The Music Lives On: 5 Famous Final Concerts

Forty-five years ago today, Janis Joplin performed what would be her last concert before her death. Here is a look at the Queen of Rock's final bow and some other legendary last performances.
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Catherine McHugh
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Forty-five years ago today, Janis Joplin performed what would be her last concert before her death. Here is a look at the Queen of Rock's final bow and some other legendary last performances.

Transcending language, music unites people in a way that most life experiences cannot match. For music lovers, and especially those who are fans of particular artists, seeing a live show is a particular thrill. Since every concert is completely unique, each one offers attendees a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

On the 45th anniversary of Janis Joplin’s famous last concert at Harvard on August 12, 1970, we take a look at her work and the performances of four other final shows that have remained memorable long after the last note has faded away. 

Janis Joplin

Janis Joplin Photo

Janis Joplin (Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Although her time in the public eye spanned only about five years (1966-1970), Janis Joplin is remembered for many iconic live performances, including her early gigs at Threadgill's, a gas station turned bar, with musical trio the Waller Creek Boys, in Austin, Texas, the legendary Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 with Big Brother and the Holding Company and her historic 10-song set with The Kozmic Blues Band at Woodstock on August 16, 1969. 

By the time the '70s arrived, Joplin was suffering from the effects of drug abuse and alcoholism. She was hoping to spark her career with her new band, Full Tilt Boogie, and the new album Pearl that they were recording in Los Angeles. 

They would tour between recording sessions, but the band’s equipment was stolen right before their scheduled appearance at Harvard Stadium on August 12, 1970. Using borrowed equipment, the group performed a relatively brief set before a packed house of about 40,000 fans (many of whom reportedly climbed the walls of the stadium to get inside). The Harvard Crimson newspaper gave the concert a positive review on its front page.  

Less than two months later, on October 4, 1970, Joplin’s road manager, John Cooke, found her dead of an accidental heroin overdose at the Landmark Hotel in Los Angeles. She was 27 years old. Completed by Joplin's producer, Pearl was released in 1971 and became a hit. The single "Me and Bobby McGee," written by Kris Kristofferson, reached the top of the charts.

Despite her untimely death, Janis Joplin's songs continue to attract new fans and inspire performers. Joplin was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, and honored with a Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammy Awards in 2005.

The Beatles 

Apple Icons: The Beatles founded Apple Records in 1968, as a division of their  Apple  Corps conglomerate. The name, pronounced 'apple core,' was a pun. The  logo—a large, green apple—became synonymous with the band's creative  output. (Photo: Getty Images)

The Beatles performed their final live concert in London, atop the roof of their Apple Records office building at 3 Savile Row. (Photo: Express/Express/Getty Images)

Around midday on January 30, 1969, the Beatles—John Lennon, George Harrison, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr—performed their final live concert in London, atop the roof of their Apple Records office building at 3 Savile Row. The event was conceived only a few days beforehand and unannounced, surprising the neighboring offices and general public when the loud music rang out over London. 

It was the first time in nearly five years that John, Paul, Ringo and George had performed in public, and those lucky enough to be nearby heard live versions of “Get Back,” “Don’t Let Me Down,” “I’ve Got a Feeling,” and “I Dig a Pony” before the police shut them down. Lennon ended the show by saying: “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we passed the audition!” 

The entire performance clocked in at 42 minutes. It was recorded and filmed, and some of the footage was used in the Let It Be documentary film. The Fab Four’s split was confirmed soon afterward, but this gig proved to be a fitting end for the most important band in pop history.

Ella Fitzgerald

Harlem Renaissance Figures: Yet another young songstress got her start in Harlem, this time at the Apollo Theater, and won first prize. Ella Fitzgerald later became known as the 'First Lady of Jazz.'  (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Ella Fitzgerald (Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Known as the "First Lady of Song," singer Ella Fitzgerald made her singing debut in 1934 where she won first place in an amateur contest at Harlem's Apollo Theater. 

She joined bandleader Chick Webb’s band and also performed and recorded with the Benny Goodman Orchestra. A true collaborator, Fitzgerald recorded and toured with many music legends, including Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Frank Sinatra. By the 1940s, she had a deal with Decca Records and her popularity continued throughout the 1950s and '60s. Her unique ability to mimic instrumental sounds helped popularize the vocal improvisation of scatting, which became her signature technique. 

As part of George Wein's JVC Jazz Festival, she gave her last concert on June 27, 1991 at New York’s famous Carnegie Hall, which marked the 26th time she had performed there. 

The 74-year-old singer performed sitting down and apologized between songs for having a "nasal drip." Still, critics described her knowing renditions of " 'Round Midnight," "More Than You Know" and "It's All Right With Me," as luminous, noting that her aging voice added melancholy to her famously pearly articulation. Up-tempo tunes included "Just Squeeze Me" and "Honeysuckle Rose," and a playful scat-singing showcase.

Eventually, complications from diabetes left her blind and Fitzgerald died on June 15, 1996, at her home in Beverly Hills, California. Her many accolades included 13 Grammy Awards, the NAACP Image Award for Lifetime Achievement and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Freddie Mercury

Freddie Mercury: In A Flash: Freddie Mercury performs his last live concert with Queen in 1986, in front of thousands of fans, at Wembley Stadium in London. Mercury wore a Flash Gordon tank during the performance—a symbol, then, of the band's 1980 recording for the film Flash Gordon; and a reminder, today, of Mercury's last show and untimely death four years later. (Photo by Bob King/Redferns.)

Freddie Mercury performs his last live concert with Queen in 1986. (Photo by Bob King/Redferns.)

Singer-songwriter Freddie Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara on September 5, 1946, in Zanzibar, Tanzania. His parents sent him to boarding school in India where he studied piano. When his family moved to London in the 1960s, he attended Ealing College of Art and met his future band mates, drummer Roger Taylor and guitarist Brian May. They met up with bassist John Deacon in 1971, and Mercury dubbed the quartet Queen.

The band scored its first big hit with "Killer Queen," and followed it up with the ambitious album, A Night at the Opera (1975), which included the Mercury-penned "Bohemian Rhapsody," a seven-minute rock operetta. Overdubbing his voice, Mercury showed off his impressive four-octave vocal range on this innovative track.

In addition to his talents as a singer and songwriter, the charismatic Mercury was also a skilled showman. He connected with audiences all over the world, performing an estimated 700 concerts with Queen, usually on a large scale. The band was the first ever to play in South American stadiums, breaking worldwide records for concert attendance in the Morumbi Stadium in São Paulo in 1981. During the London Live Aid event on July 13, 1985, it was universally acknowledged that the band stole the show. The following year, Queen performed to a crowd of 80,000 in Budapest, in what was one of the biggest rock concerts ever held behind the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe.

Mercury last performed live with Queen on August 9, 1986 at Knebworth Park in England. An estimated 160,000 people attended the show, and as the British national anthem, "God Save the Queen," played at the end of the concert, Mercury's final act on stage saw him draped in a robe, holding a golden crown aloft, bidding farewell to the crowd.

Mercury died of AIDS-related bronchial pneumonia on November 24, 1991, at age 45. His band mates recruited musicians from virtually every genre to gather at London’s Wembley Stadium on April 20, 1992, to stage a tribute to Mercury, honor his legacy, and raise money for AIDS-related charities. The band recently began touring again, with singer Adam Lambert taking on vocals. They will be hosting Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Party at Casino Barriere in Montreux, Switzerland on September 5, 2015 to benefit The Mercury Phoenix Trust.

The Grateful Dead

In front of record crowds of nearly 71,000 people each night, the Grateful Dead recently wrapped up its remarkable 50-year touring career with a final three “Fare Thee Well” concerts at Soldier Field in Chicago on July 3-5. The venerable rock group’s "core four" of surviving member—Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart—performed with Phish's Trey Anastasio, who filled in for the late Jerry Garcia (who died on August 9, 1995) at the shows. 

Though the band is famously emblematic of the hippie culture that grew out of its Haight-Ashbury origins in San Francisco, its members have always embraced new technology. So it was no surprise that the scale was huge. The live shows had simulcasts in theaters nationwide, pay-per-view webcasts, satellite-radio broadcasts and post-concert replays from the Chicago radio station WXRT. DVDs and CDs are planned for fall releases.

Each show offered more than three hours of the band’s famously improvisational jams spread across two sets and two encores. The band opened the first of the three nights with "Box of Rain," which Lesh had written for his dying father; it was also the last song the band played together when Garcia was alive, performed on the same spot in Chicago nearly 20 years ago."

The last song the Grateful Dead performed at Soldier Field was “Attics of My Life,” which professes, “I have spent my life/ Seeking all that’s still unsung.” And though they were never ones for between song banter, Hart did address the crowd at the end, offering a peaceful directive: “The feeling we have here, remember it. Take it home and do some good with it,” he said. “I’ll leave you with this: Please, be kind.”