Wall of Sound's Hootie & the Blowfish Biography
In terms of sales figures, Hootie & the Blowfish are easily one of the most successful bands of the 1990s. Respect has been more difficult to come by. This lack of critical validation is surprising -- not because the group's music is especially inventive or groundbreaking, but because Hootie and company are not an overnight-success story. They worked hard to get where they are, persevering through some lean years before reaching their current multi-platinum status. Okay, so they didn't suffer for decades like some legendary musicians of yore -- but you try playing frat houses for seven or eight years while waiting for your big break.
The group history of the world's most ordinary rock stars began when guitarist Mark Bryan, then a freshman at the University of South Carolina, heard the mellifluous voice of Darius Rucker wafting down the hall of his dormitory. As was often the case, Rucker was singing along with the radio. Both guys were majoring in broadcast journalism at the time, and, hitting it off at that first chance meeting, they decided to begin performing as an acoustic duo, singing covers of songs by the Eagles, Simon & Garfunkel, the Commodores, and others. Calling themselves the Wolf Brothers, they played their first gig in early 1986 at Pappy's, a nearby fried-chicken outlet. Within a few weeks, bassist Dean Felber had joined the group. Another denizen of that fateful U.S.C. dorm, he and Bryan had played in a rock band called Missing in Action while attending high school together in Gaithersburg, Maryland. They soon added a drummer and became the hit of the local frat-party circuit, adding the Police, Squeeze, and, naturally, R.E.M. to their repertoire. By this time, they had renamed themselves, taking the nicknames of two of Rucker's friends -- one owly, the other jowly -- and creating the dopey but likable moniker Hootie & the Blowfish.
After graduation, rather than settle into any prosaic post-grad activities, such as hunting for real jobs, they seized the day and jumped onto the club circuit, touring throughout the Middle Atlantic states, all the while spreading their name and enhancing their reputation. Around that time, another classmate, Jim Sonefeld, signed on as their new drummer, completing the lineup that exists today. In order to gain more control over their financial future, the band formed a legal partnership in 1990 called Fishco. The brainchild of Felber, who was a finance major at U.S.C., Fishco enabled the group to book better gigs, grant themselves employee health benefits, and pursue music as a full-time career. They put out two small indie CDs, Hootie & the Blowfish (1990) and Time (1991), before attracting the attention of the would-be mini-major label JRS Records in 1992. Although the year they spent signed to JRS was a frustrating one (the financing for recording a third album never materialized), the experience toughened them, and they ultimately put out Kootchypop in 1993 on their own, selling 50,000 copies by mail and at shows.
Signed to Atlantic in 1993, the band recorded its fourth album, Cracked Rear View, with veteran Don Gehman (John Mellencamp, R.E.M., Bruce Hornsby) producing. A straightforward collection of clean, lightly soulful pop-rock tunes fronted by Rucker's warm, slightly mumbly vocals, Cracked Rear View became the surprise hit of late 1994 and nearly all of 1995. After the catchy, gospelish "Hold My Hand" first broke the band on radio, "Let Her Cry" went on to become an even bigger hit, and "Only Wanna Be With You" and "Time" quickly followed suit. When all was said and done, the record sold fourteen million copies, becoming the best-selling debut album in the history of Atlantic Records.
Because the band was viewed in the press as middle-of-the-road soft-rockers, an anti-Hootie backlash soon developed, and by the time Fairweather Johnson was released in spring of 1996, pundits were busily predicting the group's chart demise. But rumors of the band's impending death turned out to be somewhat exaggerated. True, Fairweather Johnson was not the sales monster that its predecessor had been, but it did reach triple-platinum, and placed a couple of songs on the radio. Is there a promising future for the little South Carolina band that could? Only time will tell.