The top 10 bands and artists from Indiana will likely have music fans think of The Jackson Five and its most popular star, Michael. There is also the sister, Janet Jackson. These two carved very successful paths of success for themselves as more than just recording artists. The two became icons. So have other Indiana-based favorites such as Crystal Gayle, John Mellencamp, Wes Montgomery, David Lee Roth, and Axl Rose, just to name a few. Otherwise known as the Hoosier State, Indiana was one of the first states outside of Chicago and New Orleans to become influenced by jazz. It was also heavily influenced by the musical culture brought in by German and Irish immigrants. One song in particular, “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen” was mistaken as an Irish-based ballad when, in truth, was written by a German immigrant named Thomas Westendorf. He lived in Hendricks County when he wrote what became a very popular ballad in 1895. It was written for his wife who visited New York to cure her homesickness in the form of a musical answer to another popular ballad at the time, “Barney, Take Me Home Again.”
Located in Richmond, Indiana, is Gennett Records. It was founded in 1917 by the Starr Ringo Company and was named after its managers, Harry, Fred, and Clarence Gennett. Its earliest set of recordings was credited to Starr Records as a label and it featured an impressive collection of blues, country, and jazz music. Another well-recognized label from Indiana was Vee-Jay Records. Out of Gary, it was known for its production of blues, jazz, R&B, and rock albums ever since it was founded by Vivian Carter and James C. Bracken in 1953. This was a husband and wife team who used their initials to come up with the label’s name. This was one of the earliest record companies owned by an African American and it was a label that quickly rose as one of the biggest players in the music industry between the late 1950s and early 1960s.
In the southern parts of Indiana, country music remains a genre favorite and is part of the Upland South. Not to be confused with the Deep South, its region has its own cultural and historical background of communities that are primarily situated along the shores of the Ohio River. Along with Indiana as part of the Upland South are the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, parts of Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, most of Tennessee, and West Virginia. As popular as country music has been in Indiana, it’s also known for its diversity in blues, jazz, and rock. Starting in the 1970s, contemporary Christian, new wave, and punk rock became a big part of the music scene, especially in Indianapolis.
#10 – Crystal Gayle
On January 9, 1951, Brenda Gaile Webb was born in Paintsville, Kentucky, as the youngest of eight children and the only one who was born in the hospital instead of at home. Better known by country music fans as Crystal Gayle, she is the younger sister to country music legend Loretta Lynn. Their father, Melvin Webb, was a coal miner who developed black lung disease and it was a family decision to move to Wabash, Indiana, in 1955. Four years later, their father died from a stroke, leaving their mother to raise their children as a widow. Since she was a little girl, Gayle’s interest in singing had her learn how to sign before she learned how to talk. Gayle credited her sister, Loretta Lynn, for her interest in pursuing a musical career of her own. Despite the nineteen-year age gap between the two, these two sisters were very close to each other.
When she was sixteen years old, she sang as her sister’s replacement on the Grand Ole Opry. Loretta Lynn was too ill to perform so Gayle stepped in and performed a cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Ribbon of Darkness.” After she graduated from high school in 1970, Gayle earned her first recording contract with Decca Records, the same label that already had her sister. This came about before Crystal Gayle adopted her stage name as it was agreed since the label already had Brenda Lee as one of its stars that Crystal Gayle needed to have her own identity. As fate had it, Loretta Lynn drove by a sign that displayed the name of a fast-food restaurant named Krystal. Lynn suggested to her sister that its crystals were shining just as bright as she was. As for Crystal Gayle, this was simply an alteration of the young woman’s middle name.
At first, Gayle’s road to success was a bit slow as she had yet to further develop her own musical identity. Her earliest set of recordings covered Loretta Lynn’s material before she was urged by her sister to find her own sound. It wasn’t until she was directed by Allen Records with United Artists Records that was she able to do this. The country-pop approach witnessed Gayle release her first major hit single in 1975 with “Wrong Road Again.” Two years later, “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” became her signature hit that would turn her into an international star.
On the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, Canada’s RPM Country Tracks, and RPM Top Singles Charts, it was a number-one hit. On the US Billboard Hot 100, it peaked as high as number two. From the late 1970s until the late 1980s, Crystal Gayle established herself as more than just Lynn’s little sister who could sing. She became her own star, as well as one of country music’s most celebrated legends. Going into the 1990s, Crystal Gayle shifted her musical focus from country to a variety of different genres. 1995’s inspirational album, Someday, and 1999’s Crystal Gayle Sings the Heart and Soul of Hoagy Carmichael became two critical favorites that simply added to Gayle’s impressive run as a recording artist.
Gayle’s career featured a Grammy Award win for “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” in 1978 for Best Female Country Vocal Performance. Its album, We Must Believe in Magic, was her fourth studio recording since making her debut in 1975 with Crystal Gayle. That was the album that featured “Wrong Road Again” as her first major hit as it peaked as high as number six on the Hot Country Songs Chart.
Her second album, Somebody Loves You, was also a 1975 release and it was this one that featured her first number-one hit, “I’ll Get Over You.” 1976’s Crystal earned Gayle two more number-one hits with “You Never Miss a Real Good Thing (Till He Says Goodbye)” and “Ready for the Times to Get Better.” In 2003, she was recognized as one of Country Music Television’s “40 Greatest Women of Country Music.” In 2017, Crystal Gayle became an inducted member of the Grand Ole Opry. As of 2009, she also has her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2021, Gayle’s Cherokee ancestry allowed her to be inducted into the Native American Music Awards Hall of Fame.
Crystal Gayle’s legacy includes the woman’s role as one of the most important and successful crossover recording artists in the country pop genre. Inspired by her influence includes stars such as Faith Hill, Shania Twain, and Carrie Underwood. Altogether, Crystal Gayle scored eighteen number-one hits as a recording artist, two more than what her older sister had achieved. So far, only Reba McEntire, Dolly Parton, and Tammy Wynette sit as the top three country music divas to have more number-one hits on the country music charts than any other female recording artist in the genre. Altogether, Crystal Gayle has recorded and released twenty-five studio albums, seventeen compilation albums, a live album, and sixty-eight singles.
#9 – Bill Monroe
Born on September 13, 1911, Bill Monroe became the man who was credited for creating bluegrass music as a genre. Aptly nicknamed Father of Bluegrass, the man formed his band, Blue Grass Boys, paying homage to Monroe’s original home state, Kentucky. The description of this genre by Monroe suggested the combination of Scottish bagpipes and old-style fiddling as it fused together the musical sounds of blues, gospel, and jazz as its own refined sound. The musical influence that sparked Monroe’s path as a recording artist came from a household that relished playing and singing music at home.
His older brothers, Birch and Charlie, played the fiddle and the guitar while Bill played the mandolin. As fate had it, when Monroe was ten years old, his mother died. His father passed away six years later and Monroe was left to bounce between distant relatives before settling in with his uncle, Pendleton Vandiver. Vandiver was a fiddler who performed at dances and served as a source of inspiration for Monroe. “Uncle Pen” by Monroe was a song he recorded in 1950 that paid homage to his uncle. This was later followed in 1972 with a tribute album he titled Bill Monroe’s Uncle Pen.
In addition to Vandiver serving as a key influencer who shaped Monroe’s musical career was another fiddler named Arnold Shultz. It was he who introduced Monroe to learn the blues. Before becoming a recording artist, Bill Monroe joined his brothers, Birch and Charlie, to work at an oil refinery in Indiana. These three, along with a friend, formed the Monroe Brothers and as a quartet performed at local dances and house parties. Shortly afterward, Birch left, as did the family friend. Bill and Charlie moved forward as a duo act who eventually began performing live on radio stations. At first, it was within the state of Indiana before branching out to perform on radio in Iowa, Nebraska, North Carolina, and South Carolina. The brothers were sponsored by Texas Crystals from 1934 until 1936 before RCA Victor offered a recording contract. Together, Bill and Charlie recorded and released its first hit single, “What Would You Give in Exchange For Your Soul?” Two years after this, Bill and Charlie disbanded the Monroe Brothers and took their musical careers in separate directions.
Bill Monroe formed The Kentuckians while he was in Little Rock, Arkansas. It was an extremely short-lived group before Monroe left for Atlanta, Georgia. It would be here he would meet up with Cleo Davis, Amos Garren, and Art Wooten to form the Blue Grass Boys. In October 1939, Monroe auditioned for a regular performing spot on the Grand Ole Opry. He impressed its founder, George D. Hay, with his jazzed-up performance of a Jimmie Rodgers classic, “Mule Skinner Blues.” This would be one of eight recordings Monroe performed while signed with RCA Victor in 1940. By this time, the lineup of Blue Grass Boys had Clyde Moody as its singing guitarist, Tommy Magness as its fiddler, and Bill Wesbrooks as the bassist.
The fast-paced characteristics that define bluegrass music were evident in this particular recording but Monroe wasn’t done with experimenting with new sounds as a musician just yet. While with RCA Victor, it was rare he performed as lead vocalist. In 1942, Monroe added David “Stringbean” Akeman to the lineup as its banjo player and it was his simple style that can be heard in the recordings the Blue Grass Boys made until 1946. It was also during this time he brought in Lester Flatt as rhythm guitarist and Earl Scruggs on banjo. Flatt’s style technically set the course for bluegrass as a genre that continued to develop while Scruggs used a picking style that became a popular fan favorite among members of the Grand Ole Opry audience.
This lineup of Blue Grass Boys has been recognized as the original bluegrass band as it included all the musical elements that had Monroe’s group stand out as major fan favorites during its heyday. At this time, Monroe was playing a 1923 Gibson F5 mandolin that was named “Lloyd Loar.” This became his trademark instrument that served as his trusty sidekick for the rest of Monroe’s musical career.
Between 1946 and 1947, the group produced a series of hits that became all-time bluegrass classics. These include “Toy Heart,” “Blue Grass Breakdown,” “Molly and Tenbrooks,” “Wicked Path of Sin,” “My Rose of Old Kentucky,” “Little Cabin Home on the Hill,” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” It was the all-time fan favorite, “Blue Moon of Kentucky” Elvis Presley covered in 1954 as one of his first singles while signed to Sun Records. Presley’s rock and roll version of Monroe’s slow ballad waltz became a hit and it was enough to inspire Monroe to produce a rerecording of his song at a faster pace.
By 1949, the classic Blue Grass Boys lineup had changed and Bill Monroe stepped into what was regarded as the golden age of his musical career. Flatt and Scruggs moved on to form the Foggy Mountain Boys while Monroe’s new Blue Grass Boys featured Jimmy Martin as its lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist and Rudy Lyle playing the banjo. There were also a team of fiddlers in the lineup that included Vassar Clements, Charlie Cline, Bobby Hicks, and Merle Taylor. Together, this group recorded and released a string of all-time bluegrass classics such as “My Little Georgia Rosie,” “On and On,” “Memories of Mother and Dad,” and, of course, “Uncle Pen.” There were also some instrumental favorites such as “Roanoke,” “Big Mon,” “Stoney Lonesome,” “Get Up John,” and the mandolin-heavy “Raw Hide.” At one point, Carter Stanley from The Stanley Brothers signed up as Monroe’s guitarist in 1951.
On January 16, 1953, Bill Monroe and his bass player at the time, Bessie Lee Mauldin, were struck by a drunk driver when they were returning home just north of Nashville. Monroe was rushed to the hospital with critical injuries to his back, left arm, and nose. While he was recovering, the next four months witnessed Charlie Cline and Jimmy Martin continue as the Bluegrass Boys until Monroe was able to bounce back and rejoin the lineup. However, by the late 1950s, the bluegrass musical sounds that made his group so famous were now starting to take a backseat to the rising phenomenon known as rock and roll. It also faced competition in country music as the Nashville Sound began to win over a mainstream audience across the nation and worldwide.
It wouldn’t be until the early 1960s that would Monroe be able to take advantage of the American folk music revival as young music fans favored his brand of music over the trends laid out by the music industry’s country-western genre. As a term, “bluegrass” began to make its mark as a way to describe its musical sound. Along with Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs were recognized, as were the Stanley Brothers. Also standing out as favorites were Jim and Jesse, the Osborne Brothers, and Reno and Smiley.
Among the bluegrass greats, Flatt and Scruggs were the first to jump on the bandwagon to further popularize bluegrass as its own musical genre. Monroe’s impact didn’t take place until he teamed up with a young folk musician named Ralph Rinzler. Starting in 1963, Monroe’s career began to flourish again after Rinzler not only served as his manager but also as his profiler while he issued an interview for Sing Out!, a magazine that catered to the folk music audience. This was when he was first recognized as the Father of Bluegrass. After this, Monroe’s popularity earned him a fan following that included popular recording artists such as Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia. During this time, musicians such as Richard Greene, Bill Keith, Peter Rowan, and Roland White served as members of Bill Monroe’s bluegrass lineup.
Even as the folk music revival began to cool, the bluegrass audience remained as dedicated as ever. Between bluegrass festivals and recordings, Bill Monroe continued to perform music until March 15, 1996. After suffering a stroke in April, that put an end to Monroe’s journey as a performer before passing away four days before his eighty-fifth birthday. The legacy the man left behind aside from the long list of bluegrass music that has since become popular standards also includes his name featured in the Country Music Hall of Fame as of 1970, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame as of 1971, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as of 1997.
In 1982, Monroe was also awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts with a National Heritage Fellowship. This is the American federal government’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. In 1993, Bill Monroe received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Six years later, the stretch of highway between Morgantown, Indiana, and Nashville, Indiana was dedicated to Bill Monroe and was named the Bill Monroe Memorial Highway.
#8 – Hoagy Carmichael
One of the earliest pioneers of popular music in the United States and beyond was Hoagy Carmichael. He was born on November 22, 1899, in Bloomington, Indiana. He was named Hoagland Howard Carmichael by his parents after they were influenced by a circus troupe who stayed in the family home while his mother was pregnant. She was also a pianist who performed at movie theaters for silent movies and at private parties. His father drove horses as the city’s taxi driver who later became an electrician. Until 1910, Bloomington and Indianapolis served as Hoagy Carmichael’s home before the family moved to Missoula, Montana. Since his mother was a pianist, it was the first instrument Hoagy Carmichael learned. He also learned how to sing. In 1916, the Carmichaels returned to Indianapolis. However, Hoagy Carmichael went to Bloomington instead so he could finish high school.
At the time, he was also influenced by ragtime-style piano music. When he was eighteen years old, the young Carmichael did his part in helping out his family with its financial struggles as a manual laborer. What helped him through this difficult time in his life was playing piano duets with his mother and one of his mentors, bandleader Reginald DuValle. It was DuValle who taught Carmichael how to play the piano with jazz-influenced improvisations. The start of Carmichael’s professional musical career took place in 1918 after performing at a fraternity dance. This was also the same time that Joanne, his three-year-old sister passed away. This triggered him to write a song about her as he cited her as a victim of poverty since the family wasn’t able to afford the medical attention she needed to survive. It served as a turning point for Carmichael as he vowed never to be so broke again.
After graduating from Indiana University Bloomington in 1925 with a bachelor’s degree, then a law degree in 1926, Carmichael’s career as a pianist continued to flourish. While a member of the Kappa Sigma Fraternity, he played around Indiana and Ohio with the band he had at the time, Carmichael’s Collegians. Before graduating, he met Leon “Bix” Beiderbecke in 1922. These two became friends and colleagues that included a 1923 introduction to the iconic Louis Armstrong while they were in Chicago, Illinois. Armstrong played an instrumental role in the development of Carmichael’s career as a composer and musician. So was Beiderbecke. “Free Wheeling” was a song that was intended for Beiderbecke and his band, The Wolverines. It was recorded as “Riverboat Shuffle” by Beiderbecke’s group while it was signed to Gennett Records in Richmond, Indiana. “Free Wheeling” became Hoagy Carmichael’s first recorded song. As “Riverboat Shuffle,” it became a jazz staple, as did Carmichael’s “Washboard Blues” and “Boneyard Shuffle.”
After Carmichael graduated in 1926, he moved to West Palm Beach, Florida, and began to work as a legal clerk in a legal firm. However, he returned to Indiana in 1927 after he failed to pass the state’s bar exam. He managed to pass the one in Indiana and joined a law firm there. However, his true passion was in music. After discovering the technique behind songwriting, this led to the composition classics “Stardust,” “Georgia on My Mind,” “The Nearness of You,” and “Heart and Soul.” Whether on his own or as part of a collaborative effort, Carmichael’s legacy as a musical artist made him one of the most influential elements who shaped the music industry into what it has become. He was also behind the hits of lyricist Johnny Mercer’s “Lazybones” and “Skylark.” Carmichael’s “Ole Buttermilk Sky” earned him an Academy Award nomination in 1946 from Canyon Passage. In 1951, Carmichael and Mercer won an Academy Award for Best Original Song with “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening.” This was used for the movie, Here Comes the Groom.
There are hundreds of songs credited to Carmichael as a composer. Fifty of them have become hits that have become popular in the musical genres, especially jazz. From 1926 until 1936, Carmichael made good use of his time as a New York City resident whose musical contributions influenced theatrical performances and motion pictures. From 1936 until 1981, his time in California mostly featured his music compositions as instrumentals. His strengths as a musician came from his efficiency as a composer, musician, and songwriter. As a vocalist, he made good use of the new technologies that were available at the time such as electrical microphones, sound amplifications, and other techniques used to enhance recording experiences. His role as a singer-pianist enabled him to sell his songs to lyricists, film producers, and music publishers so they could each capitalize on their investment to win over a mainstream audience.
One of the most popular songs to Carmichael’s credit was 1927’s “Star Dust.” The piano solo was recorded at Gennett Records in Richmond and was accompanied by members of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, Bix Beiderbecke, and Frank Trumbauer. In 1929, it was renamed to “Stardust” and was relatively unknown until it was recorded in 1930 by Isham Jones and his orchestra as a sentimental ballad with a slower tempo. This became a hit, the first of what would become many for Carmichael. After this, “Washboard Blues” was a 1927 classic that had him sing as well as play the piano as a recording for Victor Records in Chicago, Illinois. During the 1930s, Carmichael was considered to be among the most successful in Tin Pan Alley. This was a collection of New York City’s publishers and songwriters who dominated the music industry and ultimately shaped the early twentieth century’s pop culture scene. Today, Hoagy Carmichael is still regarded as a musical icon. “Stardust” is one of the most frequently covered recordings of the man’s career as scores of artists capitalize on his genius as a melodist. It was Carmichael’s “Star Dust” that was also inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and a 2005 addition to the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress. Two years later, Carmichael was inducted into the Gennett Records Walk of Fame in Richmond, Indiana.
In 1986, the Carmichael estate donated his piano and collection of archives to Indiana University and its established Hoagy Carmichael Collection in its Archives of Traditional Music and the Hoagy Carmichael Room as permanent displays. This took place five years after he passed away at eighty-two years of age. Since 1960, Charmichael’s name has been part of the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 1971, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. As for his song, “Georgia On My Mind,” which was performed by another icon, Ray Charles, became the official song for the state of Georgia.
#7 – Axl Rose
Before gunning his way to fame and fortune, Axl Rose was born and raised as William Bruce Rose Jr. in Lafayette, Indiana. His mother was a sixteen-year-old teenager when he was born and it would be two years later Rose’s father decided to move on without them. When his mother remarried, she changed her son’s name to William Bruce Bailey. Until he was seventeen years old, Axl Rose assumed Bailey was his biological father. The opportunity to meet the man never materialized as William Rose Sr. was murdered in 1984 in Marion, Illinois.
This was something Rose didn’t learn about until many years later. As for his childhood upbringing, he and his two siblings were victims of child abuse despite the fact the Bailey household was very religious. While growing up, music and television were strictly prohibited. In high school, Rose learned to play the piano and took part in the school chorus. It would be in school Rose sang in different voices in an effort to keep his music teacher off guard. At one point, Rose began a band with a friend, Jeff Isbell. Fans will recognize Isbell as Izzy Stradlin. He also became friends with a girl, Anna Hoon, and it would be she who would introduce Rose to her younger brother, Richard Shannon Hoon. This is the same Shannon Hoon who became the lead singer for Blind Melon from 1990 until 1995.
When Axl Rose was seventeen years old, he learned the truth about who his real biological father was. This was discovered after going through some insurance papers while still living with his parents. This led to adopting his original birthname back but referred to himself strictly as W. Rose. He didn’t want to share his first name with his father. In 1982, at twenty years old, Rose moved to Los Angeles, California. He had a band he called AXL and this would be the timeframe he’d adopt it as his first name. This was legally changed to W. Axl Rose just before he signed with Geffen Records in 1986.
While in Los Angeles, Rose met a guitarist named Kevin Lawrence in West Hollywood. In 1983, the two formed Rapidfire and recorded a demo at Telstar Studios in Burbank. Ready to Rumble wouldn’t be published as an EP until 2014 due to legal issues that kept it shelved for over thirty years. In the meantime, Rose moved on to put together his own band, Hollywood Rose. Izzy Stradlin, who had been in Los Angeles since 1980, joined his lineup. There was also a sixteen-year-old guitarist he recruited named Chris Weber. The men recorded a demo in 1984 that would later be released in 2004 as The Roots of Guns N’ Roses.
Just before Hollywood Rose merged with L.A. Guns to form Guns N’ Roses, Steven Adler and Saul “Slash” Hudson joined the lineup. L.A. Guns was founded by Tracii Guns. The first Guns N’ Roses lineup had Rob Gardner as drummer and Ole Beich as bassist. By June 1985, the lineup became Rose as lead vocalist, Slash as lead guitarist, Izzy Stradlin as rhythm guitarist, Steven Adler as drummer, and Duff McKagan as bassist. It was the men in this group who debuted at The Troubadour before playing around the L.A. club circuit. It didn’t take long for Guns N’ Roses to develop a loyal fan base. In 1986, the group signed up with Geffen Records just after releasing an EP, Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide.
Guns N’ Roses made its full album debut in 1987 with Appetite for Destruction. At first, the album got off to a slow commercial start despite the fact the critics seemed to love it. What helped boost its popularity was the grueling tour schedule Rose and his bandmates kept. Its hit single, “Sweet Child of Mine,” was a tribute to Rose’s girlfriend at the time, Erin Everly. This became a number one hit on the US Billboard Hot 100, and Appetite for Destruction has since become one of the best-selling albums of all time, with over thirty million copies sold worldwide. In the United States alone, the eighteen million copies sold placed the debut album in the record books as the nation’s best-selling album to date. Also from the album was “Welcome to the Jungle,” a single that stood out as one of the band’s signature songs and a frequent favorite played on classic rock radio stations.
In 1988, Guns N’ Roses were among the bands who performed at the Monsters of Rock festival in Castle Donington, England. It was during this band’s “It’s So Easy” performance that two members of the audience were crushed to death. There were many times Rose himself stopped in an effort to calm the fans down but the tragedy happened anyway. From that point forward, Rose became just as famous for addressing fans who became too wild during a concert performance as he was as the frontman of one of the most popular rock bands of all time. It was also in 1988 that Guns N’ Roses released G N’ R Lies, an album that sold over five million copies in the United States alone. Rose explained the song wasn’t intended to be that. It was based on the experience of a young man who experienced a bout of culture shock when he moved from Lafayette, Indiana to Los Angeles, California
In 1991, Guns N’ Roses released Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II. Both were very successful and have sold over thirty-five million copies worldwide. Coming from the first album, “November Rain” was a ballad that featured Axl Rose excelling as a balladeer. This joined the ranks of “Sweet Child of Mine” as a Guns N’ Roses classic. So did “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Patience,” and the cover version of the Beatles classic, “Live and Let Die.” During the Use Your Illusion Tour, Axl Rose continued to have his name plastered on the tabloids with one controversial story after another. During the timeline of the tour, there were riots and rivalries that included feuding against Metallica and Nirvana. This was followed by 1993’s “The Spaghetti Incident?”, a punk-style album that had Rose perform a series of cover songs. It didn’t sell quite as well as the group’s previous recordings.
By 1994, the Guns N’ Roses lineup felt the impact of personal and musical differences that would put any upcoming recording projects on hold. Rose purposely stepped away from the public spotlight while at the same time found himself at odds with his lead guitarist, Slash. By the time 1998 came around, the only Guns N’ Roses members left were Axl Rose and his keyboardist, Dizzy Reed. In 2001, a new Guns N’ Roses debuted at Rock in Rio 3. It was also during this time Rose and his new lineup performed with the Chinese Democracy Tour, promoting the 2008 release of Chinese Democracy. This recording is in the history books as the most expensive rock album ever produced.
When Guns N’ Roses was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012, Axl Rose declined to attend the event and wanted his name excluded entirely. As for his feud against Slash, that finally came to an end in 2016 when Duff Mckagan reunited with Guns N’ Roses to promote Not in This Lifetime… in what was a concert tour that broke attendance records. In addition to his easily distinguishable voice as a lead singer, Axl Rose has also performed as a voice actor. It was he who portrayed DJ Tommy “The Nightmare” Smith in the popular video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Despite the fact Axl Rose often found himself in feuds, legal battles, and tabloids, the man’s track record as one of the best rock vocalists in the music industry cannot be denied.
#6 -John Hiatt
John Hiatt was born in 1952 and raised in Indianapolis, Indiana. He was the sixth of seven children who grew up in a Roman Catholic household. It wasn’t the easiest childhood as he had an adult older brother who committed suicide while John Hiatt was only nine years old. This was followed by the death of his father two years later. In order to cope, a young Hiatt took to watching IndyCar races and listening to music. Among his favorite genres were blues but was also a fan of Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley. He also learned how to play the guitar. By the time he was a teenager, he was performing in a variety of clubs within the city. His interest in a variety of musical genres led to a recording career that had him cover a variety of songs from an impressive list of some of the best musicians in the business.
It was enough to earn the man nine Grammy Award nominations, a loyal fan base, and critical acclaim. One of his most notable achievements includes the penmanship behind “Sure As I’m Sittin’ Here,” a single that was covered by Three Dog Night in 1974. Hiatt’s original recording inspired Three Dog Night to turn it into a number sixteen hit on the US Billboard Hot 100 and this was enough to earn him a recording contract with Epic Records. Since then, he proceeded to record and release twenty-two studio albums, two compilation albums, and a live album.
Hiatt’s rise to fame officially began after he moved to Nashville, Tennessee, when he was eighteen years old. He was employed by the Tree-Music Publishing Company as a songwriter which earned him twenty-five dollars a week. At the time, he wasn’t able to read or write scores but proceeded to record all 240 of the songs he wrote while there. He also began playing and writing for a band called White Duck. At the same time, he also performed as a solo artist. These achievements led to Hiatt teaming up with Epic Records and the 1974 debut of his album, Hangin’ Around the Observatory.
The critics loved it but it failed to win over enough fan appeal to become a commercial success. This was followed by 1975’s Overcoats and it had the same outcome. As a result, Epic dropped Hiatt and he went four years without a contract. It was during this time his musical style switched from country rock to new wave. Right after this, he signed with MCA and had 1979’s Slug Line and 1980’s Two Bit Monsters recorded and released. Both of these albums also met the same fate as their two predecessors. However, they did win Hiatt a fan base in the Netherlands. Since performing in Amsterdam in 1979 for the first time, it became a regular stop for John Hiatt each time he went on a European tour. His song, “Across the Borderline,” was featured in the 1982 movie and soundtrack, The Border. Written by Hiatt, its vocal performance came from Freddy Fender. This song would later become a multi-genre favorite as it was covered by Ruben Blades, Willy DeVille, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, and Paul Young.
In 1982, John Hiatt signed up with Geffen Records and proceeded to record and release three more studio albums. All of a Sudden was the first and was produced by Tony Visconti who used keyboards and synthesizers to contribute to its sound. This was followed by 1983’s Riding with the King and 1985’s Warming Up to the Ice Age. Riding with the King became a critical favorite and it further broadened Hiatt’s popularity among European music fans. This album featured a mix of country and soul sounds that made it an easy fan favorite. Its title track would later be covered by Eric Clapton and B.B. King and would become certified double platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). As for Warming Up to the Ice Age, it didn’t do quite as well and it gave Geffen cause to discontinue working with Hiatt any longer. However, between 1983 and 1985, Rosanne Cash covered many of Hiatt’s songs with her own recordings. She and Hiatt performed “The Way We Make a Broken Heart” as a duet in 1983 but Geffen chose not to release it as a single. In 1987, Cash had the song rerecorded and then released. It became a number-one hit on the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart.
Hiatt’s mainstream music breakthrough continued to elude him until 1987. After releasing Bring the Family, “Have a Little Faith in Me” and “Memphis in the Meantime” became favorite songs for some of the most popular recording artists in the music industry to cover. Bon Jovi, Joe Cocker, Jewel, and Mandy Moore were among the stars who covered “Have a Little Faith in Me” while “Memphis in the Meantime” was covered by Gregg Allman, Carl Perkins, Chris Smither, and Spafford. Additional songs from the album that were covered were “Thank You Girl” by Loudon Wainwright III and “Thing Called Love” by Bonnie Raitt. After Bring the Family, it was the 1988 recording of Slow Turning. Its title track became a number eight hit on the US Billboard Mainstream Rock Song chart while “Tennessee Plates” was featured in the soundtrack for 1991’s Thelma and Louise. Also in 1988 was the release of “Angel Eyes” by The Jeff Healey Band. Written by John Hiatt and Fred Koller as a team, this became one of Jeff Healey’s biggest hits as it peaked at number five on the US Billboard Hot 100.
Among the albums that earned Hiatt Grammy Award nominations, the first was 1995’s Walk On. There was also 2000’s bluegrass-influenced Crossing Muddy Waters as Best Contemporary Folk Album. It also earned him a Nashville Music Award as Songwriter/Artist of the Year. In 2008, John Hiatt received the Americana Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting. The most recent Grammy Award nomination Hiatt earned came from the 2021 recording of his album, Leftover Feelings. This time, it was for the Best Americana Album category. This illustrates the diversity of John Hiatt’s music as one of the most gifted and versatile songwriters and performers in the business.
#5 – Wes Montgomery
John Leslie Montgomery was born on March 6, 1923, in Indianapolis. He earned “Wes” as a childhood nickname as an abbreviated adaptation of his middle name. After his parents split up, Wes and his brothers moved with their father to Columbus Ohio. This is where they grew up. Wes had an older brother, Monk, who dropped out of high school in favor of getting a job so he could earn a living. He saved enough money to buy Wes a four-string tenor guitar from a pawn shop when he was about eleven years old. Despite spending several hours playing the instrument, he eventually found it useless. He wanted to start over with a six-string guitar. By the time 1943 hit, Montgomery and his brothers already moved back to Indianapolis, and the young man got married. While at a dance with his wife, he became motivated to buy that six-string guitar after listening to Charlie Christian’s music for the first time. For about a year, Montgomery practiced non-stop to learn the guitar well enough to play just like Christian. There was no intent at the time to follow a music career but he felt since he spent money on the guitar he may as well learn how to play it.
By the time Montgomery was twenty years old, he was working for a dairy company during the day and as a club performer at night. He made a niche out of performing Charlie Christian music while on stage. As fate had it, Lionel Hampton was on tour in Indianapolis and was in need of a guitarist. After hearing Montgomery play like Christian, he recruited the young man to join his band. For two years, Montgomery performed with him but was too afraid to fly. Instead, he was driven from one location to another.
Each time he reached his new destination he would rush to the phone to call his wife and family. Despite earning opportunities to play with greats such as Milt Buckner, Charles Mingus, and Fats Navarro, he turned these down and returned home to Indianapolis. Even though his guitar playing improved, Montgomery was exhausted and discouraged. He returned to performing for local clubs before joining his brothers, Buddy and Monk, as well as Alonzo “Pookie” Johnson, to join the Johnson/Montgomery Quintet. Together, they auditioned for Arthur Godfrey and had recording sessions with Quincy Jones that lasted between 1955 and 1957. After this, the brothers decided to head west.
It was Buddy, Monk, and Wes Montgomery, along with Freddie Hubbard, who recorded as The Mastersounds in 1957 for a label known as Pacific Jazz. Some songs were released by the label as The Montgomery Brothers and Five Others while the others were released as Fingerpickin’. Buddy and Monk stayed behind in California while West once again returned to Indianapolis. His daily regime at the time had him work as a welder during the day and as a performer at night. It was a busy schedule that met with occasional blackouts as the husband and father of seven children struggled to keep up. As a performer, Montgomery continued to capture the attention of established recording artists and talent scouts. He would be persuaded to sign a contract with Riverside that would send the man to New York City. While there, he recorded and released his debut album A New Dynamic Sound, the Wes Montgomery Trio. In 1960, this was followed by The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery. In the lineup during the recording session were Tommy Flanagan, Albert Heath, and Percy Heath.
As Wes Montgomery’s career continued to flourish, he joined his brothers in California to perform as the Montgomery Brothers for the Monterey Jazz Festival. As a trio act, Buddy, Monk, and Wes signed with Fantasy and recorded The Montgomery Brothers and Groove Yard. Both were released in 1961, the same year Wes Montgomery’s album, So Much Guitar! was released by his label, Riverside. Despite recording and releasing three albums, work for The Montgomery Brothers was harder to come by so the trio embarked on a concert tour in Canada. This led to another album released in 1961, The Montgomery Brothers in Canada. After this, the brothers broke up as a band. Once again, Montgomery headed back to Indianapolis and continued his music career there. His trio act was still going strong but Riverside sent him back to California to record a live album with Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb, Johnny Griffin, and Wynton Kelly. The group’s performance was recorded for Full House, then released in 1962. This was followed by the 1963 release of Montgomery’s first instrumental pop album, Fusion! Also in 1963, Boss Guitar and Portrait of Wes were released by Riverside before Montgomery moved on to Verve Records.
As soon as Montgomery was signed to Verve, he and producer Creed Taylor worked together for the remainder of the man’s career. 1964’s Movin’ Wes was an instrumental pop album that placed Montgomery as a jazz guitarist capable of scoring hits as a crossover recording artist. Montgomery covered a string of contemporary pop classics as a jazz guitarist that included “California Dreamin’,” “Tequila,” and “Goin’ Out of My Head.” After this, he switched labels to A&M Records. This is when he scored his biggest hit yet with his version of “Windy.” Originally recorded and released by The Association, Montgomery’s instrumental version had this song placed on the US Billboard Hot 100 two times in 1967. The Association’s “Windy” topped the music chart while Montgomery’s instrumental version peaked as high as number forty-four. The working partnership Montgomery and Taylor had witnessed eight out of the ten albums produced together focused on the pop genre. Thanks to their success, Montgomery became a popular guest featured on a variety of hosted television shows such as The Hollywood Palace and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
Montgomery’s versatility as a jazz guitarist had him exercise a technique that had the side of his thumb pluck away at the strings. The sounds he achieved from his instrument allowed him to dive into various musical sounds that were just as diverse as they were distinct. The legacy of Wes Montgomery includes a Grammy Award win with Goin’ Out of My Head, a 1966 release that had the industry recognize him for Best Instrumental Jazz Performance by Large Group or Soloist with Large Group. In 1968, he earned Grammy Awards for his instrumental performances of “Eleanor Rigby” and “Down Here on the Ground.” As popular as Montgomery became, his home was always Indianapolis. It would be at home when he passed away on June 15, 1968, at forty-five years of age due to a heart attack. The legacy of Wes Montgomery and his music continues to live on today as several recording artists covered his instrumental originals, as well as a series of tribute songs and albums. Those artists include Stevie Wonder and George Benson, just to name a few.
#4 – Cole Porter
From Peru, Indiana, Cole Porter was among the earliest pioneers of the American music industry. Before so many of his songs became popular standards that often found success on Broadway and in film, the young lad was born in 1891 and raised in a wealthy family who had expectations of him to practice law. Instead, he opted to follow a career as a musician instead. He was drawn to musical theatre and already had a trained background performing classical music. At first, Porter’s career was slow to take off but this changed once he began to make a name for himself on Broadway. Unlike the rest of the songwriters at the time, Porter not only composed the music but the lyrics as well.
His career as a musician and songwriter rose Cole Porter one of the best in the business would encounter a minor setback after he was injured during a horseback riding incident in 1937. Despite having to deal with constant pain, Porter continued to focus on his musical career. In 1948, he made his big comeback with the most successful musical of his career, Kiss Me, Kate. This earned him his first Tony Award for Best Musical.
Porter owed his musical background to his mother as she encouraged him to learn the violin by the time he was six years old and the piano when he was eight years old. When he was ten years old, he wrote his first operetta with the assistance of his mother. Porter’s father was also a musician and pianist but wasn’t nearly as close to his son. As for his grandfather, he hoped Cole Porter would become a lawyer. However, when he was sent to Worcester Academy in 1905, he brought his piano with him. By the time he graduated, he became class valedictorian. He was already popular in school as his ability to perform entertaining music made it easy for Porter to win friends and influence people.
After graduation, his grandfather sent him overseas to visit France, Germany, and Switzerland. When he returned, he enrolled in Yale College in 1909. He majored in English and minored in music. He also learned French. While he was a member of Scroll and Key and the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, he contributed to The Yale Record. He was also part of an a cappella singing group called the Whiffenpoofs. Upon going into his senior year, he became president of the Yale Glee Club and was the group’s primary soloist. While he was at Yale, he wrote three hundred songs, including “Bingo Eli Yale” and “Bulldog.” These are two of Yale’s favorite football fight songs that are still played today. He also wrote musicals for the Yale Dramatic Association, including 1911’s Cora, 1912’s And the Villain Still Pursued Her, 1912’s The Pot of Gold, 1913’s The Kaleidoscope, and 1914’s Paranoia.
As a student, Porter often visited New York City and became well acquainted with its abundance of theater and other nightlife activities. This served as a key influence for Porter as he absorbed what he learned from New York with what he learned from college. After graduating from Yale, Porter enrolled in Harvard Law School in 1913. He and Dean Acheson were roommates at the time. Acheson later became U.S. Secretary of State as a member of then-President Harry Truman’s administration from 1949 until 1953. As for Porter, the desire to become a lawyer simply wasn’t in the cards. Even the school dean suggested Porter switch from studying law to studying music. Porter took his advice and enrolled in Harvard’s music department and studied harmony and counterpoint with Pietro Yon. His mother was supportive of Porter’s decision while it was kept secret from his grandfather.
The first song Porter produced on Broadway was 1915’s “Esmerelda.” It appeared in the revue Hands Up. In 1916, this was followed by the unsuccessful Broadway production of See America First. Themed as a patriotic comic opera, this adaptation of T. Lawrason Riggs’ book was considered a flop and it was shut down after two weeks. However, Porter remained in New York City before he was sent overseas as World War I was underway among the nations involved. In 1917, Porter relocated to Paris to work with the Duryea Relief organization. While he was there, he served on behalf of the French Foreign Legion. Evidence of Porter’s involvement was listed as one of the soldiers, along with a portrait of him at the legion’s museum in Aubagne.
It was also noted while overseas, Porter had a portable piano built for him so he could carry it on his back so he could entertain the troops whenever there was an opportunity to do so. While in Paris, it was a life of luxury and scandals as he entertained a diverse crowd of people who weren’t always deemed socially acceptable at the time. In 1918, he met an older woman from Kentucky named Linda Lee Thomas. The two married out of convenience in 1919 as it cooled the rumors about Porter’s homosexuality and it allowed Thomas to maintain her socialite status and influence after coming out of a disastrous first marriage with an abusive husband. Porter and Thomas remained close until the day of her death on May 20, 1954.
At first, Thomas believed classical music was the route for Porter to go as she felt it was more prestigious than Broadway. In 1919, he was enrolled at the Schola Cantorum in Paris and learned from Vincent d’Indy the art of orchestration and counterpoint. His first big hit from that experience came from “Old-Fashioned Garden,” a song that was written and performed for the Hitchy-Koo of 1919 revue. This was followed by a successful collection of songs written for the 1920 musical, A Night Out. In the meantime, Porter was just as famous for his extravagance as he was for his music. After he inherited his grandfather’s fortune in 1923, he began to live in rental palaces in Venice. In the meantime, Porter continued to write songs and it was also in 1923 he worked with Gerald Murphy to compose two short ballets, Landed and Within the Quota. As a composer, Porter’s jazzy symphonic style was among the earliest of its kind, even before George Gershwin’s all-time classic, Rhapsody in Blue.
1924’s The Greenwich Village Follies was another Cole Porter production that had most of its original music score written by him. However, Broadway dropped them and by 1925 they were all deleted. This frustrated Porter enough that he considered giving songwriting up altogether. He continued to entertain friends and at parties but stayed away from Broadway until 1928. This was the year he produced his first breakthrough hit with the musical score for Paris. Performed by its star, Irene Bordoni, she wanted Rogers and Hart to write the songs for the musical but they were not available. In came Porter and his songs, “Let’s Misbehave” and “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” became two of his most popular songs.
When Paris debuted on Broadway on October 8, 1928, Porter was in Paris to supervise another show he was also commissioned to do, La Revue. This was also a successful production as reality sunk in he was better off as a Broadway songwriter than sticking to classical. This was proven in Wake Up and Dream, a successful show that enjoyed a lengthy run in London, England with an impressive case before moving it to Broadway in 1929. It was also successful but the infamous stock market crash cut its run short as the American people had to contend with this financial disaster. The hit song from that play was “What Is This Thing Called Love?” and it earned Porter an opportunity to work in Hollywood. Unfortunately, his first run as a songwriter and composer met with failure as The Battle of Paris was a Paramount production that was mishandled by its crew from start to finish.
Broadway was a better fit for Porter at the time. 1929’s Fifty Million Frenchmen was another hit that featured “You Do Something to Me” as an iconic favorite. At the time, it was met with mixed reviews by the critics as some loved Porter’s brand of music while others felt it had no place on Broadway. What made Fifty Million Frenchmen so popular came from the gushing review of an advertisement that was placed by Irving Berlin. Berlin was a well-esteemed composer himself who earned recognition as an Academy Award winner, Grammy Award winner, and Tony Award winner for his musical works. During the 1930s, Porter was able to avoid the same financial hardships so many other musicians and producers were experiencing at the time. 1930’s The New Yorkers featured “Love for Sale,” a song that became a classic that was first performed by Kathryn Crawford before the role of the streetwalker was recast to Elisabeth Welch.
The setting was also changed from what looked like a street to a nightclub. While “Love for Sale” was deemed too risque to play on the radio, “I Happen to Like New York” became the mainstream favorite among the stations that played it. Both songs became classic hits. This was followed by 1932’s Gay Divorce, starring Fred Astaire. “Night and Day” became the big hit from a play that would also become a retitled Hollywood production known as The Gay Divorcee. The movie also starred Fred Astaire, along with his sister, Adele Astaire Douglass. To this day, “Night and Day” remains as Porter’s signature song and it continues to be an all-time favorite among fans and performers who are in agreement this was one of the man’s best musical works.
Between Broadway hits and successful West End productions, Cole Porter continued to bring forth musical numbers that kept him as popular as ever as a composer and songwriter. In 1934, Porter was approached by a producer named Vinton Freedley who wanted to produce a musical that would be the first of its kind. This led to the comedic production of Anything Goes and it became a massive hit that many will agree was one of Porter’s greatest musical compositions. The songs featured in this musical included “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “All Through the Night,” and “You’re the Top.” “You’re the Top” became an all-time classic and one of Porter’s best-known songs.
This was followed by 1935’s Jubilee and its two hit songs, “Begin the Beguine” and “Just One of Those Things.” This was followed by 1936’s Red, Hot and Blue and its three songs, “It’s De-Lovely,” “Down in the Depths (on the Ninetieth Floor),” and “Ridin’ High.” The lack of success from the 1936 production had Porter convinced his music wasn’t enough to win over a broader audience. This led to another 1936 production, Born to Dance. This one came with “You’d Be So Easy to Love” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” In 1937, it was Rosalie and “In the Still of the Night.” This was followed in 1935 with Paree, Paree and it featured some of the songs from his infamous Fifty Million Frenchmen.
Up until October 24, 1937, Porter enjoyed the height of his success as a composer and songwriter. In December 1935, he and his wife moved to Hollywood but it wasn’t long before Linda Lee Thomas moved back to New York as she didn’t care for the movie-style environment. The two remained separated until Porter had his fateful accident at a riding club in Locust Valley, New York. The horse he rode on rolled on him and crushed his legs that would leave the man disabled and in constant pain for the rest of his life. Although Porter was informed by the physicians he could have his legs amputated to relieve that pain, he refused.
His decision was supported by his mother and wife, as was the decision for him to continue songwriting. It served as his form of therapy that led to 1938’s You Never Know. Although the show wasn’t successful, it did produce “At Long Last Love” as a hit that would go into the history books as a classic. There was also 1938’s Leave It to Me!, a musical that introduced Mary Martin and her performance of “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.” This one was successful, as was 1939’s DuBarry Was a Lady. This controversial Broadway musical became a classic due to its risque content. “But in the Morning, No” was banned from the airwaves while “Do I Love You?,” “Well, Did You Evah!,” and “Friendship” joined the ranks as fan favorites from Porter’s musical repertoire.
In 1939, as political unrest continued to rise among the European nations that led to World War II, Linda Lee Thomas closed the Paris home she shared with Cole Porter and bought a country home in the Berkshire mountains not far from Williamstown, Massachusetts. The furnishings and other prized possessions the couple had in Paris were brought to this house and kept there. This was one of three homes Porter spent time in as he also lived in Hollywood and New York as he continued to record one musical production after another.
In 1940, it was Panama Hattie, a Broadway musical that became Porter’s longest-running hit at the time. With over five hundred performances in New York, this was an impressive achievement despite the fact there were no hit songs in the show that stood out as a Porter classic. In 1941, it was Let’s Face It, which ran even longer by over forty shows. There was also 1943’s Something for the Boys, 1944’s Mexican Hayride and Seven Lively Arts, and 1946’s Around the World. As successful as these shows were, Porter was earning increased criticism as a hit songwriter. Even though Seven Lively Arts featured “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” as a song that would become a standardized classic, it seemed as if Porter’s best days as a musical genius were now behind him.
In the meantime, Porter continued to serve as a prolific songwriter for Hollywood as well. 1941’s You’ll Never Get Rich, 1943’s Something to Shout About, and the 1946 movie adaptation of Night and Day kept him in the limelight. Night and Day was presented as a fictional biography of Porter with Cary Grant cast in the lead role. The critics hated it but the fans loved it as it had Porter’s vintage classics featured in it. However, just like Broadway, it seemed as if Porter’s best songwriting days were now behind him. This changed in 1948 with Kiss Me, Kate. This became the most successful show as a crowning achievement for Cole Porter. It ran over one thousand shows in New York and was shown four hundred times in London. It won a Tony Award for Best Musical and it earned Porter wins Best Composer and Best Lyricist. The highlight songs from this musical were “Another Op’nin’, Another Show,” “So In Love,” “Tom, Dick or Harry,” “Too Darn Hot,” and “Always True to You (in My Fashion).”
This was followed by the extremely campy and vulgar Out of This World in 1950. It flopped. 1952 was next with Can-Can and its two hits, “C’est Magnifique” and “It’s All Right with Me.” This was far more successful with nearly nine hundred live performances. This was followed by Porter’s final Broadway hit, Silk Stockings. This 1955 classic featured “All of You” as its popular single. As for Hollywood, there was the 1956 hit High Society and its big hit song, “True Love.” Porter continued to write musical scores for Hollywood, scoring another hit in 1957 with Les Girls. His final musical score for Hollywood was 1958’s Aladdin. This was the same year Porter met with a series of medical issues that required his right leg to be amputated and replaced with an artificial limb. From that point forward, Porter’s songwriting came to an end. For the next six years, he lived in seclusion where he only agreed to meet with people who were closest to him. On October 15, 1964, Porter died in Santa Monica, California due to kidney failure. His final resting place brought him back home to Peru, Indiana, and its Mount Hope Cemetery. This is also where the remains of his deceased wife and father are.
Over the course of time, scores of notable recording artists have covered Porter’s songs. Jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald released two albums dedicated to the man, starting with 1956’s Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook. In 1972, it was Ella Loves Cole. Even as recently as the 2021 collaboration of Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga’s Love for Sale, Cole Porter and his musical legacy continues to live on. In 2007, Cole Porter’s star was added to the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2010, a portrait of the man was added to the Hoosier Heritage Gallery in the office of the Governor of Indiana. His name is also part of the American Theater Hall of Fame and the Great American Songbook Hall of Fame.
#3 – David Lee Roth
Before David Lee Roth made a name for himself with the iconic rock group Van Halen, he was born in Bloomington and then mostly raised in New Castle, Indiana. His father was an ophthalmologist, and his mother was a teacher. He had two sisters; one of them, Lisa, was the creator behind the Rockabye Baby! lullaby series. Even as a kid, Roth was into theatrics as he was especially fond of audio and visual productions. Roth’s family heritage is of Jewish origin and he was brought up by parents and grandparents who had a genuine Midwest hard work approach that rubbed off on the young and impressionable David Lee Roth. At one point, the family lived in Swampscott, Massachusetts before moving to Pasadena, California. This is where Roth grew up as a teenager but it wasn’t easy. He was highly energetic, to the point where his parents assumed psychiatric treatment was the way to calm him down. Roth was also sent to work at a horse ranch in an effort to learn responsibility.
While Roth was enrolled at Pasadena City College, he met Alex and Eddie Van Halen as fellow students. He also worked as a hospital orderly at the time. His interest in music had him perform as a singer who worked as a solo artist and with bands. It was a great outlet for Roth to exert his hyperactivity and this served as his trademark as Van Halen’s frontman while he was with the band from 1974 until 1985, then again in 1996, and once again from 2006 until 2020. Whenever he wasn’t part of the lineup, Roth mostly performed as a solo artist. His most successful run on his own took place while he was still with Van Halen the first time around. However, this also came with a cost as Roth’s debut as a solo artist led to his dismissal from the Van Halen lineup and would be replaced by its new lead singer, Sammy Hagar.
Before Van Halen became one of the world’s most popular bands of all time, the group covered a series of songs while performing in various clubs throughout Southern California and the Sunset Strip. In 1976, KISS’s Gene Simmons hoped to recruit Eddie Van Halen as he took an interest in the guitarist’s group and produced its demo tape. At first, the demo didn’t impress any major record labels to sign Van Halen to a contract. It wasn’t until early 1977 when the executive and production team of Warner Bros signed the group to record and release two studio albums.
The first was the 1978 debut of Van Halen and it exploded as a massive hit for the group and its label. Van Halen sold over twelve million copies in the United States alone and became certified diamond by its RIAA. After this, Van Halen with David Lee Roth as its lead singer proceeded to record and release four additional studio albums that would also become big hits. 1979’s Van Halen II was certified platinum by the RIAA five times and was followed by 1980’s Women and Children Come First and it sold enough copies to reach triple platinum status. Together, these three albums featured the same songs from the demo tape the big labels rejected when Van Halen made the first attempt to earn a recording contract. The classic hits coming from these albums were “Runnin’ With the Devil,” Jamie’s Cryin’,” “Dance the Night Away,” and “And the Cradle Will Rock…”
In 1981, Fair Warning became Van Halen’s fourth album and it went double platinum. Diver Down was next in 1982 and released six singles, including the iconic covers of Roy Orbison’s, “(Oh) Pretty Woman” and The Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street.” The album became certified platinum by the RIAA four times. These were followed by 1984, the final album Roth performed with Van Halen before creative and personal differences resulted in a change to the group’s lineup.
This was a hugely successful recording that produced the number one hit single, “Jump” as it topped the US Billboard Hot 100. It also brought forth “I’ll Wait,” “Panama,” and “Hot For Teacher” as hits that all became cult classics. Just like Van Halen, 1984 became a certified diamond seller with the RIAA. Van Halen’s success wasn’t strictly in the United States. This group became a global fan favorite since making its recording debut in 1978. At one point, David Lee Roth and his Van Halen bandmates were considered the top rivals against Steven Tyler and his Aerosmith bandmates. Roth’s antics as a person and a performer were just as famous as the songs he sang as lead vocalist.
The direction Van Halen wanted to take wanted to pick up where Fair Warning left off. Eddie Van Halen wanted songs that were darker and had deeper meaning. David Lee Roth had a preference for jazzing up original classics and this became evident in Diver Down and his solo EP recording, 1985’s Crazy from the Heat. This one featured Roth’s revved-up version of the Beach Boys classic, “California Girls” and the memorable “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody” Roth performed as two classic hit singles merged together as one. In the meantime, the band’s manager of seven years, Noel Monk, was fired by the Van Halen brothers. Speculation had it the firing was the result of Monk’s encouragement to Roth to pursue a solo career.
For Roth, it was an opportunity to return to his brand of music before working with Van Halen. This led to the 1986 release of Roth’s debut album, Eat ‘Em and Smile. It featured a collection of covers such as the jazzy “That’s Life” by Frank Sinatra and the bluesy “Tobacco Road” by John D. Loudermilk. The album sold enough copies to become certified platinum before Roth returned to the recording studio to record and release Skyscraper. Upon its 1988 release, it produced “Just Like Paradise,” a single that peaked as high as number six on the US Billboard Hot 100. This album also sold enough copies to become certified platinum and it kept Roth’s name in the spotlight as a successful solo artist.
In 1991, after a few lineup changes, he released his third studio album, A Little Ain’t Enough. It didn’t sell quite as well as his previous two but was able to become certified gold by the RIAA. At the time, a nineteen-year-old guitarist named Jason Becker took Steve Vai’s place as part of Roth’s band but was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease before he was able to go on tour to support the album. He was temporarily replaced by Joe Holmes so Roth could proceed with the tour to support his latest album. As fate had it, the musical interests of mainstream rock fans began to switch as Nirvana led the way as one of many grunge rockers who seemed to kick Roth’s brand of hard rock to the curb. Roth wasn’t the only victim as the music industry once again shifted its focus to capitalize on a genre that was gaining momentum as the next big sound that captivated the world audience.
For most of the 1990s, Roth’s musical career slowed down to the point where he reverted back to working in a hospital again. He became an emergency medical technician in New York City but never fully gave up his love for music. In 2002, the unlikely duo of David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar embarked on a Song for Song: The Heavyweight Champions of Rock and Roll tour. This served as Roth’s career revival but his reunion with Van Halen and his first comeback didn’t materialize until “Yankee Rose” was featured in the 2002 video game, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. This led to the 2003 release of his next album, Diamond Dave. In 2012, as part of Van Halen’s lineup again, A Different Kind of Truth was released as the group’s big comeback and it produced two modest hits, “Tattoo” and “She’s the Woman.” This came five years after he and his Van Halen bandmates were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
#2 – John Mellencamp
John J. Mellencamp was born in Seymour, Indiana, on October 7, 1951. At birth, he was diagnosed with a rare medical condition known as spina bifida. It required corrective surgery, a procedure that had a low success rate at the time. Life for John Mellencamp wasn’t easy as he came from a hardworking family that was frowned upon by the upper-class members of local society. It served as fuel for Mellencamp to come up with some of the best Heartland-style rock songs the music industry ever produced. While in college in Vincennes, Indiana, Mellencamp turned to drugs and alcohol before deciding it was time to clean up his act. In high school and college, Mellencamp’s love for music is what really helped him cope with reality. After performing with a series of local bands and rock groups, Mellencamp decided it was time to get serious as a musician. He trekked to New York City, hoping to secure a recording contract.
For the next eighteen months, Mellencamp traveled between Indiana and New York between 1974 and 1975. It was during this time he met Tony DeFries and had him signed to MainMan Management and its MCA Records label. Chestnut Street Incident was Mellencamp’s debut recording that featured a collection of cover songs and originals. However, it was released as John Cougar instead of using his surname as the label felt it would be an easier sell to win over an audience. As it turned out, this strategy was a commercial failure so it was back to the recording studio. This resulted in the 1977 recording of The Kid Inside. However, DeFries chose not to have it released and Mellencamp was dropped by MCA. It wouldn’t be until 1983 that DeFries released The Kid Inside after Mellencamp made his 1982 breakthrough with American Fool. American Fool released two hit singles, “Hurts So Good” and “Jack & Diane.” The first of these two singles earned John Mellencamp his first Grammy Award win for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance.
Thanks to the success of American Fool, Mellencamp was able to add his last name to his stage name. From 1983 until 1990, he performed as John Cougar Mellencamp. During this time, he released 1983’s Uh-Huh, an album that would produce “Pink Houses,” “Crumbin’ Down,” and “Authority Song” as its three big hits. This was followed by the 1985 release of Scarecrow and it produced three more classic hits, “Lonely Ol’ Night,” “Small Town,” and “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” It also had two additional hits, “Rain on the Scarecrow” and “Rumble Seat.” The entire album brought in a fusion of 1960s-style rock with his Heartland rock trademark that gave it such a timeless appeal. In 1989, it was Big Daddy and its popular hit “Pop Singer.” It was the final album he recorded as John Cougar Mellencamp. This also came at a time when he began to shift his musical direction as the organic feel of Big Daddy prompted Mellencamp to focus on a brand of rock that leaned further into the sound mix of folk, heartland, and roots.
1991’s Whenever We Wanted was the first album that credited John Mellencamp without the Cougar monicker. This was followed by 1993’s Human Wheels, then 1994’s Dance Naked. His cover of Van Morrison’s classic, “Wild Night,” became Mellencamp’s first big hit in years as it peaked as high as number three on the US Billboard Hot 100. Unfortunately for Mellencamp, he suffered a heart attack during the summer of 1994 after performing a concert in New York on August 8, 1994. This cut his supporting tour of Dance Naked short by a few weeks. Shortly after the start of 1995, he performed in small clubs in the Midwest as Pearl Doggy. In 1996, he released an experimental album, Mr. Happy Go Lucky. This one spawned Mellencamp’s final top forty hit, “Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First).” On the US Billboard Hot 100, it peaked as high as number fourteen. Even though new big hits from Mellencamp were now a thing of the past, the man was far from done influencing the world with one world-class rock performance after another. 2023’s Orpheus Descending demonstrated the man is far from done as a star-quality recording artist.
Among the notable recording artists heavily influenced by Mellencamp’s brand of music was Keith Urban. He covered many of Mellencamp’s singles and even performed with him for songs like “Pink Houses.” In 2015, he had a hit single that wasn’t shy to share how much of an impact Mellencamp had on the star. “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” became a number two hit on the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart and a number forty hit on the US Billboard Hot 100.
In 2008, John Mellencamp was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Ten years later, it was in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Overall, he has sold over sixty million records worldwide and half of those sales were in the United States alone. In addition to becoming one of the world’s favorite recording artists, he has also become a hero among the beneficiaries of Farm Aid, an organization he founded with other members in an effort to help farmers in need of financial assistance.
The first of its annual concert performances took place in Champaign, Illinois. Mellencamp’s focus has been to help family farmers keep their land against organizations who are so determined to take them away. for the sake of commercial and personal gain. Mellencamp has also demonstrated his love for Indiana has kept him close to home as he lives just outside Bloomington. He’s also a supporter of the Indiana University Bloomington and the Indiana Hoosiers. The school has also built an athletic facility after him as John Mellencamp Pavillion.
#1 – Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson and The Jackson Five
In 1964, they started out as The Jackson 5. The group featured five brothers from Gary, Indiana. They were Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon, and Michael. These Jackson siblings were managed by their father, Joe Jackson. They were the first African-American performers to obtain a loyal fan following as crossover recording artists. At first, it was Jackie, Tito, and Jermaine as a trio act before Michael joined in at five years old, as well as Marlon. Michael played the congas at first and Marlon was the tambourine player. It was suggested the group name themselves the Jackson Five Singing Group.
Together, the brothers won their first talent show in 1966 after performing at the Theodore Roosevelt High School in Gary. Jermaine performed the vocals for the Temptations classic, “My Girl” while little Michael sang Robert Parker’s “Barefootin’.” It didn’t take long before the Jacksons signed with its first label, Steeltown Records. Although “Big Boy” was already previously recorded earlier in 1967, there was a request to have it recorded again at the label’s studio before it was released as a single in 1968. A nine-year-old Michael performed as the lead vocalist while the Jackson Five were signed with Atlantic Records.
While the Jackson Five were with Atlantic, their father attempted to negotiate with Motown Records to have his sons record for that label. After an audition during the summer of 1968, Motown’s chief executive, Berry Gordy first rejected the idea of hiring any kids to the label after Stevie Wonder. He quickly changed his mind once he viewed footage of the Jackson Five performing their songs. On July 26, 1968, the Jackson Five signed its first recording contract with Motown. Before the brothers could record their first album, a contract dispute would have them perform at strip clubs to make extra income.
The Jackson Five committed to a seven-year contract with Motown until 1969, the day before Marlon turned twelve years old. The first set of recordings was in Detroit before the boys were sent to Hollywood, as the label’s production team had yet to be impressed with their performance as a group. At the same time, Motown’s Suzanne de Passe exercised her might as a public relations specialist to promote the Jackson Five as a group that was discovered by Diane Ross while she was still the lead singer for the Supremes.
The media also billed Michael Jackson as an eight-year-old sensation when he was a few weeks away from turning eleven. At the same time, “I Want You Back” was released as a single, followed by the Jackson Five’s debut album, Diana Ross Presents The Jackson 5. The Jackson 5 became popular fan favorites with four number-one hits in a row. “I Want You Back” was followed by “ABC,” “The Love You Save,” and “I’ll Be There.” Each of these topped the US Billboard Hot 100 as the audience instantly fell in love with little Michael and his older brothers.
Between Steeltown Records, Motown Records, and Epic Records, the Jackson Five were at the top of their game as hitmaking machines from 1969 until 1981. Along the way, there was a lineup change within the Jackson Five when Jermaine was replaced by the youngest brother, Randy, in 1976. The Jackson Five legacy includes three of its songs inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 1999, it started with “I’ll Be There” and “I Want You Back.” In 2017, “ABC” would also be inducted. In 1980, the group received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and in 1997, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Two years later, it was in the Vocal Group Hall of Fame.
In addition to enjoying an incredible career run as The Jackson Five, many of the Jackson brothers within the lineup also pursued successful solo careers. The one that stood out the most was Michael. He technically began his solo career in 1971 while he was still signed to Motown Records. However, it wasn’t until 1979 that he established himself as a solo star after the release of Off the Wall. It produced two number-one hits, “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and “Rock with You.” Both songs topped the US Billboard Hot 100 and the US Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.
It was referenced in the US Billboard Hot Soul Singles chart at the time. “Off the Wall” and “She’s Out of My Life” also became top ten hits on the US Billboard Hot 100. 1980 witnessed Michael Jackson earning three American Music Awards, namely for Favorite Soul/R&B Album, Favourite Soul/R&B Male Artist, and Favorite Soul/R&B Single for “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.” He also earned a Grammy Award for that same song as Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. In 1981, he again won the American Music Awards for Favorite Soul/R&B Album and Favorite Soul/R&B Male Artist.
This served as Michael Jackson’s destiny to become the music industry’s “King of Pop.” His momentum and popularity rating increased even further after the 1982 release of Thriller. This, combined with his signature street dance move known as the “Moonwalk,” continued to sculpt pop culture clean through the 1980s and beyond. Three more of Jackson’s signature hits as a solo artist came from what became the best-selling album of all time. “Beat It,” “Billie Jean,” and “Thriller” each became cult classics that defined pop culture as the world knew it. “Thriller” became more than a hit single.
Its music video performed as a mini-movie with the legendary Vincent Price lending his voice as its narrator. Once again, Jackson was the recipient of awards and accolades. This pattern continued between 1987’s Bad, 1991’s Dangerous, 1995’s HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book 1, and 2001’s Invincible. Not even the flurry of controversial stories about him from the tabloids was enough to put much of a dent into the man’s career. Overall, he won fifteen Grammy Awards and broke thirty-nine Guinness World Records. He was the first recording artist in the music industry to score at least one top-ten hit on the US Billboard Hot 100 in the span of five decades. As a solo artist, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Dance Hall of Fame, and the Rhythm and Blues Music Hall of Fame.
Meanwhile, the female members of the Jackson family, especially Janet, also made names for themselves as world-class entertainers. Fans of Janet Jackson may remember her as the adorable child actress from Good Times and Diff’rent Strokes. In 1977, started playing the role of Penny Gordon Woods on Good Times. Three seasons after Diff’rent Strokes debuted in 1978, Jackson played the recurring role of Charlene Duprey until the show finished its run in 1986. In the meantime, Joe Jackson signed his daughter to a recording contract with A&M Records. In 1982, the sixteen-year-old made her album debut, named after her. It was successful enough to put her in the record books as the highest-ranking female artist with an album that peaked as high as number six on the US Billboard R&B Albums chart. This was followed by the 1984 release of Dream Street. This released Jackson’s first big hit, “Don’t Stand Another Chance” at number nine on the US Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles Chart.
Janet Jackson was the tenth and youngest child of the Jackson family and the most successful among her sisters as a recording artist. She also adopted a musical style that set her apart from her brothers, a move that required severing business ties with her father as her manager. She wanted to make a name for herself on her own terms instead of following in her siblings’ footsteps. She played an instrumental role as a barrier breaker when it came to gender-related and racial-related issues. This was clearly defined in the 1986 production of Control and the 1989 production of Rhythm Nation 1814.
These albums shifted Jackson’s musical gears from a bubblegum pop princess into a multi-genre powerhouse. The biggest hits from these recordings were “Nasty” and “Rhythm Nation.” These were followed by 1993’s Janet and 1997’s The Velvet Rope. These also became popular favorites among critics and fans. By the time the twentieth century was over, she was recognized as the second most successful recording artist of the 1990s with Mariah Carey sitting on top as the first. In 2001, All for You was Jackson’s seventh studio album was released at the same time she was celebrated as an MTV Icon.
Among the Jackson clan, Janet Jackson has sold over one hundred million records worldwide. This puts her in the league as one of the world’s best-selling recording artists of all time. Additional signature hits that have become all-time Janet Jackson favorites include “Black Cat,” “That’s the Way Love Goes,” “Together Again,” and “All for You.” She currently holds the record for the most consecutive top-ten hits on the US Billboard Hot 100 by a female artist as she enjoyed a run of eighteen songs that made such a huge impact on the music charts. As a recording artist, she has five Grammy Awards to her credit, eight Guinness World Records, and her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2019, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
As a whole, no family in the music industry has made the level of impact the Jacksons have. The Jackson Five dominated the 1970s music scene, while Michael Jackson did the same during the 1980s. Janet Jackson kept the family legacy going through the 1990s. While the men’s baby sister was able to carve a name for herself by her own rules, she and her sisters were often included with the Jackson Five in various recordings and live performances. This legacy began with Joe Jackson, the patriarch of the Jackson family, who also earned his claim to fame as a musician.
In 2014, he was inducted into the Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame. He was also a gifted boxer who was destined to go pro. Shortly after he and their mother, Katherine, married in 1949, the couple moved to a home as close to East Chicago as they could find. This placed them in Gary, Indiana. Their first child was Maureen “Rebbie” Jackson, born shortly after moving to Indiana in 1950. As a result, Joe Jackson gave up the idea of becoming a pro boxer in favor of finding steady work at home so he could support his family. The musical direction he and his children embarked on first took shape after he realized they enjoyed playing with his collection of musical instruments and that they were good at it.
An In-Depth Look at 10 Essential Musical Acts From Indiana article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023
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