DEAR JERRY: Del Shannon and the Singing Nun have a couple of interesting things in common: they both managed to have a No. 1 hit with their very first record, each having a one-word title: “Runaway” and “Dominique.”
Plus, they both chose to take their own life.
Who are some other hit-makers that resorted to suicide, and when and how did they do it?
Nancy Stillwell, Wauwatosa, Wisc.
DEAR NANCY: Here is just a wee bit more to the Del Shannon-Singing Nun comparison: “Runaway” and “Dominique” were both No. 1 for four weeks.
Also, the two singers are alphabetically consecutive on the list you requested.
For this account, we mostly stick with the official causes of death, as determined by medical examiners and affiliated investigating agencies. As drug overdose cases are rarely categorized as suicide, stars like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix are excluded, though distinctions between accidental, albeit preventable, drug overdoses and intentional ones can often be blurry.
Alphabetically, with date, cause of death, and age, they are:
Johnny Ace: December 25, 1954 of a single shot to the head (25). Included because some reports attribute his death to Russian Roulette, labeling it suicide, but all first-hand witnesses deny that account. They say he put a pistol at his head and pulled the trigger, attempting only to prove it was not loaded. Unthinkable stupidity? Absolutely, but it should not be classified as suicide. The same applies to Chicago's Terry Kath (1978). Johnny Ace had the No. 1 R&B smash, “Pledging My Love,” plus seven other Top 10 hits.
Tommy Boyce: November 23, 1994 of a self-inflicted gunshot (55). With partner, Bobby Hart, Boyce wrote over 300 songs, many being hits for Boyce & Hart (“I Wonder What She's Doing Tonight,” etc.) as well as the Monkees (“Last Train to Clarksville,” etc.).
Roy Buchanan: August 14, 1988. While incarcerated over a domestic dispute, Roy crafted a noose from his shirt and hung himself in his cell (48). Often called the best unknown guitarist in the world, Buchanan's virtuosity is heard on about 30 albums.
Kurt Cobain: April 5, 1994 of a self-inflicted shotgun blast to the head (27). Lead singer-guitarist of Nirvana, who had eight Gold albums from 1991 to 2002. Cobain is a marquee member of the Forever 27 Club, an uncanny abundance of singers and musicians whose life ended at age 27 (more on that below).
Danny Gatton: October 4, 1994 of a self-inflicted gunshot (49). Another one of rock's great guitarists. Danny is featured on countless hit records.
Dickie Goodman: November 6, 1989 of a self-inflicted shot from a Taurus .38 Special. Known as the King of Novelty, his groundbreaking “The Flying Saucer” (1956), and later “Mr. Jaws,” sold in the millions.
Pete Ham: April 24, 1975. Hanged himself in his garage. Leader of the Iveys, later known as Badfinger. Their top hits, including “Come and Get It”; “No Matter What”; “Day After Day”; and “Baby Blue,” were all on Apple, the Beatles' label.
Donny Hathaway: January 13, 1979. Jumped to his death from the 15th floor of New York's Essex House Hotel (33). Best known for his million-selling duets with Roberta Flack, “Where Is the Love” and “The Closer I Get to You.”
Phil Ochs: April 9, 1976. Yet another to die at the end of their own hangman's noose (35). Singer, prolific songwriter, political activist, and a key figure in the 1960s folk scene.
Danny Rapp: April 5, 1983 of a self-inflicted gunshot (41). Leader of Danny and the Juniors, whose “At the Hop” and “Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay” are rock era anthems.
Del Shannon: February 8, 1990 of a self-inflicted shot from his .22 caliber rifle (55). After the mega-hit “Runaway,” Shannon added eight more Top 40 hits to his Hall of Fame resume.
The Singing Nun (Jeanne-Paule Marie Deckers): March 31, 1985. Deckers (51) and her domestic partner, Annie Pecher, both intentionally overdosed on alcohol and barbiturates. Wanting to be together forever, they are buried side-by-side in Warve, Belgium.
Ray Smith: November 29, 1979 of a self-inflicted gunshot (45). Remembered for his rockabilly tunes for Sun Records (e.g., “Right Behind You Baby”) and the million-selling “Rockin' Little Angel.”
Gary Stewart: December 16, 2003 of a self-inflicted gunshot (59) just 20 days after the death of Mary Lou, his wife of 43 years. On the C&W charts with 30 titles, including the No. 1 “She's Actin' Single.”
Mel Street: October 21, 1978 of a self-inflicted gunshot, on his 45th birthday. Had 23 C&W charted records, the biggest being “Borrowed Angel” and “Lovin' on Back Streets.”
Wendy O. Williams: April 6, 1998 of a self-inflicted gunshot (48), after two failed attempts (1993, 1997). Lead singer of the punk-rock group, the Plasmatics.
Faron Young: December 10, 1996 of a self-inflicted shot from a .38 pistol (64). Made the C&W charts with 89 titles, including “Hello Walls” and four other No. 1 hits. One of the 10 Top C&W acts of the 1960s. Johnny Ace (25) is the youngest and Faron Young (64) is the oldest on our list.
Of these 19, suicide is the official cause of death for only two: Pete Ham and Kurt Cobain.