Jack White is a singer, drummer and guitarist who was part of the influential early 2000s rock duo the White Stripes.
Musician. Jack White was born John Anthony Gillis on July 9, 1975 in Detroit, Michigan, the youngest of ten children born into a large, working-class Catholic family. His parents, maintenance man Gorman Gillis and secretary Teresa Gillis, both worked for the local Archdiocese of Detroit. The church played a huge role in shaping White's worldview during his formative years. "I feel strongly connected to God," he later told an interviewer. "My roots are Catholic by default. I can take elements from Buddhism or other religions and see the similarities and differences in those, and learn from those, but at the end of the day, I don't care as much about man's interpretation of religion. What I care about is what God tells me directly." That intense spiritual connection led a teenaged White, who long served as an altar boy, to consider going to seminary to pursue a life in the priesthood. "I was thinking at 14," he recalled, "that possibly I might have had the calling to be a priest. Blues singers and people who are singing on stage have the same feelings and emotions that someone who is called to be a priest might have."
Fortunately for fans of rock and roll, White eventually chose not to join the clergy but to pursue his other true calling — music — instead. He learned to play his first instrument, the drums, as a first-grader, and soon picked up the guitar and piano as well. A fan of the blues and 1960s-era R&B and rock and roll, White began making his first lo-fi recordings of his own compositions before starting high school.
In 1990, Jack White began working as an upholsterer's apprentice, training for a life in the furniture trade. A career in upholstery was not to be, but White did record a demo album with one of his coworkers under the moniker, The Upholsterers. Shortly after, he earned his first paid musical gig, playing the drums for a locally popular Detroit cowpunk band called Goober & the Peas.
The White Stripes
Not long after, Jack White — still known, at that time, as Jack Gillis — began dating a girl named Meg White, a bartender at a local barbecue joint called Memphis Smoke. They married on September 21, 1996, when both were just 21 years old; in an unconventional move, Jack Gillis took his bride's surname rather than vice versa, becoming Jack White. The couple moved in with Jack's parents, living in the same home he had grown up in, in a working-class neighborhood of southwestern Detroit. Jack White continued working in the upholstery shop by day while playing music at nights and on the weekends.
Though she had zero musical experience, Meg White began attempting to accompany her husband on the drums while he played his guitar. "Jack had a set of drums upstairs, so I began playing with him," she remembered. "It was childlike because I had no idea what I was doing." However, something about the childish simplicity of White's percussion struck both of them as powerfully resonant in a humorous and nostalgic way. The pair decided to form a husband-and-wife band, with Meg White on drums and her husband playing guitar and keyboard while singing lead vocals. "That was really the whole idea when we started the band, it was just some way of getting back to childhood without it being a comedy act," Jack White explained. "It was about how kids look at things. There's a sense of humor that is deeply buried under everything. I'd kind of like it if people saw us and just halfway through the set started laughing."
Naming themselves The White Stripes, they gave their debut performance at a local Detroit nightclub during the summer of 1997. After spending the next two years making a name for themselves on the Detroit underground rock scene, in 1999 The White Stripes released their self-titled debut album, featuring the single "The Big Three Killed My Baby," to high critical praise but low sales.
On March 24, 2000, Jack and Meg White divorced. But the divorce, if anything, only strengthened their musical partnership. Still almost entirely unknown to the general public, Meg and Jack White told interviewers that they were siblings; somewhat remarkably, this white lie was accepted at face value and repeated in many respectable publications for several years before it became widely known that the pair were, in fact, a divorced couple.
Jack White explained in a later interview that they had devised the lie as a way to get people to focus on their music rather than their personal lives. "When you see a band that is two pieces, husband and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend, you think, 'Oh, I see...'" he said. "When they're brother and sister, you go, 'Oh, that's interesting.' You care more about the music, not the relationship."
Only several months after their divorce, The White Stripes released their second album, De Stijl. Entirely self-recorded on eight-track analog tape, the album received nearly universal praise from critics; although it sold very few copies at the time of its initial release, it would later become a cult classic after the band achieved mainstream success. The Whites Stripes finally scored that mainstream success with their 2001 album White Blood Cells, featuring their first hit song, "Fell in Love with a Girl." The band's profile rose further when the album was included on many publications' lists of the year's best albums.
The Whites Stripes became even more popular with their 2003 album Elephant, featuring the ubiquitous single "Seven Nation Army." At once infectiously catchy and childishly simplistic, "Seven Nation Army" became the first song an entire generation of would-be rock stars learned to play in their guitar lessons. Elephant won the Grammy Award for Best Alternative Album and "Seven Nation Army" won for Best Rock Song.
The White Stripes' next album, 2005's Get Behind Me Satan, presented a decidedly different sound, significantly more complex, with piano featured more prominently than electric guitar. Featuring the single "Blue Orchid," the album earned the White Stripes a second Grammy Award for Best Alternative Album. Icky Thump, released in 2007 and featuring the singles "Icky Thump," Rag and Bone" and "You Don't Know What Love Is (You Just Do as You're Told)," then became the band's third consecutive album to win the Best Alternative Album Grammy Award.
As it turned out, Icky Thump would also be the duo's last album. After a long hiatus, the White Stripes officially announced their dissolution on February 2, 2011. The band's official website explained, "The reason is not due to artistic differences or lack of wanting to continue, nor any health issues as both Meg and Jack are feeling fine and in good health. It is for a myriad of reasons, but mostly to preserve what is beautiful and special about the band and have it stay that way."
After the White Stripes
The White Stripes were one of the most popular and influential rock bands of the early 2000s, but they were only the first of Jack White's three bands to make a mark on the decade. The second, The Raconteurs, got their start in 2005, when White and his friend and fellow musician Brendan Benson spent some time jamming in a Nashville attic while White was taking a short break from his duties with The White Stripes. That night the pair ended up writing "Steady, As She Goes," which would eventually become a hit single. Inspired by the song they had written, Benson and White decided to form a full band, adding Jack Lawrence and Patrick Keeler of The Greenhornes to round out the lineup. After several months of recording, the band's full-length debut album, Broken Boy Soldiers, debuted in 2006, instantly cracking the charts in the top ten in both the United States and Great Britain. Mojo magazine named the record its album of the year, and the Raconteurs won two nominations (but no awards) at the 2007 Grammy Awards.
The Raconteurs released a second album, Consolers of the Lonely, in 2008, touring extensively for the first time since 2006.
Meanwhile, Jack White and fellow Raconteur Jack Lawrence were getting ready to launch yet another alt-rock supergroup, The Dead Weather, alongside Alison Mosshart of The Kills and Dean Fertita of Queens of the Stone Age. In contrast to The White Stripes, where White sang lead vocals and played the guitars, in The Dead Weather he played the drums. (Mosshart took over lead vocals duty, while Fertita played lead guitar and Lawrence played bass.) The band was conceived in an informal jam session, but ended up recording two full albums: Horehound (2009) and Sea of Coward (2010). Both debuted in the top ten of the U.S. Billboard album chart.
In 2011, all four members of The Dead Weather went back to playing with their other bands, but not without promising that they would soon reunite.
Even with three chart-topping bands on his resume, the prolific White continued to involve himself in a variety of other well-received side projects. In 2005, he produced Loretta Lynn's highly praised comeback album Van Lear Rose, helping the country music legend reach a new generation of fans. In 2011, he played a similar role in orchestrating The Party Ain't Over, a late-career comeback record from Wanda Jackson, who had earned the title "Queen of Rockabilly" half a century earlier.
Also in 2011, White costarred with Norah Jones as a vocalist on Rome, a fresh musical project jointly created by American producer Danger Mouse and Italian composer Daniele Lippi, inspired by the 1960s-cool sound of Italian film soundtracks by the likes of Ennio Morricone. The album was released in May 2011 to nearly universal acclaim from music critics. White has also released lauded solo albums: 2012's Blunderbuss and 2014's Lazaretto, with the latter's title track winning a Grammy for Best Rock Performance.
As one-half of The White Stripes, Jack White became one of the most influential figures in rock music in the early 21st century by pushing a low-fi, stripped-down sound, leading a return to the music's roots in the purity and simplicity of garage rock. "Simple is not always better," White once said. "For Michelangelo, no. For The White Stripes, simple is better." So too for The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather, and for White's millions of fans worldwide.
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