Death is never a happy experience, but it’s something everyone must go through eventually. In fact, many of the best recording artists have passed away before releasing some of their finest material.
Today, we will name just a few:
1) “Peggy Sue Got Married,” Buddy Holly (1959)
One of the first sequel songs of the rock era perfectly wrapped up the career of the wonderful Buddy Holly. Released just a few months after the plane crash that killed Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper, this single was backed with “Crying, Waiting, Hoping.”
2) “Distant Drums,” Jim Reeves (1966)
Also a fitting posthumous track, this was the only Reeves song to hit #1 in the UK. Reeves had died two years earlier, also in a plane crash, and the song had already been recorded by Roy Orbison in 1963; this version of the song that beat out “Eleanor Rigby”/”Yellow Submarine” on the charts. Reeves had never recorded it to be released, but after his death — with the Vietnam war raging — it resonated with the audiences of the time.
3) “My Bleeding Heart,” Elmore James (1965)
This track was later popularized by Jimi Hendrix, who was heavily influenced by Elmore James. Although it’s considered one of James’ best songs, it was recorded two years before his death and not released until two years after.
4) “Dolly Dagger,” Jimmy Hendrix (1971)
Speaking of Hendrix, here’s a song from his posthumously-released Rainbow Bridge soundtrack. It was written for groupie Devon Wilson.
5) “It’s Madness,” Marvin Gaye (1985)
A year after Gaye was shot by his own father with a gun he gifted him for Christmas, this piece surfaced, along with a few others. “It’s Madness” was most likely recorded as a demo for Sammy Davis Jr.
6) “A Change is Gonna Come,” Sam Cooke (1964)
It’s a tragedy that Sam Cooke didn’t live to see the civil rights movement utilize his civil rights song. His posthumous offering was inspired in part by attempting to check into a “whites only” hotel and being denied access. He also was embarrassed that Bob Dylan beat him to the punch with “Blowin’ in the Wind,” but was afraid to lose his white fanbase.
7) “I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song,” Jim Croce (1974)
The public latched onto Croce’s recently-released song “Time in a Bottle” after he died; however, an entire album was released posthumously that included this gem, his love song to his wife after an argument. Ingrid Croce says he woke her up in the morning with this song. What a lucky woman! If not for… yanno… the plane crash…
8) “You Got It,” Roy Orbison (1989)
The Travelling Wilburys weren’t the only thing to come out of the collaboration between that group of artists. Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne were also involved with this song, Orbison’s first top ten single in 25 years. He performed it live for the only time just two days before his death, but the track itself wasn’t released until a month later.
9) “Stuck Inside a Cloud,” George Harrison (2002)
Jeff Lynne and Dhani Harrison put the finishing touches on George Harrison’s final album Brainwashed. This song was his son’s favorite and was placed at track seven because George Harrison felt the seventh track should be the best one. It’s a very poignant song — and Harrison seemed to face death with poignance.
10) “Free as a Bird,” The Beatles (1995)
Of course, long before “Stuck Inside a Cloud,” the three living Beatles finished off an uncompleted John Lennon piece, creating the gorgeous “Free as a Bird” and the first “new” Beatles song since their breakup.
11) “Mercedes Benz,” Janis Joplin (1970)
One of a few tracks to be recorded just three days before Joplin’s death, “Mercedes Benz” was Joplin’s rejection of consumerism… which has since been utilized in commercials, because people sometimes miss the point completely.
12) “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” Otis Redding (1967)
If this playlist (and Lynard Skynard) have taught us anything, it’s that being a musician and flying in planes is not a good combo. This song was recorded — you guessed it — just days before Redding died in a plane crash. The verse with just the whistles? That was supposed to be temporary, as he’d forgotten what it was he wanted to say over the fade-out. But it was never completed as planned, making the iconic whistle necessary. It was re-recorded by his bandleader, Sam “Bluzman” Taylor.
For these and a couple of more recent posthumously released tracks, check out the Spotify playlist below.