John Mellencamp is a musician and singer-songwriter from Indiana who is one of the few but notable artists who brought heartland rock into 80s music. Known for his distinctively straightforward musical style, he incorporated the voice and the passion of small-town people into oldies music.
During his successful years, he bagged 22 Top 40 hits in the US, including “Hurts So Good,” “Jack and Diane,” “Pink Houses” and “Small Town.”
Early music career
John Mellencamp was born on October 7, 1951 in Seymour, Indiana. He developed an early interest in music. At the age of 14, he formed his first band Crepe Soul. He was coddled by his parents to excel academically, but hung out with friends and played with local bands instead of focusing on schooling. As a self-proclaimed rebel, he eloped with his pregnant girlfriend at the age of 18, and then began attending Vincennes University and got a series of blue-collar jobs. He wrote a number of songs, and in 1974, he traveled to New York and attempted to begin a music career.
There, he met Tony DeFries, David Bowie’s manager, who was receptive to his music and image. He recorded his first album Chestnut Street Incident under MCA Records. DeFries changed Mellencamp’s name to Johnny Cougar, believing that the “Mellencamp” name was hard to sell. Mellencamp didn’t know about it until he saw the first album cover but he had no choice but to agree. The album failed to become a hit. Mellencamp recorded a follow-up album The Kid Inside in 1977, but MCA did not release it and dropped him from the label.
After parting ways with DeFries, Mellencamp worked with Rod Stewart’s manager Billy Gaff under Riva Records. He moved to London to record and promote A Biography in 1978. As John Cougar, he released his single “I Need a Lover” (#28 US) which became a number 1 hit in Australia in 1978 and then under the Top 30 tracks in the US when it was released with the John Cougar album after a year. The song also became a hit for Pat Benatar a few years later.
In 1980, Mellencamp recorded the album Nothin’ Matters and What If It Did, which had two successful singles, “Ain’t Even Done with the Night” (#17 US) and “This Time” (#27 US).
His big breakthrough came in with his 1982 album American Fool, yielding three chart-hitting songs, “Hurts So Good” (#2 US), “Jack and Diane” (#1 US, #25 UK), and “Hand to Hold on To” (#19 US, #89 UK). For “Hurts So Good,” Mellencamp won the Grammy Award for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance at the 25th Grammys.
The success of American Fool has given him the power to demand the addition of his real surname “Mellencamp” to his stage name. In 1983, his album Uh-Huh was credited to “John Cougar Mellencamp”. It became a Top 10 album with hit singles “Crumblin’ Down” (#9 US), “Pink Houses” (#8 US) and “Authority Song” (#15 US). That time, he was already receiving stronger critical acclaim for his songwriting abilities.
In 1985, he recorded another successful album entitled Scarecrow, which took up the sounds of classic rock in the ‘60s and showed greater social consciousness. The album featured another string of hits such as “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” (#2 US, #67 UK), “Lonely Ol’ Night” (#6 US), “Small Town” (#6 US, #53 UK), “Rain on the Scarecrow” (#21 US), and “Rumbleseat” (#28 US). After that, he launched benefit concerts for Farm Aid, an organization that supports American family farms, and it remained an annual event up to now.
With his 1987 album The Lonesome Jubilee, Mellencamp continued to explore social issues and experimented with a folk-rock sound. It included singles such as “Cherry Bomb” (#8 US), “Paper in Fire” (#9 US, #86 UK), “Check It Out” (#14 US, #96 UK), and “Rooty Toot Toot” (#61 US).
After that, fewer of his songs hit the charts. The last album to feature his “Cougar” name was Big Daddy (1989), with “Pop Singer” (#15 US, #93 UK). In 1991, Whenever We Wanted produced “Get a Leg Up” (#14 US) and “Again Tonight” (#36 US).
1990s to present
Mellencamp made a comeback to the Top Ten in 1994, with his Dance Naked album featuring a cover of Van Morrison’s “Wild Night” (#3 US, #34 UK) in a duet with Meshell Ndegeocello. However, that year Mellencamp had to cancel his ongoing tour because of a heart attack. He re-emerged in 1996 with Mr. Happy Go Lucky, generating a dance-influenced “Key West Intermezzo (I Saw You First)” (#14 US, #92 UK), and “Just Another Day” (#46 US).
After his last Top 40 hit, songs on his next albums reflected musings of middle age, such as John Mellencamp (1998), Rough Harvest (1999) and Cuttin’ Heads (2001). In 2003, he released Trouble No More, a collection of blues and folk covers. A greatest hits album release in 2005 brought Mellencamp back into the spotlight and in 2007, he unveiled Freedom’s Road (with the carrying single “Our Country”) that debuted at number 5 on Billboard 200.
In 2008, he was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He also produced Life, Death, Love and Freedom that year, which he claims as the best record he’s ever made.
Mellencamp has continued to create music. He recorded No Better Than This (2010) and Plain Spoken (2014), plus an upcoming album this 2017, Sad Clowns And Hillbillies with Carlene Carter. He also signed a lifetime recording contract with Republic Records in 2014.
He has also performed in numerous concerts with other notable artists, gone on series of tours, given in tributes and worked on a musical with author Stephen King. Mellencamp has also devoted his time painting and acting for several films.