Indiana native John Mellencamp is so well known for his rockin’ Americana classics (“Jack and Diane,” “Small Town”) that it’s easy to forget he endured an early phase as a glam-rocker before evolving into a pop superstar. The importance of the traditions he has contributed to are not lost on him. "You know, rock music can change a person," he says. "It can change an outlook. That's how music works. It can change a moment in a person's life--and that seems important enough."
After launching his professional career with the local Seymour, Indiana band Trash (with Larry Crane, who became his longtime guitarist), Mellencamp scored a record deal with Mainman with the help of David Bowie’s manger Tony de Fries. The label changed his name to Johnny Cougar and gave him a James Dean image, but the cover-heavy Chestnut Street Incident failed to chart. Rod Stewart’s manager Billy Gaff, who owned Riva Records, had a better idea—to present Mellencamp as the next Bruce Springsteen.
His first charted hit came as John Cougar with the 1979 U.S. Top 30 single “I Need a Lover,” also featured on Pat Benatar’s debut. His rise to pop stardom began with 1982’s American Fool, which sold five million in the U.S. and featured the million selling singles “Hurts So Good” and “Jack and Diane.”
The following year the singer became John Cougar Mellencamp, and he eventually dropping the "Cougar" in 1989. Many of his songs were now dealing with social problems, and Mellencamp was one of the organizers of the Farm Aid series of benefit concerts. His straight-ahead rock numbers also brought a string of big hits in the second half of the 80s. Among the most notable were "Small Town", "R.O.C.K. In The USA", "Paper In Fire" (1987) and "Cherry Bomb" (1988). Lonesome Jubilee used fiddles and accordions to illustrate bleak portraits of America in recession, while "Pop Singer" from Big Daddy expressed Mellencamp's disillusionment with the current state of the music business.
He took time off to concentrate on painting, but returned with Whenever We Wanted, which recaptured the muscular rock sound of his earlier albums. Mellencamp made another strong comeback with Dance Naked and the Top 10 cover of Van Morrison's "Wild Night." Mellencamp suffered a major heart attack shortly thereafter and was sidelined for over a year. He returned in 1996 with Mr. Happy Go Lucky, which featured the production work of noted dance music maker Junior Vasquez. A more traditional self-titled set, his first for new label Columbia Records, was released in 1998, earning Mellencamp his best reviews in years.
Since the release of John Cougar in August 1979, Mellencamp has scored more than 11 Top 10 and 29 Top 40 singles. He has been awarded 36 gold, platinum, and multi-platinum record awards in addition to eleven Grammy nominations and the Grammy for Best Rock Vocal Performance in 1982. Mellencamp was also named the recipient of the 2001 Billboard Century Award, Billboard magazine's highest accolade for distinguished creative achievement.
His ventures into other media have been successful as well. In 1992, Mellencamp directed and starred in the movie Falling From Grace. In 2000, Mellencamp teamed up with novelist Stephen King to write a full-length ghost story stage musical.