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Jack White

Biography

Jack White
Carr/Getty

Weird and passionate, with burning eyes and an old man's sensibilities, Jack White spent the 2000s going from promising garage-rocker to international rock star. He was one of the most important guitarists of the decade — on the strength of his forcefulness and ingenuity rather than virtuosity — as well as a great conceptualizer and a top-flight songwriter who could draw on a seemingly bottomless bag of riffs and melodies.

In the late Nineties, John Anthony Gillis was just another upholsterer moonlighting in a bunch of small-time Detroit garage bands. (One of them was, in fact, called the Upholsterers.) He played lead guitar on The Go's first album, and drums in a group called Goober and the Peas, among others. Sometime in 1996, he married bartender Meg White, took her last name, and started playing music with her: Jack singing and playing guitar, Meg on bare-bones drums.

The marriage didn't last, but the band did. The White Stripes quickly developed a visual vocabulary (everything red, white and black), a collective mythology (Meg and Jack claimed they were brother and sister), and a terrific musical aesthetic, reaching back through the punk and garage music that informed their squall and thump to the rawest, loudest roots of the blues tradition.

The White Stripes (1999) and De Stijl (2000) were recorded on the cheap, stripped-down and as dangerously playful as a baby panther. Jack's ferocious, riffy original songs sat comfortably next to covers of Bob Dylan, Robert Johnson, Son House and Blind Willie McTell.

White Blood Cells (Number 61, 2001) was their breakthrough album, given a nudge by the 110-second garage-rock jewel "Fell In Love with a Girl" and its Lego-animation video; it eventually went gold. The duo's thrilling simplicity and directness managed to make other bands' bass parts and greater-than-three-minute song lengths sound like decadent frippery.

The White Stripes were bona fide rock stars by the release of Elephant (Number Six, platinum, 2003); its single, "Seven Nation Army," only made it to Number 76 on the pop chart, but became an enduring modern-rock radio standard and won a Grammy. Later that year, Jack appeared without Meg in the movie Cold Mountain and on its soundtrack, and with actress Renée Zellweger in gossip columns; he also made some headlines for a tussle with another Detroit garage-rock guy, Jason Stollsteimer of the Von Bondies. (He eventually pleaded guilty to assault.) In 2004, he produced country legend Loretta Lynn's Van Lear Rose album.

Get Behind Me Satan (Number Three, gold, 2005) expanded the White Stripes' instrumental palette a bit: Jack moved beyond guitar to piano, and there's even some marimba on the album. It was followed with an EP, Walking With a Ghost, named after its unlikely but fabulous cover of a Tegan and Sara song. In mid-2005, Jack married model Karen Elson; Meg was her maid of honor.

A songwriting jam with singer-guitarist Brendan Benson somehow turned into a full-on band, the Raconteurs, which also included the rhythm section from the Cincinnati garage band the Greenhornes, bassist Jack Lawrence and drummer Patrick Keeler. Broken Boy Soldiers (Number Seven,2006) was still very much Jack's show, and the group's insistence that they were a real band and not a side project—not to mention Jack's relocation to Nashville—called the continued existence of the White Stripes into question.

Jack and Meg answered that question promptly: the White Stripes' Icky Thump (Number Two, 2007, gold) continued their ambitious drive outwards from the spartan guitar/drums/voice scheme of their early records (although the three-color visual scheme remained in place). They embarked on an extensive tour of Canada, more or less for the sake of variety. That year, Jack also played Elvis Presley in the comedy Walk Hard.

The Raconteurs did indeed turn out to be an ongoing project. Consolers of the Lonely (2008), released with very little fanfare, made it to Number Seven anyway. White's started yet another band for his next project, The Dead Weather, featuring him behind the drum kit, the Kills' Alison Mosshart singing, the Raconteurs' Lawrence playing bass, and Queens of the Stone Age's Dean Fertita (who'd also played with the Raconteurs on tour) on guitar. White wrote or co-wrote a few songs on their debut album Horehound (Number Six, 2009).

A second Dead Weather album is reportedly already in progress, as is a seventh White Stripes album (although their only gig since 2007 has been Conan O'Brien's final "Late Night" show). White's imprint Third Man Records, initially used only for White Stripes records, has now become a full-on label, pressing vinyl records he's produced or played on. And, in late 2009, he appeared in the 2009 rock-guitar documentary, It Might Get Loud, alongside Jimmy Page and The Edge.

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