Having achieved stardom as the singer, bassist, and principal songwriter for the Police, Sting abruptly dissolved that band at the peak of its career in the mid-Eighties. Sting's solo career is characterized by a restless yen to experiment. He has pushed the canny musicianship and affinity for exotic musical styles that distinguished his former group in directions that a trio would likely never have considered. Consequently, some have lamented the absence of the Police's striking economy, just as they've found Sting's literary and historical references unbearably pretentious. To his admirers, though, Sting's post-Police projects have ensured his place among the most articulate and intuitive rock musicians of his generation. Sting has recorded several more albums as a solo artist than he did with the Police, and his total sales as a solo artist have surpassed that group's total as well.
For his first solo effort, The Dream of the Blue Turtles (Number Two, 1985), Sting enlisted a group of young jazz musicians, including saxophonist Branford Marsalis and Weather Report drummer Omar Hakim. The album was widely viewed as a reclamation of the musical turf Sting had covered while playing in jazz ensembles during his youth. But Turtles also drew on elements of classical music, funk, and, perhaps most predictably, reggae. Moreover, the hit songs "If You Love Somebody Set Them Free" (Number Three, 1985), and "Fortress Around Your Heart" (Number Eight, 1985) were as pop-savvy as any Police singles.
The 1986 concert album and documentary Bring On the Night featured the players that Sting had assembled for Turtles. …Nothing Like the Sun (Number Nine, 1987), released shortly after Sting's mother died and dedicated to her, featured a revised, expanded lineup of musicians dominated by Marsalis' saxophone. As on Turtles, Sting often played guitar rather than his primary instrument, bass. A moody album full of dense, delicate orchestration, Sun spawned only one Top 10 single, the atypically funky "We'll Be Together" (Number Seven, 1987). (The album fared well in South America, though, thanks in part to its various Latin-flavored instrumental touches; hence the EP Nada Como el Sol, featuring tracks from Sun rendered in Spanish.)
The Soul Cages, inspired by Sting's father's death, was darker still, full of haunted ballads, religious imagery, and traditional English folk flourishes that embellished a newly spare foundation provided by guitarist Dominic Miller, keyboardist David Sancious, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, and Sting on bass. Again, an anomaly proved the one big hit: The upbeat "All This Time" went to Number Five. (On that single's strength, the album peaked at Number Two.) Sting unexpectedly shifted gears for 1993's breezy, buoyant Ten Summoner's Tales (Number Two), which featured the same core of musicians who had appeared on Cages. The album went triple platinum, yielding the hits "If I Ever Lose My Faith in You" (Number 17, 1993) (which also won a Grammy) and "Fields of Gold" (Number 23, 1993). That same year, Sting shared a Number One megahit single with Bryan Adams and Rod Stewart, "All for Love," from the film The Three Musketeers. An anthology, Field of Gold, was released in 1994, featuring two previously unreleased tracks.
Sting released Mercury Falling (Number Five) in 1996; although several singles were released from the album — notably "Let Your Soul Be your Pilot" (Number 86), "You Still Touch Me" (Number 60), and "I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying" (Number 94) — the album as a whole was more successful than any one song. Another greatest-hits compilation was released in 1997, this one combining his solo material with Police hits.
Brand New Day (Number Nine, 2000) followed in 1999. The title track was moderately popular on radio, but the song "Desert Rose" —released as a single nearly a year after the album and featuring Arabic backup vocals by Algerian singer Cheb Mami—was a surging success (perhaps helped by its use in a luxury car commercial), reaching Number 17 and pushing the album to double-platinum status. Even before the song reached its peak, Mami was selected as the opening act on Sting's Brand New Day tour, giving him Western exposure and allowing him to support Sting on the song during the headliner's set. A critical success, the album also earned two Grammys, for Pop Album of the Year and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance for its title song. With David Hartley, Sting wrote several songs for the 2000 Disney animated children's feature The Emperor's New Groove. In the process, he had creative differences with the Disney people, which were captured on film by his wife Trudie Styler for the "making-of" documentary The Sweatbox.
Sting's first album of the new decade was 2003's Sacred Love (Number Three), which drew on dance beats ("Send Your Love") and smoky soul ("Whenever I Say Your Name," a Grammy-winning duet with Mary J. Blige). And for the first time in ages, there was an honest-to-goodness rock & roll song in the form of "This War," Sting's angry response to the burgeoning conflict in Iraq. With that out of his system, the artist turned back the clock about 450 years for 2006's Songs From the Labrynth (Number 25), an album of songs by 16th century English composer John Dowland. Primary instrument of choice: the lute. The project received more than its share of guffaws from the press but was a strong seller, reaching Number One on Billboard's Top Classical Albums chart.
What better to do next than blow everybody's minds and re-form the Police? That's exactly what Sting did in 2007, teaming with guitarist Andy Summers and drummer Stewart Copeland for what eventually became the fourth-highest grossing tour of all time (receipts exceeded $340 million). To some who'd seen the group the first time around, the Police 2.0 was a pale imitation of past glories — with no new songs, to boot. But to kids weaned on the Police's Eighties hits, it was a thrill to see the three musicians on stage once again, and still capable of packing stadiums. A 2008 live album and DVD, Certifiable: Live in Buenos Aires, chronicled the whole shebang, and features a highly amusing behind-the-scenes documentary shot by Copeland's son Jordan, with all the enduring inter-band tension captured for posterity.
Having returned the Police to his trophy case, apparently for good, Sting again dabbled in arcane musicology on 2009's If on a Winter's Night…, an album of quiet folk songs inspired by the coldest season. The project was another Top Ten hit (Number 6), but raised the question whether the artist would ever make the full-on rock album for which fans continue to clamor.
Equally unpredictable outside the studio, Sting has made numerous film appearances (including Dune, Stormy Monday, Plenty, Gentlemen Don't Eat Poets, and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) and in 1989 stared in a Broadway revival of The Threepenny Opera. Four years later, he opened a series of stadium shows for the Grateful Dead. What's remained constant is his devotion to human rights and environmental issues. In the late Eighties he not only toured with other stars to benefit Amnesty International, but also helped establish the Rainforest Foundation. He's since crusaded to raise funds and awareness on behalf of the preservation of this endangered Brazilian territory, in part with an annual all-star benefit concert, co-organized by Styler, in New York City.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Jonathan Cohen contributed to this article.