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Whether one considered David Lee Roth a masterful rock singer or a relentless showboat, there was no denying that the once and future frontman for Van Halen was a fan favorite. When he debuted with the group in the early 1970s, Roth seemed a powerfully voiced, physically agile performer who captured audiences' imagination for the duration of a live performance, but with a wicked sense of humor and joie de vivre that stood in direct contrast to other ponderous, self-important frontmen in rock. Roth fed on the spotlight as it increased in intensity during Van Halen's original seven-year run, but by the mid-1980s, it became apparent that he was ready for his own stardom. Initially successful beyond anyone's expectations, Roth's solo career quickly plummeted off the musical radar, and by the 1990s, he was playing Las Vegas lounges while his former bandmates were conquering arenas with new singer Sammy Hagar. Van Halen's relationship with Hagar soon soured, and for the next decade, the band attempted to reunite with Roth on numerous occasions, all of which appeared to fall apart. In 2007, Roth and Van Halen finally came together for a wildly popular North American tour, which found the singer in fine voice and still able to whip crowds into a frenzy as he approached his sixth decade. Throughout it all, for better or for worse, David Lee Roth remained one of rock's most magnetic performers.
Born Oct. 10, 1954 in Bloomington, IN, David Lee Roth was the son of ophthalmologist Nathan Roth and his wife, Sybil. As a boy, the foundations for his brash, theatrical stage presence were laid by his father, who introduced him to the music of larger-than-life performers like Al Jolson and Louis Prima, and by his uncle, Manny Roth, who owned New York's famed Café Wha?, a launching pad for such future superstars as Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and Richard Pryor. After moving with his family to Pasadena, CA, Roth spent his teenage years in flux, bouncing from school to school while serving time at facilities for troubled youths. He eventually found his rock-n-roll calling, singing for a local act called the Red Ball Jets. They frequently shared stages with another up-and-coming group, Mammoth, which featured a pair of Dutch-born brothers, Edward (later Eddie) and Alex Van Halen, on guitar and drums, respectively.
Roth frequently lent Mammoth the use of his PA system for their shows, which resulted in a friendship with the Van Halen brothers. They soon invited him to sing for their group, and after adding bassist Michael Anthony, began playing on the Sunset Strip rock club scene in 1974. They discovered that another, more established act was billing itself as Mammoth, so soon redubbed themselves Van Halen, reportedly on Roth's suggestion. By 1976, they had earned a reputation as one of the most exciting acts in Los Angeles, thanks in no small part to Roth's presence as a frontman, which combined his astonishing four-octave vocal range with a persona that, like his greatest inspiration, Black Oak Arkansas' Jim "Dandy" Mangrum, was equal parts vaudeville comic, glam rock showboat and raunchy bluesman.
KISS bassist Gene Simmons took note of Van Halen during a four-month stint at the famed Starwood Club, and produced their first demo tape. It did little to generate attention from major record labels, but their break finally came in 1977 after producer Ted Templeman caught their show at the Starwood. He immediately signed them to Warner Bros. and produced their self-titled 1978 debut album. It was an immediate success, breaking the Top 20 on the pop charts, establishing Van Halen as one of the more entertaining hard rock acts on the American music scene. Over the next seven years, Van Halen released five top-selling albums, which elevated them from the clubs to major arenas around the globe. Roth proved exceptionally versatile as both the band's singer and chief lyricist, delivering unbridled rock anthems like "Runnin' With the Devil," "Ain't Talking 'Bout Love" and "I'll Wait" with the same degree of conviction and panache as zanier fare like "Hot for Teacher." And if allegations of an out-of-control ego occasionally dampened his reputation, Roth appeared to be having too much fun to care.
Following the release of their fifth and, at the time, most successful album, 1984, Roth released Crazy from the Heat (1985), a four-track solo EP that featured his high-energy takes on classic tracks like the Beach Boys' "California Girls" and the Louis Prima standard "Just a Gigolo/I Ain't Got Nobody." Buoyed by a pair of amusing music videos, the EP generated talk among fans that Roth was preparing to depart Van Halen for a solo career. To the surprise of many, Roth did sever ties with his band in April of that year, citing disagreements with the Van Halen brothers over musical direction and his desire to launch a film project. The latter never came to pass, but Roth quickly assembled an all-star backing band, featuring former Frank Zappa guitarist Steve Vai, and released a full-length LP, Eat 'Em and Smile in 1986. The record shot to No. 4 on the album charts and generated a sold-out tour. Van Halen soon signed veteran rock warhorse Sammy Hagar to replace Roth, and launched a second, even more successful phase of their career. Though Hagar could match and even outdo Roth in terms of volume and vocal dexterity, many longtime fans lamented the loss of Roth's signature humor and style.
Unfortunately, Roth could not offer much competition for the new Van Halen. His second solo album, Skyscraper (1988) reached No. 6 on the album charts, but his crack team of musical players was quickly falling apart due to musical differences and their own desires for a solo career. Bassist Billy Sheehan left to form the pop-metal group Mr. Big, while Vai quit to join Whitesnake. Their departure took away much of the polish from Roth's work, and subsequent releases, including 1991's A Little Ain't Enough saw diminishing returns. The musical landscape was also undergoing birthing pains as alternative acts like Nirvana were displacing arena rock acts like Van Halen on the charts. Roth's amphetamine-Las Vegas schtick was quickly regarded as passé by the new breed of rock fans. Roth's reputation was seriously bruised in 1993 when he was arrested by a New York undercover police officer for purchasing a small quantity of marijuana. Within two years' time, Roth was actually playing Las Vegas lounges, backed by another forgotten '70s rocker, Edgar Winter, and a cadre of showgirls. Media outlets had a field day with the news, as well as reports that he was working as an EMT.
In 1996, Van Halen had begun its long and unpleasant separation from Sammy Hagar, and invited Roth to record a pair of new songs for their Best Of Volume 1 compilation. Old-school fans were jubilant over the news, as well as his appearance with the band, sans Hagar, at the 1996 MTV Movie Awards. The reunion, however, proved short-lived after Roth and Eddie Van Halen nearly came to blows backstage at the event, and he was thrown over for former Extreme singer Gary Cherone for their next album. Roth poured his frustrations into a 1998 autobiography, Crazy from the Heat, which earned bestseller status on the strength of his no-holds-barred, tell-all stories.
For the next few years, Roth and Van Halen circled each other like boxers in a ring, landing occasional jabs in the press while largely failing to generate much excitement for their respective projects. Roth issued a new solo album, DLR Band (1998), a return-to-roots effort that found him doing what he did best: fronting a loud, brash rock-n-roll band. In 2001, news surfaced that he was again in the studio with Van Halen, but nothing came from those sessions, and he soon set out on the road with Sammy Hagar for the tongue-in-cheek Heavyweights of Rock and Roll Tour. He dabbled in acting, playing himself in an episode of "The Sopranos" (HBO, 1999-2007) and collaborated on a bluegrass album of Van Halen covers. In 2006, he took over Howard Stern's slot on New York's 92.3 FM, but the resulting show was savaged in the press, and was soon pulled from rotation.
In 2007, Roth and Van Halen appeared to finally put down the gauntlets and launch a full-fledged reunion. Naturally, the patch-up was not without its controversial moments, like the band's 2007 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which was attended only by Hagar and outgoing bassist Michael Anthony. The tour itself soon stalled out when Eddie Van Halen entered a rehabilitation facility to combat his long-standing problems with alcohol. Roth finally hit the stage with Van Halen later that year, setting a box office record with $93 million in ticket sales during their North American jaunt. In 2011, the band announced not only a follow-up tour but also a new album, A Different Kind of Truth, which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard charts in 2012.
By Paul Gaita
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