John Cougar Mellencamp - Biography

John Cougar MellencampJohn Mellencamp (born October 7, 1951 in Seymour, Indiana) is an American rock/roots rock singer, songwriter, and guitarist, known for a long and successful recording and performing career highlighted by a series of 1980s hits, including "Jack and Diane", "Pink Houses" and others, and by his role in the Farm Aid charity event.

Early life

Mellencamp, who was born with a mild form of spina bifida that was corrected with neurosurgery when he was three weeks old, had a troubled childhood marked by several brushes with the law. At the age of 14, he was the lead singer in the band Crepe Soul, a group that played rock and soul (James Brown, Sam and Dave) cover songs at colleges, bars, raceways parks and other social events around southern Indiana in the mid-1960s. After graduating from high school in 1970, Mellencamp eloped with his pregnant girlfriend and began performing with the band Snakepit Banana Barn the following year. He also played with a glam-rock band called Trash and another called the Mason Brothers before landing a record deal in 1975.

The John Cougar years

At age 24, Mellencamp, determined to break into the music business, traveled to New York City and signed on with agent Tony DeFries of MainMan Management (at the time well-known for representing David Bowie). DeFries insisted that Mellencamp's first album, Chestnut Street Incident, a collection of covers and derivative originals, be released under the stage name Johnny Cougar, a move Mellencamp claims was made without his knowledge and against his will. The album was a failure, and Mellencamp lost his contract with MCA Records.

He signed to the tiny Riva Records label and recorded 1978's A Biography. This was unreleased in the United States, but yielded a hit in Australia, "I Need a Lover". Riva Records added this track to his next album, John Cougar (1979) and it become a Top 40 single in November 1979. Female rocker Pat Benatar recorded "I Need a Lover" and released the song as a single from her debut album In the Heat of the Night.

In 1980, Mellencamp returned with Nothin' Matters And What If It Did? -- another scattershot effort that did manage to yield the Top 40 singles "This Time" and "Ain't Even Done With The Night," the latter of which was one of the most distinct songs Mellencamp had written to date. In 1982 Mellencamp released his breakthrough album, American Fool. The hit singles "Hurts So Good" and "Jack and Diane" sent the album to the top of the charts, and a third single, "Hand To Hold On To," cracked the Top 20 and was a staple in his concerts throughout the 1980s.

The John Cougar Mellencamp years

With a major hit under his belt, Mellencamp insisted on changing his billing to John Cougar Mellencamp (compromising by keeping the stage name as well as his true last name) for the 1983 follow-up, Uh-Huh, which was another top-10 hit and spawned several hit singles, including the vivid Americana of "Pink Houses," and the rocking "Crumblin' Down." Despite his popular success, Mellencamp fared less well with critics who tended to view him as a derivative heartland rocker in the mold of Bob Seger or as a poor man's Bruce Springsteen.

During the recording of Uh-Huh, Mellencamp's backing band settled on the lineup it would retain for the next several albums: Kenny Aronoff on drums and percussion, Larry Crane and Mike Wanchic on guitars, Toby Myers on bass and John Cascella on keyboards.

Mellencamp, now beginning to assert his power as a hitmaker, changed his billing for songwriting and production credits to simply John Mellencamp, although his official name on album covers and other releases was still John Cougar Mellencamp. He also made waves by refusing to allow alcohol or tobacco companies to sponsor his tours and was adamant in not selling his songs for commercial use, no matter how much money he was offered.

In 1985 Mellencamp released Scarecrow, a rural masterpiece that was dubbed his first "serious" effort. The album's lyrics were socially aware, with several songs focusing on the plight of the American family farmer, and Mellencamp soon helped organize Farm Aid with Willie Nelson. Scarecrow was the epitome of a heartland rock album and improved his critical reputation in some quarters, while "Lonely Ol' Night", "Small Town", and "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." all became Top 10 hits and "Rain On The Scarecrow" and "Rumbleseat" garnered considerable play on album-rock stations.

During this time Mellencamp was establishing himself as one of the best live acts in rock 'n roll. His concerts were celebrations of all that was great about rock music, and during the 1985-86 Scarecrow Tour he played not only two blistering sets of his own songs, but also a set of 1960s rock and soul classics such as "Mickey's Monkey," "Proud Mary," "Nobody But Me," "Cold Sweat," and "Mony Mony" among others to close out his high-energy shows. Prior to the Scarecrow Tour he added fiddle player Lisa Germano to his band to accent and deepen his overall sound. Germano would remain in Mellencamp's band until 1994.

Germano played a big role in Mellencamp's next LP, 1987's The Lonesome Jubilee, which was departure from his earlier material as it incorporated country and folk influences. It generated several more hit singles, "Paper in Fire," "Cherry Bomb" and "Check It Out," along with stellar album tracks like "Hard Times For An Honest Man" and "The Real Life" and is considered one of the best and most unusual albums of the 1980s. The Lonesome Jubilee Tour played around the world to rave reviews and kept him on the road until July of 1988. By this time Mellencamp's band was universally hailed as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, ensemble in rock.

1989's Big Daddy was an ever quieter, mostly acoustic venture; the "Cougar" cover usage now seemed fully inappropriate, and it was indeed the last album to contain it. Big Daddy stands as one of Mellencamp's finest albums, containing terrific songs like "Jackie Brown," "Big Daddy of Them All" and "Void in My Heart." By this point Mellencamp had established himself as one of the rock's greatest songwriters and a unique talent. He decided not to tour behind the album, instead shifting his focus to a newfound love of painting that helped him through a rough divorce from his second wife Vicky.

Finally just John Mellencamp

1991's Whenever We Wanted was the first album whose cover was billed to just John Mellencamp. It yielded the Top 40 hits "Get a Leg Up" and "Again Tonight," along with mainstream rock hits "Love and Happiness" and "Now More Than Ever," and marked Larry Crane's departure from the band, replaced by guitarist David Grissom.'

By 1993's Human Wheels, Mellencamp's critical reception was largely positive and Dance Naked (1994) spawned his biggest hit in years, "Wild Night" (a cover of Van Morrison's song, in the form of a duet with Me'Shell NdegeOcello). The album saw Grissom replaced by guitarist Andy York -- still Mellencamp's guitarist to this day -- and contained two of Mellencamp's strongest protest songs in "L.U.V" and "Another Sunny Day 12/25."

After a mild 1994 heart attack, Mellencamp returned in 1996 with Mr. Happy Go Lucky, which blended heavier dance rhythms with his now signature folk-rock style with the aid of dance producer Junior Vasquez. "Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)" and "Just Another Day" were breezy and infectious and both garnered a good deal of airplay the former becoming his last Top 40 single. Because of the use of dance and hip-hop elements in the rhythm of the album's songs, Mr. Happy Go Lucky broke new ground in much the same way The Lonesome Jubilee did nine years earlier.

Mellencamp left Mercury after Mr. Happy Go Lucky. Issued a day before his 47th birthday in 1998, his self-titled debut for Columbia Records included the singles "Your Life is Now" and "I'm Not Running Anymore", along with album tracks such as "Eden Is Burning," "Miss Missy," "It All Comes True" and "Chance Meeting At The Trantula." Hard-core fans have even enjoyed two unreleased songs Mellencamp wrote for his Columbia debut, the hard-rocking "Here Comes Angie" and one of his most intriguing songs about racism, "March Of The Forgotten Seven." The switch in labels coincided with the talented Dane Clark replacing the legendary Aronoff on drums.

In 1999 Mellencamp covered his own tunes as well as those by Bob Dylan and the Drifters (a wonderful take on "Under The Boardwalk") for his album Rough Harvest, one of two albums he owed Mercury Records to fulfill his contract (the other was The Best That I Could Do, a best-of collection). The orginals Mellencamp cut for Rough Harvest were done in an acoustic folk fashion and cast new light on some of his strongest material.

The early 21st century found Mellencamp teaming up with artists such as Chuck D and India.Arie to deliver a more laid back record with Cuttin' Heads, spawning the radio hit "Peaceful World" -- a duet with India.Arie. Audiences would associate "Peaceful World" with the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, even though Mellencamp had written it two years beforehand. He performed "Peaceful World" at The Concert for New York City and it appeared in a more mournful, live acoustic version on the benefit album God Bless America. Cuttin' Heads garnered excellent reviews and continued Mellencamp's reputation as a serious social commentator who still has the ability to write catchy, light-hearted pop/rock songs. "Deep Blue Heart" is a gorgeous duet with country singer Trish Yearwood, and "Just Like You" is a rocking, percussion-drenched romantic tune that showed Mellencamp's range as a songwriter.

Trouble No More followed in mid-2003, a quickly-recorded collection of rootsy folks and blues covers by artists such as Robert Johnson, Son House, and Lucinda Williams. The album was also dedicated to Mellencamp's friend, Billboard editor-in-chief Timothy White, who died from a heart attack in 2002.

A self-proclaimed advocate of American liberalism, Mellencamp participated in the Vote for Change tour in October of 2004 leading up to the 2004 U.S. Presidential election. That same month he released the two-disc career hits retrospective "Words and Music," which contained 35 of his radio singles (including all 22 of his Top 40 hits) along with two new tunes, the socially-conscious, R&B tinged single "Walk Tall" along with "Thank You." Throughout 2003 and early 2004, Mellencamp's music was frequently heard at campaign rallies for then-presidential candidate John Edwards. The two most frequently heard songs were "Your Life Is Now" and "Small Town," which was Edwards' official campaign song. Mellencamp was also a contributor to Edwards' campaign, contributing $2,000 to his effort in December 2003.

According to Newsmeat, Mellencamp is also a frequent contributor to the campaigns of fellow Seymour native Congressman Baron P. Hill (D-Indiana).

Mellencamp is currently working on his first album of original material since 2001's Cuttin' Heads. The first single from the new album, which has the working title of "Freedom's Road," will hit radio in the fall of 2006. The song, entitled "Our Country," was played as the opening song on Mellencamp's 2006 spring tour, and the band that opened for him on that tour, Little Big Town, was called on to record harmonies on the studio version of the new tune. Mellencamp shot a video for "Our Country," which is a patriotic anthem along the lines of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land," in Savannah, Ga. on September 17 and 18 of 2006. In fact, Mellencamp has described "Freedom's Road" as "a Woody Guthrie rock album." Guthrie is one of Mellencamp's heroes. The new record doesn't have a set release date yet, but all indications are it will be out sometime in January or February of 2007.

Note: As of May 4, 2006 Mellencamp has sold 25.7 million albums in the United States.

Movie career

Mellencamp has had a brief career as an actor, appearing in four films: Falling From Grace (which he also directed) (1992), Madison (2001), After Image (2001), and Lone Star State of Mind (2002).

Influence

Mellencamp's sound is cited as a major influence by fellow midwesterners Sheryl Crow, Garth Brooks, Joan Osborne, Big and Rich, Kid Rock & Aussie Keith Urban.

Personal life

Mellencamp lives in Bloomington, Indiana and married former supermodel Elaine Irwin Mellencamp on September 5, 1992. Mellencamp has five children from three marriages: daughters Michelle (b. 1970), Teddy Jo (1981), and Justice (1985), along with sons Hud (b. 1994) and Speck (1995). He is known to be a rabid Indiana University basketball fan (he often attends games), and has been a staunch supporter of the University itself for a number of years, having contributed a significant amount of money to the University's cultural and educational programs. In 2000, he gave the IU commencement address, in which he advised graduates to "play it like you feel it!" and that "you'll be alright." Following the delivery of his address, Indiana University bestowed upon him an honorary doctorate of Musical Arts. A popular fixture in and around Bloomington, Mellencamp is often seen dining out in any of several of his favorite local restaurants, shopping at local farmer's markets and co-ops, and attending musical/artistic events in town. Despite his constant presence, however, Mellencamp is known among citizens for his desire for privacy and "a normal life," often expressing dismay at being approached for autographs or greetings while shopping, dining out, or relaxing with his family (though he is noted to be very cordial and appreciative to those fans who approach him at "appropriate" times.) Accordingly, "Mellencamp sightings" among Bloomington residents and IU students are a common, though usually anticlimactic, occurrence.

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