Best Of '99: Blues Traveler's Bobby Sheehan Found Dead At 31

Bassist, who died at home in New Orleans, was working on solo album.

[Editor's note: Over the holiday season, SonicNet is looking back at 1999's top stories, chosen by our editors and writers. This story originally ran on Saturday, Aug. 21.]

Bobby Sheehan, bassist for the rock band Blues Traveler, was found dead by friends in his New Orleans house Friday morning (Aug. 20), police said. He was 31.

Bandleader John Popper called Sheehan "the best friend I've had in the world."

"Despite the fact that Bob Sheehan was respected, loved and revered by all who knew him, or knew of his music, he was easily the most underestimated member of the band," Popper said in a statement released by the band's label, A&M Records. "The best friend I've had in the world has just died and I don't want to talk about it."

No cause of death was given, and Ann Black, a spokesperson for the New Orleans coroner's office, said an autopsy likely would be conducted Saturday. New Orleans police said there was no evidence of foul play or trauma and that the death will remain "unclassified" until autopsy results are returned. Sheehan was found at 11 a.m. local time.

Sheehan was working on a solo album, according to A&M publicist Steve Karas, and Blues Traveler were preparing to reconvene to record the follow-up to Straight On Till Morning (1997).

The band's surviving members — Popper, guitarist Chan Kinchla and drummer Bobby Hill — were notified of Sheehan's death midday Friday, and Karas said the three would not make a collective statement for several weeks.

Sheehan "was one of the most fantastic bass players and musicians I ever worked with," said Eric Schenkman, a member of the Spin Doctors, a rock band that emerged from New Jersey at the same time as Blues Traveler and frequently played with them.

"He was always trying new stuff in music and always excited about life," Schenkman, 35, said.

Sheehan, whose full name was Robert Vaughn Sheehan, pleaded guilty in January 1998 to possession of less than a gram of cocaine. He had been arrested at an airport in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in September 1997, where Blues Traveler were opening for the Rolling Stones. He was placed on two years' unsupervised probation.

Blues Traveler formed in 1988 in Princeton, N.J. They're known for organizing the H.O.R.D.E. festival tour, which they usually headlined, and for such songs as "Run-Around," "But Anyway" and "Carolina Blues" (RealAudio excerpt).

"Since the band's early days in Princeton ... Sheehan had always been one of the four cornerstones of the highly successful and loved quartet," A&M said in its statement. "He was there for every tour date and had performed on all six of the band's albums. He will be missed by the artistic community to which he gave so much."

"All I can say is that Bobby was somebody who was adored by many people," Karas said.

Schenkman, who performs in the band Cork with former Mountain drummer Corky Laing, said he talked to Sheehan several weeks ago and found the bassist to be in his usual ebullient mood.

"It's sad that we end up losing the people that would have done the world a whole lot of good," Schenkman said. "He was an amazing force in anything he did, and he was the backbone of Blues Traveler and any project he worked on. It's a sad day for music."

Schenkman said Cork will dedicate their Saturday show at New York's Bottom Line to Sheehan.

Another member of the Spin Doctors, drummer Aaron Comess, said Sheehan "had a warm spirit. It was fun to be around him."

Comess said the Spin Doctors and Blues Traveler often shared bills in clubs and small theaters in the New York area in the early 1990s. As the Spin Doctors ended their set with a jam, members of Blues Traveler would come onstage one at a time, replacing them in the jam, and finally beginning their own set. Sheehan and Schenkman came up with the idea for that transition, Comess said.

"I'm still in shock," he said. "It's funny, I was talking to a friend of mine this week how we've been lucky that no one close to us has died."

After building a loyal following with their first three albums, Blues Traveler (1990), Travelers and Thieves (1991) and Save His Soul (1993), Blues Traveler achieved mainstream success with the six-times-platinum Four (1994), which featured the singles "Run-Around" and "Hook."

Sheehan's death comes almost two months after Popper had angioplasty surgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Popper's heart condition forced the band to cancel its annual two-night stand over Independence Day weekend at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colo.

Popper is scheduled to release a solo album, Zygote, next month.

(Senior Writer Gil Kaufman contributed to this report.)