Hillel Slovak: When Did Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Original Guitarist Die?

Hillel Slovak

Instagram / Red Hot Chili Peppers The Red Hot Chili Peppers during the Slovak years (left); Hillel Slovak (right)

Jack Sherman, the second guitarist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, died this week at the age of 64. The group has had several guitarists in its long history, with each bringing a different contribution and sound to the mix. Sherman, who replaced original RHCP guitarist Hillel Slovak, was eventually let go from the group when Slovak returned.

Slovak was a founding member of the group and his distinct guitar sound would be a major influence in creating the group’s early sound. After Sherman’s death, many fans of the band mourned not only the second guitarist’s death but also remembered the group’s founding guitarist, Hillel Slovak, who died over two decades ago.

During his short but successful music career, Slovak became addicted to heroin, and though he attempted to quit the drug regularly, he would eventually die of an overdose on June 25, 1988. He was 26 years old.

Slovak Met His RHCP Founding Bandmates in High School & Contributed to Their Early Albums

Slovak was born on April 13, 1962, in Israel before moving with his family to the U.S., first to New York City and then Southern California in 1967. He met his future RHCP bandmates, Anthony Kiedis, Michael “Flea” Balzary and Jack Irons, while he was still in high school and the four became friends. Slovak actually ended up teaching bass to Flea, who was a trumpet player but would go on to become the bass player responsible for the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ iconic sound.

Frontman Kiedis, bassist Flea, Slovak on guitar and Jack Irons on drums formed Red Hot Chili Peppers and began performing around Los Angeles in the early 1980s, often in front of sold-out crowds. Slovak, Kiedis and Flea had strong chemistry on stage and their shows were known for being high energy; at this time, the trio began using drugs regularly, including LSD, cocaine and heroin.

Slovak left the group as his other band, What Is This? also received a record deal at the same time RHCP did. However, after growing frustrated with the direction of that band, he rejoined RHCP. It was during his time away that he was replaced by guitarist Sherman. Slovak helped co-write many of the songs on the group’s self-titled debut album, although Sherman was the guitarist who recorded the album with the group. Slovak then appeared on the next two albums, “Freaky Styley,” which came out in 1985 and “The Uplift Mofo Party Plan,” released in 1987.

Slovak Struggled With His Heroin Addiction & His Health Quickly Declined in 1988 While the Band Was Touring

Slovak and Kiedis both suffered from heroin addiction and while on the road promoting “Freaky Styley,” the group could see Slovak’s health deteriorating. Kiedis wrote in his autobiography Scar Tissue, “I could tell Hillel had no inner core of strength. He had been robbed by his addiction of the life force that allows you to at least defend yourself. It was a sad moment.”

The two decided to attempt sobriety for their European tour, but both suffered from intense withdrawal. Some days, the effects were so powerful that Slovak’s guitar playing was affected and he was unable to perform for one of the shows. After the European tour, Slovak hid away from the rest of the band in his apartment and struggled with his addition on his own. On June 25, 1988, he died of a heroin overdose and was found in his apartment two days later.

His bandmates have paid tribute to their late friend in the years since his death, reuniting with founding drummer Jack Irons in 2017 for a tribute show. On January 7, 2019, Flea visited Slovak’s grave in Mount Sinai Memorial Park Cemetery and posted to Instagram about his “beloved brother”:

Kiedis spoke about his close friend and late bandmate after the Red Hot Chili Peppers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012. Slovak, as a key member of the group, was included in the induction. Kiedis told Rolling Stone, “The most emotional part for me was thinking about Hillel Slovak … Because he’s no longer with us, it seemed emotional and beautiful. It’s really kind of his induction that I’m most excited about. He’s a beautiful person that picked up a guitar in the 1970s and didn’t make it out of the 1980s, and he is getting honored for his beauty.”

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