Music Icons, is it all just DNA?
Some well-known recording artists come from families who have a strong musical background. It makes perfect sense, having the exposure and a bit of musical DNA most certainly helps. And how do the offspring of musical legends fair? In the inset photo I love the expression on Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour’s daughter’s face: it looks to me like a classic “oh dad, just let me play!” But then he is not just any old Dad. Here is a song by father and daughter, David Gilmour with Romany Gilmour – Yes, I Have Ghosts. Another example is Jakob Dylan. I don’t need to explain who his father is and it is a stretch well beyond my imagination as to what it might be like for him to be in the family business.
Growing up with one or both of your parents as musical icons must be very difficult. I can imagine it’s hard to find a way to have your own life and career whether you stay in the world of music or not. At the same time, you have inherited some serious musical DNA, so yeah there is that!
Parents & Children
If we look at the parents of many of the early greats in popular music history, quite often their lineage does not include much in the way of musical talents. For example, we see little musical DNA in the parents of most members of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Queen. We don’t know where Ella Fitzgerald got that amazing voice and talent. Janis Joplin’s mother Dorothy was a college registrar and her father, Seth Ward Joplin, worked for Texaco as an engineer. As we know, Joplin died at age 27 and did not have any children. Joni Mitchell’s mother was a teacher and her father was a pilot trainer during WWII and later a grocer. She had a daughter that she gave up for adoption who has no connection with the music business to my knowledge.
Bruce Springsteen’s father was a bus driver and his mother was a secretary and there is not much in his family tree music wise. Of Springsteen and Patti Scialfa’s three children only the oldest, Evan, has much musical interest or apparent talents. Frank Sinatra’s parents were not musical at all, though two of his children (Nancy and Frank Jr.) had success in music. There is no mention of musical talents in Bing Crosby’s past but several of his six children could sing and act and his brother Bob was a professional musician. Some other children of the greats include Bob Dylan’s son Jakob (as mentioned), John and Julian Lennon and Elvis and Lisa Marie Presley.
Then there are the Elvis Costello’s of the world. His father was a musician and singer though not many have ever heard of Ross McManus. Diana Krall is married to Costello so talk about DNA for those kids! Her mother sang in a choir and her father played a bit of piano but neither had careers in music. Who knows where their children may sit on the musical scale! Both Barbra Streisand and Whitney Houston had mothers who were singers and from what is known about Billie Holiday’s lineage it appears her biological father was a professional banjo player. Kim Wilde was the most charted female artist in the UK during the 1980s with hits like “Kids in America” and her cover of The Supremes “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” in 1987. Her father, Marty Wilde, was a bit of R&R star in the UK during the 1950s and 60s. Bonnie Raitt’s mother was a pianist and her father was a star in Musical Theatre as a leading man noted for a strong voice so her talents seemed to have come naturally. Patti Smith’s father was a machinist and her mother was a part-time Jazz singer, and it seems her two children have had moderate success in the music business. Prince was the son of songwriter John Lewis Nelson and his mother Mattie Della was a Jazz singer. Sadly, Prince’s only child died at just one week old. Aretha Franklin’s mother Barbara was a fine vocalist and piano player so we can see the connection there, however of her four sons only Teddy Richards is an accomplished guitar player and vocalist.
While I am no expert on the great composers, we known Ludwig van Beethoven’s father Johann was a music teacher and yet he himself fathered no known children. Leopold Mozart was a virtuoso violinist and his son Wolfgang would excel even beyond that. Perhaps Johann Sebastian Bach had the most impressive lineage as many of his ancestors and relatives including two of his sons were gifted composers and musicians.
Of course, there are some families where the talent includes a just single parent, grandparent or other relative. Then there are some deeper musical genetic pools. The Carter family is one such example, from mother Maybelle to her daughters Anita and June and continuing with June’s daughter Carlene. A more recent example is the Cyrus family. Billy Ray Cyrus and his daughters Miley and Noah Cyrus are also recording artists. Some may say that Miley has exceeded her father’s great success, perhaps to an equal level of Hank Williams and his son, Hank Williams Jr. who has had tremendous chart and sales accomplishments. Therefore, some offspring of successful musicians seem to ‘go beyond’ their parent’s success. However, I don’t think this is typical. The majority of the children of icons could never exceed the status of their parent. Some commonly known examples are Bob Marley and Ziggy Marley, Nat King Cole and Natalie Cole, Brian Wilson with Wendy and Carnie Wilson or Johnny Cash and Rosanne Cash, who has had a fine career on her own. Willie Nelson has had eight children and while most dabbled in the music business, only the late Willie “Billy” Hugh Jr., Paula, and his almost double, Lukas Nelson, have had notable music careers. And while Randy Newman’s parents were not professional musicians, his three uncles on his father’s side were all successful movie score composers: Alfred Newman being the most well-known.
Dionne Warwick’s family were involved with the Gospel group The Drinkard Sisters and her mother was their musical director and manager. While singing backup on recordings her obvious talents came to the attention of both Burt Bacharach and Hal David. The trio would be responsible for many great songs including the original “Wishin’ and Hopin’”, “Walk on By” and” Do You Know the Way to San Jose”.
Elton John’s mother and father both had musical talents and he was surrounded by music growing up, though his father strongly discouraged Elton from going into music as a career and only his rebellious nature and drive pushed him to stardom. Patsy Cline sang with her mother in church but taught herself to play piano and through her own initiative she had her first live radio performance at age 14. Stevie Nicks got her interest in music from her paternal Country-singing grandfather Aron Nicks. She played guitar and began to write songs at an early age. In her senior year in high school she met Lindsey Buckingham and after some duo work they joined a band you may have heard of, Fleetwood Mac, including the namesakes Mick Fleetwood and John McVie and his wife Christine (Perfect) McVie. While the song Nicks wrote and sang lead on, “Rhiannon”, only charted as high as #11, it, along with “Go Your Own Way” appears on Rolling Stone Magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs.
Speaking of great songs, Carole King was captivated by her mother’s piano playing and at age four they discovered she had absolute pitch. It turns out she was brilliant at everything she did and devoured the piano and everything related to music. She coincidentally went to high school with and dated recording artist Neil Sedaka and her first demo recordings were with her friend, a young Paul Simon. I don’t need to tell you how things have worked out for this legend.
Glen Campbell started his musical legacy with his youngest child, Ashley, who is an accomplished vocalist, banjo player, guitarist and toured with him during his last performances. He was the son of sharecroppers and one of 14 children. His family was the very definition of poor, yet his father managed to buy him a guitar when he was just four years old. Campbell went on to become one of the finest guitarists and country singers of all time.
While many of these musicians had an early introduction to music through family members, they took their raw talent and worked at it. They practiced and excelled largely on their own merits.
DNA or Something Else?
What sets apart the icons of popular music from the rest? I have to give my best buddy credit for arriving at this conclusion: drive. It comes down to just that, the individual’s willingness to work at their craft, be it any combination of writing songs, singing or playing an instrument. The desire to achieve, to learn and excel comes from an inner strength, an inexplicable je ne sais quoi.
Certainly, opportunity plays a role, as do time and place, but what I see is mostly desire and work ethic. Eric Clapton’s lineage is not unusual for a wartime baby but he does not appear to come from strong musical DNA. His start was with a guitar at age 13 but quickly gave it up, at age 15 he pickup another and started playing American Blues music. His influences include most of the early Blues greats who themselves were sons of sharecroppers growing up on plantations. Many of them were exposed to music in some form or another but most like; Muddy Waters, B.B. King and Buddy Guy just kept at it and created their own legacy.
Tina Turner has no known musical background and her tumultuous upbringing would lead to a gregarious lifestyle that eventually led to meeting Ike Turner at a nightclub. In 1957 during Ike Turner’s band’s intermission, she grabbed the microphone and sang a version of “You Know I Love You”, a B.B. King song released in 1952. The rest of her career is an important part of R&B and R&R history.
Etta James had a horrible childhood filled with abandonment and abuse, which also happened at the church where she learned to sing. At age 14 she met R&B legend Johnny Otis. At age 16 she co-wrote the song “The Wallflower (Dance with Me, Henry)” with Otis and Hank Ballard. It was released in 1955 and hit #1 on the R&B charts. It was later released as “Roll with Me Henry” in 1960 and in 2008 James received a Hall of Fame Grammy for the song.
Dolly Parton was the daughter of a farmer and a homemaker. She had eleven siblings growing up in a one room cabin in Tennessee. She took her gift of voice to the greatest heights of Country Music. She also excelled in acting and business among other things and is a model for hard work and determination.
Diana Ross has one of the finest voices in popular music, yet other than her mother apparently enjoying to sing on occasion and the fairly common exposure at church, there is not much evidence of her family having close ties to the industry at all. There is little proof to show any musical talents from Karen and Richard Carpenters’ parents, yet they both were gifted vocalists and musicians. Richard was a piano prodigy and at the urging of her school friend, Frankie Chavez, Karen’s family invested in a drum set while she was in high school. I think we all know how that turned out and if not for her untimely death perhaps she would be better remembered for her incredible percussion playing.
Nina Simone was the daughter of Ministers and got some exposure once again through the church. But really it all began with her playing piano at age 3; her music teacher helped raise money for her lessons after seeing her obvious gifts. Simone went on to be a student at Julliard and later applied to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, she was not one of the three out of 75 pianists admitted and as she had turned 21, she could not reapply. Although disheartened, she worked hard to pay for private lessons and continue her career. She had one daughter, Lisa who is a singer and actor.
Cher had little exposure to music, but her mother did some acting. She left home at age 16 and worked hard to find jobs acting or singing. She found her start when she met Sonny Bono who was, at the time, working with Phil Spector. She sang backup on songs by the Ronettes and The Righteous Brothers. Again, we all know how things worked out for her!
There are so many others I could mention but I will end with just one more example of talent and perseverance, Édith Piaf. Her remarkable story begins with being abandoned by her mother at birth in 1915 and due to his war service, her father passed her from home to home including his mother’s brothel in Normandy. After WWI, her father made a living doing acrobatic street performances, he reclaimed Édith at age 14 and had her sing as part of the shows. There is much more to her story but part of her legacy is the beautiful and poignant song she wrote herself ,“La Vie En Rose”, from 1946, with music composed by Marguerite Monnot. The two also collaborated on the lovely “Hymne à L’amour” (1950). Upon first hearing what she thought was “Formidable” (Fantastic) from composer Charles Dumont and Lyricist Michel Vaucaire (whom she disliked) she was the first to record the sublime “Non, je ne regrette rien” (1960).
It seems a common theme that so many of the greatest in their respective genres came from disadvantaged backgrounds where the opportunity for stardom and greatness was something from a fairy-tale they had been told when they were just a small child, as their family could scarcely afford even one book. Ultimately, whether the artists we know and love came from a musical family or not, it takes raw talent, drive, determination and even a bit of luck to become an icon.
Music Trivia. Other than being musicians what do Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Paul McCartney, Eddie Van Halen, Jeff Lynne, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Elvis Presley, Dave Grohl, Taylor Swift and Elton John have in common?
Answer. They do not know how to read or write music notation. These among many famous artists have a natural ability to as it is often said “play by ear”. Many in fact had few if any music lessons at all. They all have perfect memory of what they hear and can play music back note for note.
Edited by Richelle Dafoe
References: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7