Hootie and the Blowfish
Hootie and the Blowfish
Hootie and the Blowfish made a spectacular debut on the pop music scene in 1994, releasing an album, Cracked Rear View, that took the entertainment world by storm. By early 1996 the album had racked up 13 million sales, making it the second best-selling debut album of all time (behind Boston’s eponymous 1976 release). Bristling with listener-friendly hooks, humma-ble melodies, and a “regular-guy” sensibility, the album and its songs weathered a slew of negative reviews to become radio and VH-1 fixtures.
“[Cracked Rear View] came across as something fresh and different, in large part because it didn’t try to come across as anything fresh or different,” explained critic Christopher John Farley in Time. “Hootie was embraced as an alternative to alternative, a straight-ahead zig to the posturing zag of the rest of contemporary rock.” In 1996 the band released a follow-up album, Fairweather Johnson, that garnered somewhat more favorable reviews but also—perhaps inevitably—smaller sales.
Members include Mark Bryan (born c. 1967, in Gaith-ersburg, MD), guitar; Dean Felber (born c. 1967, in Gaithersburg, MD), bass; Darius Rucker (born c. 1966, in Charleston, SC; children: daughter, Carey), vocals; and Jim Sonefeld (born c. 1965, in Chicago, IL, joined group, 1989), drums.
Group formed, 1986, in Columbia, South Carolina; played at Southern bars and fraternity houses before recording self-financed EP, Kootchypop, 1991; signed with Atlantic Records; released Cracked Rear View, 1994; released Fairweather Johnson, 1996.
Awards: Two Grammy Awards, including best new group, for Cracked Rear View.
Addresses: Record company —Atlantic Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019.
Hootie and the Blowfish came together in 1986 on the Columbia campus of the University of South Carolina, where the band members—vocalist Darius Rucker, bass player Dean Felber, guitarist Mark Bryan, and drummer Jim Sonefeld—all attended undergraduate school. The three white members of the band had arrived in Columbia after enjoying comfortable middle-class childhoods—Sonefeld in Naperville, Illinois, Felber and Bryan in Gaithersburg, Maryland—while Rucker had grown up in the poorer black neighborhoods of Charleston, South Carolina.
“I had a typical Southern African-American upbringing,” Rucker told Rolling Stone writer Parke Puterbaugh. “Went to church every Sunday for three hours. We weren’t rich by anyone’s standards. There was one point where we had my mom and her two sisters, my grandmother and fourteen kids living in a three-bedroom place. We had a lot of hard times, but I loved it. I look at my childhood with very fond memories.” Family members recalled that Rucker loved music from an early age. As one of his sisters told Puterbaugh, “he was always singing around the house, using a broomstick as a guitar. Mom played Al Green and Betty Wright, stuff like that, but Darius had his own tunes—a lot of what he heard on the radio and at school. Being a singer was always his dream.”
As Rucker grew older, he contributed his rich baritone voice to church, high school, and college choirs, but it was not until 1986, when he hooked up with Felber and Bryan, that he joined a band (Sonefeld left a rival band to join them in 1989). After a brief period in which Rucker and Bryan performed at Columbia-area bars under the moniker of the Wolf Brothers, the pair convinced Felber to join them. The trio called themselves Hootie and the Blowfish, an odd tribute to two South Carolina classmates—one had thick, owl-like glasses, while the other was known for his jowly appearance. “We weren’t thinking it was a name we would have forever,” Felber admitted to People’s Kevin Gray. “We thought we could always think of something better.”
Rucker, Felber, and Bryan then lured Sonefeld into the fold. Sonefeld had originally come to the university to play soccer, but he spent much of his free time in Columbia behind a drum kit. Upon joining Hootie, Sonefeld’s approach to songwriting quickly made an impact on the other band members. After the lanky drummer put together “Hold My Hand,” a song that would be a monster hit for the band a few years later, the other members of the band devoted much greater time and effort to the task of songwriting. “We’d been writing some stuff, but it had a different feel,” Bryan told Puterbaugh. “Soni slowed down the groove a little, laid it back the perfect amount. It fit Darius’ voice and my guitar style better in the long run.”
The band members recalled their early years of bar and frat house gigs fondly, although they also noted that the South’s uneasy race relations made for some tense moments. Writer Christopher John Farley noted in Time that “Hootie and the Blowfish’s very first gig was held at an off-campus fraternity with a reputation for racism—and the interracial band was understandably wary. ‘We were a little concerned about going out there and playing,’ says Bryan. ‘So we brought our Marine buddies along.’”
After college the foursome embarked on full-time touring, swinging through Southern bars, taverns, and fraternity house parties in exchange for modest payments, free beer, and the opportunity to meet young women. People familiar with the band at that time, however, also note that its members showed an early interest in developing their careers beyond the next gig. In 1991 the band produced a self-financed EP called Kootchypop. Even though it was only available at their shows, the EP eventually sold a remarkable 50,000 copies. These sales, combined with their knack for selling concert T-shirts, piqued the interest of Atlantic Records talent scout Tim Sommer. “Did I think they’d make a million dollars? No. But I did know they’d sell records,” he told Farley. “Before I signed them, they’d already sold half a million dollars worth of Ts. If you can sell a T-shirt, you can sell a record.”
Hootie and the Blowfish recorded Cracked Rear View in Los Angeles in early 1994. The album was released several months later and immediately became a phenomenon. Buoyed by heavy play on VH-1 and radio and well-received appearances on such shows as David Letterman, copies disappeared from record stores with amazing speed. As Farley noted, the music itself was the biggest factor in Hootie’s rise: “Cracked Rear View featured 11 strong, tuneful songs, with brawny guitar work, commanding percussion, and Rucker’s gruff, charismatic voice, which made it all come together.” A succession of radio-friendly singles—“Hold My Hand,” “Only Wanna Be with You,” and several others—kept the album selling well, and as the media rushed to cover the fast-rising band, it became clear that the members’ regular-guy personas were a big factor in their success.
“We are the most unassuming band in the country,” Rucker told Puterbaugh. “We are so no bulls—t. You can look at so many bands out there, and they’re writing good songs, but they’re mad at this or aloof or whatever. If you look at the four of us sitting in a restaurant, you wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, that’s a band.’ I think people really connect with the fact that we could be the guys you’re sitting next to in your calculus class.” As Puterbaugh himself remarked after watching a Hootie show, “they are not capering around the stage like shirtless punks … nor are they inciting to riot, a la some of the choicer gangsta-rap acts. There’s no hair show, no flash pots, no video screen, no Bee Girl. They’re simply standing up there singing their well-liked songs…. Without smoke or mirrors, Hootie’s solid, unpretentious pop tunes evoke a surprisingly visceral reaction.” Added Entertainment Weekly reviewer David Browne, “these average guys from South Carolina were the right band at the right time: a tonic for listeners weary of cynical, anguished alternarockers, music for those who wanted something a little more comforting and unthreatening.”
After awhile, the members’ passion for golf and other sports became a big topic of discussion. Some people in the music world seemed to regard their love for YMCA pick-up basketball games or a quick nine holes of golf as unbecoming and decidedly uncool, but the band remained unapologetic. “We’re sportsbillies,” Rucker told Puterbaugh. He added, “it sounds like such bulls—t, but we just love to be together. You’ve seen it: all we do is laugh. Call each other names and laugh. We never leave each other alone. That’s how we’ve stayed together for ten years, and that’s why we don’t change.”
Despite their success, however, a large element of rock’s critical community gnashed their teeth at Hootie’s stardom, dismissing Cracked Rear View as a lightweight effort. Stoked by the music press, a modest backlash against the band developed. As Mark Jacob-son wryly observed in Esquire: “Hootie is magic, pure and simple. How else to account for the fact that the Blowfish’s Cracked Rear View is one of the biggest sellers ever, yet you can’t find a single person who admits to liking the group?” Some took the momentum to ugly extremes, seizing on the interracial make-up of the group as a target. “A writer for the Village Voice compared the band to a minstrel show,” wrote Farley, “and Saturday Night Live did a sketch where Rucker leads beer-swilling white frat boys in a countermarch to Louis Farrakhan’s Million Man March (apparently, to the mostly white staff at SNL, successful blacks must be sellouts).” Such suggestions infuriate Rucker, who told Entertainment Weekly’s Chris Willman that “I guess Tupac [Shakur] or those guys are probably more accepted blackfigures because to white America they are more threatening. White America wants to see the one side of black. They’d love to just show us as thugs and gangsters.”
On occasion, the band members expressed irritation with the critical backlash. “[Felber] showed me this article the other day in [Bass Player] magazine where this guy does this whole Toad the Wet Sprocket review,” Rucker told Farley, “and at the end he says the only drawback with Toad is that they toured with the worst band in the world—Hootie & the Blowfish. I mean, why do you have to go out of your way to bush us? I honestly believe that if we had sold 100,000 records, people would have nice things to say about us. At the beginning of the record there were niçe reviews…and all of a sudden—BOOM!—we’re the worst band in the world.”
For the most part, the members of Hootie and the Blowfish seemed unruffled by either their newfound fame or the criticism that descended on them in late 1994 and 1995. As Bryan told Willman, “We’re lucky in that we’ve been successful and all we’ve had to do is be ourselves. And if the perception of that is ‘the revenge of the normal,’ then that’s fine.” Rucker was even more succinct: “Success doesn’t suck. Sure, you can’t go out as easy as you used to. So?”
In 1996, while Cracked Rear View was still selling well, Hootie and the Blowfish released their highly anticipated follow-up, Fairweather Johnson. Although it did not enjoy the same phenomenal sales as those of its predecessor, the bandmates expressed satisfaction with the final product. “If we sell 8 million records [of Fairweather Johnson], someone’s gonna say it flopped,” Rucker told Willman. “It’s not gonna do what Cracked Rear View did; we’re not that stupid to think it will. It’s probably not gonna do half that. So it really doesn’t matter when we put it out.”
A number of critics gave positive reviews to the new album. “All the qualities that won the group such a huge following are still here: melodies that seem immediately familiar, an infectiously feisty spirit, and a flair for paying simple homage to love, peace, and yes, athletic pursuits,” wrote Rolling Stone reviewer Elysa Gardner. “But the songs on Johnson are palpably more sophisticated than they were in Hootie’s breakthrough effort, offering less bombast and more of the texture and emotion that make the best pop intriguing as well as ingratiating.” People reviewer Peter Castro agreed, writing that “Fair-weather Johnson plays like a live record, brimming with trademark Hootie harmonies, hooks, feel-good melodies and a wall of sound bound to raise goose bumps.” Other critics, though, were less impressed. Newsweek’s Karen Schoemer spoke for some when she wrote in a review of Fairweather Johnson that “Hootie and the Blowfish peddle cozy, bland escapism. They’re mediocre. It may not be a moral offense, but artistically they’re guilty in the first degree.”
Even though Fairweather Johnson proved unable to match the stunning commercial success of Cracked Rear View, the critical slings and arrows that have been aimed at the band have not eroded their substantial fan base. As Gardner observed, “what’s ultimately most endearing about Hootie and the Blowfish is that they give the impression that, above all, they really appreciate their fans—not a universally embraced practice these days, particularly among the anti-social alternative artists.”
Kootchypop, 1991 (EP).
Cracked Rear View, Atlantic, 1994.
Fairweather Johnson, Atlantic, 1996.
Entertainment Weekly, April 26, 1996; May 3, 1996.
Esquire, August 1996.
Essence, November 1995.
Newsweek, April 22, 1996.
New York Times, March 19, 1995; November 5, 1995; January 5, 1996.
People, April 10, 1995; April 29, 1996.
Rolling Stone, June 15, 1995; August 10, 1995; May 16, 1996.
Time, November 7, 1994; April 29, 1996.
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