Singer, guitarist, songwriter
For a rock and roll artist who set out to write and perform hits, guitarist Marshall Crenshaw has achieved an unexpected bounty of recognition. Regarded by some music critics as one of the best songwriters and performers of the 1980s, Crenshaw creates and records songs that have been acclaimed as highly crafted, with infectious melodies and heartfelt lyrics. However, while critical recognition has not abated since the debut of his much-praised 1982 album Marshall Crenshaw, Crenshaw and his self-proclaimed “singles band” have had only one Top 40 hit among four albums: 1982’s “Someday, Somewhere.” “Can you beat it?” asked Craig Zeller in Creem. “Marshall Crenshaw makes impassioned rock’n’roll, is a wizard with pop dynamics, and remains well aware of the fact that the magic’s in the music. Yet he’s a virtual stranger to the airwaves.” Crenshaw commented to Bill Beuttler in down beat on his so-called success: “We were well-received right from day one; we’ve never had a record come out that’s been totally ignored. I was surprised and sort of confused by it because … just about every track on the record was conceived as a single…. I thought we would be—a singles band. We’re not; we’re a cult band.”
Crenshaw’s career started with the influence of his musical family, which included his guitar-playing father, in addition to a cousin who was a back-up singer for country artist Ronnie Milsap, and his brother Robert, who is the drummer in Marshall’s band. He grew up in a suburb of Detroit, and as a teenager he enjoyed listening to music—an activity he still enjoys as much as playing music. He was particularly interested in rockabilly: the early recordings of rock and roll which combine elements of blues, bluegrass, and country music—typified by such artists as Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, and Jerry Lee Lewis. After graduating from high school, Crenshaw played in a variety of bands, including a country band, a Hawaiian band, an oldies band, and even accompanied the rockabilly artist Jack Earls. After a move to Los Angeles in the mid-1970s did not work out, Crenshaw auditioned for—and won—the role of John Lennon in the traveling stage show, Beatlemania. He continued to aspire to write and perform his own music, however, and after tiring of Beatlemania in 1980, set out for New York City. There, with his brother Robert and bassist Chris Donato, Crenshaw played gigs in clubs around Manhattan, while making demo tapes and sending them to record producers and performers. He eventually caught the attention of Warner Bros., who in 1981 signed him to a recording contract. The next year, Marshall Crenshaw debuted to overwhelming critical praise. The album was listed among many critics’ Top Ten lists, while Crenshaw received numerous Best New Artist accolades.
Born c. 1954; grew up in a suburb of Detroit, Mich. Toured with the stage show, Beatlemania, 1978-80; solo artist, singing and touring, 1980—. Appeared in the films La Bamba (as Buddy Holly), and Peggy Sue Got Married.
Addresses: Record company —Warner Bros. Records, 3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA 91510.
Crenshaw’s music has been described as “authentic” rock and roll, and his songs show influences of such artists as Presley, Conrad Birdie, and the Beatles—the latter to whom he is frequently compared. Among Crenshaw’s favorite guitarists are Bo Diddley and Duane Eddy, and he has recorded songs by Gene Vincent, the Jive Five, and Buddy Holly. However, despite carrying echoes of earlier artists, “Crenshaw is no copycat revivalist,” Scott Isler remarked in Musician. “He accomplishes the much harder task of writing contemporary music rooted in the values of past craftsmanship.” Crenshaw commented to Isler on his ideal method of composing: “I find a really good technique is just to pick up a guitar and start beating on it and give it absolutely no thought beforehand. You start with the germ of an idea and just sorta build it up from there. The best ideas are the ones that materialize out of nowhere. Those are the ones I try to capture and develop.” Although he is also praised for his personalized, often wrenching lyrics, Crenshaw states that the music is most important to him. “As far as words go, I feel I’m just groping along, trying to finish the songs,” he told Isler. “Music is a much more powerful form of communication than language. There are hundreds of songs I love, and I don’t know what the lyrics are.” A self-described “sound fanatic,” Crenshaw agrees with Iggy Pop that “good music should be like an hallucination,” he told Karen Schlosberg in Creem. “What’s important is just the impression of it, rather than the specific little notes and stuff like that. I think that’s really a great, simple explanation for a feeling that I share, too.”
Although all of Crenshaw’s albums receive high marks from critics, his debut album remains one of his best. Schlosberg wrote that Crenshaw “found a direct line between heart and music resulting in an album that was a joyful celebration of pop music at its purest. Not happy, but joyful—happy doesn’t give you goosebumps, but joy does.” Isler called it “a stunning debut, full of memorable phrases (verbal and musical) and rhythmic byplay.” The cut “Someday, Somewhere,” which sold over 200,000 copies, stands as Crenshaw’s biggest single to date. Although he has not had major hits, he finds satisfaction in recording, as he related to Isler: “I still think of us as a singles band, even though we’ve only had one single that got in the top forty. My impression was that we would be like Abba or Creedence Clearwater. It just hasn’t fallen that way, and I’m at a loss to understand why. But life goes on, and I’m still more than happy to be doing things the way I’m doing them…. I wanted to make records all my life, so I’m not complaining.”
In addition to his own recordings, Crenshaw has had his songs recorded by other artists and groups, including Bette Midler, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Robert Gordon. While the music industry continues to appreciate Crenshaw’s talents, commercial success remains a question mark. In a review of 1987’s Mary Jean and 9 Others, Zeller wrote: “I don’t know if the release of his fourth album will inspire mass cries of ‘Giddyup’; I do know that Crenshaw is one of the best we have, and it’s a real shame that more people haven’t had a chance to realize that…. Crenshaw strikes me as a never-say-die kind of person and on Mary Jean and 9 Others he sounds better than ever, as glad to be alive as he was on his debut five years ago.”
Marshall Crenshaw (includes “Someday, Somewhere” and “There She Goes Again”), Warner Bros., 1982.
Field Day, Warner Bros., 1983.
Downtown, Warner Bros., 1985.
(Contributor) La Bamba: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, Slash, 1987.
Mary Jean and 9 Others, Warner Bros., 1987.
Creem, August 1983; September 1987; October 1987.
down beat, March 1986.
Musician, January 1986.
—Michael E. Mueller
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