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Tom Waits Biography


Home > Music > W > Waits, Tom > Biography


Birth Name: Thomas Alan Waits
Born: 1949/12/07
Birth Place: Pomona, California, United States
Years Active: 1972–present
Genres: Rock, Experimental Music


Thomas Alan "Tom" Waits (born December 7, 1949) is an American singer-songwriter, composer and actor. With this trademark growl, his incorporation of pre-rock music styles such as blues, jazz, and vaudeville, and experimental tendencies verging on industrial music, Waits has built up a distinctive musical persona. He has worked as a composer for movies and musical plays and as a supporting actor in films, including “Down By Law” and “Bram Stoker's Dracula.” He was nominated for an Academy Award for his soundtrack work on the film “One from the Heart.” Lyrically, Waits' songs frequently present atmospheric portrayals of grotesque, often seedy characters and places – although he has also shown a penchant for more conventional ballads. He has a cult following and has influenced subsequent songwriters despite having little radio or music video support.

Although Waits' albums have met with mixed commercial success in his native United States, they have occasionally achieved gold album sales status in other countries. He has been nominated for a number of major music awards and has won Grammy Awards for two albums, “Bone Machine” and “Mule Variations.”

Waits signed to Asylum Records in 1972, and after numerous abortive recording sessions, his first record, the jazzy, folk-tinged “Closing Time,” was released in 1973. Later in 1973, Tim Buckley released the album “Sefronia,” which contained a cover version of Waits' song "Martha" from “Closing Time,” the first-ever cover of a Tom Waits song by a known artist.

Waits received increasing critical acclaim and gathered a loyal cult following with his subsequent albums. “The Heart of Saturday Night” (1974), featuring the song "(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night," revealed Waits' roots as a nightclub performer, with half-spoken and half-crooned ballads often accompanied by a jazz backup band. In 1975, Waits moved to the Tropicana Motel on Santa Monica Boulevard and released the double album “Nighthawks at the Diner,” recorded in a studio with a small audience in order to capture the ambience of a live show.

Waits recorded “Small Change” (1976), which finds him in a much more cynical and pessimistic mood, lyrically, with many songs such as "The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me) (An Evening With Pete King)" and "Bad Liver and a Broken Heart (In Lowell)." “Small Change,” which was accompanied by the double A-side single "Step Right Up"/"The Piano Has Been Drinking," was a critical and commercial success and far outsold any of Waits' previous albums. With it, Waits broke onto Billboard's Top 100 Albums chart for the first time in his career.

“Foreign Affairs” (1977) was musically in a similar vein to “Small Change,” but showed further artistic refinement and exploration into jazz and blues styles. Particularly noteworthy is the long cinematic spoken-word piece, "Potter's Field," set to an orchestral score. The album also features Bette Midler singing a duet with Waits on "I Never Talk to Strangers." The album “Blue Valentine” (1978) displayed Waits' biggest musical departure to date, with much more focus on electric guitar and keyboards than on previous albums and nearly no strings for a darker, more blues-oriented sound.

“Heartattack and Vine,” Waits' last studio album for Asylum, was released in 1980, featuring a developing sound that included both ballads ("Jersey Girl") and rougher-edged rhythm and blues.

The same year, he began a long working relationship with Francis Ford Coppola, who asked Waits to provide music for his film “One from the Heart,” with singer/songwriter Crystal Gayle as his vocal foil for the album. The soundtrack was nominated for an Academy Award for Original Music Score.

After leaving Asylum for Island Records, Waits released “Swordfishtrombones” in 1983, a record that marked a sharp turn in his musical direction. While Waits had before played either piano or guitar, he now gravitated towards less common instruments. It introduced instruments such as bagpipes ("Town with No Cheer") and marimba ("Shore Leave") to Waits' repertoire, as well as pump organs, percussion, horn sections, experimental guitar, and obsolete instruments like the unpredictable Chamberlin, and the little-used Stroh violin.

Waits's new emphasis on experimenting with various styles and instrumentation continued on 1985's “Rain Dogs,” a sprawling, 19-song collection which received glowing reviews. Contributions from guitarists Marc Ribot, Robert Quine, and Keith Richards accompanied Waits' move away from piano-based songs, in juxtaposition with an increased emphasis on instruments such as marimba, accordion, double bass, trombone, and banjo. The album also spawned the singles "Downtown Train/Tango Till They're Sore/Jockey Full of Bourbon," and "Downtown Train" (which would later become a hit for Rod Stewart).

In 1987, he released “Franks Wild Years” which included studio versions from Waits' play of the same name. “Bone Machine,” Waits' first studio album in five years, was released in 1992. The stark record featured a great deal of percussion and guitar (with little piano or sax), marking another change in Waits' sound. “Bone Machine” was awarded a Grammy in the Best Alternative Album category.

In 1993, he released “The Black Rider,” which contained studio versions of the songs that Waits had written for the musical of the same name three years previously, with the exceptions of "Chase the Clouds Away" and "In the Morning," which appeared in the theatrical production but not on the studio album. William S. Burroughs also guests on vocals on "'Tain't No Sin."

Waits' first album on his new label, “Mule Variations,” was issued in 1999. The album was Waits' first release to feature a turntablist. The album won a Grammy in 2000 for Best Contemporary Folk Album. As an indicator of how difficult it is to classify Waits' music, he was nominated simultaneously for Best Contemporary Folk Album (which he won) and Best Male Rock Vocal Performance (for the song "Hold On"), both different from the genre for which he won his previous Grammy. The album was also his highest-charting album in the U.S. to date, reaching #30.

In 2002, Waits simultaneously released two albums, “Alice” and “Blood Money.” Both collections had been written almost 10 years previously and were based on theatrical collaborations with Robert Wilson, the former a musical play about Lewis Carroll, and the latter an interpretation of Georg Büchner's play fragment “Woyzeck.” Both albums revisit the tango, Tin Pan Alley, and spoken-word influences of “Swordfishtrombones,” while the lyrics are both profoundly cynical and melancholic, exemplified by "Misery is the River of the World" and "Everything Goes to Hell."

Waits released “Real Gone,” his first nontheatrical studio album since “Mule Variations,” in 2004. It is Waits' only album to date to feature absolutely no piano on any of its tracks. Waits beatboxes on the opening track, "Top of the Hill," and most of the album's songs begin with Waits' "vocal percussion" improvisations. It is also more rock-oriented, with less blues influence than he has previously demonstrated, and it contains an explicitly political song, the album-closing "Day After Tomorrow," a first for Waits.

A 54-song three-disc box set of rarities, unreleased tracks, and brand-new compositions called “Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards” was released in November 2006.

In 2010, Waits was chosen to be inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.