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There may have been other "retro" rock acts before him, but Lenny Kravitz was one of the first to not be pigeonholed to a single style as he's touched upon such genres as soul, funk, reggae, hard rock, psychedelic, folk, and ballads over the years. Born in New York on May 26, 1964 (his mother was actress Roxie Roker, best-known for her role as Helen Willis on the popular TV series The Jeffersons, and his father was a TV producer), Kravitz was raised in Los Angeles, where he found himself around countless musical giants as a youngster due to his parents friendships with the likes of Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Bobby Short, and Miles Davis, among others. Kravitz was a member of the California Boys Choir until his teenage years, when he decided to pursue rock & roll while in high school and under the heavily influence of funk rocker Prince. Kravitz's admiration of the Purple One was so great that he at first patterned his style and approach directly after Prince and became known as "Romeo Blue" (complete with blue contact lenses), but failed to land a recording contract.
In the late '80s, Kravitz relocated back to New York City, where one
of his roommates turned out to be actress Lisa Bonet (who played the
part of Denise Huxtable on The Cosby Show); they eventually got
married. During this time, Kravitz wisely discarded his Prince-like
approach and looked back to such '60s/'70s classic rockers as Led
Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Bob Marley, and
the Beatles for inspiration. Kravitz found a kindred spirit in engineer
Henry Hirsch (who would stick by Kravitz throughout his career). With a
back-to-basics approach, his style was quite refreshing in the
humorously gaudy late '80s. He inked a recording contract with Virgin
Records and issued his debut release, Let Love Rule, in 1989. Kravitz's
debut proved to be a surprise hit due to the success of the title
track, which became a hit single and oft-aired video. A few critics
were quick to assume that Kravitz's retro look and sound were simply a
shtick to get the public's attention, but come the '90s, it had become
integrated into the mainstream (both musically and fashion-wise),
proving that Kravitz was a bit of a trendsetter. It was around this
time that Kravitz penned a major hit single, not for himself but for
Madonna, who went to number one with the sultry track "Justify My Love."
What should have been a time of happiness for Kravitz quickly turned
sour as he and Bonet divorced by the early '90s. Kravitz's heartbreak
was very evident in his sophomore effort, Mama Said, which was even
stronger than its predecessor, highlighted by the Led Zep-like funk
rocker "Always on the Run" (a collaboration with Guns N' Roses
guitarist Slash), as well as the mega hit with the Curtis
Mayfield-esque soul ballad "It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over," which
confirmed that Kravitz's success was no fluke. But the best was yet to
come for Kravitz. His third release overall, 1993's Are You Gonna Go My
Way, is often considered to be the finest album front to back of his
entire career, and with good reason: Every single song was a winner,
including the up-tempo anthemic title track, which turned out to be one
of MTV's most played videos for that year. The album was a massive hit
and Kravitz became an arena headliner stateside, as well as being
featured on countless magazine covers.
Despite an almost two-year gap between albums, Kravitz's fourth
release, Circus, came off sounding unfocused and was a major letdown
compared to his stellar previous few releases. Perhaps sensing that he
needed to stir things up musically, Kravitz dabbled with electronics
and trip-hop loops for his next album, 1998's 5. Although not a huge
hit right off the bat, the album proved to have an incredibly long
chart life, spawning the biggest hit of Kravitz's career, "Fly Away,"
almost a year after its original release. With the single's success,
Virgin decided to cash in on the album's sudden rebirth by reissuing it
around the same time with a pair of extra added bonus tracks, one of
which became another sizeable hit single, a remake of the Guess Who's
"American Woman" (which was used in the hit 1999 comedy movie Austin
Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me). Kravitz's first best-of set, the
15-track Greatest Hits, was issued as a stopgap release in 2000, while
his sixh studio release overall, Lenny, was issued a year later.
Baptism followed in 2004.
In addition to his own albums, Kravitz continues to pen songs for other artists and his compositions have appeared on albums by such rock heavyweights as Aerosmith and Mick Jagger, while he produced and wrote the majority of Vanessa Paradis' obscure self-titled 1992 release.
Greg Prato - All Music Guide
Official Homepage: www.lennykravitz.com
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