An unrepentant believer in the power of classic rock and R&B, Melissa Etheridge sounded like a throwback to the ’70s when she delivered her eponymous debut in 1988. Her raspy delivery recalled that of Rod Stewart and her belief in the restorative power of rock & roll suggested peak Bruce Springsteen, while her commitment to lean, straight-ahead heartland rock aligned her with John Mellencamp. Etheridge would never abandon traditional rock & roll values, but she found a way to not only keep these familiar sounds fresh, but to make them her own. Much of this skill was evident on Melissa Etheridge, Brave and Crazy, and Never Enough — the trio of records she released around the turn of the 1990s — albums that generated such rock radio hits as “Bring Me Some Water,” “Similar Features,” “No Souvenirs,” and “Ain’t It Heavy,” the latter winning Etheridge her first Grammy — but her 1993 album Yes I Am is where she broke through into the mainstream. Just prior to its release, Etheridge became one of the first prominent rockers to come out publicly as a lesbian, an event that raised her public profile thereby bringing Yes I Am to a wider audience, one that turned the album into a multi-platinum blockbuster, spinning off the hits “I’m the Only One” and “Come to My Window.” From that point forward, Etheridge was a roots rock institution, recording and working steadily, occasionally re-entering the spotlight — she won the Academy Award for Best Original Song for “I Need to Wake Up” in 2007 — while taking pains to stretch herself creatively, as when she dedicated herself to R&B on 2016′s Memphis Rock and Soul or the spiritually positive The Medicine Show in 2019.
Born May 29, 1961, in Leavenworth, Kansas, Etheridge first picked up the guitar at the age of eight and began penning her own songs shortly thereafter. Playing in local bands throughout her teens, Etheridge then attended the renowned Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. The up-and-coming singer/songwriter and guitarist dropped out after a year before making her way to Los Angeles in the early ’80s to take a shot at a career in music. At this point, Etheridge’s music was slightly more bluesy than her subsequently renowned folk-pop style, as a demo of original compositions caught the attention of Bill Leopold, who signed on as Etheridge’s manager. Soon after, steady gigs began coming her way, including a five-night-a-week residency at the Executive Suite in Long Beach, which led to a bidding war between such major record labels as A&M, Capitol, EMI, and Warner Bros., but it was Island Records that Etheridge decided to go with.
Etheridge’s first recorded work appeared on the forgotten soundtrack to the Nick Nolte prison movie Weeds before her self-titled debut was issued in 1988. The album quickly drew comparisons to such heavyweights as Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp, as it spawned the hit single “Bring Me Some Water” and earned gold certification. In the wake of the album’s success, Etheridge performed at the Grammy Awards the following year and contributed vocals to Don Henley’s The End of the Innocence. She managed to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump with 1989′s Brave and Crazy, which followed the same musical formula as its predecessor and proved to be another gold-certified success. It would be nearly three years before Etheridge’s next studio album appeared, however, and 1992 signaled the arrival of Never Enough, which proved to be more musically varied.
But it was Etheridge’s fourth release that would prove to be her massive commercial breakthrough. Ex-Police producer Hugh Padgham guided the album, which spawned two major MTV/radio hits with “I’m the Only One” and “Come to My Window” (the latter of which featured a video with actress Juliette Lewis); the album would sell a staggering six million copies in the U.S. during a single-year period and earned a 1995 Grammy Award for Best Female Rock Vocalist. But subsequent releases failed to match the success of Yes I Am, including 1995′s Your Little Secret, 1999′s Breakdown, and 2001′s Skin, the latter of which dealt with her separation from Julie Cypher. (Cypher gave birth to the couple’s two children via artificial insemination; CSN&Y’s David Crosby was the father.)
Etheridge’s autobiography, The Truth Is: My Life in Love and Music, was released in 2002, and 2004′s Lucky was her celebration of a new romance. Later that same year Etheridge revealed that she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer. But early detection allowed for recovery, and she gave strength to many of those stricken by the disease with a powerful performance of Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” at the 47th annual Grammys in February 2005. That September, Etheridge released Greatest Hits: The Road Less Traveled, a compilation of career highlights and new material. It featured a cover of Tom Petty’s “Refugee” as well as “Piece of My Heart” and a new song dedicated to breast cancer survivors. In 2007, Etheridge released her first studio album of new material in three years, The Awakening, on Island, following it a year later with a holiday album, A New Thought for Christmas, also on Island. Fearless Love appeared early in 2010. Her 12th studio album, 4th Street Feeling (named for the main drag in her hometown of Leavenworth, Kansas) was released in 2012; it marked the first occasion in her career when Etheridge played all the guitar parts on one of her recordings. Two years later, she went independent with her 13th album, This Is M.E., an ambitious collection that saw her collaborating with several different producers including R&B specialists Roccstar and Jon Levine; the album debuted at 21 on Billboard’s Top 200. Two years later, Etheridge switched to Concord’s revived Stax imprint to pay tribute to classic ’60s soul on Memphis Rock and Soul; the record debuted at 34 on Billboard’s Top 200.
Etheridge designed her 2019 album The Medicine Show as a restorative, healing record. It was released on her M.E. Records imprint in April 2019. She released One Way Out, a collection of unreleased songs written in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in 2021. ~ Greg Prato