Two of the band’s members, Duane Allman and Barry Oakley would strangely die in motorcycle accidents in nearly the exact same spot almost exactly one year apart.
There are whole bands who have supposedly made Faustian deals for fame as well. The legendary rock band Led Zeppelin have long been rumored to have made some sort of deal with the Devil for their fame when three of the band’s members, Bonham, Page and Plant, sold their souls to achieve their status. Of course this would go on to have tragic consequences. Plant would lose his 6-year-old son to a mysterious stomach virus and be involved in a car accident which would render him wheelchair bound for awhile. Bonham died in 1980 from alcohol poisoning after an epic drinking binge, and Page had a heroin overdose which very nearly killed him. The only member of the band to remain unaffected by misfortune was Jones, who was also eerily the only one to have not made a deal with the Devil.
Another bizarre tale of deals with the Devil comes in the form of the famous Cleveland, Ohio-based rap group Bone Thugs-N- Harmony. The Grammy Award winning group was a hit throughout the 1990s, and have made several minor comebacks over the years. At the height of their fame, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony were one of the top selling rap groups of all time. They are also surrounded by the dark rumor that they achieved this fame through supernatural means. Allegedly, the four members of the group would occasionally play with a Ouija board in their teenage years before they became famous and sold their souls to get their big break. It is also said that it was through the Ouija board that they gained their signature style and mystical, dark lyrics of their early years that frequently make mention of demons, Hell, and the Devil.
They are probably most well-known for their smash hit song Crossroads, which is rather spooky considering what we have said about Robert Johnson’s cursed song of the same name. This song, which is a homage to friends who have died, is also said to be cursed, with several collaborators dying after it was recorded. Other songs are no less mysterious, such as the song Creepin’, which is said to have a demonic prayer hidden within it that can be heard if played backwards. There are many deaths said to be linked to a curse hanging over the group and their music. Most infamously, rap greats Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. both worked with Bone Thugs-N-Harmony shortly before their deaths. Also infamous is the death of legendary rapper Eazy-E, who frequently worked with the group as both a collaborator and producer. Among other artists who have died after collaborating with Bone Thugs-N-Harmony are Tasha and Graveyard Shift. The deaths continued until Bone Thugs-N-Harmony changed their style in the late 90s, moving away from dark, demonic lyrics and gangsta rap, and redesigning themselves as a religious, peaceful group.
In addition to artists bringing curses upon themselves, there are also those cases when an artist has been cursed by someone else. In the 1920s, the New Orleans jazz scene was dominated by Jelly Roll Morton (aka Ferdinand La Menthe), who became such a legendary figure that he was often referred to as the father of early jazz. Known for his flashy clothes, diamond teeth, and exorbitant lifestyle, Morton seemed to have the world in the palm of his hand for awhile, until one day he allegedly found a strange powder sprinkled throughout his office, which he believed to be indicative of a Voodoo curse which he thought had been cast upon him by his own godmother. Indeed, shortly after finding the powder Morton’s career took a nosedive and he lost nearly everything as his popularity steadily withered away. Morton became so convinced that he was being plagued by a juju curse that he met with a Voodoo priestess, who suggested the only way to lift it was to burn all of his clothing. After doing this, Morton’s career took off once again, and he regained his fame and riches.
Music will always be with us, intertwined with our spirits and our destiny. Yet as powerful as the emotional and creative presence of music has, as potent as its grip upon the human imagination has always been, is there sometimes a force beyond our understanding that pervades it? Is there such a thing as curses, supernatural serendipity, or demonic forces that hover around the periphery of the world of music? Or is this just a case of spooky urban legends and coincidences taking on a life of their own within our imagination? No matter what the answers to these questions may ultimately be, such mysterious stories and creepy tales add another layer to the history of music, and poses an interesting aspect of it to ponder.