Respected musicians who were actually terrible people
Some musicians just have a freakish amount of talent. They’re the singer-songwriters, the people who can play any instrument they pick up, the ones who get lost in the music of their own making whether they’re in the studio or on stage. There’s something almost magical about listening to a true musical genius, and they’ve earned our respect, sure. But it’s easy to forget that behind the music is a very ordinary person, and sometimes, those people are terrible human beings.
Johnny Cash's troubles with women
There’s a lot of dark stuff in Johnny Cash’s life, but let’s talk about just how horrible he was to women. Vivian Cash’s book I Walked the Line: My Life with Johnny was a heartbreaking tell-all detailing how she continued loving her husband even through the drugs and the affair with his more famous second partner, June Carter Cash. It was Vivian who gave him four daughters, raised them, and who stuck with him through the worst of the arrests and the accidental forest fires (via USA Today), but Johnny gave all the credit to June.
Behind closed doors, June Carter didn’t actually have it any easier, in spite of the storybook romance performed in the public eye. Biographer Robert Hilburn (via Esquire) says he was stunned when he found out Cash had cheated on her when she was pregnant with son John Carter. There were more than a few women, but the one that had to hurt the most was June’s own sister, Anita. John Carter has also gone on record talking about his parents’ less-than-perfect marriage, and has said (via Reuters) his mother’s drug addictions and descent into paranoia came from a near-constant fear he was cheating yet again. That fear spread to their son, who grew up well aware that his family could fall apart at any time because his father couldn’t stay faithful.
Chuck Berry's icky past
Chuck Berry was a legend who helped shape rock and roll, and when he died in 2017, The New Yorkerdescribed him as “a proud and difficult man” who “was also a genius.” He also once punched Keith Richards in the mouth for touching his guitar while they were getting together to organize Berry’s 60th birthday party. That’s the attitude that got him into all kinds of trouble, and Berry even had a name for those incidents: his “naughties.”
It started when, as a teenager, he did three years in a reform school for stealing cars and a bit of armed robbery. Fast-forward to 1962, when Berry was 36 years old. He was tossed in the clink for violating the Mann Act, a law that prohibits taking a woman across state lines with “immoral” intentions. Oh, and the girl was 14. He served 20 months of the three years he was originally sentenced to (via NPR), getting out because they appealed after the judge made racist comments.
Let’s not forget about the 1989 accusations, either. That’s when law enforcement raided his property and found a few weapons, some pot, and videotapes of women in what they thought was the privacy of bathrooms and changing rooms of his properties. The official suit, says Riverfront Times, accused him of filming women in compromising positions for “entertainment and gratification.” Berry’s camp eventually settled, but that seriously tarnishes any legacy.
Lead Belly's penchant for violence
Lead Belly died in 1949, and if you don’t remember him, you should at least be glad groups like Creedence Clearwater Revival and artists like Bob Dylan didn’t forget him. Even George Harrison once said, “No Lead Belly, no Beatles.” You know the songs he recorded, too — like “The Midnight Special” and “Goodnight Irene” (via The Telegraph).
Huddie Ledbetter was born in 1888, and he picked up the name Lead Belly in prison. He did several stretches in jail, starting with 30 days on a chain gang in 1915 for getting in a particularly violent fight. Two years later he was arrested again, this time for killing his cousin’s husband and nearly killing another. He was pardoned in 1925 but went back in jail in 1930, this time for stabbing and what Black History Now says was “assault with intent to murder.” It was during this stint he was discovered by a pair of musicologists who were recording songs for the Smithsonian, and Lead Belly recorded hundreds for them. The rest of his life was a combination of performing at venues of all sizes across the country, and more time in jail. There was another stabbing incident in 1939, assault in 1940 … you get the picture. He was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease only months before he died from it, and he left behind an incredible legacy. And some dead people.
Elvis's underage flings
It’s impossible to describe the effect Elvis had on music history, so let’s get right to the dirt. He was 21 when he became ridiculously famous with the success of “Heartbreak Hotel,” and after that, all bets were off when it came to how far he was going to go. Along with the fame and fortune came the admiration of countless women, but according to biographer Joel Williamson (via Broadly), there was a particular type of woman Elvis liked: the really, really young ones.
The right age to be an Elvis girl was 14, and when the 22-year-old megastar went on those early tours he took along a little group of 14-year-olds. Williamson says he was a huge fan of tickling and wrestling, along with everything else short of actual intercourse. Future wife Priscilla was 14 when they met (he was 24), and just what went on behind closed doors is debated. What’s not debated is that he lost interest in her after Lisa Marie was born, and went on to court another 14-year-old named Reeca Smith.
There was a bit of violence in Elvis, too. Years later, he was engaged to a 21-year-old who claimed he once pulled out a gun and put a bullet in the headboard of the bed she was sleeping in, saying it was “an attention getter.” The Guardian says in between those major relationships there were a ton of others, many with underage girls who preferably had tiny, tiny feet.
Carlo Gesualdo's murderous rampage
Carlo Gesualdo was a 16th-century composer who wrote some of the era’s most powerful compositions, and they’re pretty dark. The Guardian says it’s no wonder he wrote such dark stuff because he was a pretty dark guy.
Let’s start with an account of the murder, via The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross. Ross says the double murder happened on October 16, 1590, and officials first found the body of the Duke of Andria. He was covered in blood, shot several times, and stabbed in the chest, neck, face, arms, hands, shoulders, and kidneys. Then they found Gesualdo’s wife. She’d had her throat cut, and was also covered in wounds. There was absolutely no doubt as to who the murderer was, as witnesses saw Gesualdo enter the apartment and shout, “Kill that scoundrel, along with this harlot!” Those witnesses testified he came out covered in blood, said he wasn’t sure they were quite dead, and went back in.
Since Gesualdo was a prince as well as a composer, the justice system didn’t quite do its thing. More stories started popping up about other horrific acts Gesualdo committed, and while a lot of them aren’t true, it is true that he married again and had so many affairs his new bride eventually put his mistresses on trial for witchcraft. They were found guilty and locked up in Gesualdo’s castle, which presumably wasn’t what his long-suffering (and, by all accounts, abused) wife was hoping for.
Frank Sinatra's destructive temper
Frank Sinatra was iconic on stage, but there was a lot of shady stuff that happened off-stage. Let’s talk about one part of that: his temper. According to The Telegraph, it was so bad that one of his wives once described him as a sort of Jekyll-and-Hyde character, and there’s a whole list of physical altercations he was involved in. First, the ones where someone got seriously hurt.
He punched a reporter in 1948, eventually settling the assault and battery charges filed against him. He was staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel when he threw a phone at a random businessman who was also there, and cracked the man’s skull. He nearly killed his then-wife Ava Gardner by throwing a champagne bottle at her so hard it cracked the bathroom sink.
Sinatra destroyed an insane amount of stuff, too, usually in fits of rage. He took a knife to a Norman Rockwell painting and shredded it, threw a malfunctioning TV out a window at Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, and smashed a car radio when The Doors’ “Light My Fire” came on. GQ says some of the stuff that met an untimely end under his boot was pretty priceless, too, like the Ming vase he destroyed at a Hong Kong hotel after someone missed a lighting cue. That’s what happens when you get too used to having things your way.
Peter McNeal's child molestation charges
Cake is one of those groups you probably forgot you used to listen to all the time, but before you go back and dig out your CDs, let’s talk about what drummer Peter McNeal has been up to. McNeal — who was also the drummer for Norah Jones — made Rolling Stone headlines in 2014 for one of the most despicable reasons you can imagine. The verdict of his court case was in, and he was sentenced to 15 years to life in jail and was a permanent addition to the sex offender registry.
Noisey said it wasn’t just because of a single incident, either. The details are way, way too terrible to repeat, so let’s just say one incident happened while he was volunteering at a school in Los Angeles. Another one of his victims was only 3 years old at the time, and that’s as terrible as it gets.
Jerry Lee Lewis's rage-hate
Talking about the sins and vices of Jerry Lee Lewis is a little difficult, for one simple reason: He’s got pretty much all of them. He changed the face of rock and roll, he helped shape decades of music, and he also has a ton of shadiness in his past. A lot can be traced back to a nasty temper and a violent streak, but finding it all is tricky. The Guardian interviewed him in 2015, and said it’s almost impossible to figure out what’s truth and what’s legend, including the circumstances around his nickname: the Killer. The story Lewis tells is that he got it after playing pool, but it’s also possible it came after he tried to strangle and kill one of his teachers, an act he fully admits to.
Lewis has had seven wives, and two died mysteriously: one by drowning and one by overdose. The latter incident went to court, where Lewis was ultimately cleared of wrongdoing. But the law was not on his side after he shot his bass player in the chest and had to pay out $125,000. Lewis’s seventh marriage was to the ex-sister-in-law of his third wife, the most infamous. Myra was 13 years old, and the daughter of Lewis’ cousin. Oh and, Medium says, he was still technically married to his second wife at the time. It’s no wonder Lewis lies awake at night and worries whether he’s going to heaven or hell.
Spade Cooley's domestic sorrows
Spade Cooley was born in 1910, so you get a pass if you’re not incredibly familiar with his name. He was huge in the 1950s, declared he was the “King of Western Swing,” led a 30-piece band, hosted his own TV show, and made appearances in more than 50 movies. He’s even got a star on Hollywood Boulevard, and you may have had a better chance of remembering him if his career hadn’t been derailed by alcohol, pills, jealousy, and murder.
Weirdly, he was the one who filed for divorce from his second wife, Ella Mae. According to Taste of Country, they were on the verge of getting back together when he killed her on April 3, 1961. It gets worse, believe it or not. The murder wasn’t just incredibly violent (the LA Times says Cooley choked, beat, and stomped her to death), but he did it in front of their 14-year-old daughter, Melody. He also reportedly put a cigarette out on her to make sure she was dead, then sat around in bloody clothes for a few hours before finally calling someone.
Melody’s testimony ultimately led to his conviction, and he was actually up for parole in 1970. He was granted permission to perform at a charity concert in 1969, but collapsed and died backstage. It’s a weird end to the tale of the only celebrity with both a Walk of Fame star and a murder conviction.
Johnny Paycheck's attempted murders
Johnny Paycheck — originally named Donald Eugene Lytle — was one of the Grand Ole Opry’s most respected members, and an icon who helped build country music. He was known as something of a country music outlaw, too, says CMT, and his entire career was colored by drug and alcohol use. His difficulty staying out of trouble started way before he was a star, though, and when he was still a teenager he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, punched a superior officer, and spent a few years in prison. The record deal came after that, and so did the check forgery and the attempted murder.
That happened on December 19, 1985, says Rolling Stone. Paycheck was on his way home for the holidays when he stopped off at a Hillsboro, Ohio, bar for a drink. He was recognized by a local named Larry Wise, they got to chatting, and … no one’s entirely sure what happened next. Whatever offenses were caused, it ended with Paycheck pulling out a gun and shooting. The bullet grazed Wise’s head, and he’d later testify the music legend had “blowed my hat off.”
The case dragged on. Paycheck eventually served nine years and even tried to revive his career post-prison before he died in 2003.