Here is a
singer-songwriter, pianist, multi-musician, composer and actor born Thomas
Alan Waits in Pomona,
California, to a family where his parents were both
schoolteachers and his father taught Spanish. In 1960 they divorced and Tom
went to live in Whittier,
California, with his mother and later in National City.
several trips to Mexico with his father and he has since said
that these journeys had a strong influence on him with regard to music due
to hearing Mexican Ranchera style playing on the
radio in the car.
In the mid
1960s he had started performing with The Systems who played R&B and
soul music and also held a job in National City at the Napoleone
Pizza House, which he later referred to in his “I Can’t Wait to
Get Off Work (And See My Baby on Montgomery Avenue” and “Ghosts
of Saturday Night (After Hours at Napoleone’s
Pizza House)”. Not
enamoured with the music in the 1960s he has since said “I
wasn’t thrilled by Blue Cheer, so I found an alternative, even if it
was Bing Crosby”.
He went on to
work in San
Heritage nightclub as a doorman, which was a hub for a wide variety of acts
and where he managed to land his first gig. This served as the beginning of him
creating his own style and sound.
He became a
member of the United States Coast Guard and after completing his service
with them he began performing in Los Angeles at The Troubadour on a Monday night.
to Echo Park in Los Angeles in 1971 and when he was 21 he signed a
contract with Herb Cohen who owned the Bizarre/Straight record label. He recorded several demos which
would later become songs that he was known for, with some not being
released for another 20 years.
In 1972 he
moved label to Asylum Records and his debut Closing Time, produced by Jerry Yester, was released in
1973. Although it did get some
good reviews he didn’t get noticed until a few other artists decided
to record some of its songs.
In 1973 Tim
Buckley recorded a cover of Tom’s song “Martha” which was
the first time a popular artist recorded one his songs. Meatloaf recorded
the song in 1996 for his Welcome to
the Neighborhood. The following year, in 1974, The
Eagles recorded his “Ol’
‘55” and he released
his The Heart of Saturday Night
which received some acclaim and was popular with his fans who gave him a
cult following. By now he was
also acting as the opener on several tours with popular artists of the day.
In 1975 he
moved to Santa Monica Boulevard and that year saw the release of his Nighthawks at the Diner which,
although not a live album as such, was recorded with him talking to an
audience who were present in the studio.
touring during this time he began to drink heavily and suffer other
downsides from being on the road and living in hotels. This led to him releasing his Small Change in 1976 which contained
songs that referred to his fight with alcohol such as “Bad Liver and
a Broken Heart (in Lowell)” and “Tom Traubert’s
Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen)”. This album brought him commercial
success and saw him entering the Billboard Top 100 Albums chart, which
would be the only time he would achieve this until 23 years later in 1999. He was suddenly in the limelight
with articles being written about him in major magazines and many
On the back of
his successful album release he formed The Nocturnal Emissions which would
become his regular touring band and then embarked on an extensive tour of Europe and the United States which lasted until May 1977.
In 1977 he
released Foreign Affairs which
featured the spoken/orchestral track “Potter’s Field” and
a duet with Bette Midler on “I Never Talk to Strangers”. The following year Blue Valentine was issued, which
included his version of “Somewhere” from West Side Story.
The cover included a picture of Rickie Lee Jones who was possibly
his girlfriend at the time.
Also in 1978
he made his movie debut when he appeared as the pianist known as Mumbles in
Paradise Alley. He also composed two songs for the
the 1980s his Heartattack and Vine appeared on the shelves in
1980 and produced “Jersey Girl” which Bruce Springsteen
performed on stage in his concerts.
The title song was later used by Levis in a commercial without permission and
Tom took out a successful lawsuit against them. The same year he wrote music and
worked with Crystal Gayle for One
from the Heart at the request of Francis Ford Coppola who he started a
long collaboration with. This
music earned him an Academy Award nomination for Original Song Score. While
working on the film he gave a cameo performance as a trumpet player and met
up with the screenwriter Kathleen Brennan who he married that August. Kathleen has since introduced him to
the work of Captain Beefheart and appeared as a
co-songwriter on many album tracks.
He left Asylum
Records and in 1981 they released Bounced
Checks which was a “Best Of” type compilation. Tom continued with his acting career
and once again played a pianist when he appeared in 1981’s Wolfen and
had a song included on the soundtrack.
work with Francis Ford Coppola he gave cameo performances in 1983’s The Outsiders and Rumble Fish. The following year he wrote two
songs for the documentary film Streetwise,
gave a further cameo appearance in The
Cotton Club and later took on the much larger role of R.M. Renfield in 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
having now changed to Island Records, he released his Swordfishtrombones where he
performs on a wide variety of more unusual instruments he was not used to
performing. He also changed his
songwriting to incorporate and experiment with
earlier and lesser used styles of music.
In 1985 he
received the accolade of having his Rain
Dogs gain much critical acclaim and even though it only reached No. 188
on the Billboard Album Chart it was ranked as No.21 on the Rolling Stone list of 100 Greatest
Albums of the 1980s. Much later
Rolling Stone would include it as
No. 387 on its 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. The album included “Downtown
Train” which was later recorded by Rod Stewart and provided him with
a chart hit and Tori Amos included her version of
“Time” on her 2001 Strange
along and Tom found himself performing the lead role in the Off-Broadway
musical Franks Wild Years, which
was directed by Gary Sinise. That same year he had two songs
included in the soundtrack, as well as taking the lead role, in Down by Law by Jim Jarmusch.
A year later
in 1987 he released his album Franks
Wild Years subtitled with “Un Operachi Romantico in Two Acts”. The song “Way Down in the
Hole” from this album has since been used for HBO’s
TV show “The Wire” where it has been sung by Tom himself and
four other versions by different artists. He took on the character of Rudy the
Kraut and performed “Big Rock Candy Mountain” in the movie Ironweed. He also performed “Once More
Before I Go” in Candy
Mountain by Robert Franks.
his wife, he co-wrote the music for 1988’s Big Time and the following year he made his last stage
appearance in Demon Wine which
brought him several good reviews.
Carrying on acting in movies in 1989 he was seen in roles in Mystery Train, Cold Feet and Bearskin: An Urban Fairytale. He also provided music for the
soundtrack of Sea
of Love with his cover version of the song that
shared the title.
Into the 1990s and Tom was involved in writing the
music for Robert Wilson on The Black
Rider: The Casting of Magic Bullets which was a production based on Der Freischutz
that premiered in Hamburg in 1990.
He also worked in collaboration on the book Sylvia Plachy’s Unguided Tour
and recorded a cover version on “It’s All Right With Me” for
the AIDS benefit compilation Red Hot
In 1991 he worked with Primus on their Sailing the Seas of Cheese and
continued to work with them on later projects. He also acted and contributed music
to several movies including At Play
in the Field of the Lord, The Fisher King, Night on Earth and Queens
1992 saw him releasing Bone Machine which won him the Grammy Award for Best
Alternative Album. That same
year he worked in collaboration with Robert Wilson for the second time on
his production of Alice which once again premiered in Hamburg.
The next year he issued his The Black Rider, was a singer in Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me by Gavin Bryars
and acted with Iggy Pop in a B&W film, Short Cuts and Coffee and Cigarettes; Somewhere in California. It was around this time that Tom had
a hand in re-developing The Viper Room nightclub with Johnny Depp and Chuck E. Weiss.
In 1997 he and his wife wrote the music for the short
animation Bunny, which they also
performed. It went on to win an
Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film.
Tom left Island Records in 1998 after they had put out
the compilation Beautiful Maladies:
The Island Years. He joined
Epitaph and released his Mule
Variations in 1999 which reached No. 30 in the Billboard Album chart and
won him a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album in 2000.
He started to do work as a producer and co-produced Extremely Cool by his old friend
Chuck E. Weiss. He carried on
acting at the same time and appeared in Mystery
The new millennium saw him no less busy, releasing both
Alice and Blood Money
in 2002 nearly a decade after they had been written. In 2003 he could be heard performing
“The Return of Jackie and Judy” on We’re a Happy Family: A Tribute to The Ramones
and he attended the 10th annual Independent Music Awards as a
2004 came along and his Real Gone made an appearance. He also recorded a cover of
“King Kong” for The Late
Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered and provided backing vocals
for the Blind Boys of Alabama on the song “Go Tell It On The
Mountain” which was the title song of their Grammy Award winning
He returned to acting after a break of several years
and in 2005 appeared in Domino
and La Tigre e la Neve. Back to music in 2006 and his
three-CD box set Orphans: Brawlers,
Bawlers & Bastards was released with the video of “Lie To
Me” being used to promote it.
He appeared on Late Night with
Conan O’Brien and sang two songs from this box set in 2007. Later in 2007 he released his
download single “Diamond in Your Mind”, performed with the Kronos Quartet at the Bridge School Benefit and
appeared in Wristcutters: A Love Story.
Moving into 2008 he made the announcement that as of
June he would be visiting cities in the United States and Europe on his Glitter and Doom Tour. His concert held in El Paso,Texas in June was met with the honour of being
given the key to city. The
following year he performed the role of Mr. Nick in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
Now in the second decade of the 2000s he was seen in a
major role in the 2010 The Book of
Eli with Denzel Washington. Going into 2011 he published his Seeds on Hard Ground which is a set
of 23 poems that will be included in the book Hard Times by Michael O’Brien. Money from the book will help raise
funds for Redwood Empire Food Bank.
He also released the album and single Bad As Me and performed on two songs on Ghost to a Ghost/Gutter Town by Hank Williams III.
In March 2011 his contribution to music was recognised
when Neil Young inducted him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
He has also contributed backing vocals for other
artists that include Teddy Edward’s “Little Man” and
“I’m Not Your Fool Anymore”, Bonnie Raitt’s
“Your Sweet and Shiny Eyes”, Thelonius
Monster’s “Adios Lounge”, Ken Nordine’s
“A Thousand Bing Bangs” and “The Movie”, The
Replacements’ “Date to Church” and The Rolling
Stone’s “Harlem Shuffle”.
Many tributes to his work have been made through the
years with the 1995 tribute album of cover versions Temptation being released by Holly Cole and a further
collection of covers called Wicked
Grin was released in 2001 by John Hammond. Scarlett
Johansson covered ten of his songs on her Anywhere I Lay My Head and Alison Krauss and Robert Plant
recorded his “Trampled Rose” for their acclaimed Raising Sand. Far too many other artists to
mention have recorded his songs.
In recognition for his contribution to music he was
inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March 2011 and VH1 have
named him “One of the Most Influential Artists of All Time”.