Tom Waits

Tom Waits' sad, cynical songs aren't exactly radio fodder. But the eccentric singer/songwriter has built a following of devoted fans based on his uncanny ability to write songs that express a down-and-out world-weariness.

Waits was born Dec. 7, 1949, in Pomona, Calif. — he has said the birth was in a moving taxi while his mother was en route to the hospital. Waits was raised in California, and became a fan of the music of composers George Gershwin and Stephen Foster and of crooner Bing Crosby.

As a youth, Waits also identified with the Beat poets of the '50s, including Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski. Waits spent some of his teen years living in a car and working as a doorman at a Los Angeles club. He soon began to compose songs based on conversations overheard at the club.

Waits started to play accordion and piano at Los Angeles' Troubadour Club in 1969. He performed Beatnik free-verse and some of his own songs about societal losers. Waits became an opening act and soon was signed to Elektra/Asylum Records.

His debut, Closing Time (1973), produced by the Lovin' Spoonful's Jerry Yester, flopped. But Waits got notice beyond his cult following when the Eagles recorded the album's "Ol' 55" for their hit LP On the Border (1974).

During a tour with Frank Zappa, Waits and his sax/bass/drums trio were received unfavorably. But he continued to cut albums, despite his not raking in profits. Nighthawks at the Diner (1975) was recorded live with Bones Howe, the producer of Waits' The Heart of Saturday Night (1974).

After touring the U.S. and Europe and issuing the jazz-heavy Small Change (1976), Waits received more recognition from a duet with Bette Midler, "I Never Talk to Strangers" (from his Foreign Affairs).

Waits began acting in such movies as Sylvester Stallone's "Paradise Alley" (1978) and "Bram Stoker's Dracula" (1992). He received an Academy Award nomination for the music to Francis Ford Coppola's "One From the Heart" (1982). After breaking up with singer Rickie Lee Jones (whose picture was on his 1978 LP Blue Valentine), Waits become involved with playwright Kathleen Brennan, whom he married in 1988.

Experiments with horns and percussion permeated Swordfishtrombones (1983), Waits' first LP for Island Records. It was a return to eccentricity, after his electric guitar-heavy Heartattack and Vine (1980).

Rain Dogs (1985) included "Downtown Train," later a hit for Rod Stewart. Around this period, Bruce Springsteen also released a live version of Waits' "Jersey Girl."

Franks Wild Years (1987) was based on a play Waits wrote with Brennan about a singer freezing to death on a park bench. Waits received a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album for Bone Machine (1992). The year before, he guested on Primus' Sailing the Seas of Cheese.

In 1993 Waits co-starred in Robert Altman's Short Cuts. Waits, avant-garde artist Robert Wilson and author William S. Burroughs collaborated on the 1994 theater production and LP The Black Rider. In 1996, Waits contributed tunes to the Tim Robbins–directed movie "Dead Man Walking."

A Waits retrospective, Beautiful Maladies, was issued by Island last year. It included such tracks as "16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six" (RealAudio excerpt).

Earlier this year, Waits released Mule Variations, a collaboration with Brennan. It included tracks such as "Lowside of the Road" and "Big in Japan." Waits said of Brennan: "We're kind of a mom-and-pop liquor store. It's really been good. She has these dreams like [artist] Hieronymous Bosch. I write more from the paper or from the things I see around me."

"[Waits is] so important to me," Mark Linkous, leader of experimental-pop group Sparklehorse, said. "When I was ready to just abandon the whole business of music, trying to make a living doing music, [he] and his music saved me."

Other birthdays on Tuesday: Timothy Butler (Psychedelic Furs), 41; Brian Futter (Catherine Wheel), 36; Barbara Weathers (Atlantic Starr), 36; Nicole Appleton (All Saints), 24; Harry Chapin, 1942–1981; and Jim Reese (Bobby Fuller Four), 1941–1991.