Tom Waits

Tom Waits
Waits during an interview in Buenos Aires, Argentina, April 2007
Background information
Birth name Thomas Alan Waits
Born (1949-12-07) December 7, 1949
Pomona, California, United States
Genres Rock, Avant-garde, Experimental, Folk, Blues, Jazz
Occupation(s) Singer-songwriter, musician, actor, composer
Instruments Vocals, piano, guitar, percussion
Years active 1972–present
Labels Asylum, Island, ANTI-
Website .com.tomwaitswww

Thomas Alan "Tom" Waits (born December 7, 1949) is an American singer-songwriter, composer, and actor. Waits has a distinctive voice, described by critic Daniel Durchholz as sounding "like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car."[1] With this trademark growl, his incorporation of pre-rock music styles such as blues, jazz, and vaudeville, and experimental tendencies verging on industrial music,[2] Waits has built up a distinctive musical persona. He has worked as a composer for movies and musical plays and has acted in supporting roles in films, including Paradise Alley and Bram Stoker's Dracula; he also starred in Jim Jarmusch's 1986 film Down by Law. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his soundtrack work on One from the Heart.

Waits' lyrics frequently present atmospheric portraits 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. His songs are best-known through cover versions by more commercial artists: "Jersey Girl", performed by Bruce Springsteen, "Ol' '55", performed by the Eagles, and "Downtown Train", performed by Rod Stewart. 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. In 2011, Waits was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.[3][4]

Waits lives in Sonoma County, California, with his wife and musical collaborator Kathleen Brennan, and three children.


  • Origins and musical beginnings 1
  • 1970s 2
  • 1980s 3
  • 1990s 4
  • 2000s 5
  • 2010s 6
  • Lawsuits 7
  • Discography 8
  • Tours 9
  • Notes 10
  • References 11
  • External links 12

Origins and musical beginnings

Waits was born at Park Avenue Hospital in Pomona, California, the son of Alma Fern (née Johnson) McMurray and Jesse Frank Waits, both schoolteachers.[5][6] After Waits' parents divorced in 1960, he lived with his mother in Whittier, and then moved to National City, in San Diego County, near the Mexico–United States border.[6] Waits, who taught himself how to play the piano on a neighbor's instrument, often took trips to Mexico with his father, who taught Spanish. He would later say that he found his love of music during these trips through a Mexican ballad that was "probably a Ranchera, you know, on the car radio with my dad."[7]

By 1965, while attending Hilltop High School within the Sweetwater Union High School District, Chula Vista,[8] Waits was playing in an R&B/soul band called The Systems and had begun his first job at Napoleone Pizza House in National City (about which he would later sing on "I Can't Wait to Get Off Work (And See My Baby on Montgomery Avenue)" from Small Change and "The Ghosts of Saturday Night (After Hours at Napoleone's Pizza House)" on The Heart of Saturday Night).[5] He later admitted that he was not a fan of the 1960s music scene, stating, "I wasn't thrilled by Blue Cheer, so I found an alternative, even if it was Bing Crosby."[9] Five years later, he was working as a doorman at the Heritage nightclub in San Diego—where artists of every genre performed—when he did his first paid gig for $6.[5] A fan of Bob Dylan, Lord Buckley, Jack Kerouac, Louis Armstrong, Howlin' Wolf, and Charles Bukowski, Waits began developing his own idiosyncratic musical style.

After serving with the United States Coast Guard,[10] he took his newly formed act to Monday nights at The Troubadour in Los Angeles, where musicians would line up all day for the opportunity to perform on stage that night. In 1971, Waits moved to the Echo Park neighborhood of L.A. (at the time, also home to musicians Glenn Frey of the Eagles, J. D. Souther, Jackson Browne, and Frank Zappa) and signed with Herb Cohen at the age of 21. From August to December 1971, Waits made a series of demo recordings for Zappa and Cohen's Bizarre/Straight label, including many songs for which he would later become known. These early tracks were released twenty years later on The Early Years, Volume One and Volume Two.


Waits signed to Asylum Records in 1972,[11] and after numerous abortive recording sessions, his first record—the jazzy, folk-tinged Closing Time—was released in 1973. The album—produced and arranged by former Lovin' Spoonful member Jerry Yester—received positive reviews, but Waits didn't gain widespread attention until more prominent artists covered a number of the album's tracks. 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.[12] This cover later appeared in the 1995 compilation Step Right Up: The Songs of Tom Waits. The album's opening track, "Ol' '55", was recorded by the Eagles in 1974 for their On the Border album.[12]

He began touring and opening for such artists as Charlie Rich, Martha and the Vandellas, and Frank Zappa. 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's roots as a nightclub performer, with half-spoken and half-crooned ballads often accompanied by a jazz backup band.[13] Waits described the album as:
a comprehensive study of a number of aspects of this search for the center of Saturday night, which Jack Kerouac relentlessly chased from one end of this country to the other, and I've attempted to scoop up a few diamonds of this magic that I see.[14]

In 1975, Waits moved to the Tropicana Motel on Santa Monica Boulevard[15] 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. The record exemplifies this phase of his career, including the lengthy spoken interludes between songs that punctuated his live act. That year, he also contributed backing vocals to Bonnie Raitt's "Your Sweet and Shiny Eyes", from her album Home Plate.

By this time, Waits was drinking heavily, and life on the road was starting to take its toll. Waits, looking back at the period, has said,
I was sick through that whole period ... It was starting to wear on me, all the touring. I'd been traveling quite a bit, living in hotels, eating bad food, drinking a lot — too much. There's a lifestyle that's there before you arrive and you're introduced to it. It's unavoidable.[16]

In reaction to these hardships, 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)". With the album, Waits asserted that he "tried to resolve a few things as far as this cocktail lounge, maudlin, crying-in-your-beer image that I have. There ain't nothin' funny about a drunk [...] I was really starting to believe that there was something amusing and wonderfully American about being a drunk. I ended up telling myself to cut that shit out."[17] The album, which also included long-time fan favorite "Tom Traubert's Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen)", featured jazz drummer Shelly Manne and was, like his previous albums, heavily influenced by jazz.

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's previous albums. With it, Waits broke onto Billboard's Top 100 Albums chart for the first time in his career (a feat Waits would not repeat until 1999 with the release of Mule Variations).[18] This resulted in a much higher public profile, which brought with it interviews and articles in Time, Newsweek, and Vogue. Waits put together a regular touring band, The Nocturnal Emissions, which featured Frank Vicari on tenor saxophone, Fitzgerald Jenkins on bass guitar, and Chip White on drums and vibraphone. Tom Waits and the Nocturnal Emissions toured the United States and Europe extensively from October 1976 until May 1977,[18] including a performance of "The Piano Has Been Drinking" on cult BBC2 television music show the Old Grey Whistle Test in May 1976.[19]

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's biggest musical departure to date, with much more focus on electric guitar and keyboards than on previous albums and hardly any strings (with the exception of album-opener "Somewhere" — a cover of Leonard Bernstein's song from West Side Story — and "Kentucky Avenue") for a darker, more blues-oriented sound. The song "Blue Valentines" was also unique for Waits in that it featured a desolate arrangement of solo electric guitar played by Ray Crawford, accompanied by Waits' vocal. Around this time, Waits had a relationship with Rickie Lee Jones (who appears on the sleeve art of the Blue Valentine album). In 1978, Waits also appeared in his first film role, in Paradise Alley as Mumbles the pianist, and contributed the original compositions "(Meet Me in) Paradise Alley" and "Annie's Back in Town" to the film's soundtrack.[20]

Heartattack and Vine, Waits's 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. For Coppola's film, Waits originally wanted to work with Bette Midler; she was unavailable due to prior engagements, however. Waits ended up working with singer/songwriter Crystal Gayle as his vocal foil for the album.


In August 1980, Waits married Kathleen Brennan, a screenwriter, whom he had met while working on the set of the Francis Ford Coppola movie One from the Heart. Brennan is regularly credited as co-author of many songs in his later albums, and Waits often cites her as a major influence on his work. She introduced him to the music of Captain Beefheart. Despite having shared a manager with Beefheart in the 1970s, Waits says, "I became more acquainted with him when I got married."[21] Waits would later describe his relationship with Brennan as a paradigm shift in his musical development. After leaving Asylum, the label released the first Tom Waits "Best of" album in 1981, a collection called Bounced Checks, notable for including an alternate, stripped down version of "Jersey Girl" and the otherwise unreleased "Mr. Henry", as well as an alternate master of "Whistlin' Past the Graveyard" and a live performance of "The Piano Has Been Drinking". During this period, Waits appeared in a series of minor movie roles, including a cameo role in Wolfen (1981) as an inebriated piano player, and his song "Jitterbug Boy" also appeared on the movie's soundtrack. One from the Heart received its official theatrical release in 1982, with Waits appearing in a cameo as a trumpet player as well as receiving an Oscar nomination for Original Song Score (eventually losing out to Victor Victoria, by Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse). This marked the first in a series of collaborations between Waits and Coppola, with Waits appearing in cameos in Coppola's movies The Outsiders (1983), Rumble Fish (1983), and The Cotton Club (1984). Waits also contributed two songs to the documentary Streetwise (1984), "Rat's Theme" and "Take Care of All My Children".

After leaving Asylum for percussion (sometimes reminiscent of the music of Harry Partch), horn sections (often featuring Ralph Carney playing in the style of brass bands or soul music), experimental guitar, and obsolete instruments (many of Waits' albums have featured a damaged, unpredictable Chamberlin, and more recent albums have included the little-used Stroh violin).

His songwriting shifted as well, moving away from the traditional piano-and-strings ballad sound of his 1970s output towards a number of styles largely ignored in pop music, including primal blues, cabaret stylings, rumbas, theatrical approaches in the style of Kurt Weill, tango music, early country music and European folk music as well as the Tin Pan Alley-era songs that influenced his early output. He also recorded a spoken word piece, "Frank's Wild Years", influenced by Ken Nordine's "word jazz" records of the 1950s. Apart from Captain Beefheart and some of Dr. John's early output, there was little precedent in popular music.

Waits's new emphasis on experimenting with various styles and instrumentation continued on 1985's Rain Dogs, a sprawling, 19-song collection that received glowing reviews. Rolling Stone ranked the album #21 on their list of the 100 greatest albums of the 1980s—and in 2003, they ranked the album number 397 on their list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. 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 12" single "Downtown Train/Tango Till They're Sore/Jockey Full of Bourbon", with Jean Baptiste Mondino filming a promotional music video for "Downtown Train" (which became a hit for Rod Stewart), featuring a cameo from boxing legend Jake LaMotta. The album peaked at #188 on Billboard's Top 200 albums chart; however, its reputation has come to far outshine low initial sales.

Franks Wild Years, a musical play by Waits and Brennan, was staged as an Off-Broadway musical in 1986, directed by Gary Sinise,[23] in a successful run at Chicago's famed Steppenwolf Theater. Waits himself played the lead role. Waits developed his acting career with several supporting roles and a lead role in Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law in 1986, which also featured two of Waits's songs from Rain Dogs in the soundtrack. In the same year, Waits also contributed vocals to the song "Harlem Shuffle" on The Rolling Stones' album Dirty Work.[24]

In 1987, he released Franks Wild Years (subtitled "Un Operachi Romantico in Two Acts"), which included studio versions from Waits' play of the same name. accordion."[25] Waits also continued to further his acting career with a supporting role as Rudy the Kraut in Ironweed (an adaptation of William Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel) alongside Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep, in which Waits performed the song "Big Rock Candy Mountain", as well as a part in Robert Frank's Candy Mountain, in which Waits also performed "Once More Before I Go." In 1988, Waits performed in Big Time, a surreal concert movie and soundtrack he co-wrote with his wife.

In 1989, Waits appeared in his final theatrical stage role to date, appearing as Curly in Thomas Babe's Demon Wine, alongside Bill Pullman, Philip Baker Hall, Carol Kane, and Bud Cort. The play opened at the Los Angeles Theater Center in February 1989 to mixed reviews, although Waits' performance was singled out by a number of critics, including John C. Mahoney, who described it as "mesmerizing."[26] Waits finished the decade with appearances in three movies: as the voice of a radio DJ in Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train; as Kenny the Hitman in Robert Dornhelm's Cold Feet; and the lead role of Punch & Judy man Silva in Bearskin: An Urban Fairytale. His only musical output of the year consisted of contributing his cover of Phil Phillips' "Sea of Love" to the soundtrack of the Al Pacino movie of the same name[27] and contributing vocals to The Replacements song "Date to Church", which appeared as a B-side to their single "I'll Be You".


External links

  • Humphries, Patrick (2007). The Many Lives of Tom Waits. Omnibus.  
  • Jacobs, Jay S. (2006). Wild Years The Music and Myth of Tom Waits. ECW Press.  
  • Montandon, Mac (ed.) (2006). Innocent When You Dream: Tom Waits – The Collected Interviews. Orion.  
  • Hoskyns, Barney (2009). Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits.  
  • Smay, David (2007). Swordfishtrombones.  


  1. ^ Graff, Gary; Durchholz, Daniel. Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide. Omnibus Press.  
  2. ^ Petridis, Alexis. "Tom Waits live at the Hammersmith Apollo, London review". The Guardian. Retrieved November 23, 2001. 
  3. ^ Lyons, Margaret (December 15, 2010). "Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 2011 inductees include Neil Diamond, Alice Cooper: who else made the cut?".  
  4. ^  
  5. ^ a b c Montadon, Mac, "Timeline and Discography" in Innocent When You Dream, p.385
  6. ^ a b "Tom Waits Timeline: 1949–1975". Tom Waits Library. Retrieved January 9, 2007. 
  7. ^ Wilonsky, Robert, "The Variations of Tom Waits", in Montandon, Innocent When You dream, p.213
  8. ^
  9. ^ "Tom Waits Quotes: Influences and favourites". Tom Waits Library. Retrieved November 23, 2001. 
  10. ^ "Coast Guard History: Frequently Asked Questions: What celebrities or other famous persons once served in or were associated with the Coast Guard?". October 28, 2009. Retrieved January 27, 2010. 
  11. ^ McGee, David, Smellin' Like a Brewery, Lookin' Like a Tramp, in Montandon, Innocent When you Dream, p.27
  12. ^ a b "Tom Waits Discography: Covers & Tributes: 1949–1975". Tom Waits Library. Retrieved September 29, 2010. 
  13. ^ In his press release for the album (Montandon, p. 4), Waits outlined the album's musical influences as being Irving Berlin, Ray Charles, Stephen Foster, and Frank Sinatra.
  14. ^ Waits, Tom The Heart of Saturday Night Press release in Montandon, Mac Innocent When You Dream, p. 4
  15. ^ Montandon, Mav, Timeline and Discography in Innocent When You Dream, p.386
  16. ^ McGee, David (1977), Smellin' Like a Brewery, Lookin' Like a Tramp, in Montandon, p.29
  17. ^ McGee, David (1977), Smellin' Like a Brewery, Lookin' Like a Tramp, in Montandon, p. 30
  18. ^ a b "Tom Waits Time line: 1976–1980". Retrieved January 18, 2007. 
  19. ^ Waits would return to the show in 1977 ("Small Change" and "Tom Traubert's Blues"), '79 ("Burma Shave"), and '85 ("16 Shells from a 30.06" and "Cemetery Polka") "Tom Waits Filmography as Performer". Tom Waits Library. 
  20. ^ "Paradise Alley Original Soundtrack". Soundtrack Collector. Retrieved November 25, 2007. 
  21. ^ "Tom Waits interviews". Tom Waits Library. Retrieved November 23, 2007. 
  22. ^ "Tom Waits's instruments". Tom Waits Library. Retrieved November 23, 2007. 
  23. ^ "Frank's Wild Years credits". Tom Waits Library. Retrieved January 7, 2007. 
  24. ^ McPherson, Ian. "Harlem Shuffle". Retrieved December 17, 2009. 
  25. ^ review"Franks Wild Years". Rolling Stone Magazine. 
  26. ^ "Demon Wine: Introduction". Tom Waits Library. Retrieved January 7, 2007. 
  27. ^ a b c d e This song would later be collected on 2006's Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards.
  28. ^ "Wills, D. 'Modern Beats: Tom Waits', in Wills, D. (ed.) Beatdom Vol. 3 (Mauling Press: Dundee, 2007) p. ????". Retrieved January 27, 2010. 
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  60. ^ Scott Johnson (October 20, 2013). "The Walking Dead: What Song Does Beth Sing To Baby Judith?". Retrieved November 7, 2013. 
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  • 1973: Closing Time touring
  • 1974–1975: The Heart of Saturday Night touring
  • 1975–1976: Small Change touring
  • 1977: Foreign Affairs touring
  • 1978–1979: Blue Valentine touring
  • 1980–1982: Heartattack and Vine touring
  • 1985: Rain Dogs touring
  • 1987: Big Time touring
  • 1999: Get Behind the Mule Tour
  • 2004: Real Gone Tour
  • 2006: The Orphans Tour
  • 2008: Glitter and Doom Tour[70]



Waits has also filed a lawsuit unrelated to music. He was arrested in 1977 outside Duke's Tropicana Coffee Shop in Los Angeles. Waits and a friend were trying to stop some men from bullying other patrons. The men were plainclothes officers, and Waits and his friend were arrested and charged with disturbing the peace. The jury found Waits not guilty; he took the police department to court and was awarded $7,500 compensation.[69]

In 2005, Waits sued Adam Opel AG, claiming that, after having failed to sign him to sing in their Scandinavian commercials, they had hired a sound-alike singer. In 2007, the suit was settled, and Waits gave the sum to charity.[68]

Waits found himself in a situation similar to his earlier one with Frito Lay in 2000 when Audi approached him, asking to use "Innocent When You Dream" (from Franks Wild Years) for a commercial broadcast in Spain. Waits declined, but the commercial ultimately featured music ver