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(Read all about John Mellencamp after the video)
John J Mellencamp (born October 7, 1951), previously known as Johnny Cougar, John Cougar, and John Cougar Mellencamp, is an American musician, singer-songwriter, painter, and actor. He is known for his catchy, populist brand of heartland rock, which emphasizes traditional instrumentation. Mellencamp rose to fame in the 1980s while "honing an almost startlingly plainspoken writing style that, starting in 1982, yielded a string of Top 10 singles", including "Hurts So Good", "Jack & Diane", "Crumblin' Down", "Pink Houses", "Lonely Ol' Night", "Small Town", "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.", "Paper in Fire", and "Cherry Bomb". He 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. Mellencamp has been nominated for 13 Grammy Awards, winning one. Mellencamp released his latest album, Sad Clowns & Hillbillies, on April 28, 2017, 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. Farm Aid concerts have remained an annual event over the past 32 years, and as of 2017 the organization has raised over $50 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. Rolling Stone contributor Anthony DeCurtis said: "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."
In 2001, Billboard magazine editor-in-chief Timothy White said:
“ John Mellencamp is arguably the most important roots rocker of his generation. John has made fiddles, hammer dulcimers, Autoharps and accordions lead rock instruments on a par with electric guitar, bass and drums, and he also brought what he calls 'a raw Appalachian' lyrical outlook to his songs. Mellencamp's best music is rock 'n roll stripped of all escapism, and it looks directly at the messiness of life as it's actually lived. In his music, mortality, anxiety, acts of God, questions of romance and brotherhood, and crises of conscience all collide and demand hard decisions. This is rock music that tells the truth on both its composer and the culture he's observing. ”
Johnny Cash called Mellencamp "one of the 10 best songwriters" in music.
Mellencamp is of German ancestry. He was born with spina bifida, for which he had corrective surgery as an infant. Mellencamp 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.
When Mellencamp was 18, he eloped with his pregnant girlfriend Priscilla Esterline. Mellencamp became a father in December 1970, only six months after he graduated from high school. His daughter, Michelle, later 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 used 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 several local bands including the glitter-band Trash, which was named for 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 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, insisting that the bumpy German name "Mellencamp" was too hard to market. Mellencamp reluctantly agreed, but the album was a commercial 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 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 achieved stardom). Mellencamp drew interest from Rod Stewart's manager, Billy Gaff, after parting ways with DeFries and was signed onto the small 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 No. 1 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."
Performing as John Cougar Mellencamp (1983–1990)
With some commercial success under his belt, Mellencamp had enough clout to force the record company to add his real surname, Mellencamp, to his stage moniker. The first album recorded under his new name John Cougar Mellencamp was 1983's Uh-Huh, a Top-10 album that spawned the Top 10 singles "Pink Houses" and "Crumblin' Down" as well as the No. 14 hit "Authority Song", which he said is "our version of "I Fought the Law'." During the recording of Uh-Huh, Mellencamp's backing band settled on the lineup it retained 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. In 1988, Rolling Stone magazine called this version of Mellencamp's band "one of the most powerful and versatile live bands ever assembled." On the 1984 Uh-Huh Tour, Mellencamp opened his shows with cover versions of songs he admired growing up, including Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel", the Animals' "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood", Lee Dorsey's "Ya Ya" and the Left Banke's "Pretty Ballerina".
Since college, Mellencamp, with the exception of his continuing addiction to nicotine, has lived a drug and alcohol-free lifestyle. In 1984, when asked about his views on drugs, he told Bill Holdship of Creem magazine, "If you want to stick needles in your arms, go ahead and fucking do it. You're the one that's going to pay the consequences. I don't think it's a good idea, and I sure don't advocate it, but I'm not going to judge people. Hell, if that was the case, you wouldn't like anyone in the music business because everyone's blowing cocaine."
In 1985, Mellencamp released Scarecrow, which peaked at No. 2 in the fall of 1985 and spawned five Top 40 singles: "Lonely Ol' Night" (No. 6), "Small Town" (No. 6), and "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A. (A Salute to '60s Rock)" (No. 2), "Rain on the Scarecrow" (No. 21) and "Rumbleseat" (No. 28). According to the February 1986 edition of Creem Magazine, Mellencamp wanted to incorporate the sound of classic '60s rock into Scarecrow, and he gave his band close to a hundred old singles to learn "almost mathematically verbatim" prior to recording the album.
"Learning those songs did a lot of positive things", Mellencamp explained to Creem writer Bill Holdship. "We realized more than ever what a big melting pot of all different types of music the '60s were. Take an old Rascals song for example – there's everything from marching band beats to soul music to country sounds in one song. Learning those opened the band's vision to try new things on my songs. It wasn't let's go back and try to make this part fit into my song, but I wanted to capture the same feeling – the way those songs used to make you feel. After a while, we didn't even have to talk about it anymore. If you listen to the lead Larry [Crane] plays on 'Face of the Nation,' he never would have played that 'cause he didn't really know who the Animals were. He's young, and he grew up on Grand Funk Railroad. You hear it, and it's like 'where did that come from?' It had to be from hearing those old records."
Scarecrow was the first album Mellencamp recorded at his own recording studio, jokingly dubbed "Belmont Mall", located in Belmont, Indiana and built in 1984. Mellencamp sees Scarecrow as the start of the alternative country genre: "I think I invented that whole 'No Depression' thing with the Scarecrow album, though I don't get the credit", he told Classic Rock magazine in October 2008.
Shortly after finishing Scarecrow, Mellencamp helped organize the first Farm Aid benefit concert with Willie Nelson and Neil Young in Champaign, Illinois on September 22, 1985. The Farm Aid concerts remain an annual event and have raised over $50 million for struggling family farmers as of 2017.
Prior to the 1985–86 Scarecrow Tour, during which he covered some of the same 1960s rock and soul songs he and his band rehearsed prior to the recording of Scarecrow, Mellencamp added fiddle player Lisa Germano to his band. Germano would remain in Mellencamp's band until 1994, when she left to pursue a solo career.
Mellencamp's next studio album, 1987's The Lonesome Jubilee, included the singles "Paper in Fire" (No. 9), "Cherry Bomb" (No. 8), "Check It Out" (No. 14), and "Rooty Toot Toot" (No. 61) along with the popular album tracks "Hard Times for an Honest Man" and "The Real Life", both of which cracked the top 10 on the Billboard Album Rock Tracks chart. "We were on the road for a long time after Scarecrow, so we were together a lot as a band", Mellencamp said in a 1987 Creem Magazine feature. "For the first time ever, we talked about the record before we started. We had a very distinct vision of what should be happening here. At one point, The Lonesome Jubilee was supposed to be a double album, but at least 10 of the songs I'd written just didn't stick together with the idea and the sound we had in mind. So I just put those songs on a shelf, and cut it back down to a single record. Now, in the past, it was always 'Let's make it up as we go along' – and we did make some of The Lonesome Jubilee up as we went along. But we had a very clear idea of what we wanted it to sound like, even before it was written, right through to the day it was mastered."
As Frank DiGiacomo of Vanity Fair wrote in 2007, "The Lonesome Jubilee was the album in which Mellencamp defined his now signature sound: a rousing, crystalline mix of acoustic and electric guitars, Appalachian fiddle, and gospel-style backing vocals, anchored by a crisp, bare-knuckle drumbeat and completed by his own velveteen rasp."
During the 1987–88 Lonesome Jubilee Tour, Mellencamp was joined onstage by surprise guest Bruce Springsteen at the end of his May 26, 1988 gig in Irvine, California, for a duet of Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone", which Mellencamp performed as the penultimate song during each show on that tour.
After the Lonesome Jubilee Tour, Mellencamp divorced his second wife, Vicki.
In 1989, Mellencamp released the personal album Big Daddy, with the key tracks "Jackie Brown", "Big Daddy of Them All", and "Void in My Heart" accompanying the Top 15 single "Pop Singer". The album, which Mellencamp called at the time the most "earthy" record he'd ever made, is also the last to feature the "Cougar" moniker. In 1991, Mellencamp said: "'Big Daddy' was the best record I ever made. Out of my agony came a couple of really beautiful songs. You can't be 22 years old and had two dates and understand that album."
Mellencamp was heavily involved in painting at this time in his life and decided not to tour behind Big Daddy, stating: "What's the point?... This other step that people keep wanting me to take to become another level of recording artist – to be Madonna? To sell out? To bend over? To kiss somebody's ass? I ain't gonna do it." In his second painting exhibition, at the Churchman-Fehsenfeld Gallery in Indianapolis in 1990, Mellencamp's portraits were described as always having sad facial expressions and conveying "the same disillusionment found in his musical anthems about the nation's heartland and farm crisis."
Performing as John Mellencamp (1991–1997)
Mellencamp's 1991 album, Whenever We Wanted, was the first with a cover billed to John Mellencamp—the Cougar was now gone forever. Whenever We Wanted yielded the Top 40 hits "Get a Leg Up" and "Again Tonight," but "Last Chance," "Love and Happiness" and "Now More Than Ever" all garnered significant airplay on rock radio. "It's very rock 'n' roll," Mellencamp said of Whenever We Wanted: "I just wanted to get back to the basics."
In 1993, he released Human Wheels, and the title track peaked at No. 48 on the Billboard singles chart. "To me, this record is very urban", Mellencamp told Billboard magazine of Human Wheels in the summer of 1993. "We had a lot of discussions about the rhythm and blues music of the day. We explored what a lot of these (current) bands are doing – these young black bands that are doing more than just sampling."
Mellencamp's 1994 Dance Naked album included a cover of Van Morrison's "Wild Night" as a duet with Meshell Ndegeocello. "Wild Night" became Mellencamp's biggest hit in years, peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. The album also contained two protest songs in "L.U.V." and "Another Sunny Day 12/25", in addition to the title track, which hit No. 41 on the Hot 100 in the summer of 1994. "This is as naked a rock record as you're going to hear", Mellencamp said of Dance Naked in a 1994 Billboard magazine interview. "All the vocals are first or second takes, and half the songs don't even have bass parts. Others have just one guitar, bass, and drums, which I haven't done since American Fool."
With guitarist Andy York now on board as Larry Crane's full-time replacement, Mellencamp launched his Dance Naked Tour in the summer of 1994, but suffered a minor heart attack after a show at Jones Beach in New York on August 8 of that year that eventually forced him to cancel the last few weeks of the tour. "I was up to 80 cigarettes a day," Mellencamp told the Boston Herald in September 1996 about the habits that led to his heart malfunction two years prior. "We'd finish a show and I'd go out and have steak and french fries and eggs at 4 in the morning and then go to sleep with all that in my gut. It was just a terrible lifestyle."
He returned to the concert stage in early 1995 by playing a series of dates in small Midwestern clubs under the pseudonym Pearl Doggy.
In September 1996, the experimental album Mr. Happy Go Lucky, which was produced by Junior Vasquez, was released to critical acclaim. "It's been fascinating to me how urban records use rhythm and electronics, and it's terribly challenging to make that work in the context of a rock band", Mellencamp told Billboard magazine in 1996. "But we took it further than an urban record. The arrangements are more ambitious, with programs and loops going right along with real drums and guitars."
Mr. Happy Go Lucky spawned the No. 14 single "Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)" (Mellencamp's last Top 40 hit) and "Just Another Day", which peaked at No. 46.
Mellencamp lives five miles outside of Bloomington, Indiana on the shores of Lake Monroe, but he also has a vacation home in Daufuskie Island, South Carolina.
Mellencamp was married to Priscilla Esterline from 1970 until 1981 and to Victoria Granucci from 1981 until 1989. He married former model Elaine Irwin on September 5, 1992. On December 30, 2010, Mellencamp announced that he and Irwin had separated after 18 years of marriage. Their divorce became official on August 12, 2011, with the couple negotiating "an amicable settlement of all issues involving property and maintenance rights, the custody and support of their children, and all other issues", according to the settlement agreement.
Mellencamp has five children from his three marriages: daughter Michelle from his marriage to Esterline; daughters Teddi Jo and Justice from his marriage to Granucci; and sons Hud and Speck from his marriage to Irwin.
After his divorce from Irwin, Mellencamp began dating actress Meg Ryan. It was reported Mellencamp and Ryan broke up in the summer of 2014 after dating for over three years. In October 2014, it was revealed that Mellencamp and Ryan were back together. In the summer of 2015, it was reported they broke up again.
In September 2015, Mellencamp began a new relationship with former supermodel Christie Brinkley. In August 2016, the couple announced their separation after almost a year of dating. In July 2017 it was reported Mellencamp and Ryan have reunited and are dating again.