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5 Musicians Who Overcame Poverty to Become Superstars

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This post is part of a series called Creative Session: The Business of Music.
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Everybody knows the path to rock glory is not an easy one. It takes talent (sometimes), years of hard work, determination, and more than a little bit of luck. But for some, there was even more to it than that. Some stars had to overcome years of poverty in addition to everything else. Here are just a few of them.

  • This year AUDIOTUTS is participating in Blog Action Day (October 15th) and helping raise awareness about poverty. It's not too late to register your blog and change the conversation for one day -- today!

  • 5. Coolio

    Admittedly, I'm using the term "superstar" loosely in this case. But don't forget, there was a time when Coolio was just about the biggest name in rap music. Remember "Gangsta's Paradise"? That song was huge! It earned him a Grammy and, more awesomely, a Weird Al Yankovic parody.

    But Coolio's road to fame wasn't without its setbacks. Coolio's childhood was unstable to the point that he didn't even learn to read until age 12. After spending his formative years in and out of trouble and associating with Los Angeles area gangs, Coolio became a regular on the KDAY radio station in LA and recorded an early rap single called "Watcha Gonna Do." A decent start, to be sure. But things quickly went off track when Coolio found himself on the business end of a crack cocaine addiction.

    This is where the story would end for most artists. But after years of addiction, poverty and homelessness, Coolio managed to turn it around. After a brief stint in rehab, he took a job fighting fires with the California Department of Forestry. The experience was just what he needed to keep from returning to the streets that led him down the wrong path in the first place. By the early 90's, his career was back on track.

  • 4. Jimi Hendrix

    Jimi Hendrix' upbringing was rife with neglect and poverty. He was born in Seattle on November 27, 1942 while his father was stationed at a military base in Oklahoma. Upon his release from the military, Jimi's father, Al, took to the task of raising his young son, albeit not very well. According to author Charles Cross, who penned the Hendrix biography "Room Full of Mirrors," Al Hendrix was abusive and neglectful, going so far as to place several of Jimi's siblings in foster homes. When the elder Hendrix had trouble finding employment after leaving the military, the family fell on financial hardship. Jimi and his brother often resorted to stealing from local grocery stores just to eat.

    When Jimi finally acquired an actual guitar at the age of 15, it took the place of the broomstick and one string ukelele he had been playing with up to that point. He took playing tips and advice from wherever he could find it. But honing his guitar skills didn't keep Hendrix out of trouble. After falling into legal trouble, he was given the choice of spending two years in prison or joining the Army. He opted for the latter.

    It's still the subject of debate as to how and why it happened, but Hendrix was discharged from the Army after serving only one year. He gave varying accounts ranging from a medical discharge due to a broken ankle to, my personal favorite, convincing his superiors that he was a homosexual. Whatever the case, military life was over and Hendrix began pursuing music full time. After several minor gigs and stints with Little Richard, The Isley Brothers, and Ike and Tina Turner; he formed The Jimi Hendrix Experience in 1966. Not a bad place to end up for a poor kid from Seattle.

  • 3. Ringo Starr

    Ringo Starr, having the job as drummer for the most famous band ever sort of just fall into his lap, is quite possibly the luckiest man in rock history. And you know what? Given his upbringing, he deserves every bit of luck that ever came his way.

    He was born in 1936 to parents who scraped by working at a bakery. The family lived in a six-room terrace house in a poor, working class area of Liverpool known as the Dingle. As rough as a start as that was, things got worse when his father left the family when Ringo was just three years old. His mother moved them to an even cheaper housing setup where he stayed until the gig with The Beatles came along. That's a lot of years.

    As if poverty weren't enough, a series of illnesses derailed Ringo's school years. First, a ruptured appendix resulted in a ten week coma. Although his mother was told on several occasions that he would not live, he eventually pulled though. Just when recovery was on the horizon though, Ringo suffered another setback when he fell out of bed and earned himself another six months in the hospital.

    Things appeared to be turning around for Ringo when his mom remarried in 1953. But not so fast. That same year, Ringo developed pleurisy. After another two years in the hospital, going back to school was out of the question and he embarked on a few years of odd jobs before he, you know, got THAT job.

    There's two ways to look at all this. First, no matter how bad things are going for you right now, your big break could still be on the way. Second, think twice before you go on and on about how "lucky" Ringo Starr was.

  • 2. Johnny Cash

    How poor was Johnny Cash as a kid? So poor, his parents couldn't even afford to give him an actual name. Not really, his birth name of J. R. Cash reportedly came about because his parents just couldn't agree on a name. But still, those are pretty humble beginnings. And they only got, um, humbler.

    It should go without saying that, raised as the child of cotton-farming parents during the Great Depression, things were pretty bleak financially around the Cash household. His impoverished upbringing was made even more harsh when his older brother Jack was killed in an accident at the saw mill he was working at.

    Like any number of young people his age at the time, Cash enlisted in the military in an effort to improve his lot in life. While it was certainly an improvement over the cotton fields, military life didn't suit J.R. After leaving the military, he married and relocated to Memphis, TN. It was there, while working as an appliance salesman, that he worked up the courage to audition for Sam Phillips at Sun Records. While this would soon lead to a permanent end to his life of poverty, Cash never forgot his upbringing. His life as a depression-era youngster would go on to inform many of his greatest hits.

  • 1. Elvis Presley

    Much like Johnny Cash, Elvis' early years were spent living right around the poverty line during the Great Depression. His father, Vernon, was a farm worker. His mother, Gladys, was a sewing machine operator. They lived in a two room "shotgun" style house that they were only able to afford thanks to a loan from a local dairy farmer. Things got infinitely worse for the Presley family when Vernon was sent to prison for forging an $8 check. During this time, the farmer who loaned the money for the house called in the note and Gladys and Elvis were forced to move.

    Elvis received his first guitar as a birthday present in 1946, just as things were getting even worse for his family financially. Tired of struggling to put food on his family's table, Vernon packed them and their belongings into a truck and left for Memphis, in Elvis' words, "in the middle of the night."

    The family arrived in Memphis almost flat broke and moved into a one room apartment in a poor section of the city, where they would live until after Elvis' first year in high school. At that point, Vernon's application for public housing was accepted and the family relocated to the Lauderdale Courts housing project. While still not ideal living conditions, the move was a major step up from what the family was used to.

    During his high school years, Elvis worked various jobs and, in true rock star fashion, used what money didn't go to help his family to start sowing the early seeds of his unique image. After graduation, he got a job as a truck driver. It was during this time that he decided to stop by the Memphis Recording Service to cut a record as a birthday present for his mother. After several similar recording sessions, he caught the attention of Sam Phillips who introduced him to guitarist Scotty Moore. And the rest, is rock and roll history.

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