Eddie waited till he finished high school
He went to Hollywood, got a tattoo
He met a girl out there with a tattoo too
The future was wide open
-"Into The Great Wide Open" by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
When Tom Petty ventured into the great wide open, he had a much different experience than Eddie, the rocker in his 1991 song. Petty moved to Los Angeles and embarked on a successful career spanning more than four decades that included his tenure with the Heartbreakers and the Traveling Wilburys in addition to a set of solo albums. Eddie flamed out after a couple hits.
But Petty, who always made it a point to stand against corporate greed, understood how someone could get caught in the machinations of the music industry. He's not the only one. Many songwriters use made-up musicians to tell tales of artistic struggle and the price of fame (some create entire alter egos). "I found that when you invent a character, you can say things you might not be able to say otherwise. If I am trapped into singing the 'Tom Petty creed,' I am limited," Petty explained.
Starting with a guitar-playing country boy, we look at some of music's memorable made-up musicians and their journeys into the great wide open.
Into The Great Wide Open
As Petty sings it, the future is wide open with possibilities for musical hopefuls like Eddie, but success is more elusive, especially the kind that lasts.
"Johnny B. Goode" by Chuck Berry
He could play a guitar just like a-ringing a bell
Johnny B. Goode didn't appear to have much going for him. He grew up poor in backwoods Louisiana and was nearly illiterate. But anyone who heard him play the guitar knew he was going places. Like most mothers, Johnny's mom had big dreams for her son and predicted he would be famous as the "leader of a big ol' band."
The song, a Top 10 hit in 1958, loosely follows Chuck Berry's life with a few key differences. Johnny was supposed to be a "colored boy" rather than a "country boy," but the lyrics were altered to appeal to white audiences. Unlike Johnny, Berry grew up in a middle class neighborhood in St. Louis, where he learned to read and write while he mastered the guitar. He furthered his education in beauty school, earning a degree in hairdressing and cosmetology. Berry borrowed the name Johnny from his piano player Johnnie Johnson, and Goode from his childhood street Goode Avenue.
If Johnny's life continued to mirror Berry's trajectory, then his mother's premonition of seeing his name in lights certainly came true. Or maybe he never escaped poverty and is still sitting by the railroad tracks, strumming his guitar for strangers in between swigs of liquor. Sounds depressing - and a lot like the Lynyrd Skynyrd hero Curtis Loew.
"The Ballad of Curtis Loew" by Lynyrd Skynyrd
People said he was useless, them people are the fools
'Cause Curtis Loew was the finest picker to ever play the blues
The narrator in Lynyrd Skynyrd's "The Ballad of Curtis Loew" remembers scraping together money as a kid just so he could get Curtis Loew to entertain him. Despite being "the finest picker to ever play the blues," Loew is regarded as a blight on the community because of his alcoholism. The boy is supposed to ignore Loew like everyone else or risk a beating from his mother. But time and again he brings his money to the old man in exchange for the blues.
Play me a song
Curtis Loew, Curtis Loew
Well, I got your drinkin' money
Tune up your Dobro
Loew died alone with no one to attend his funeral, but he left a lasting impression on the boy, who wished the bluesman had gotten the recognition he deserved.
Original Skynyrd frontman Ronnie Van Zant and guitarist Allen Collins based the Second Helping song on a variety of people Van Zant encountered growing up in Jacksonville, Florida. Though he doesn't fit the description of the elderly black man with curly white hair, a major influence was blues musician Shorty Medlocke, the grandfather of the band's Rickey Medlocke, who used to play songs for Van Zant when he visited. Shorty wrote the hit "Train, Train" for Rickey's band Blackfoot.
Like Curtis Loew, the narrator in Leo Sayer's "One Man Band" knows a thing or two about baring his soul for survival.
"One Man Band" by Leo Sayer
Well I'm a one man band
Nobody knows nor understands
Is there anybody out there want to lend me a hand
With my one man band
Sayer was somewhat of a starving artist himself when he caught the attention of Roger Daltrey. The Who frontman was planning his own solo debut and enlisted Sayer and his songwriting partner David Courtney to write for him. Daltrey was the first to record "One Man Band," which reminded him of Shepherd's Bush, a busy district in west London where he grew up.
A regular gig would've helped the One Man Band feed his belly but would've done little to satisfy his artistic rumblings. Just ask Pearl.
"Pearl's A Singer" by Elkie Brooks
Pearl's a singer
She sings songs for the lost and the lonely
Her job is entertaining folks
Singing songs and telling jokes
In a nightclub
Smoky-voiced Elkie Brooks shares some similarities with the nightclub singer in her 1977 single "Pearl's A Singer." Rumor has it, Pearl once won a contest and had a record on the local radio, but she never hit the big time. Brooks also won a talent contest as a teen and she worked her way through the club circuit until she landed a stellar gig supporting The Beatles on their 1964 Christmas shows.
But while Pearl was stuck in the nightclub with beer-stained tables, dreaming of those things she never got to do, Brooks' career took off co-fronting the R&B group Vinegar Joe. Her solo debut featured "Pearl's A Singer," which was written and first recorded by the duo Dino and Sembello, and reworked by the songwriting/producing team Leiber and Stoller. Some listeners liken Pearl to Janis Joplin, whose nickname was Pearl.
If we've learned anything so far, it's that it takes more than talent to make it to the top. The "Guitar Man" learned that lesson the hard way, but figured if he pestered enough people, someone would eventually take notice.
"Guitar Man" by Elvis Presley
Well, I thought my pickin' would set 'em on fire
But nobody wanted to hire a guitar man
In Elvis Presley's 1967 country chart-topper, he sings from the perspective of an aspiring musician who quits his job at a carwash and rambles around the South in pursuit of a place to play his guitar. He hitches a ride on a poultry truck from Memphis to Macon and thumbs his way down to Panama City, but no one wants to hire a guitar man. Finally, he finds luck in Mobile, Alabama, where he fronts a five-piece bar band.
As for Elvis, he didn't need to go beyond Memphis, where he landed a recording contract with Sun Records on the strength of his voice, not his guitar playing – his "guitar man" in those days was Scotty Moore. Even Jerry Reed, the Atlanta native who wrote and recorded the song in 1967, had a more fortuitous journey than his character. He was signed to Capitol Records at age 18 and cut his first record, "If the Good Lord's Willing and the Creek Don't Rise."
"The Guitar Man" by Bread
Who draws the crowd and plays so loud, baby
It's the guitar man
Who's gonna steal the show, you know, baby
It's the guitar man
Finally these fictional musicians are getting somewhere. Bread frontman David Gates wrote the 1972 hit "The Guitar Man" about the connection between a musician and his fans. He understands their highs and lows and can soothe them with a song, if even for a little while before he has to move on. If ever there was a lyric that sums up Songfacts, this is it:
You want to get the meaning out of each and every song
Then you find yourself a message and some words to call your own and take 'em home
Most of the guys in Bread knew their way around a guitar. Jimmy Griffin played acoustic on the tune and Larry Knechtel, who typically found himself on bass and keyboards, hooked up a wah-wah pedal for the memorable electric solo.
Rebels Without A Clue
They're drawing the crowds and topping the charts, but how long before these shooting stars burn out?
"Into The Great Wide Open" by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Into the great wide open
Under them skies of blue
Out in the great wide open
A rebel without a clue
Eddie's story is typical of many rock stars, but it's a fate Tom Petty sidestepped in his journey with the Heartbreakers, who continued going strong for more than 40 years. Around the time the song was recorded in 1991, however, Petty did take a tumble with a heroin addiction he eventually kicked. His bandmate Howie Epstein wasn't so fortunate: He died of drug overdose in 2013.
Similarly, Bad Company's "Shooting Star" is about a fictional musician named Johnny who succumbs to the pressures of the music industry and commits suicide.
"Shooting Star" by Bad Company
Johnny's life passed him by like a warm summer day
If you listen to the wind you can still hear him play
Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke told us the song was based on a composite of musicians who fell victim to the rock 'n roll lifestyle. By the time the single was released in 1975, the rock world lost Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Gram Parsons to drug-related deaths.
A few years later, Joe Walsh took a humorous look at fame in "Life's Been Good." He sings from the perspective of a spoiled rock star who won't admit that life in the limelight has gone to his head.
"Life's Been Good" by Joe Walsh
It's tough to handle this fortune and fame Everybody's so different, I haven't changed
What started out as fiction eventually became reality for Walsh, who dove headfirst into hedonism. "I started believing I was who everybody thought I was, which was a crazy rock star," he told Rolling Stone in 2017. "It took me away from my craft. Me and a lot of the guys I ran with, we were party monsters. It was a real challenge just to stay alive."
Rather than fade into obscurity, some stars flame out when they're at their brightest.
"Whatever Happened to Benny Santini?" by Chris Rea
They say he could not fall off
They say he could not fail
The wealth and fame would fire his flame
Just as soon as his ship set sail
So whatever happened?
When Chris Rea landed a record deal with Magnet in the late '70s, the label didn't think his name was suited for stardom in the US. The English singer-songwriter sarcastically suggested "Benjamin Santini," but the joke sailed way over one executive's head, who thought it was the perfect name to tap into the Italian and Jewish markets in America. Instead, Rea envisioned a rising pop star who disappears as fast as he came, leaving everyone to ask, "Whatever Happened To Benny Santini?"
Stateside dwellers might wonder the same of Chris Rea, who released the hit "Fool (If You Think It's Over)" and earned a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist in 1979 before fading from the US charts. But Rea fared much better than Benny Santini: By the late '80s, he was one of the biggest singer-songwriters in Europe.
"The Kid Is Hot Tonight" by Loverboy
The Kid is hot tonight Whoa so hot tonight But where will he be tomorrow?
In Loverboy's 1980 single "The Kid Is Hot Tonight," the Kid is riding high on a brand new wave and everyone is crazy for his fresh style. "Where will he be tomorrow, when the fad wears off?" asks Loverboy guitarist Paul Dean, who co-wrote the song as a statement about the fickle industry. "I know what the business is. I've seen it, in so many bands. You come up and you have your 15 minutes of fame and glory and then you're history. Next! That's just the way it is. There's very few bands that can do 20 albums."
Like the Kid, the Canadian rockers were just starting out when they performed this as part of the opening act for Kiss in 1979, and by the audience reaction, they were hot that night. Their self-titled debut peaked at #13 in the US.
The Sky Is The Limit
For every dreamer who tries to make it in the business, only a choice few reach the heights of fame, and even fewer stay at the top. Pro tip: It helps if you're a robot.
"Bennie and the Jets" by Elton John
Oh Bennie she's really keen
She's got electric boots, a mohair suit
In Elton John's 1974 chart-topper "Bennie and the Jets," a part homage/part satire of the decade's glam rock scene, Bennie is a futuristic rock goddess whose band of identical automatons captivates audiences with their electric wall of sound and an outrageous style akin to Elton's own gaudy fashion sense. "I'm not sure if it came to me in a dream or was in some way a subconscious effect of watching [Stanley] Kubrick on drugs," says Elton's longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin of the wacky concept. He supposedly borrowed the name "Bennie" from former girlfriend Sally Bennington, and it was brought to life by Elton's stuttering delivery.
A little bit of Bennie's magic rubbed off on Elton, who thought the song was too weird to make it as a single - until it hit the R&B chart, making him the first "white boy from England" to break into black radio.
We're not sure how the otherworldly band got so popular, but for most rock acts the journey to the top involves paying lots of dues.
"Rock and Roll Band" by Boston
Well, we were just another band out of Boston
On the road to try to make ends meet
"Rock and Roll Band" is the story of a band from Boston, but it's not about the actual group Boston. Confused yet? Lots of listeners assume the song is an autobiographical account of Boston's rise to fame, but it actually tells a much different story.
Group leader Tom Scholz was inspired by local bands who hit the road trying to get a record deal, which wasn't the case for his own group. The fictional band struggled to make ends meet playin' in bars and sleepin' in cars until they finally got discovered by a big-shot manager. Scholz was no stranger to the club scene, but the real band spent most of their time recording demos in Scholz's basement, including "Rock and Roll Band," and shopping their songs to record labels instead of building a name for themselves on tour. In 1976 the group of unknowns released one of the best-selling debut albums of all time.
"Johnny's Band" by Deep Purple
Hail Johnny's Band
Hear them on the radio
Smash after smash now they're rolling in the cash
Whatever they touch turns to gold
"'Johnny's Band' is the story of every band. It's a universal story," says Glover of the Infinite single. "But it's not about Purple! There's a reference to 'Louie Louie' in the guitar solo that places it firmly in the '60s."
Still, the band had their fair share of drama through several lineup changes (Mark I, II, III and IV) and an eight-year split (1976-1984). Drug issues, exhaustive touring, and the occasional food fight pushed them to the brink, but unlike Johnny's Band, they didn't bottom out. Many went on to successful stints in other bands – like Gillan, Whitesnake, and Rainbow - or pursued solo careers before a successful reunion with 1984's Perfect Strangers.
But hey, it's Johnny's Band
Playing all those wonderful songs
Making the rounds with that old fashioned sound
And here we are singing along
Here's our full list of songs about fictional musicians
October 12, 2017
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