The final part of this series on classic rock musicians who made it a bit later in life. Read parts 1 & 2 here. These musicians are a great example of why it’s never too late to become a rock star. Go and follow your dreams!
Nigel Harrison (27), Frank Infante (27), Chris Stein (28), Debbie Harry (33): Members of new wave band Blondie. The band had their first breakthrough in 1978 with their third album, Parallel Lines. That album had the band’s first big hit, the disco inspired “Heart of Glass”. There were a few other hits on the album, although not as big, like “Hanging on the Telephone”, “Sunday Girl”, and “One Way Or Another”.
Their sound mixes new wave, disco, pop, reggae, and even hip hop in the case of “Rapture” – one of the band’s biggest hits in the early 80s. Blondie broke up in 1982.
The early 80s were the band’s most successful years with hits like “Call Me” and “The Tide is High”.
Before the fame: Nigel Harrison was born in England and was in the glam rock band Silverhead. Before he joined Blondie in 1978, he played bass for Iggy Pop’s first solo performance and was part of short lived supergroup Nite City (founded by Ray Manzarek).
Frank Infante was in a few bands before Blondie, The Elegant End, World War III, and Sniper. He joined Blondie in 1977.
Before music, Chris Stein was a successful photographer most famous for taking pictures of the NYC punk scene. He worked with Andy Warhol and H.R. Giger. He was born in NYC to a Jewish family.
Debbie Harry was born Angela Trimble in Miami in 1945 and adopted when she was a baby. Her parents changed her name to Deborah. Her biological mother was a concert pianist. When she was in her 20s, she moved to New York City and worked various odd jobs: secretary at the BBC Radio office there, waitress at Max’s Kansas City, a go-go dancer at a disco, and a Playboy Bunny. At this point she wasn’t a blonde.
She made her first foray into music in the late 60s with a folk band called The Wind in the Willows. The band’s only album reached #195 on the albums charts, failing to get any commercial success. So they broke up quickly. However, the album has been re-issued and has gotten interest because Debbie Harry was in the group.
Before Blondie, she was in The Stilettos, where she met Chris Stein (who she later started dating) and was in another band with Tish and Snooky Bellomo (who started the colourful punk rock hair dye brand Manic Panic). Just after that she and Chris Stein formed Blondie. The name came from a catcall that men shouted at her after she dyed her hair blonde.
Nik Turner (30): Saxophone and flute player for Hawkwind. The band got big in the early 70s with the hit, “Silver Machine”
Before the fame: Turner was born in Oxford in 1940. When he was 13, his family moved to Margate. As a teenager, he worked a summer job at the funfair and met Robert Calvert there, who ended up being a future Hawkwind bandmate. He completed an engineering course and was in the Merchant Navy for a short amount of time. After that, he travelled around Europe, working odd jobs. He took some saxophone and clarinet lessons in his early 20s, but didn’t think much of it until he went to Berlin in the late 60s and saw some free jazz players who inspired him to pick up saxophone again and just express himself.
Because he owned a van, he originally was a roadie for Hawkwind. Once the band found out that he played saxophone, they let him join the band because they thought a saxophone would add uniqueness and quirkiness to their sound.
Nina Simone (26): Singer and piano player popular in the 60s who sang in many different styles: jazz, R&B, folk, and gospel. She got her first success with the single, “I Loves You Porgy” in 1958. It reached the top 20 on the pop charts and #2 on the R&B charts in 1958. It was her only top 20 hit in the US.
Younger music fans may know her song “Sinnerman” best. She recorded a 10 minute long version in 1965 and house/electronic DJ/producer Felix da Housecat remixed it into a more electronic version in 2003.
Before the fame: Nina Simone was born Eunice Waymon in North Carolina. She started playing piano when she was around three or four years old and played in church. She gave her first recital when she was 12.
Sadly, her parents were forced to move to the back to make way for white people. When she found out her parents were moved, she refused to play until her parents were moved to the front. Later, she got more into Civil Rights activism.
Because her family were poor and couldn’t afford for her to go to music school, her music teacher established a scholarship to pay her way through education. After she graduated from secondary school, she spent the summer at the Julliard School as a student of Carl Friedberg to prepare for her audition for the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
Her family were expecting her to get in and moved to Philadelphia to support her, but she was not successful. She had a feeling that she was denied because of racial prejudice. She couldn’t reapply because the school had an age limit, only taking students under 21. She didn’t gibe up and she kept taking private lessons to get better at piano, but in order to afford this she had to take jobs and play gigs, one of them being at the Midtown Bar & Grill in Atlantic City. During this time, she started using the stage name Nina Simone.
Patrick Hernandez (30): One-hit wonder known for the 1979 disco hit “Born to Be Alive”. Originally, it was supposed to be a hard rock song (can’t find a hard rock version by Patrick Hernandez, but here’s a hard rock cover). It reached #1 in Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and the US (disco charts).
Because the song was such a huge success, he ended up with 52 gold and platinum records from various countries! He toured around the world and one of his backup dancers was Madonna (before she was famous).
His follow up singles were not successful and he left the music industry after the disco craze was over.
Before the fame: Patrick Hernandez was born in France to an Italian mother and Spanish father. He toured dancehalls and ballrooms in France in the early and mid 70s. In 1978, at the height of disco, he met Jean Vanloo and signed a deal with him and went to Belgium to work on music. Not much is known about his upbringing, as he is a very private person.
Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye (30): Patti Smith is a poet, author, and punk singer whose career began in the 70s. Lenny Kaye is a member of the Patti Smith Group.
She released her debut, Horses, in 1975 at the age of 29. What makes her music special is how she blends punk rock with beat poetry inspired lyrics. While none of the singles from that album were successful, the album got critical acclaim and it was just the beginning of success for her.
He first hit single, “Because The Night” came out in 1978, when she was 32. The song was written by Bruce Springsteen and recorded for the Darkness on the Edge of Town sessions, but it didn’t have any real lyrics beyond the song title. He wasn’t satisfied with it and his engineer Jimmy Iovine was working with Patti Smith and he told Springsteen he wanted a hit for Patti and why not “Because the Night”. Bruce Springsteen told him to go ahead and give the song to Patti. She added some lyrics and the song became her biggest hit. She first performed the song on her 31st birthday.
Before the fame: Patti Smith was born in Chicago and raised in New Jersey. Her earliest musical influences were Harry Belafonte, Patience & Prudence, and Bob Dylan. After graduating from secondary school, she worked at a factory.
In her early 20s, she moved to Manhattan, worked at a bookstore, and didn’t have a lot of money. She made some friends like poet Janet Hamill and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Mapplethorpe’s photos of Patti Smith were used as album art. She would frequent CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City and was in a play with transgender musician Jayne County.
When she was 22, she went to Paris with her sister and started busking.
At one point, Blue Öyster Cult considered recruiting her as lead singer. That didn’t materialise, but she contributed some lyrics to some of their songs and dated Allen Lanier.
She formed The Patti Smith Group in 1974.
Lenny Kaye learnt to play the accordion as a kid, but gave that up and started collecting records. He studied at Rutgers University and graduated with a degree in American History. As a teenager, he got really into science fiction and started a zine called Obelisk.
He was also the guy who put together the famous compilation album of obscure psychedelic and garage rock, Nuggets, back in 1972, and wrote for Jazz & Pop Magazine.
While working at famous record store Bleecker Bob’s Village Oldies, he met Patti Smith.
Pete Farndon (27), Chrissie Hynde (28), Martin Chambers (28): Members of The Pretenders. The band got their first hit in 1979 with “Brass in Pocket” from their self-titled debut. The song topped the UK charts. The following year, it was a top 20 hit in the US.
From there, the band got multiple hits like “Talk of the Town”, “Back on the Chain Gang”, “2000 Miles”, “Hymn to Her”, and “I’ll Stand By You”.
Before the fame: Pete Farndon was from Hereford. His biggest influences were Stanley Clarke and Jeff Beck. Before joining The Pretenders, he was in a band called Cold River Lady. He joined The Pretenders in 1978 and was the first to be recruited by Chrissie Hynde.
Chrissie Hynde got into rock and roll while in secondary school and saw a bunch of bands perform live. She was so into rock music that she didn’t care about dating or going to school dances. She went to Kent State University’s Art School and while there got into hippie counterculture, Eastern mysticism, and animal rights.
She moved to London in 1973 and worked various jobs there: at an architecture firm, at music magazine NME, and at Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s boutique, SEX. At one point, she asked Johnny Rotten, and then Sid Vicious to marry her so she could stay in England, but Johnny Rotten chickened out. Sid Vicious offered, but the registry office was closed and Sid Vicious had a court date so he couldn’t make it another day.
She also tried to start a band in France, but that didn’t work out. In 1976, she returned to London and tried to join a few bands. Malcolm McLaren invited her to join Masters of the Backside, which became The Damned, but she left the band. She was also in Johnny Moped and The Moors Murderers for a short time.
Finally, in 1978, she gave a demo tape to Dave Hill, owner of Real Records, and he liked what he heard and he started managing her. In the spring, she met Pete Farndon and then the other band members joined. The band’s name comes from the song “The Great Pretender”.
Before Martin Chambers was in The Pretenders, he was in a band with James Honeyman-Scott and Verden Allen. When he joined The Pretenders (before they had a name), he was working as a driving instructor in Tufnell Park. He took the job because one of the perks was having a car that he could use to get around. When he first rehearsed with the band, Chrissie Hynde knew this was the perfect lineup for the band. Martin was not the original drummer of the band. They actually tried out other drummers, but they weren’t the right fit.
Pete Watts (25), Mick Ralphs (28), Verden Allen (28), Ian Hunter (33): Members of Mott the Hoople. The band were best known for the dark, David Bowie-penned “All The Young Dudes”, their only American hit, reaching #37 on the charts there. That song reached #3 on the UK charts and helped them achieve fame in the glam rock scene.
Mott The Hoople were not successful at first and were thinking of breaking up, but David Bowie got in contact with the band and offered to write a song for them. Originally, he offered “Suffragette City”, but they turned that down. Last minute, he sat in front of the band and wrote “All The Young Dudes” last minute.
They had better success in their native England with multiple hits since then like “Honaloochie Boogie” (#12), “All The Way From Memphis” (#10), “Roll Away The Stone” (#8) and “The Golden Age of Rock and Roll” (#16).
Before the fame: Pete Watts started playing guitar as a teenager and switched to bass guitar when he was 18. He and bandmate Mick Ralphs played in clubs in Germany with a band called The Buddies. That group changed their name a lot and ended up becoming Silence in 1969, when they moved back to London. Then, Ian Hunter joined the band as a singer. When he joined, they became Mott The Hoople.
Verden Allen was born in Wales and played organ in an R&B cover band and recorded with reggae star Jimmy Cliff at one point.
Ian Hunter was born in England in 1939, but lived in Scotland with his father’s family during WWII. He identifies as both English and Scottish. One day at Butlin’s Holiday Camp, he and two other musicians won a talent contest performing an acoustic cover of “Blue Moon”. From there, he joined The Apex Group, playing rhythm guitar, but left in 1958. He ended up in debt, got a day job, and started a harmonica duo with a friend.
Once he was out of debt, he returned to The Apex Group. By this point, he was married and had a kid. Freddie “Fingers” Lee became the frontman and suggested they all go to Germany to play in the same clubs that The Beatles played in before they got famous. In the mid 60s, he met Mick Ronson, who ended up being David Bowie’s guitarist.
In the late 60s, he worked with Billy Fury and Mickie Most hired him to be in a band called The New Yardbirds (after Jimmy Page changed the band’s name to Led Zeppelin). People were confused and thought he was actually in Led Zeppelin, but that’s not true. He also worked as a journalist, songwriter, and did road digging for a local council in the late 60s. He joined Mott the Hoople in 1969.
Ray Manzarek (26): Keyboard player for The Doors. The Doors released their first album in 1967 and their first big hit was “Light My Fire”, which reached #1 in the US and France. In such a short time, the band amassed a bunch of hits: “People Are Strange”, “Hello, I Love You”, “Touch Me”, “Love Her Madly”, and “Riders on the Storm”.
Before the fame: Ray Manzarek was born and raised in Chicago to a Polish family. He liked to play basketball when he was a kid and he started taking piano lessons from a young age. For his undergrad, he studied economics at DePaul University. While there, he was in a jazz band and organised a charity concert with Sonny Rollins and Dave Brubeck.
In 1961, he moved to LA and started going to UCLA, originally studying law, but changing to cinematography. He dropped out, but later went back. He graduated with an MFA in cinematography in 1965. He met Jim Morrison at film school and they started a band together. They went their separate ways, but met up again by chance and Jim showed him his lyrics and he was impressed. He met bandmates Robby Krieger and John Densmore at a Transcendental Meditation lecture and recruited them into the band.
The Doors were the house band at the London Fog and Whisky a Go Go.
R. Dean Taylor (28): Motown singer-songwriter best known for the songs “There’s A Ghost In My House”, “Gotta See Jane”, and “Indiana Wants Me”. “Gotta See Jane” was his first international hit, doing well in the UK (#17) and The Netherlands (#32). “Indiana Wants Me”, released in 1970, was his biggest American hit, reaching the top 10 on the Billboard charts and the top 10 in Canada (#1), UK (#2), and South Africa (#3).
In the 70s Northern Soul scene, “There’s a Ghost In My House”, was a success, reaching #3 in the UK when it was re-released in 1974.
Before the fame: He was born in Toronto, Canada. He started playing piano professionally in the early 60s. His first hit in Canada was “I’ll Remember”, which was a top 30 hit on Toronto rock station CHUM. Soon after, he decided to move to Detroit to further his career.
Motown hired him as a songwriter in 1964 for their sub-label, VIP Records. He often worked with Brian Holland of the Holland-Dozier-Holland powerhouse songwriting team.
What helped him get radio airplay was Canada’s CanCon requirement, which requires radio stations to play at least a certain percentage of Canadian musicians to help promote Canadian music. It’s a controversial policy. Some Canadian musicians feel like they were being tokenised and propped up on radio stations by quotas rather than by their own merits. However, it’s a double edged sword. If a Canadian musician gets international fame, they often leave the country (often to the US or Britain) to further their career, and their music may no longer be considered Canadian.
Robin Zander (25/26), Bun E. Carlos (28/29), Tom Petersson (28/29), Rick Nielsen (30/31): Members of Cheap Trick. Interestingly enough, they didn’t first achieve fame in the US, but rather in Japan. Their 1979 live album, Cheap Trick At Budokan, was their American and international breakthrough. The biggest hit from that album was “I Want You To Want Me”, the live version reached the top 10 in the US. Generally, I’m someone who prefers studio versions of songs, but this is one of those times where the live version is much better.
They had a minor hit in 1978 with teenage anthem “Surrender”. The song reached #62 in the US and #32 in Australia. The live version of that song reached #9 in the Netherlands.
Before the fame: Lead vocalist Robin Zander was born in Beloit, Wisconsin and raised in Illinois. He joined Cheap Trick in 1974.
Bun E. Carlos was born Brad Carlson in Rockford, Illinois. He’s the drummer, setlister, and archivist.
Tom Petersson and Rick Nielsen were in Fuse together before they co-founded Cheap Trick in 1974.
Rick Nielsen was born in Elmhurst, Illinois. Both of his parents were opera singers and owned a music store in Rockford. At one point he was in the Nazz, replacing Todd Rundgren.
Roger Taylor (25), Brian May (27) and Freddie Mercury (28): Members of Queen. The band faced some adversity at first. Their debut single, “Keep Yourself Alive” did not chart (poor marketing). On their first American tour, opening for Mott the Hoople, Brian May collapsed after a show, was diagnosed with hepatitis, and they all had to go home and cancel the rest of the dates. He wasn’t even around for half the recording sessions of Sheer Heart Attack, and nearly died.
Their first big international success was “Killer Queen”, but even in this period they were broke and screwed over by their manager Norman Sheffield, as told in “Death on Two Legs”.
They needed the next album to be a success or else everyone has to go back to their day jobs. This album was a risk, go big or go home, like The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” was in 1966. It was the most expensive album recorded at the time. It more than paid off, and “Bohemian Rhapsody” is considered one of the best rock songs of all time. And the rest is history.
Before the fame: Roger Taylor was born in Norfolk and raised in Truro, Cornwall. He started playing music when he was 7, starting with the ukulele. He later started playing drums because he felt it was more natural for him. His biggest influences were Mitch Mitchell of the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Keith Moon of The Who. He moved to London in 1967 to study dentistry, but found that boring and switched to biology. He met Brian May in 1968 because a friend of his found an ad looking for a drummer on a noticeboard at Imperial College. The following year, he met Freddie Mercury and they sold clothes together at Kensington Market. He originally got an offer to join Genesis as their drummer, but he turned that down.
Brian May was born in London and he is half English and half Scottish. As a teenager, he wanted to get a nice guitar, but his family couldn’t afford one so he and his father built the Red Special. He was a PhD student at Imperial College and was nearly finished with his PhD when Queen were taking off. He also worked as a maths teacher in the early 70s. His previous bands were 1984 (who kind of opened for Jimi Hendrix when he played at Imperial College) and Smile, who we all know became Queen.
Freddie Mercury was born in Zanzibar to a Parsi family. He always played music and showed talent from a young age, being able to play songs he heard on the radio. At boarding school in India, he started a band called The Hectics. When he was around 17 or 18, his family fled Zanzibar and moved to London. He studied graphic design at Ealing Art College. At one point he worked at Heathrow Airport as a baggage handler. He was in bands Ibex and Wreckage and sold vintage clothes at Kensington Market with Roger Taylor. Freddie sold a pair of boots to Yes bassist Chris Squire and told him he’s a singer without a band, who told him something like good luck with that.
Ronnie James Dio (33): Got his big break with Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow in 1975. The band released their debut in 1975, but didn’t get their first international hit until 1979 with “Since You Been Gone”, which reached #6 in the UK, the top 100 in the US, and top 50 in the Netherlands. After that, he left Rainbow for Black Sabbath as Ozzy Osbourne’s replacement. Then in 1982, he formed his own band, Dio with Vinny Appice. “Holy Diver”, “Rainbow in the Dark”, “The Last in Line”, “Mystery”, and “Rock n Roll Children” were the band’s biggest hits.
Before the fame: He was born Ronald Padavona in New Hampshire in 1942 to an Italian-American family. He was raised in Cortland, New York. He first learnt to play the trumpet at the age of 5 and showed a lot of talent as a musician, being one of the youngest members to be in his secondary school’s dance band. Allegedly, he got a scholarship to the Julliard School of Music, but he turned that down to go to the University of Buffalo to study pharmacology. He claims that he never took voice lessons.
Sometime in the 60s he adopted the stage name, Dio. There are a couple of explanations for this: a reference to mafia member Johnny Dio or his grandmother saying he had a gift from god, and dio is the Italian word for god.
In the late 60s, he was in a band called The Electric Elves (also known as Elf). They opened for Deep Purple and that is how Ritchie Blackmore noticed him. He was so impressed with his voice that he invited him to be in a band together because he wanted to leave Deep Purple. Ritchie Blackmore called Dio easy to work with.
Russell (26) & Ron (29) Mael: Brothers and founders of glam/art rock band Sparks. The band got their first hit in 1974 with “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Two of Us”. Despite them being American, they did way better in Europe, where the song reached the top 10 in Belgium, The Netherlands, Switzerland, and the UK. Also from Kimono My House, “Amateur Hour” was a hit. Those songs weren’t the band’s only chart successes. These songs were top 20 hits in the UK: “Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth”, “The Number One Song In Heaven”, and “Beat the Clock”. In the late 70s, they worked with disco producer Giorgio Moroder and changed their sound to a more disco influenced synthpop sound.
Before the fame: Sparks formed as a duo in 1968 under the name Halfnelson. The band are known for their quirky lyrics. The two brothers have memorable looks with younger brother Russell having a more androgynous glam rocker look and Ron being the contrast with a more conservative look and a Charlie Chaplin moustache. Their biggest influences were The Who, Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd, The Kinks, and The Move. As you can expect from their taste in music, they’re Anglophiles.
They got the attention of Todd Rundgren in 1968 as Halfnelson. They released their debut album in 1971 under that name, but it sold poorly. They changed their name to Sparks, a play on The Marx Brothers, in 1972 and re-released the album under that name getting a small regional hit with “Wonder Girl”. In 1973, they went to London and had a residency at the Marquee Club. They moved over there and got a new manager, John Hewlett, who founded John’s Children.
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (late 20s): Rock and roll pioneer known for the influential, early shock rock song “I Put a Spell On You”. The song was controversial and shocking at the time of release, which was in 1956, so it got banned from radio airplay. However, it sold very well, selling over a million copies. It was originally recorded as a ballad, but that version wasn’t released. He was successful enough as a live performer opening for Fats Domino, Tiny Grimes, and The Rolling Stones.
The live performance added to it. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins would jump out of a coffin wearing a cape and tusks in his nose. DJ Alan Freed offered him $300 to do that and he took it. There were fireworks, snakes, and a skull smoking a cigarette. Before Arthur Brown, Ozzy Osbourne, Alice Cooper, GG Allin, and Marilyn Manson there was Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins hated that stage persona he created for “I Put a Spell On You” because he felt like it downplayed his talent and caused people to dismiss his talents as a vocalist and balladeer. His cover of “Deep Purple” is a good example of the ballad side of him.
Before the fame: He was born Jalacy Hawkins in Cleveland in 1929. He was adopted by a Blackfoot family. As a child he played piano and in his 20s he learnt to play guitar. Originally, he wanted to be an opera singer, but it didn’t work out so he turned to blues singing. At the age of 13, he joined the Army with a forged birth certificate, allegedly serving in a combat role.
Sonny Boy Williamson II (40-something): Blues harmonica player, singer, and songwriter. He first started recording music in the 50s, first for Trumpet Records, and later for Chess/Checker. His recording career really took off when he started recording music for Chess subsidiary Checker Records. Between 1955 and 1964 he released 70 singles. He was influential to many musicians: Led Zeppelin,
He also had a lot of success in Britain in the 60s because of the blues craze there. He would tour there and he recorded with The Yardbirds while Eric Clapton was still in the band; The Animals; and Jimmy Page.
Before the fame: Born Aleck Ford in Mississippi, but later went by Aleck Miller. His exact birth date isn’t known. He’s claimed that he was born in 1897. Another claim says 1899, while the census says that he was born in 1912. His gravestone says 1908.
In the 30s, he travelled around Mississippi and Arkansas and met multiple blues musicians: Big Joe Williams, Elmore James, and Robert Lockwood Jr. Willie Dixon said that he saw him busking in Greenville, Mississippi.
In the early 40s, he played the King Biscuit Time Show, where he got the stage name Sonny Boy Williamson. The reason for that was to capitalise on the popularity of the Chicago blues musician of the same name. To differentiate between the two of them, he added the Roman numerals “II” at the end. In the late 40s, he had a radio show in West Memphis, Arkansas.
Spencer Davis (26): Founder of 60s British Invasion/Beat band The Spencer Davis Group. The band were successful in the mid 60s getting multiple chart hits like “Keep On Running”, “Somebody Help Me”, “Gimme Some Lovin”, and “I’m a Man”.
Before the fame: Spencer Davis was born Spencer Davies in Swansea, Wales in 1939. He first started learning to play harmonica and accordion at the age of six. He liked listening to skiffle, jazz, and blues music.
He moved to London when he was 16 and worked in the civil service as a clerical officer for a short time before deciding to go back to school to do his A-levels and go to university. In 1960, he moved to Birmingham to study German. At one point while in Birmingham, he dated Christine Perfect (later known as Christine McVie).
In 1963, he saw brothers Muff and Steve Winwood perform at a pub and he was impressed. He convinced them to join an R&B band he was forming with drummer Pete York. In 1964, they met Chris Blackwell and signed a record deal with Fontana.
Steve Walsh (25), Phil Ehart (26), Rich Williams (26), Robby Steinhardt (26), Dave Hope (27), Kerry Livgren (27): Members of prog/album-oriented rock band Kansas. The band got their first big hit with “Carry On Wayward Son” (from their breakthrough, Leftoverture) in 1976, reaching #11 in the US.
“Dust in the Wind”, released in 1978, was their biggest hit, reaching #6 in the US.
From there, the band got a few other minor hits and a couple top 20s like “Play the Game Tonight” and “All I Ever Wanted”.
Before the fame: Before Steve Walsh joined Kansas, he was in a few other bands, including White Clover, which became Kansas.
Phil Ehart learnt to play drums as a kid. He joined Kerry Livgren’s band White Clover in the late 60s. That band played at the New Orleans Pop Festival in 1969.
Robby Steinhardt started playing violin when he was eight.
In 1970, two bands Reasons Why and White Clover merged and changed their name to Kansas and then went back to White Clover. They signed with Don Kirshner’s label in 1973 and changed their name back to Kansas. In 1974, the band released their debut album. They released a few albums before the band really took off. The band’s sound mixes prog rock with hard rock and southern rock. Their albums, Masque and Leftoverture were recorded in a studio in the middle of the Louisiana Bayou.
Steven Tyler (25): Lead singer of Aerosmith. Aerosmith got their first hit with “Dream On” in 1973. It wasn’t a major hit at first (but did very well in their native Boston), but when it was re-issued later it was a bigger hit and one of their best known songs. From there, they got other hits like “Sweet Emotion”, “Last Child”, “Walk This Way”, “Dude Looks Like a Lady”, “Ragdoll”, “Love in an Elevator”, and “Janie’s Got a Gun”.
Before the fame: Steven Tyler was born Steven Tallarico in NYC and raised in Yonkers. As a teenager, he saw the Rolling Stones in concert. Friends and people around him said that he reminded them of Mick Jagger because of his appearance. At the end of the 60s, he met future bandmates Joe Perry and Tom Hamilton at a local rock show in New Hampshire. In 1970, they decided to move to Boston and share a flat. In 1972, they played their first gig at Max’s Kansas City. In 1973 and 1974 they started touring and notably opened for Mott The Hoople in 1974.
Thelonious Monk (late 30s): Jazz pianist and composer best known for his compositions: “Round Midnight”, “Blue Monk”, “Straight, No Chaser”, “Ruby, My Dear”, “In Walked Bud”, and “Well, You Needn’t”. He was very prolific, and in fact, he was the second most recorded jazz composer, only behind Duke Ellington.
Between 1947 and 1952 he recorded Blue Note Records, then he was signed to Prestige Records from 1952-1954, under which he recorded important, but under appreciated albums. During that time He collaborated with Sonny Rollins, Art Blakey, and Max Roach. In the mid-50s, he played on Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants.
1954 was a big year for him, as he made his first visit to Paris, playing concerts and recording a solo piano session for French radio. His biggest challenge though was his style of jazz was considered too difficult for mainstream audiences to understand and grasp, kind of like how prog is considered pretentious.
The 60s were the most successful time for Thelonious Monk because he signed with Columbia Records, who had a really good marketing team and budget and helped him gain more of a profile. His 1963 album, Monk’s Dream was his most successful album. In 1964, he was on the cover of Time Magazine.
Before the fame: Thelonious Monk was born in North Carolina in 1917. When he was 5, his family moved to New York City. He started playing piano when he was 6 and for the most part, taught himself how to play. The earliest part of his career was playing church organ, but later went into jazz music. He started playing in nightclubs and in cutting contests. His style of piano playing is Harlem Stride.
Tom Petty (26): Singer-songwriter best known for his work with Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers and later, The Traveling Wilburys.
Their 1976 debut album, oddly enough, had more success in the UK than in the US. The success was only just beginning. In 1977, they got their first top 40 hit with “Breakdown” from the debut album. Their sophomore album, You’re Gonna Get It, released in 1978, was their first gold album.
In 1979, they got their first top 10 hit with “Don’t Do Me Like That”. They also got a bunch of top 20 hits in the early 80s like “Refugee”, “The Waiting”, “You Got Lucky”, and “Jammin’ Me”.
As a solo artist, Tom Petty’s 1989 album Full Moon Fever was a big success and his commercial peak. There were multiple hits on that album: “Free Fallin”, “I Won’t Back Down”, and “Runnin’ Down a Dream” – all of which are classic rock radio staples.
Before the fame: Tom Petty was born in Gainesville, Florida in 1950 and fell in love with rock and roll at the age of 10 when he met Elvis Presley. His uncle was working on the set of one of his movies that was filming in Florida and invited him to watch the film being shot. Another important moment in his formative years was watching The Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan Show, that was the moment when he realised he wanted to be in a band. So he dropped out of secondary school at 17 and joined a band. He worked a few odd jobs before getting famous: at the University of Florida campus and as a gravedigger.
In the early 70s, he was in the band Mudcrutch. They released a couple singles in the 70s, but never got national fame. However, they had a local following. The band broke up in 1975 and Tom Petty decided to form his own band.
Tom Robinson (27): Singer-songwriter best known for the songs “2-4-6-8 Motorway” (#5 UK), “Glad To Be Gay” (#18 UK), and “War Baby” (#6 UK). The former of which is based on a gay liberation chant and about a gay trucker: “2,4,6,8, Gay is twice as good as straight… 3,5,7,9, Lesbians are mighty fine”. With his song, “Glad to be Gay”, he updates the lyrics to reflect current events.
Before the fame: Tom Robinson realised he was gay (later came out as bisexual) when he was 13 and had a crush on a male classmate. He had a nervous breakdown, attempted suicide, and got transferred to a special school.
He was in an acoustic trio called Café Society. They were signed to Ray Davies’ Konk Records label and released an album, which was a flop. Tom Robinson believed that Ray Davies put them on the back burner and made the recording process too lengthy as a result.
Inspired by the gay liberation movement and the punk scene, he started Tom Robinson Band in 1976.
Tom Scholz (29): Founder and leader of Boston (main songwriter and guitarist). The band’s debut album was a huge success: selling half a million copies in three weeks and a million in three months making it the fastest selling debut for an American group; three hit singles: “More Than a Feeling” (#5 US), “Long Time” (#22 US), and “Peace of Mind” (#38 US); and all the songs on the album are regularly played on classic rock stations even to this day.
Before the fame: Tom Scholz studied classical piano as a kid and liked to build and design gadgets. He was a top student in school and the hard work paid off and he went to MIT, graduating with a Bachelors in 1969 and a Masters in 1970, both in Mechanical Engineering. He worked for Polaroid as a senior product design engineer. Even while working a day job, he still had an interest in music and recorded demos in his home studio. Epic Records were impressed with these demos and asked him to re-record them and he played most of the guitars, bass, and keyboards on the album. The first tour for the album was a six week tour of small clubs in the Midwest, before going on a 10 month long nationwide tour. They opened for Foghat and Black Sabbath. Funny story about Foghat, when a DJ introduced Boston as the best rock band in the world, and Foghat weren’t thrilled and fired them as the opening act.
Tony Kaye (26), Jon Anderson (27), Trevor Rabin (29 – not an original member): Tony Kaye was the original keyboard player of Yes (and returned in the 80s during their pop comeback). Jon Anderson was the original lead vocalist of Yes and Trevor Rabin joined as a lead guitarist in the 80s when Yes went pop with 90125.
Jon Anderson was with Yes for most of the band’s existence, only leaving in 1980 and in more recent years for health reasons. Yes first got famous in the early 70s with The Yes Album. This album’s lineup was great: Steve Howe on guitar, Chris Squire on bass, Bill Bruford on drums, and Tony Kaye on keyboards. This was their breakthrough album, with their first chart hit, “Your Move”, from “I’ve Seen All Good People”.
The band’s biggest hit from this prog rock era came the following year, “Roundabout” was a top 20 hit in the US and reached #9 in Canada. Now it’s known as a meme because of it being the ending theme for Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure.
Between “Roundabout” and Yes’ pop comeback in the 80s, they got a few hits in the UK, but nothing as big as “Roundabout”.
It was thanks to Trevor Rabin, who joined the band in 1983 that the band got their biggest hit, “Owner of a Lonely Heart”, a song Rabin wrote randomly in 1979. He recorded a demo version and shopped it around to different labels in LA, even showing it to industry giant and Arista Records founder Clive Davis, who rejected it. Geffen Records were interested in him and they wanted him to be in the supergroup Asia, but he didn’t click with the other band members so he turned it down.
RCA Records saw potential in the song and even offered him a solo record deal because of it. He turned it down and joined Chris Squire and Alan White’s band they were forming called Cinema, which turned into Yes.
“Owner of a Lonely Heart” reached #1 on the rock charts in America and was successful in a bunch of different countries.
Before the fame: Tony Kaye was born Anthony Selvidge in Leicester and raised in London. His grandparents were musicians. He took piano lessons throughout his childhood and teenage years. He decided not to study classical piano any further as an adult because of the competitiveness and a lack of self-belief. Instead, he went to art college and dropped out early. In 1968, he met the members of Mabel Greer’s Toyshop, a psychedelic band, and bassist Chris Squire asked him to join a band he was starting. They renamed themselves Yes and the rest is history.
Tony Kaye was later fired from the band in 1971 because of differences with guitarist Steve Howe, who wanted a more electronic synthesiser sound with Mellotrons and synthesisers. Tony Kaye was a bit more old school and wasn’t sure about that and he was replaced by Rick Wakeman.
Jon Anderson was born in Accrington, Lancashire to a Scottish father and a mother of Irish and French descent. As a kid he liked playing football (soccer) and didn’t care much for academics and schoolwork. He started a skiffle group while in school and played the washboard. He tried to play football professionally for Accrington Stanley FC, but was turned down because he was only 5’5″, but he worked as a mascot and ball boy for the team for a short time. He also took other odd jobs after his father got sick and he had to drop out of school to help his family: driving a lorry and being a milkman.
Before he was in Yes, he was in a band called The Warriors. They toured around Lancashire and even played in Germany, and had a sound inspired by The Beatles. Jon Anderson moved to London in 1968 and tried to join a bunch of bands before meeting Chris Squire and Peter Banks and forming Yes. They all loved the harmonies of Simon & Garfunkel and The Association. He tried releasing poppy solo work in the late 60s, but it didn’t go anywhere. Very different from his work with Yes.
Trevor Rabin was born in South Africa. He was previously in the band, Rabbitt. They were quite successful in South Africa, to the point where they couldn’t go out in public without being chased after. Unfortunately, due to the boycott of South Africa during Apartheid, they couldn’t tour in Europe and America. The band had plans, but they were cancelled. So he left the band and left for England in 1978 at the height of the punk scene, which was a challenge for him because his music style is so different from that. His album, Beginnings (aka Trevor Rabin) was a commercial flop, but he later got the attention of Ray Davies, Manfred Mann, and Jack Bruce and they worked on his album, Wolf.
Van McCoy (35): Producer, songwriter, arranger, orchestra conductor, and one-hit-wonder known for disco hit ‘The Hustle”. He had lots of experience doing behind the scenes work for so many famous musicians like Gladys Knight and the Pips, Jackie Wilson, and Aretha Franklin before he got his one hit with “The Hustle” in 1975. “The Hustle” went #1 in the US, Spain, and Canada. It also went top 10 in Australia, Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, and the UK.
Before the fame: Van McCoy was born and raised in Washington DC. He grew up playing piano and singing in a church choir. He started writing songs when he was 12 and formed a doo-wop duo with his brother. He went to Howard University to study psychology, but dropped out after two years to move to Philadelphia to start a record label. He also worked for the powerhouse Leiber/Stoller songwriting team.
Willie Dixon (late 30s/early 40s?): One of the most influential musicians who shaped the Chicago Blues sound. He wrote the songs: “Hoochie Coochie Man”, “Little Red Rooster”, “My Babe”, “Spoonful”, “You Can’t Judge a Book By Its Cover”, and “You Need Love”. Led Zeppelin notably ripped off a lot of his songs and settled out of court when he sued the band for ripping off his music.
He worked for Chess Records in the 50s not only recording music for them, but also as a producer, talent scout, session musician, and songwriter.
Before the fame: Willie Dixon was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1915 to a large family. His parents had 14 children. His mother liked to rhyme and he would imitate that and rhyme as well. In early childhood, he started singing in church. As a teenager he sang in a gospel quintet and performed on the radio. He moved to Chicago in 1936 and because he was 6’6″ and over 250lb he decided to try boxing. He only boxed for four fights and stopped because of a dispute over money. When the US fought in WWII, Willie Dixon refused to join the army and even went to jail for it because he refused to fight for a country that has a huge institutional racism problem.
Woody Guthrie (28): Folk singer-songwriter best known for the song “This Land is Your Land”. His best known album is Dust Bowl Ballads, released in 1940. It is considered one of the first concept albums because all of the songs on the album are about the Dust Bowl and its effects on the region and the people living there.
He was at his peak musically during WWII when he wrote peace songs as part of the protest group, The Almanac Singers. During this time, he wrote lots of poems and prose. In 1944, he wrote “This Land is Your Land” in response to hearing people sing “God Bless America”.
Many of his recordings are archived in the Library of Congress. He influenced many musicians like Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger, Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, and Sixto Rodriguez.
Besides music, he was very politically active, associating with communist groups (although there is no evidence he was a member of any of them). He famously had a “This Machine Kills Fascists” sticker on his guitar. He even wrote of his contempt for his landlord, Fred Trump (yes, that’s Donald Trump’s father), calling him a racist and greedy.
Before the fame: Woody Guthrie was born in Oklahoma in 1912. His parents named him after Woodrow Wilson. His father was a businessman and involved in politics and was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Woody Guthrie’s politics were very different from that of his father’s as you can see above. He liked learning about old ballads and traditional English and Scottish folk songs. He also liked to read.
During the Dust Bowl period, he moved to California for work and wrote songs about the struggles of the working class people affected by the Dust Bowl. In the 40s, he moved to New York.
Not Classic Rock, but still interesting stories
Rex Martey (81): This long term cancer patient landed his first record deal when he was 81 and his dream of releasing an album came true. He released an Afrobeat album called African Touring Holiday. You can read more about him in this Southwark News article.
Scatman John (53): One hit wonder known for the motivational dance song “Scatman”. He suffered with a stutter when he was a kid and one way to overcome the difficulties of having a stutter was playing piano and scat singing like Ella Fitzgerald.
In the 70s and 80s he was a jazz piano player in LA and released a solo album in 1986 under the name John Larkin. It wasn’t nearly as successful as his 1994 one hit wonder.
In 1990, he moved to Berlin to further his career. His agent thought his scat singing sounded cool and would sound even cooler with hip hop and dance beats in the background. At first, he was hesitant because he thought he would be laughed at, but he decided to give it a shot and what a good decision that was.
At first the sales of “Scatman” were slow, but in 1995, at the age of 53, he became a worldwide success and his song reached the top 10 in multiple countries. At a concert in Spain, the crowd were screaming so loudly that he couldn’t start singing.
He had better luck in Europe than in the US, and he got another hit in Europe with “Scatman’s World”.
Here are some lyrics to live by:
“If the Scatman can do it, so can you”
Sharon Jones (46): Soul singer from revivalist group Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings. Their style of soul music was similar to that of music released in the 60s and 70s. Sharon Jones was born in Augusta, Georgia and raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant. She regularly sang gospel music in church and sang in talent shows with funk bands. Her day jobs included being a CO at Rikers Island and armoured car guard for Wells Fargo.
Finally, in the 90s, she got a chance for a break into the music industry backing deep funk singer Lee Fields. Her 2002 album, Dap Dippin’ With Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, was the first release by Daptone Records. The album got a large amount of acclaim from music critics. She loved the creative freedom that the independent label offered her and she loved her band.
Loved this post and want to see more great posts like this and show your appreciation for The Diversity of Classic Rock? Chip in some money on Patreon (monthly donation) or PayPal (one-time donation). Or buy my merch or my photography prints on RedBubble.
Or donate your writing or art talents to my blog, contact me here if you’re interested in collaborating. All of this is totally optional, but extremely helpful.
All Diversity of Classic Rock content will remain free, but Patrons get some nice perks, like early access to blog posts, birthday cards, Skype calls with me, and exclusive behind the scenes posts. Every dollar helps.
If you cannot afford to donate to The Diversity of Classic Rock, there are many free ways to support the blog: clicking that follow button on my website, turning off your AdBlock; following me on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram; liking posts, sharing posts; leaving nice comments; or sending your music for review. You can also download the Brave Browser using my referral link (I get a small commission) and earn tokens that you can donate to your favourite creators (including me!). Thank you!