News media attention to music
celebrities has grown over the years to
the extensive coverage given to the
death of Michael Jackson.
By STEVE SEYMOUR
Despite the recent hysteria over the death of Michael Jackson, the news media have a long history of ramping up publicity when rock stars die.
Still, comparing the coverage given to rock 'n' roll's first great tragedy and the passing of the "King of Pop" shows a rapidly growing appetite for celebrity news.
Rock aficionados know Feb. 3, 1959 as the day Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J. P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson died in a plane crash shortly after taking off from the airport at Mason City, Iowa. Pilot Roger Peterson was also killed.
Known for "That'll Be the Day," "Peggy Sue," and "Oh Boy!," Holly was the headliner for a tour of the upper midwest called the "Winter Dance Party." Valens had "Donna" to his credit, while the Big Bopper was responsible for "Chantilly Lace."
The terrible news was carried in the Mason City Globe-Gazette under the banner headline, "Four Killed in Clear Lake Plane Crash." A subhead declared: "Nationally-Known Rock 'n' Rollers, Lake Man Victims." The newspaper carried a photograph of the crash site and headshots of Holly and Valens.
The Associated Press news wire carried the story, noting the "singing idols...stirred millions of teen-agers."
Rock 'n' roll was in its infancy at this point and the crash probably gained the most notoriety when Don McLean made the loss the centerpiece of his hit, "American Pie."
The headlining act at Woodstock, Hendrix died of a drug overdose on Sept. 18, 1970. His hits included "Purple Haze," "Foxey Lady" and "All Along the Watchtower."
Joplin, possessing immeasurable talent as a blues-rock singer, as illustrated by "Piece of My Heart," "Me and Bobby McGee" and "Down On Me," died of a heroin overdose on Oct. 4, 1970.
Morrison, lead singer of the Doors, died of heart failure in Paris on July 3, 1971. The Doors were a tour favorite and topped the charts with "Light My Fire" and "Hello, I Love You."
All three were just 27 years old and died presumably at the peak of their careers.
Morrison's death was kept quiet until after he was buried in a Paris cemetery. His wife, Pamela Courson, one of the few people to see Morrison's corpse, died in 1974. Some people believe the singer didn't die, but wanted to escape the music business.
Due to the circumstances of the stars' passing, the major news media covered the stories briefly. Rolling Stone magazine delivered consecutive cover stories on Hendrix and Joplin in October, 1970. Morrison's memorial issue appeared in August, 1971.
The passing of the three stars cast a pall over rock, but also immortalized the trio.
Hendrix is still a perennial favorite, and the Doors are the subject of periodic revivals. Joplin remains a revered vocalist.
When Elvis Presley, "The King of Rock And Roll," died on Aug. 16, 1977, the news generated headlines around the world. The Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis announced: "Death Captures Crown of Rock And Roll" and pictured a hearse carrying the singer's body from Baptist Hospital.
Presley died at his Graceland estate of heart failure caused by prescription drug abuse. He was 42 years old. The autopsy report was kept private so some speculate there may have been other factors contributing to Presley's death.
The star's demise came just days after a book called "Elvis Presley: What Happened" was published, detailing Presley's prescription drug use and fascination with guns.
The world was stunned when former Beatle John Lennon, one of the founders of the world's greatest rock band, was shot outside his apartment in New York City on December 8, 1980.
The first Associated Press bulletin was transmitted at 11:25 p. m. eastern time, saying Lennon was wounded and transported to Roosevelt Hospital in a police car. The AP confirmed his death at 11:43 p. m.
Sportscaster Howard Cosell announced the assassination during a nationally broadcast Monday Night Football game, but many people didn't find out until the next day.
The late Walter Cronkite led his CBS Evening News broadcast with the awful news, as did the other two networks.
A 10-minute silent vigil was held at 2 p. m. on Dec. 14 in Lennon's memory. Millions participated. Radio stations played "Imagine," "Come Together" and "(Just Like) Starting Over" as Baby Boomers mourned the passing of their youth.
Another era ended on April 5, 1994 when Kurt Cobain, lead singer of the alternative rock band Nirvana, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Like Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison, he was just 27 years old. He brought the Seattle grunge scene to prominence with "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and defined a generation.
Rap fans were dealt a similar blow with with the murder of Tupac Shakur in 1996. The influential rapper was shot in Las Vegas on Sept. 7 and died six days later. Shakur had just scored a No. 1 hit with "How Do U Want It."
The press speculated about the deaths of both men, but the coverage was minuscule compared to the attention given to the passing of Michael Jackson on June 25, 2009.
My wife Sue and I watched NBC News with Brian Williams as we heard that the pop idol had suffered cardiac arrest at his California home and could not be resuscitated. The man who fronted the Jackson 5 and recorded "Thriller," best-selling album of all time, was gone.
It seems the news media knew a good story when they saw one. Non-stop coverage followed.
Fans of Jackson couldn't get enough about their idol, while others thought the saturation coverage was too much.
As pop music has become more prevalent over the years, the media attention it draws has also increased. The number of media outlets has multiplied, making coverage even greater.
When Buddy Holly and his companions died in a plane crash 50 years ago, the story was little more than a blip in the national news. Now, the Michael Jackson story has dominated the news, almost to the exclusion of everything else.
How things have changed.