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Despite deaths of Winehouse, Cobain and others, ‘chance and cherry-picking’ created ’27 Club,’ study concludes

Amy Winehouse died last July at age 27.

REUTERS/Toby Melville
Amy Winehouse died last July at age 27.

Amy Winehouse’s sad and tragic death this year at the age of 27 inevitably revised talk of the “27 Club” — the group of (mostly) rock-and-roll musicians who have died at that age.

Among the most famous members of this macabre club are Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain. Other lesser-known members include the 1930s blues singer Robert Johnson, hip-hop artist Freaky Tah and the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, who is apparently a member because he helped form the band Gray.

But is 27 really a particularly dangerous age for musicians? Or is this just another example of the human mind trying to find meaningful patterns in data — and getting it wrong?

A team of German and Australian statisticians and health economists decided to test the 27 Club hypothesis. They studied data for 1,046 musicians (soloists or members of a band) who had a No. 1 album on the British pop charts between 1956 and 2007. The sampling included many rock musicians, but also performers from other musical genres, such as crooner Frank Sinatra and several actors who provide the voices for the Muppets.

The researchers found that 71 (about 7 percent) of the musicians died during the period of the study (through August 2011). Although the musicians were two to three times more likely to die prematurely during their 20s and 30s than the general British population (the study’s control group), no peak in deaths occurred at age 27.

In fact, only three of the musicians in the study (Jones, Cobain and Winehouse) died at age 27.

The study also found that deaths among musicians in their 20s and 30s peaked during the 1970s and early 1980s. Indeed, there was an absence of deaths in this age group from 1985 to 1992. “This difference may be due to better treatments for heroin overdose, or the change in the music scene from the hard rock 1970s to the pop dominated 1980s,” the authors write.

The study had its limitations. Most notably, it looked only at musicians who were famous in the U.K. A study of musicians with No. 1 hits in the U.S. might reveal different results. (Three of the most famous Club 27 members, Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison, did not have No. 1 hits in Britain and, therefore, did not appear in this study.)

Still, as its authors conclude, the current study indicates “that the 27 club has been created by a combination of chance and cherry-picking.”

The study appears in the annual, offbeat “Christmas issue” of BMJ (formerly known as the British Medical Journal). It’s published open access, which means you can read it in full online.

Footnote: If you’d like to see which musicians, artists, writers and other famous people you’ve just outlived, type in your age at the somewhat-creepy-but-also-somewhat-reassuring Dead at Your Age website. And yes, this is more evidence that there’s a website for everything.)

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