John Mellencamp, also known as John Cougar Mellencamp
John Mellencamp, also known as John Cougar Mellencamp (born October 7, 1951), is an American rock singer-songwriter, musician, painter and occasional actor known for his catchy, populist brand of heartland rock which emphasizes traditional instrumentation. He has sold over 40 million albums worldwide and has amassed 22 Top 40 hits in the United States. In addition, he holds the record for the most tracks by a solo artist to hit number-one on the Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks chart, with seven, and has been nominated for 13 Grammy Awards, winning one. His latest album, No Better Than This, was released on August 17, 2010 to widespread critical acclaim.
Mellencamp is also one of the founding members of Farm Aid, an organization that began in 1985 with a concert in Champaign, Illinois to raise awareness about the loss of family farms and to raise funds to keep farm families on their land. The Farm Aid concerts have remained an annual event over the past 29 years, and as of 2014 the organization has raised over $45 million to promote a strong and resilient family farm system of agriculture.
Mellencamp was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 10, 2008. His biggest musical influences are Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, James Brown and The Rolling Stones. Said longtime Rolling Stone contributor Anthony DeCurtis: “Mellencamp has created an important body of work that has earned him both critical regard and an enormous audience. His songs document the joys and struggles of ordinary people seeking to make their way, and he has consistently brought the fresh air of common experience to the typically glamour-addled world of popular music.”
Mellencamp is of German ancestry. He was born with spina bifida, for which he had corrective surgery as an infant. He formed his first band, Crepe Soul, at the age of 14 and later played in the local bands Trash, Snakepit Banana Barn and the Mason Brothers.
He eloped with his pregnant girlfriend Priscilla Esterline at the age of 18 and became a father in December 1970, six months after he graduated from high school. His daughter Michelle became a mother at age 19, making Mellencamp a grandfather at 37.
Mellencamp attended Vincennes University, a two-year college in Vincennes, Indiana, starting in 1972. During this time he experimented with drugs and alcohol, stating in a 1986 Rolling Stone interview, “When I was high on pot, it affected me so drastically that when I was in college there were times when I wouldn’t get off the couch. I would lie there, listening to Roxy Music, right next to the record player so I wouldn’t have to get up to flip the record over. I’d listen to this record, that record. There would be four or five days like that when I would be completely gone.”
Upon graduating from Vincennes University in 1974, Mellencamp played in a couple of local bands, including the aforementioned glitter-band Trash, which was named after a New York Dolls song, and he later got a job in Seymour installing telephones. At this time, Mellencamp, who had given up drugs and alcohol for good before graduating from Vincennes University, decided to pursue a career in music and traveled to New York City in an attempt to land a record contract.
Performing as Johnny Cougar and John Cougar (1976–1982)
After about 18 months of traveling back and forth from Indiana to New York City in 1974 and 1975, Mellencamp finally found someone receptive to his music and image in Tony DeFries of MainMan Management. DeFries insisted that Mellencamp’s first album, Chestnut Street Incident, a collection of covers and a handful of original songs, be released under the stage name Johnny Cougar, suggesting that the bumpy German name “Mellencamp” was too hard to market. Mellencamp reluctantly agreed, but the album was a complete failure, selling only 12,000 copies. Mellencamp confessed in a 2005 interview: “That (name) was put on me by some manager. I went to New York and everybody said, ‘You sound like a hillbilly.’ And I said, ‘Well, I am.’ So that’s where he came up with that name. I was totally unaware of it until it showed up on the album jacket. When I objected it to it, he said, ‘Well, either you’re going to go for it, or we’re not going to put the record out.’ So that was what I had to do… but I thought the name was pretty silly.”
Mellencamp recorded The Kid Inside, the follow-up to Chestnut Street Incident, in 1977, but DeFries eventually decided against releasing the album and Mellencamp was dropped from MCA records (DeFries finally released The Kid Inside in early 1983, after Mellencamp broke through to stardom). Mellencamp drew interest from Rod Stewart’s manager, Billy Gaff, after parting ways with DeFries and was signed to the tiny Riva Records label. At Gaff’s request, Mellencamp moved to London, England for nearly a year to record, promote and tour behind 1978’s A Biography. The record wasn’t released in the United States, but it yielded a hit in Australia with “I Need a Lover.” Riva Records added “I Need a Lover” to Mellencamp’s next album released in the United States, 1979’s John Cougar, where the song became a No. 28 single in late 1979. Pat Benatar recorded “I Need a Lover” on her debut album In the Heat of the Night.
In 1980, Mellencamp returned with the Steve Cropper-produced Nothin’ Matters and What If It Did, which yielded two Top 40 singles — “This Time” (No. 27) and “Ain’t Even Done With the Night” (No. 17). “The singles were stupid little pop songs,” he told Record Magazine in 1983. “I take no credit for that record. It wasn’t like the title was made up — it wasn’t supposed to be punky or cocky like some people thought. Toward the end, I didn’t even go to the studio. Me and the guys in the band thought we were finished, anyway. It was the most expensive record I ever made. It cost $280,000, do you believe that? The worst thing was that I could have gone on making records like that for hundreds of years. Hell, as long as you sell a few records and the record company isn’t putting a lot of money into promotion, you’re making money for ’em and that’s all they care about. PolyGram loved Nothin’ Matters. They thought I was going to turn into the next Neil Diamond.”
In 1982, Mellencamp released his breakthrough album, American Fool, which contained the singles “Hurts So Good,” an uptempo rock tune that spent four weeks at No. 2 and 16 weeks in the top 10, and “Jack & Diane,” which was a No. 1 hit for four weeks. A third single, “Hand to Hold On To”, made it to No. 19. “Hurts So Good” went on to win the Grammy Award for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance at the 25th Grammys. “To be real honest, there’s three good songs on that record, and the rest is just sort of filler,” Mellencamp told Creem Magazine of American Fool in 1984. “It was too labored over, too thought about, and it wasn’t organic enough. The record company thought it would bomb, but I think the reason it took off was – not that the songs were better than my others – but people liked the sound of it, the ‘bam-bam-bam’ drums. It was a different sound.”
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