He's sold somewhere in the realm of 30 million albums, but Rea doesn't look or act like a famous musician. In the '70s and '80s, he was often mistaken for a stagehand at TV appearances, and sometimes even at his own concerts.
In his native UK, he's best known for his 10th album, The Road to Hell, which went to #1 after it was released in 1989. Written in a week, the album deals with the isolation and ennui he felt after buying a house on the shore and commuting to London.
He's a top slide guitarist, but didn't start playing the instrument until he was 22.
An auto racing enthusiast, Rea has owned Ferraris and other sports cars, and often races on the amateur circuit. Many of his songs contain motoring imagery, although they're not really about the cars. "It's about people
in cars, it's not about the car itself," he said in a Songfacts interview
For a short time, he was bandmates with David Coverdale - they were in a group called Magdalene. He later played with Rod Argent in the band Deltics.
A turning point for Rea came with his 1985 album Shamrock Diaries, which was inspired by his time in Ireland and his Irish heritage. To this point, he was making music with an eye toward commercial success, but Shamrock Diaries made no effort to follow a trend or reach a specific market. Surprisingly, it sold well, as did his next efforts, which were also done on his terms. "Without the Irish and Shamrock Diaries there would have been no Road To Hell," Rea said.
His mother died in 1983 the day after his second daughter, Josephine, was born.
He wrote and produced the 1996 film La Passione, about a 10-year-old English boy with a passion for auto racing. Much of it is based on Rea's experiences, but he says it's not autobiographical.
He has had a number of health issues, starting in 1994 when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. After having his pancreas and some of his colon removed, he became a diabetic. He has since undergone several surgeries to deal with problems with his digestive system.
Inspired by Pink Floyd, he put on an atypically elaborate stage show when he toured for The Road to Hell album. At the end of each show, he and the band would disappear behind a puff of smoke, replaced with a cube as seen on the album cover.