Most in-debt singers of the 80s and 90s


Debt can plague anyone, even the rich and famous. In the 1980s and 1990s, dozens of famous singers and songwriters saw their fortunes plummet from the high notes of their careers, into bankruptcy.

Some of these household names, from singers Jerry Lee Lewis to MC Hammer, recovered from their debt and have net worths in the high millions. But singer Marvin Gaye, shot by his own father, was less lucky, and died still in serious debt. Despite its association with enormous wealth, the music industry may also encourage debt, because singers often live on ‘advances’, which are loans they have to pay back to their record label after albums are released.

If you’ve struggled with debt, you’ll know how powerless it can make you feel. While it is possible to get out of debt, it takes hard work. Just look at Dee Snider from the Twisted Sisters. He’d been raking in the millions with his albums, but by 1995 he was hiding from fans in thrift stores, working a $200 a week office job to try and move past his debt.

In this article, we’ll examine the most in-debt singers of the 80s and 90s, how much debt they struggled with, and why they got into debt in the first place.

Who are the most in-debt singers of the 80s and 90s?

The most in-debt singers of the 80s are:

  • Marvin Gaye,
  • Jerry Lee Lewis
  • Willie Nelson
  • George Clinton
  • David Crosby

The most in-debt singers of the 90s are:

  • Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins
  • Dee Snider
  • MC Hammer
  • La Toya Jackson
  • Toni Braxton.

Let’s dive right in, and explore the most in-debt singers of the 80s and 90s in more detail.

Most in-debt singers of the 80s

Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye, nicknamed the ‘Prince of Soul’ was born in 1939 in Washington, and filed for bankruptcy in 1976. He grew up singing in his father’s Evangelical church, and became a member of the famous doo-wop group, the Moonglows. He got his start in music here, listening to doo-wop master Harvey Fuqua’s lessons in close harmony. As well as a singer, Gaye played the drums and piano, and established himself in the Motown system with hits such as “Stubborn Kinda Fellow” (1962). He had a wide vocal range which pitched from a high falsetto to the low tones of the gospel blues. He had to file for bankruptcy in the late 1970s, as he owed his ex-wife around $600,000 in back alimony payments. In the early 1980s he remade himself with the hit song ‘Sexual Healing’, but unfortunately he fell back into debt. He was murdered by his father, and died at $1,900,000 in debt.

Net worth Most famous hits Amount of debt in the 80s Reason for debt Interesting facts
-$9 Million “Let’s Get It On” 600,000 alimony Missed alimony payments His family received a $7m payout and 50% of future royalties of the song “Blurred Lines”.

Jerry Lee Lewis

Born in 1935 in Louisiana, Jerry Lee Lewis was given a piano by his bootlegging, carpenter father. They didn’t have the money, but his dad, seeing his talent for music, mortgaged their house. Lewis copied the music styles of the preachers and black musicians he saw in local clubs. He performed in school assemblies, talent shows and worship events in tents. He kicked off his career fully in Memphis, Tennessee, inspired by singers like Elvis Presley. He performed ‘Rockabilly’ type music, which integrated country styles with rhythm and blues, and soon became ‘classic’ rock and roll. Despite his success with songs such as ‘Great Balls of Fire’ and ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’, Lewis went bankrupt in 1988, with $3 million in debt, $2 million of which he owed to the IRS.

Net worth Number one hit Amount of debt in the 80s Reason for debt Interesting facts
$1.5 million ‘Great balls of fire’ $3 million Medical expenses, personal expenses and tax payments Married his 13 year old cousin

Willie Nelson

Abandoned by his father and mother in early childhood, Willie Nelson learned to play guitar from the grandparents who raised him in Arkansas. Nelson’s grandparents taught music for a living, and by the 1950s he was a disk jockey in Texas, as well as performing in public and writing songs. Nelson wrote hit songs including “Night Life”, “Crazy” and “Funny How Time Slips Away”. Despite his success particularly from 1975, becoming one of the most popular country music singers, Nelson had to file for bankruptcy, as he allegedly owed between $16-32 million to the IRS.

Net worth Most famous hit Amount of debt in the 80s Reason for debt Interesting facts
$25 million. ‘Always on my mind’ between $16-32 million Underpaid his tax bills His album “The IRS Tapes” helped pay his debts to the IRS.

George Clinton

Born in 1941, George Clinton was working at a barber salon while forming his own doo-wop group, The Parliaments. Clinton helped pioneer the form of music called P-Funk (short for Parliament-Funkadelic), and incorporated elements psychedelic culture and fashion and science fiction. In 1982, however, financial and legal disputes with three labels (Casablanca, CBS and Warner Bros), put pressure on Clinton’s finances. Somehow, potentially because of fraud by his own record label, Clinton was made to relinquish his publishing rights. Clinton filed for bankruptcy in 1984, although he now claims he never did so at that his bankruptcy was forged. He continues to fight to regain his publishing rights.

Net worth Most famous hits Amount of debt int he 80s Reason for debt Interesting facts
$1.8 Million ‘Atomic Dog’ $2 million dollars Owed money to Bodladian publishing and record companies He claimed he was defrauded of millions of dollars from his best selling single

David Crosby

David Crosby got his introduction to music at elementary school in Los Angeles, where he performed in musicals like HMS Pinafore. He dropped out of college to pursue a career in music, and performed with singer Terry Callier in places like Chicago and Greenwich Village. Crosby recorded his first solo session in 1963. According to Crosby’s own estimations, he earned and spent around $25 million throughout his career. He filed for bankruptcy in 1984, had to sell things including his sailboat Mayan.

Net worth Most famous hits Amount of debt in the 80s Reason for debt Interesting facts
5 million ‘Lady Friend’, with band The Byrds Hundreds of thousands of dollars Back in 2003, Crosby estimated to Bankrate that he had earned — and burned through — around $25 million over the course of his career. He said the FBI scare him for than Hells Angels

Most in-debt singers of the 90s

Toni Braxton

It’s a miracle that Toni Braxton became a singer of R&B pop considering she grew up in a household so religious that she wasn’t allowed to wear trousers for the first fourteen years of her life. She got her introduction to music at her father’s church, where she sang, and over time, her parents let her and her sisters listen to singers like Stevie Wonder. Braxton had decided to become a music teacher after high school, until a songwriter heard her singing to herself at a gas station, and helped her get a record contract with Arista Records. Braxton sang the soundtrack to the movie Boomerang, which starred Eddie Murphie and her first big hit after this was “Love Shoulda Brought You Home”. Unfortunately contract disagreements with Arista – Braxton said she wasn’t being paid enough, with only a tiny royalty check from some of her million dollar hits – led to her filing for bankruptcy in 1998. She filed again in 2010.

Net worth Most famous hits Amount of debt in the 90s Reason for debt Interesting facts
$10 million ‘Unbreak my heart’ $2.8 million. Paid only $1972 from her first recording contract, plus she admitted overspending on things like Faberge eggs and plates. She was considered the ‘odd religious kid’ growing up. Her parents forbade her from wearing pants for fourteen years, and she had to wear hats to cover her hair. “


La Toya Jackson

La Toya Jackson, member of the famous Jackson family, who produced King of Pop Michael Jackson, was destined to become a singer, despite the fact that she was more interested in business law. After her mother became a Jehovah’s Witness, she and her siblings trailed from door to door, inviting people to join. At sixteen, her father arranged for La Toya and her siblings to perform a tap dancing routine in shows in Las Vegas, as part of his desire to catapult them further into the spotlight. She started college, before her father forced her into show business with the rest of the family. Like her famous brother Michael, La Toya is an R&B music performer, but also shows hints of rock and reggae in some of her songs. In the mid 1990s, she had to file for bankruptcy after she cut short a six month contract she had with the club Moulin Rouge in Paris, and they tried to collect $650,000 back from her. .

Net worth Most famous hit Amount of debt in the 90s Reason for debt Interesting facts
4 million ‘Heart don’t lie’ $550,000 Failed to fulfil contract with Moulin Rouge She wanted to be an attorney but her father insisted she join showbiz


MC Hammer

MC Hammer’s father nearly gambled his childhood away, but luckily Hammer’s talents for music and basketball catapulted him into a brighter future. While Hammer’s father, a warehouse operative before he became obsessed with gambling, nearly pushed the family into financial ruin, Hammer regularly earned money performing dance routines. After three years in the Navy and college, Hammer was performing in Oakland, and launched his own record label, Bust It Productions. He later released albums Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em and Feel My Power, which got him over $2 million. Despite his enormous success, he filed for bankruptcy in 1996, partly because of lavish spending and loans he owed people, including $500,000 to footballer Deion Sanders.

Net worth Most famous hits Amount of debt in the 90s Reason for debt Interesting facts
1.7 million ‘U can’t touch this’ More than $13m in debt Loans and lavish lifestyle He grew up very poor with his 8 siblings in a small apartment.

Dee Snider

As a child, Dee Snider was a choirboy, but by the time he was 21 he was performing heavy metal with the Twisted Sister band. Their albums Under the Blade, You Can’t Stop Rock ‘n’ Roll and Stay Hungry were huge successes. However, he filed for bankruptcy in the early to mid 1990s and said that, by 1995, he was ‘flat broke’. He had to shop in thrift stores, and worked a $200 a week office job to try and recover his finances, where he pretended he was someone else whenever anyone recognised him.

Net worth Most famous hit Amount of debt in the 90s Reason for debt Interesting money facts
$10 million ‘I wanna rock’ Not known Downfall in record sales and loss of interest in glam metal acts When he went bankrupt, he couldn’t even afford to buy his kids a piece of candy

Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins

Tionne Watkins, stage name “T-Boz”, grew up with divorced parents who were both musicians and singers. From a young age, Watkins knew she wanted to become a singer. She became part of the American girl group TLC. Their first album “Ooooooohhh… On the TLC Tip” already reached certified quadruple-platinum in 1995, four years after its release. They also found huge success with their album CrazySexyCool, released in 1994. Despite TLC earning two Grammy awards, they signed contracts that weren’t so great at the start of their careers, which led them to file for bankruptcy in June 1995.

Net worth Most famous hits Amount of debt in the 90s Reason for debt Interesting facts
1.5 million ‘Unpretty’ Not known Poor recording contracts, and owed money to record label. She was told she wouldn’t live past 30 because of sickle cell disease

So, there you have it! The most in-debt singers of the 80s and 90s. Although many of these singers were obviously in unfortunate situations, signing bad deals with record labels which helped push them into debt, it’s also a fact that the more money you have, the more money you spend.

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