Professor Ron
7 min readJan 30, 2020

Top 5 Tragic Celebrity Deaths by Decade: 1960s–2020

Death the Great Equalizer

As we bring in a new year and start a new decade, I am thankful I am still here to enjoy my life. Every day, people die who are not celebrities and were ordinary people living their lives until their demise. These people may be our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, son, daughter, and the list goes on. The point is, everyone will die at some point; however, what makes the difference in terms of the grief we may feel at the time are the circumstances in which they pass.

Likewise, when a celebrity dies, the circumstances in which they pass will affect how society grieves this individual. More importantly, the contributions made by the individual to society is an essential facet regarding how society and even the world reacts to the celebrity’s passing. Death is the great equalizer. Death does not care if you’re rich or poor, it doesn’t care what your race is or what family background you come from. When your time on this earth is complete, there is nothing that can be done.

List Criteria

In the spirit of remembering those individuals who have passed that have impacted society and the world at large, I wanted to create a list of celebrities who have passed tragically. My thought process while generating this list is not meant to be an exhaustive list. The individuals I list are famous for their contributions to society and the world in some capacity, and they are well known. Of course, I would not be able to list every single celebrity who died tragically on this list, but I do think my list represents individuals who were considered some of the greats of their time and modern history. I begin with the decade of the 1960s because this was arguably the most tumultuous and significant time period culturally in American history. Also, I may list two individuals simultaneously because they both died tragically and their impact on the world paralleled one another. Finally, to include names of individuals that didn’t make the list, I will include an honorable mention section following the top 5 list. Let’s get started.

#5: 1960’s

John F. Kennedy (JFK) /Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK)

Cause of Death: Assassination

Age: JFK 46/MLK 39

Perhaps these two names come as no surprise to anyone who understands the cultural zeitgeist of the 1960s in the United States. Both men encapsulated something great that translated beyond their respective fields of expertise.


John F. Kennedy was the 35th President of the United States. At the time, he was the youngest person elected to office as the President of the United States at age 43. Perhaps more importantly, JFK averted nuclear war by negotiating with the Soviet Union. The Cuban Missile Crisis will be remembered as a time of uncertainty that paralyzed the United States with fear. Thankfully, JFK had enough wherewithal to end the threat and help America move forward with peace. Unfortunately, John F. Kennedy found himself at the end of an assassin’s bullet(s) that tragically ended his life. See: Zapruder film


Of course, Martin Luther King, Jr. is well known for his philosophy of peaceful demonstrations during a time where peace among racial/ethnic groups was anything but friendly. Martin Luther King Jr’s relatively short life ended at the end of an assassin’s bullet(s) comparable to John F. Kennedy. Nevertheless, it is indisputable that MLK accomplished much during his time on this earth. Martin Luther King, Jr. spearheaded the bus boycott following the arrest of Rosa Parks. The result of this endeavor gave blacks the right to sit wherever they desired on public buses. Perhaps one of King’s most significant accomplishments was helping organize the march on Washington, where he delivered his famous speech, “I Have a Dream.”

#4: 1970’s

Jimi Hendrix

Cause of Death: Drug-related complications

Age: 27

This choice was a tough one. There were several people I could have put in this spot, but upon my research, Jimi Hendrix belongs here. He changed the landscape of rock n roll, and he played his guitar backward. The Jimi Hendrix Experience was an interracial band that at the time it was unheard of to have an interracial group with a black man leading. Jimi was a trailblazer. “Voodo Child” is a classic piece that will forever live in the ether. I’m sure if you speak with any successful guitar player about who influenced them, and they will mention Jimi Hendrix.

#3: 1980’s

Bob Marley

Cause of Death: Melanoma (Cancer)

Age: 36

The closer I get to #1 on this list, the harder it gets to choose individuals. I know that there will be disagreement regarding who’s in the top spots, but that is why I will have an honorable mention for each decade in the end. Nevertheless, at the time of his death, Bob Marley was an icon around the world. His message of love and peace resonated with many. This same message of peace and love made Bob Marley at target for his political enemies. Bob Marley is one of the most beloved and controversial musicians in history. Ironically, the tragedy of his death from cancer is complicated by the fact that the singer’s Rasta beliefs probably led him to refuse most treatments for the disease that might have saved his life.

#2: 1990’s


Cause of Death: Wounded in a drive-by shooting

Age: 25

I understand by now you recognize a pattern of musicians is rounding out the list. However, in my mind, any celebrity death list must include Tupac.

It goes without saying that Tupac Shakur was one of the most talented individuals of his time. He toured and backed up Digital Underground in the early 90s. In 1991, he put out his first album, 2Pacalypse Now. Two years later came Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. Perhaps his most classic and iconic album was the double cd All Eyez on Me, which came immediately after he was released from prison. He also starred in cult classic movies such as Juice and Poetic Justice, both movies were recommended at the time by the late film critic Robert Ebert as good films to watch; however, Gene Siskel was not sold on Juice at the time.

Indeed, Tupac’s influence on the culture was undoubtedly palpable. The (IDGAF) attitude and militant attitude towards the police all played a role characterizing Tupac by the media. Tupac was a complicated figure. At times he was seemingly a mad man disgusted by the world. At the same time, he was gentle and caring with a soft spot for fighting injustice and poverty in the black community. Overall, Tupac’s impact on culture will never be forgotten and his musical influences will live on Until the End of Time

#1: 2000’s

Kobe Bryant (The Black Mamba)

Cause of Death: Helicopter Crash

Age: 41

Okay, I am going to allow myself to be a prisoner of the moment. There were plenty of people I could have put at the number one spot, but I chose to list Kobe Bryant. His sudden death along with his 13-year old daughter Gianna and seven other passengers on that helicopter shook me to the core. I remember when Kobe first came into the NBA as a teenager straight out of high school in 1996 before the “one-and-done” rule was implemented. He went through growing pains in the league before he ultimately became a five-time NBA champion.

Yes, Kobe was a flawed individual, Colorado highlights that. However, we are all flawed individuals in our own right. Kobe grew up before our eyes, which makes this tragedy such a hard one to process. Kobe was an Oscar winner; he was a writer among many other things. He was also instrumental in the launch of National Museum of African American History and Culture.

In the end, the most important accomplishment of Kobe Bryant was being a father and husband. From the outside looking in he was a wonderful father to his girls. His last breath on this earth was with is 13-year old daughter Gigi headed to a girls’ basketball game doing something what they each loved. Even though I did not know Kobe Bryant personally his impact on this earth for many people is felt far and wide; and for that, he deserves to be number one on this list.

Honorable Mention


Marilyn Monroe

Sam Cooke

Sharon Tate


Elvis Presley

Jim Morrison


Marvin Gaye

John Lennon

John Belushi


Princess Diana

Kurt Cobain

Notorious B.I.G.

Stevie Ray Vaughn





Steve Irwin (The Crocodile Hunter)

Pimp C. (Chad Lamont Butler)