The Black Crowes Biography

Exposed to a wide variety of music from an early age by their musician father, brothers Chris Robinson (Christopher Mark Robinson, 20 December 1966, Marietta, Georgia, USA; vocals) and Rich Robinson (b. Richard S. Robinson, 24 May 1969, Marietta, Georgia, USA; guitar) formed the band under the name Mr. Crowe’s Garden in 1984. A procession of six bass players and three drummers passed through before the band stabilized with Johnny Colt (b. 1 May 1966, Cherry Point, USA; bass) and Steve Gorman (b. 17 August 1965, Muskegon, Michigan, USA; drums, ex-Mary My Hope). His predecessor, Jeff Sullivan, went on to join Drivin’ N’ Cryin’. Jeff Cease (b. 24 June 1967, Nashville, Tennessee, USA) joined the band as a second guitarist in 1988 from the Nashville band Rumble Circus, to augment and toughen both the songs and the live sound.

As the Black Crowes, the band was signed to the Def American label by George Drakoulias. Given the heavy nature of other members of the label’s roster, such as Slayer and Danzig, the purist rock ‘n’ roll style of the Black Crowes was a stark contrast. Drakoulias produced their 1990 debut, Shake Your Money Maker, a remarkably mature album from such a young band, blending soul and uncomplicated R&B in a manner reminiscent of vintage Rolling Stones and Humble Pie. Another influence was made obvious by the stirring cover version of Otis Redding’s ‘Hard To Handle’. The record’s highlight was ‘She Talks To Angels’, an emotive acoustic ballad about the frailties of a drug addict, featuring a superb vocal and highly accomplished lyric from Chris Robinson. The album was released to critical acclaim, and the band went on the road, supporting first Steve Stevens’ Atomic Playboys, and then Junkyard in the USA, plus a handful of UK dates as headliners or opening for the Dogs D’Amour. Their live performances drew further Rolling Stones comparisons, the band’s image being very much rooted in the 70s, and with Chris Robinson’s thin frame dominating the stage like a young Mick Jagger. With heavy radio and MTV airplay exposing the Crowes to a wider audience, the first single, ‘Jealous Again’, reached number 75 in the Billboard charts, and the band were invited to fill the prestigious support slot for the final leg of Aerosmith’s ‘Pump’ tour on their return to the USA.

Canadian keyboard player Eddie Harsch (b. 27 May 1957, Canada), recommended by former Allman Brothers Band member Chuck Leavell, who had played keyboards on the debut album, joined the band in early 1991. The band was invited on another high-profile tour as guests of ZZ Top, but their uncompromising attitude led to ZZ Top’s management demanding that the Black Crowes leave the tour following a home town show in Atlanta, owing to Chris Robinson’s persistent, if oblique, criticism of the corporate sponsorship of the tour. Somewhat ironically, the band fired the support act for their subsequent headline shows after discovering that they had made advertisements for a similar major company.

By this stage, the band had achieved a considerable level of chart success, with both ‘Hard To Handle’ and ‘She Talks To Angels’ reaching the US Top 30. They joined the European Monsters Of Rock tour, opening at the prestigious Donington Festival in England and culminating in a massive free show in Moscow. Prior to these dates, the band were forced to take a five-week break (their longest in 22 months of touring) when Chris Robinson collapsed, suffering from exhaustion, following an acoustic showcase at Ronnie Scott’s club in London. The singer recovered to undertake the tour, plus a UK trek to complete the band’s world tour. This ended with further controversy, with Colt and vocalist Robinson becoming embroiled in a fight with a member of the crowd at the Edinburgh Playhouse. Almost immediately after the tour, the band parted company with Jeff Cease, replacing him with former Burning Tree guitarist/vocalist Marc Ford (b. 13 April 1966, Los Angeles, California, USA).

Rather than rest on their laurels, the band went straight into pre-production for their second album, completing basic tracks in only eight days. Borrowing from the title of an old hymn book, The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion was released in the spring of 1992, again to positive reviews. The musical progression of the band, and of the brothers as songwriters, was obvious, with more complex arrangements than the debut, a much greater expanse of sound and the use of female backing singers. New recruit Ford provided superb guitar solos, with one particularly notable lead on ‘Sometimes Salvation’. With both the album and opening single ‘Remedy’ (US number 48, UK number 24) a success, the Black Crowes returned to the road for the High As The Moon tour - a free show in Toronto’s G Rose Lord Park drew a 75, 000 crowd, with people entering the park at a rate of 1, 000 per minute at one point.

In 1994, the band’s third full-length recording was finally released. A previously completed album (Tall) had been scrapped, with only five songs retained, and producer Jack Puig had been brought in to rectify matters. The cover of Amorica, which depicted a Hustler cover shot featuring an extreme close-up of a woman in a stars and stripes thong with her pubic hair spilling out over the top, attracted controversy and forced the band’s label to put out an alternate cover. Live shows saw the debut of percussionist Chris Trujillo, and the band achieved another UK success with ‘High Head Blues/A Conspiracy’ reaching number 25 in February 1995. The following year’s Three Snakes And One Charm had been hampered by personal differences that interrupted the recording process, but over time has come to be regarded as one of the band’s best albums.

Marc Ford left the band in August 1997, and was soon followed by Johnny Colt; the latter was replaced in early 1998 by Sven Pipien (b. 30 May 1967, Hanover, West Germany, ex-Mary My Hope). Following a series of abortive sessions (later collected on the 2006 compilation The Lost Crowes), the slimmed-down line-up released By Your Side in 1999. Though it marked a welcome return to the sleazy rock ‘n’ roll style of the band’s earlier releases, By Your Side also lacked the killer songwriting evident on those albums. Poor sales precipitated the end of the band’s contract with new label Columbia Records. With new guitarist Audley Freed (ex-Cry Of Love) now installed in the line-up, the Black Crowes teamed up with Jimmy Page for a series of highly praised US concerts during 2000. The two final shows at the L.A. Amphitheater were captured for posterity on the concert set Live At The Greek. The Black Crowes’ sixth studio album, Lions, released in May 2001 by new label V2 Records, was another mixed bag that indicated that the band had run out of ideas.

Following a North American tour to promote Lions, the band embarked on a long hiatus, with Chris Robinson recording his solo debut, New Earth Mud. The Black Crowes regrouped in early 2005 for a series of live dates, with the Robinson brothers joined by former bandmates Eddie Harsch, Marc Ford and Sven Pipien, with new drummer Bill Dobrow completing the line-up, although original drummer Steve Gorman rejoined the band in May. Further personnel change followed in late 2006 when Ford and Harsch left the band. Paul Stacey (guitar) and Rob Clores (keyboards) were brought into the line-up, although the latter was quickly replaced by Adam MacDougall. The North Mississippi Allstars’ guitarist Luther Dickinson (b. West Tennessee, USA) was on hand to help out on the recording of a new studio album, with Stacey retiring to the producer’s chair. Warpaint was released in March 2008 and was promoted by a series of live dates that saw the band performing the album in its entirety onstage. The album was viewed by many critics as a surprisingly fresh new start for the band, and when Aerosmith finally retire, the Black Crowes may be still around to rightfully pick up their mantle.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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