Before They Were Famous
The road from obscurity can be a long, winding path. Virtually every successful musician has gotten a break that has helped launch their career. Whether it’s been who they’ve known, where they’ve been or taking advice from someone they trust, outside influences have made careers as often as they’ve ended them. B.B King played his guitar on a street corner. Zakk Wylde was a gas station attendant who, through a friend of a friend, had a tape delivered to Ozzy. Here are some other musicians we all know and events that helped them rise from obscurity:
Lemmy was raising hell long before anyone outside his neighborhood knew who he was. Drinking and drugs were part of the program long before he created his band Bastard. It was the name of the last song he had written for his previous band Hawkwind. When his manager informed him that a band named ‘Bastard ’would never get a slot on Top of the Pops, Lemmy changed the band's name to Motorhead. Lemmy was a roadie for Jimi Hendrix in the late 60s before he was famous, and he said of the experience:
“Jimi taught me how to find drugs in the most unlikely places because that was part of my job for him. That's how I learned to function on five hits of acid. But I also learned about theatrics and performing.”
A connection to Hendrix and some sage advice from his manager to change the name of his band sent Lemmy Kilmister on his way to legend status.
Ronald Belford "Bon" Scott was a co-vocalist and drummer for the Australian pop group The Spektors from 1964-66. They had reasonable success locally, playing covers of Beatles and Rolling Stones songs. He then became a vocalist for two other bands - pop group The Valentines and rock band Fraternity - before landing the lead vocalist gig with Aussie band AC/DC in 1974.
He was working for former Valentine’s bandmate Vince Lovegrove at this booking agency when he saw them perform live. Vince recommended Scott to Malcolm and Angus Young when they mentioned they were looking for a new lead singer. The trio hit it off, and Bon joined the band.
‘Smokin In The Boys Room,’ ‘Dr.Feelgood,’ ‘Kickstart My Heart’ - these were all popular songs in the 90s. They could’ve been written by a band called Xmass. Instead, we know the tracks as anthems from the band Motley Crue.
While trying to find a suitable name, guitarist Mick Mars remembered that while playing with a previous band, White Horse, one of the other band members said the group was “a motley-looking crew.” He remembered the label and later wrote it down as Mottley Cru-. He changed the spelling, and Mötley Crüe was born. Singer Vince Neil suggested adding the two sets of metal umlauts because they were drinking the German beer Löwenbräu at the time.
They got their big break after their first manager, Allan Coffman - the brother-in-law of a friend of Mick’s - got them a record deal with Elektra Records in 1982.
In 1982, Saul Hudson, the man we all know as Slash, played in his first band - Tidus Sloan. From there, he formed the Road Crew with his childhood friend Steven Adler in 1983. The band was named after the Motorhead song ‘(We Are) The Road Crew.’ He had short stints with Hollywood Rose and Black Sheep before everyone - Slash, Axl Rose, Duff McKagan, Izzy Stradlin, and Steven Adler - landed in the same place, and Guns N Roses was formed. In 1986, GN’R signed with Geffen Records after a talent scout, Tom Zutaut, saw them play and told everyone they were awful so he could buy time to get a deal done. The band got a $75,000 advance on the ‘Appetite For Destruction’ album; the rest is history. Slash has since played with The Snakepit, Velvet Revolver, and Miles Kennedy and has released two solo albums.
Bluesology was a 1960s blues band formed by organist Reginald Dwight and his friend, singer, and guitar player Stewart "Stu" Brown. He was a seventeen-year-old high school dropout with his heart set on making music. His time in Bluesology cemented his goals. He answered an ad placed by Liberty Records looking for a songwriter and got the job. Paired with songwriter Bernie Taupin, he wrote songs for other artists until breaking through with his 1969 album ‘Empty Sky,’ and ultimately finding success in 1970 with his self-titled album, which charted three number-one hits - ‘Crocodile Rock,’ ‘Bennie and The Jets,’ and ‘Island girl.’ On January 7, 1972, Dwight changed his legal name to Elton Hercules John. “Hercules” after the name of the horse in the British sitcom Steptoe And Son.
Billie Joe Armstrong and Mike Dirnt formed their first band, Sweet Children, in Rodeo, California when they were 14. In 1988, Larry Livermore, owner of Lookout! Records, saw the band play an early show and signed them to a record deal. In 1989, the group added drummer Al Sobrante and changed the band name to Green Day because of their love of marijuana. Billie Joe said in 2001 that he thought it was the worst band name in the world. I imagine he’s gotten over it. Green Day has sold over sixty-million albums worldwide and their peers celebrate them for being the biggest punk band in the world. Outsiders and pioneers of the genre have taken offense to claims that they’re even considered a punk band, let alone a great one. Former Sex Pistols frontman Johnny Rotten (John Lydon) chimed in:
“So there we are fending off all that and it pisses me off that years later a wank outfit like Green Day hop in and nick all that and attach it to themselves. They didn't earn their wings to do that and if they were true punk they wouldn't look anything like they do.”
Mark Knopfler is a world-renowned guitarist who has had the success that most musicians only dream of. Dire Straits have sold over one-hundred-and-twenty-million albums worldwide since the late 1970s. They started out calling themselves the Cafe Racers until a friend of the band coined the new name during a rehearsal session. MCA didn’t like the demo tape they were given in 1977 and turned them down for a record deal. So, they tried another route. They went to DJ Charlie Gillett - presenter of Honky Tonk on BBC Radio London - for advice on how to get a deal done. He loved their demo and played ‘Sultans of Swing’ on his show. They signed a recording contract with the Vertigo division of Phonogram Inc two months later.
Before Ozzy, Tony, Geezer, and Bill changed the music landscape forever with their work in Black Sabbath, they entertained audiences under the name Earth. Following the break-up of their previous band Mythology in 1968, guitarist Tony Iommi and drummer Bill Ward wanted to form a heavy rock band in Aston, Birmingham. They employed vocalist Ozzy Osbourne and bassist Geezer Butler, who had played together in a band called Rare Breed. They found Ozzy after he placed an advertisement in a local music shop: "Ozzy Zig Needs Gig – has own PA.” The new group was initially named the Polka Tulk Blues Band - a name taken from the brand of talcum powder Ozzy’s mother used - then Earth, and ultimately Black Sabbath. Jim Simpson, their first manager and owner of Henry’s Blues House would send them off to Germany to play at the Star Club in Hamburg, made famous by The Beatles. They signed with Phillips Records in December 1969 and released their first single, ‘Evil Woman’ in January 1970.