The White Stripes were the 2000's most influential new band, thanks to a sound that mixed classic blues with smart, boisterous, and vibrant punk-rock. Comprised solely of singer/guitarist Jack White and drummer Meg White, the group became rock stars and Grammy winners in only a few short years. Assisting in that transition was intrigue. The pair was a once-married couple who pretended to be siblings and, for a while, insisted on dressing in alternating red and white outfits. The chaffing riffs that drove the duo's best tracks, such as 2003's "Seven Nation Army" testify to the importance of rock's abrasive and experimental nature.
The White Stripes played their first show in July 1997, about nine months after bartender Meg White and upholsterer John Anthony Gillis married and began making music together. Gillis took his wife's last name and a dynamic duo was born. The marriage didn't last but the music did: the duo wound up signing with the Sympathy for the Record Industry label, an indie known for its roster of punk and garage rock.
Their first two albums — The White Stripes and De Stijl — were home-recorded collections of gritty rock, acoustic folk and unvarnished blues, and included a mix of originals along with covers of Bob Dylan, Robert Johnson, Son House and Blind Willie McTell. By the time they made their third album, 2001's White Blood Cells, they'd also made a name for themselves with their wacky mythology, striking color scheme and Jack infectious riff rock. People definitely knew who they were. When the larger V2 Records label signed the duo and re-released White Blood Cells the following year, the Stripes scored a minor hit with "Fell in Love with a Girl." By 2002, they were being hailed for bringing a refreshing simplicity back to rock & roll.
After the release of 2003's Elephant, the band's reach exploded again. Celebrity news, magazine covers, annual best-of-the-year list — they seem to be everywhere. Driven by "Seven Nation Army" (Number One Modern Rock, 2003) and "The Hardest Button to Button" (Number Eight Modern Rock, 2003), the album reached Number Six on the Billboard 200. Meanwhile, Jack White hit the gossip columns due to his brief relationship with actress Renée Zellweger; the duo had to cancel some 2003 tour dates after he and Zellweger were involved in a car accident. In December, White was back in the news, this time charged with assault after a confrontation with Jason Stollsteimer, singer of the garage band Von Bondies, at a Detroit club. He pleaded guilty and was fined $750 and remanded to anger management classes.
In August 2003, Rolling Stone's list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time that year ranked Jack White at a controversial #17, higher than such renowned guitarists as Pete Townshend, Frank Zappa, Eddie Van Halen and even bluesman Lightnin' Hopkins. Elephant wound up taking two awards — Best Alternative Music Album and Best Rock Song for "Seven Nation Army" — at the 2004 Grammys. The same year, White produced country legend Loretta Lynn's Van Lear Rose (Number Two, Country) after the White Stripes had covered her 1972 Number one hit "Rated X" for an early b-side.
The following year, the White Stripes expanded their sound a bit. Get Behind Me Satan (Number Three pop, 2005), used piano and marimbas, as well as a rougher, more metallic guitar tone on tracks like "Blue Orchid." Oddly it didn't damage their signature starkness. The duo nabbed another Best Alternative Music Album at the 2006 Grammy Awards. Meanwhile, White and his new wife, model and singer Karen Elson, moved to Nashville and the guitarist formed a band with his pal Brendan Benson, the Raconteurs.
This generated rumors of the White Stripes' demise, but they were quelled when Jack and Meg moved to Warner Bros. Records and returned to the studio for 2007's Icky Thump (Number Two, 2007). That album continued the expanded sound of Get Behind Me Satan, featuring bagpipes, horns and some comparatively convoluted song structures. The first single, "Icky Thump" (Number One Modern rock, Number 26 Pop, 2007), which featured White's most political lyrics ever, criticized white American intolerance of Spanish-speaking immigrants.
In September 2007, the duo had to cancel a tour, citing Meg White's "acute anxiety" attacks. The following year, they were nominated for four more Grammys including Best Alternative Music Album and Best Rock Song for "Icky Thump." In 2009 the restless guitarist had become part of yet another band, The Dead Weather. Joining him were members of the Kills and Queens of the Stone Age. Their dramatic debut was entitled Horehound.
Jack White also has appeared in several films including a small part in 2003's Cold Mountain, Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes (with Meg) the same year, and the role of Elvis Presley in 2007's Walk Hard.
Jim Macnie contributed to this article.
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