Rucker, Darius c. 1966–
Darius Rucker c. 1966–
Most black singers follow the traditional genre: R&B, but Darius Rucker made a spectacular debut on the pop music scene in 1994, when his group, Hootie and The Blow-fish released album, Cracked Rear View, 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, hummable 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.
Rucker was born around 1966 and grew up in the poor, 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 Puter-baugh, “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
At a Glance…
Born c. 1966, in Charleston, SC; children: daughter, Carey. Education: University of South Carolina.
Career: 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; Fairweather Johnson, 1996; Musical Chairs, 1998; Take 2, 2000; solo album scheduled for release, 2002.
Awards: Two Grammy Awards, including best new group, for Cracked Rear View.
Addresses: Group record company— Atlantic Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019.
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 Rolling Stone. “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 Time. “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 cable channel VH-1 and radio, and well-received appearances on such shows as The David Letterman Show, 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.” As 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 Rolling Stone. “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 Rolling Stone’s 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.”
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 Time, ” 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, “I guess Tupac [Shakur] or those guys are probably more accepted black figures 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 Time, ” and at the end he says the only drawback with Tod 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 nice reviews … and all of a sudden—BOOM!—we’re the worst band in the world.”
In 1996, while Cracked Rear View was still selling well, Rucker and the group 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 Entertainment Weekly. “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.”
The group continued to release albums and toured extensively. Rucker lent his voice to a number of charitable events, including participating in the re-recording of the disco hit, “We Are Family,” to help benefit charities helping families who lost members in the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. He has also took part in the televised event for Atlanta’s Midtown Music Festival, Turner South Live: A Concert From Music Midtown. Rucker also performed at a Warner Bros. studio store to help New York Police Department’s Coat Drive, even donating one of his coats for a special raffle.
Rucker has also worked on his solo project. He signed with Hidden Beach Records when the band’s label opted to not release his album. His album was tentatively scheduled for release in 2002. Though Rucker has branched out, he is still a member of Hootie and the Blowfish. The group will release another album in 2003.
Kootchypop, 1991 (EP).
Cracked Rear View, Atlantic, 1994.
Fairweather Johnson, Atlantic, 1996.
Contemporary Musicians, Volume 18. Gale Research, 1997.
Billboard, May 7, 2001; October 13, 2001; November 24, 2001; April 27, 2002.
Business Wire, November 30, 1999.
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.
—Kevin Hillstrom and Ashyia N. Henderson
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