John Mellencamp rose to fame in the early ’80s with his unique brand of catchy heartland rock, racking up countless Top 10 hits including “Hurts So Good,” “Jack & Diane,” “Lonely Ol’ Night,” “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” and “Cherry Bomb.” During a career spanning more than four decades, the beloved musician has nabbed 13 Grammy nominations and sold over 60 million albums worldwide, including 30 million in the United States. He also holds the record for the most tracks by a solo artist to hit the top of the Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks chart. John’s work extends into the worlds of film, art and philanthropy too — and he’s been inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. To celebrate the rocker’s 70th birthday on Oct. 7, 2021, join Wonderwall.com as we take a look at the highlights of his career and personal life in pictures…
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John J. Mellencamp was born in Seymour, Indiana — home to the second largest high school gymnasium in the United States. The future star can be seen here at 5 (that’s him in front) with the local high school football team. He was born with spina bifida, for which he had corrective surgery as an infant. As a teenager, he played with friends in a number of bands with names like Trash, Snakepit Banana Barn and the Mason Brothers.
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Shortly after finishing high school, John Mellencamp married Priscilla Esterline, his girlfriend who was pregnant. He became a first-time father in 1970 at 18 when Priscilla gave birth to daughter Michelle. He attended Vincennes University in Indiana in the early ’70s and got a job installing telephones but it wasn’t long before he decided to pursue a career in music and headed to New York City. (He’s seen here in 1977.) In 1986, he told Rolling Stone he abused drugs and alcohol when he was young. “When I was high on pot, it affected me so drastically that when I was in college there were times when I wouldn’t get off the couch,” he told the magazine. “There would be four or five days like that when I would be completely gone.”
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John Mellencamp’s first manager convinced him to adopt the stage name Johnny Cougar, insisting the German surname Mellencamp would be too tough to market. He released his first album, “Chestnut Street Incident,” in 1976 but it only included a handful of original songs and didn’t make a dent in the charts. The blooming musician (seen here performing in London in 1978) explained to American Songwriter in 2005 that he struggled to get on board with his new identity. “That [name] was put on me by some manager. I went to New York and everybody said, ‘You sound like a hillbilly.’ And I said, ‘Well, I am,'” he explained. “I was totally unaware of it until it showed up on the album jacket. When I objected to it, he said, ‘Well, either you’re going to go for it, or we’re not going to put the record out.’ So that was what I had to do… but I thought the name was pretty silly.”
After the failure of his first album, John Mellencamp (seen here in 1980) was dropped from his label and sought new representation. He signed with a smaller label and began scoring his first Top 40 hits in the late ’70s and early ’80s with songs like “I Need a Lover,” “This Time” and “Ain’t Even Done With the Night.” Despite his initial successes, he told Record Magazine in 1983, he wasn’t proud of the music. “The worst thing was that I could have gone on making records like that for hundreds of years,” he told the outlet. “Hell, as long as you sell a few records and the record company isn’t putting a lot of money into promotion, you’re making money for ’em and that’s all they care about… They thought I was going to turn into the next Neil Diamond.”
John Mellencamp was married to high school sweetheart Priscilla Esterline from 1970 until 1981. After their split, he quickly moved on with actress Victoria Granucci. The pair, seen here in the ’80s, wed in 1981 just as the rocker began experiencing major success. Victoria even appeared in some of her hubby’s music videos. The couple stayed together for nearly a decade, eventually divorcing in 1989 following infidelity allegations concerning John.
In 1982, John Mellencamp released the breakthrough album “American Fool,” which contained the classics”Hurts So Good” and “Jack & Diane,” the latter of which became his first No. 1 hit. “Hurts So Good” went on to win a Grammy for best male rock vocal performance and and John won an American Music Award for favorite pop/rock male artist in 1983. “To be real honest, there’s three good songs on that record, and the rest is just sort of filler,” he admitted to Creem Magazine in 1984. “It was too labored over, too thought about, and it wasn’t organic enough. The record company thought it would bomb, but I think the reason it took off was — not that the songs were better than my others — but people liked the sound of it.” More success meant the music star had enough clout to force his record company to add his real surname to his stage moniker, so by 1983, he was going by John Cougar Mellencamp.
In 1985, John Cougar Mellencamp decided to use his influence as a celebrity to do good with the help of fellow musicians Neil Young and Willie Nelson. The trio launched Farm Aid, an annual benefit concert held to raise money to help family farmers in the United States. The first event was held in Champaign, Illinois, before a crowd of 80,000 people and raised more than $9 million. The original lineup included Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, B.B. King and Tom Petty and remains an annual event to this day. The Farm Aid concerts have raised more than $60 million for struggling family farmers as of 2021.
The Mellencamp family grew right along with John’s career. He’s seen here in 1987 with eldest daughter Michelle, then-wife Victoria and the two children he welcomed during his second marriage to her: daughters Teddi Jo, who was born in 1981 (and decades later starred on “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills”), and Justice, who was born in 1985. He raised his young family in a home on Lake Monroe just outside of Bloomington, Indiana.
By the late ’80s, John Mellencamp had developed an incredible reputation as a live act, with Rolling Stone in 1988 calling his band “one of the most powerful and versatile live bands ever assembled.” He’s seen performing on stage in 1985 during the first Farm Aid concert.
Heading into the ’90s, John was at the top of his game, appearing on shows like “Saturday Night Live.” (He’s seen here on the NBC show in 1989.) At the same, he underwent another rebranding as he officially dropped the “Cougar” from his name for good. His 1991 album “Whenever We Wanted” was the first under his real moniker, John Mellencamp, and it spawned Top 40 hits “Get a Leg Up” and “Again Tonight.” This era saw him returning to the rock sound that made him a household name. He told the Houston Chronicle in 1991 that he “just wanted to get back to the basics.”
In the early ’90s, John Mellencamp decided to branch out from music and explore the world of moviemaking. His first foray was with the 1992 drama “Falling From Grace,” which he both directed and starred in. It tells the story of a country music star who returns home to Indiana with his wife and cheats with a hometown lover, repeating the spiraling lifestyle of his father. The film, which co-starred Mariel Hemingway, received mostly positive reviews despite not making major noise at the box office. “Mellencamp turns out to have a real filmmaking gift,” Roger Ebert wrote of the film when it was released. “His film is perceptive and subtle, and doesn’t make the mistake of thinking that because something is real, it makes good fiction.” John previously turned down the lead part in 1980’s “The Idolmaker” because, as he told the Toledo Blade in 1983, “I was afraid that if I made too much money, I’d have no motivation to make records anymore.”
The early ’90s also meant new love for John Mellencamp: He began a relationship with fashion model Elaine Irwin, whom he met when she was hired to appear on the cover of his “Whenever We Wanted” album and in the music video for “Get A Leg Up.” The musician proposed after barely two months of dating and they got hitched in 1992. Elaine was only 23 at the time of their union and John was 40 and already a grandfather. The couple is seen here at the MTV Movie Awards in June 1994. Two months later, John suffered a minor heart attack after a show at Jones Beach in New York that forced him to cancel the last few weeks of a tour. “I was up to 80 cigarettes a day,” he told the Boston Herald in 1996 of the bad habits that led to the medical crisis. “We’d finish a show and I’d go out and have steak and french fries and eggs at 4 in the morning and then go to sleep with all that in my gut. It was just a terrible lifestyle.”
John Mellencamp and Elaine Irwin had two children: sons Hud, born in 1994, and Speck, born in 1995. The couple (seen here with Hud at the Grand Opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1995) were married for nearly two decades before calling it quits in 2010. Both remained in Indiana to raise their children.
John Mellencamp soon returned to the stage. He’s seen performing during a City of Hope event at Universal Studios Hollywood in Universal City, California, in 1996.
In the late ’90s, John Mellencamp moved to Columbia Records and started making music he described to Guitar World Acoustic in 1998 as “Eastern, very grand stories, fairy tales.” He also started getting some major recognition for his amazing music career, including the Billboard Century Award in 2001. “All my early records are me learning to write songs,” he said while looking back with Classic Rock magazine in 2014. “I mean, I’ve come further than Springsteen, Petty or anybody. I may not be as good as they are, but I’m better than most.”
In 2004, John got heavily involved with politics, participating in the Vote for Change tour in 2004 leading up to the U.S. presidential election. He also performed at the Democratic National Convention that same year (seen here). 2004 also saw John release the two-disc greatest hits retrospective “Words & Music: John Mellencamp’s Greatest Hits,” which contained all 22 of his Top 40 hits as well as new tracks produced by Babyface. John had reached a point in his career where he could celebrate the incredible achievements of his lengthy career. “It’s my duty and job to not waste any more summers, and try to learn something every day, to try to create something every day, make something every day,” he told “CBS Sunday Morning” in 2017.
Starting in 2008, John Mellencamp began releasing music produced by the legendary T Bone Burnett, who rose to fame as a guitarist in Bob Dylan’s band during the ’70s and has received multiple Grammys for his work in film music. He helped start the careers of Counting Crows and Sam Phillips and revitalized those of Gregg Allman and Roy Orbison. John and T Bone (both seen performing during the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 7 concert in San Francisco in October 2007) worked on a series of Top 10 albums together, with John telling the San Antonio Express-News that it’s some of his best work. “If I can’t do what I want at this point, I’m not going to do it,” he told the newspaper. “If it’s not fun, I’m not going to do it. I’m through digging a ditch.”
John Mellencamp solidified his spot in music history when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s class of 2008. He was inducted by good friend Billy Joel, who explained the significance of John’s impact during his speech. “People need to hear a voice like yours that’s out there to echo the discontent that’s out there in the heartland. They need to hear stories about it,” Billy said. “They need to hear stories about frustration, alienation and desperation. They need to know that somewhere out there somebody feels the way that they do in the small towns and in the big cities. They need to hear it. And it doesn’t matter if they hear it on a jukebox, in the local gin mill, or in a goddamn truck commercial because they ain’t gonna hear it on the radio any more. They don’t care how they hear it as long as they hear it good and loud and clear the way you’ve always been saying it all along.”
In 2011 — the same year he finalized his divorce from Elaine Irwin — John Mellencamp started seeing another famous blonde beauty: actress Meg Ryan. The pair (seen here at Italy’s Taormina Filmfest in 2013) were together for three years during which he wrote the score for her 2015 film “Ithaca.” The actress gushed over her then-beau’s work in the movie during a Q&A after a screening at Geena Davis’s Bentonville Film Festival. “The music is so beautiful. John Mellencamp wrote every note — everything — the tiny little needle drops you hear in the back,” she said. “He wrote about half of it after I read him the script, and then the next half after he saw the movie. He’s just incredible.” The couple broke up in 2014 before reuniting in 2017 — and becoming engaged the following year. Meg ended their engagement in 2019.
In between his two romance runs with Meg Ryan, John Mellencamp dated nother blonde model — CoverGirl legend Christie Brinkley, who admitted to People magazine that she was initially skeptical of the musician. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re really opposites. He’s kind of a throwback from another time, like a silent cowboy,'” she recalled. “But then we talked and realized that we do have a lot of shared interests.” The couple (seen here in New York City in October 2015, just a few months into their romance) bonded over their kids and their age, with Christie adding, “John and I are two people that have very full lives. We’re just trying to enjoy each other when we can see each other and try not to put too much [pressure] on it.” Things didn’t work out for the pair, whose breakup was confirmed in 2016.
John Mellencamp’s daughters grew up and began lives of their own, moving out of their famous father’s shadow. Middle daughter Teddi Mellencamp Arroyave is an accountability coach with three kids who came to fame on three seasons of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.” Youngest daughter Justice is a professional hairstylist in South Carolina who’s married with three children. She told Local Life that her dad is much more than his on-stage persona. “He’s very different than what I think a lot of people think… and he has a great sense of humor,” Justice revealed. John’s seen here with both daughters at a private viewing of his “Life, Death, Love, Freedom” art show in New York City in April 2018.
John Mellencamp’s eldest son, Hud, attended Duke University, where he played both defense and wide receiver on the football team. After graduating, he briefly worked as a waiter at one of the restaurants owned by Teddi’s former “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” co-star Lisa Vanderpump. Both Hud and younger brother Speck found themselves in hot water when they were arrested in 2013 — the same year this photo of Hud at football practice was taken — on charges of battery resulting in bodily injury after allegedly beating up a man after a party in Indiana. Both pleaded guilty in 2015 after the charges were reduced from felonies. Hud received a one-year suspended sentence with a year of probation and 50 hours of community service, while Speck served five days of his one-year sentence plus one year of probation.
Early in his music career, John also became heavily involved with painting as both a hobby and a side gig that’s continued throughout his life. He picked up the talent from his mother as a child and intended to pursue it full time if his music career didn’t pan out. Over the last 40 years, he’s shown his work in countless exhibitions. In 1990, the Argus-Press described John’s artwork as conveying “the same disillusionment found in his musical anthems about the nation’s heartland and farm crisis.” In 1998, Harper Collins published an overview of his earlier work titled “Paintings and Reflections.” John had his first major museum exhibition at the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville in 2012 and received glowing reviews; he’s seen here at one of his art shows at a New York City gallery in 2015.
John Mellencamp remains busy: He’s working on a musical, “Small Town,” which is based on his 1982 hit “Jack & Diane.” The jukebox musical will involve two kids named after the characters from the classic song and feature a number of the musician’s tracks. John (seen here [performing during Farm Aid 34 in East Troy, Wisconsin, in September 2019) is also putting the final touches on his next album, which was delayed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. “I’m halfway done with the [new] record then the virus hit and I haven’t been in the studio since the virus started,” he told Spin magazine in 2020.
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