It’s human nature to ask, “What might have been?” Pondering the road untaken is seldom more difficult to resist than when you’re thinking about great musical figures who were taken away from us too soon. The temptation to wonder what they might have accomplished if only they could have stuck around a while longer is tough to ignore. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the mightiest musical icons ever to exit our world at an early age, and indulge in fantasizing about where they might have ventured if they’d been able to keep us company for a while longer. And if you have any ideas of your own on the subject, feel free to share them in the comments.
The “Hillbilly Shakespeare” brought pure poetry to country music with songs like “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” but he was also a hellbent rebel who became a honky-tonk pioneer with his rough-and-ready approach to the music. His hard-living ways sadly brought about an untimely end when he basically drank himself to death on January 1, 1953 at the age of 29. But what might have happened if he’d managed to overcome the demons that drove him downward?
When Williams died, the birth of rock ‘n’ roll was just around the corner, and country music was one of its cornerstones. Hank had already laid some of the groundwork with country boogie tunes like “Move It On Over,” and from George Jones to Conway Twitty, there’s no shortage of country stars who had a rockabilly phase in their careers. Considering the aforementioned, it seems entirely reasonable to guess that if Hank were still around when rock ‘n’ roll became a phenomenon in 1954, he might have taken a spot alongside Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins, despite being several years their senior. If he’d gone on to make more records in that vein, we might regard him today as more of a rock ‘n’ roll pioneer than a country king.
In the ’50s, Buddy Holly classics like “Peggy Sue,” “Everyday” and “Not Fade Away” pointed out new paths for pop and rock, in everything from songwriting to arrangement and studio techniques. But Buddy’s promise was lost on the notorious “Day the Music Died” on Feb. 3, 1959, when the plane containing Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson went down. How might his innovations have continued into the ’60s if Holly hadn’t taken that fatal flight?
While some have speculated that the Texan might have taken a country route in the ’60s, as did fellow ’50s rockers like Jerry Lee Lewis, it’s important to look at the last developments in his life. By 1959 Buddy was living in Greenwich Village, just before the big folk boom really took off there. He had also split from both The Crickets and manager/producer Norman Petty. So he was ready to head in a different direction, and his ears were open to everything happening around him. As one of the great songsmiths of rock’s first-generation, as comfortable with ballads as he was with rockers, it’s easy to imagine that he could have slipped into the nascent singer/songwriter scene exploding right in his neighborhood with the ascension of Bob Dylan at the start of the ’60s. Who knows? The rock ‘n’ roll icon could have become a folk hero, too.
The man who helped put psychedelic music on the map and revolutionized rock guitar (not to mention breaking rock’s color barrier in a still-divisive time) had vision to burn. When substance abuse led to his death on September 18, 1970, at the age of 27, the world was left not only to mourn the passing of this wizard of sound but to wonder what greater achievements we’d all been robbed of. If Hendrix had seen the ’70s through, what other feats might he have accomplished?
Keep in mind the eclectic nature of Hendrix’s interests went beyond rock to embrace folk, blues, jazz, experimental music, and more. By 1970, Hendrix was breaking free from The Experience, playing with other musicians, and we know that he and Miles Davis were mutual admirers who had jammed together and talked about recording. Certainly, elements of each other’s influence can be identified in both men’s work, so it’s natural to picture them creating some jazz-rock fusion together. But making the idea even more tantalizing is the knowledge that Hendrix, Miles, and drummer Tony Williams had approached Paul McCartney about being their bassist for an album project. The mind reels with the supergroup possibilities that might have been.
Janis Joplin had one of the biggest voices of the late ’60s/early ’70s, both as the frontwoman for jam-happy Bay Area psychedelia merchants Big Brother & The Holding Co. and as a solo artist. Her approach to blending rock, blues, and soul (plus the occasional soupcon of country) helped provide a blueprint for roots rock and Americana to come, and the whole idea of what a singer could do in a rock framework changed after Joplin came on the scene. On October 4, 1970, Joplin joined the infamous “27 Club” that included Jimi Hendrix and Brian Jones by dying at the same age from a heroin overdose. Had she survived, what other musical territories might Joplin have conquered?
The blues had always been at the core of Joplin’s musical makeup, and her last recordings showed no sign of that changing. She was highly regarded by the greatest blues players of the era, having shared bills at venues like the Fillmore West with the likes of B.B. and Albert King, and reportedly having jammed with the latter. It seems inevitable that even though she had yet to do so at the time of her death, she would have wound up collaborating with blues artists of that caliber on future albums. It’s certainly no great stretch to imagine B.B., Albert, or especially the rock-friendly Buddy Guy framing Janis’s fiery vocals with their legendary licks. Taking it a step further, she might have left the rock trappings behind completely and followed a full-on blues path for years to come.
Speculation has never ceased about what the voice of The Doors might have done if he hadn’t joined the “27 Club” by expiring at that age on July 3, 1971. Once you’ve broken through to the other side, what do you do for a follow-up, especially when you’ve expatriated to Paris with no specified return date, with a possible jail sentence hanging over your head?
To hear Doors drummer John Densmore tell it, by the time Morrison split for France following the sessions for 1970’s L.A. Woman, Jim’s bandmates had passed maximum saturation point with his shenanigans. Even if Morrison had returned, Densmore reckoned the rest of The Doors would have continued on without him, as they eventually did (to an understandably tepid reception). What might a post-Doors Morrison have done? Considering some of his extracurricular activities during his time with The Doors, he might quite conceivably have left music entirely and gone further into film or poetry. But eventually, he’d still probably succumb to that siren song and started making records again. Having gone about as far as he could with the blues influences of L.A. Woman, he might have headed in a more experimental direction, perhaps producing something along the lines of John Cale’s early solo albums. After some time on the fringes maybe he’d eventually find his way back to his old buddies for one last bash.
Photo: Janis Joplin (public domain)