A former San Diego pizza parlor employee and nightclub doorman who was a regular at open-mic nights at Los Angeles's prominent Troubadour club, Tom Waits was, from all appearances, a '50s beatnik trapped in the body of a 22-year-old and trying to look and act at least twice his age. His songs - virtually all original - drew heavily from the work of the Beat poets and bebop jazzmen. And then he'd throw in a recitation of the Red Sovine country hit Phantom 309 - what was an audience to think?
Taken under the wing of Herb Cohen, who had worked with Lenny Bruce and was managing Frank Zappa, among others, Waits was signed to the Elektra/Asylum label, home of folk musicians and singer-songwriters. Within a relatively brief time, Waits - who has spawned no imitators to speak of - found his songs recorded by big money acts including Eagles (Ol' 55), Rod Stewart (Downtown Train) and Bruce Springsteen (Jersey Girl).
In Waits' early Los Angeles years, he lived at the run-down Tropicana Motor Hotel in West Hollywood - a fairly short bus ride from the Troubadour - where his was, by all accounts, a minimalist life, his circle of friends including like-minded songwriter Chuck E. Weiss and future singing star Rickie Lee Jones.
Touring wasn't necessarily easy: whom, after all, would he make a comfortable opening act for until he reached headlining status on his own? Two of the wrong answers, as it turned out, were Zappa and Charlie Rich. Nevertheless, Waits' reputation grew, as did his recording and songwriting catalogues.
Francis Ford Coppola commissioned Waits to write several original songs for his Las Vegas-set film One From the Heart; on several of them, gravelly Waits duetted with pop-country singer Crystal Gayle, to great effect. He subsequently contributed songs to films including Paradise Alley, Sea of Love and Dead Man Walking, and appeared in numerous movies: Cotton Club, Rumble Fish, Ironweed, The Fisher King, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Wolfen, Short Cuts, Down by Law and Mystery Train among the better-known.
In 1980, Waits married Kathleen Brennan, a script editor at Coppola's Zoetrope Studios; she became his collaborator on many subsequent musical projects. Six years after the wedding, Waits made his stage debut at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater, in Frank's Wild Years, a musical play he wrote in collaboration with Brennan. A mid-'80s album, Blood Money, collected songs that he and Brennan had written for Robert Wilson's production of Georg Bruchner's 1837 play, Woyzeck. Waits wrote original music for a 1993 stage production, in Hamburg, of Wilson's The Black Rider; beat poet William Burroughs also collaborated on the project. Alive, an opera written with Brennan, was performed in Hamburg for 18 months in 1992-'93. Another Wilson project performed in Hamburg was Alice, an adaptation of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.
Following several years on Island Records and a six year sabbatical from recording, Waits reappeared in 1999 on the Anti-Epitaph label with Mule Variations, which proved to be (by some estimates) the best selling album of his career: more than 1,000,000 copies around the world. In 2004, he released his second album for the label, Real Gone,.