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Blues Traveler Biography

Last updated: 02/15/2011 11:00:00 AM

Here were undoubtedly plenty of people who decided they wanted to become musicians after seeing the film The Blues Brothers, but probably very few took that resolve quite as seriously as John Popper. The Blues Traveler frontman was a bit of a musical prodigy to begin with: his parents noted his precocious ability to sing harmonies at the age of three, so they soon enrolled him in cello lessons (at age five) and piano lessons (at age eight).

Unfortunately, the young musician quickly abandoned both instruments because he hated to practice. When he tried guitar at age eleven, he found his attention span for practicing wasn't any longer, and he was dropped by his teacher after he revealed that he was playing by ear instead of learning to read music.

Popper first picked up the harmonica when he was a teenager--he took to it immediately, especially because he didn't have to take lessons (his parents couldn't find a harmonica instructor). He figured out the basics on his own and set about learning how to play all the Blues Brothers' tunes note for note.

After showing off his harmonica virtuosity during band practice one day while the second-stringers were working on a rendition of Thomas Dolby's "She Blinded Me With Science" (and while he was supposed to be playing his meager fourth-trumpet solo, incidentally), Popper became the first official harmonica player in the history of the school band. From then on, he was known throughout the hallways as that "harmonica guy."

The hallways of that same Princeton, New Jersey, high school served as the meeting place for all of the future members of Blues Traveler. Popper and drummer Brendan Hill first hooked up in 1983; they were joined by guitarist Chan Kinchla in 1986, and bassist Bobby Sheehan in 1987.

Out of their shared fascination with the Blues Brothers was born a worthy name by which to call themselves--the Blues Band. Following graduation, all of the bandmates, (except Kinchla, who attended N.Y.U.) enrolled in the jazz program at New York's New School for Social Research. The New School was just what Popper needed to get their act together: not only did they have the use of free rehearsal space, but the curriculum taught them how to get gigs. They learned a little too well--before long, they had lined up so many gigs that there wasn't any time left for school, so they all dropped out of the program.

Newly baptized as Blues Traveler, the band signed a record deal with A&M in 1989, and released their self-titled debut album later that same year. Travelers & Thieves followed in 1991. Their next album, Save His Soul (1993), was marred by a near-tragedy. Twelve days into recording sessions on the album, Popper was riding his motorcycle in the remote area of Louisiana when a turning car plowed into him.

He sustained a broken arm, leg, and hip and had to endure months of rehabilitation in a wheelchair. Injuries aside, the band resumed recording after only a single month's break; and not even the fact that he was confined to a wheelchair could keep Popper off the road after Save His Soul was released.

Throughout their early years, Blues Traveler built its reputation and its fan base by touring constantly, averaging more than 250 shows a year. Despite a lack of any radio or MTV coverage, the band secured a devoted following by word of mouth alone.

The grapevine method worked well: the band managed to sell hundreds of thousands of copies of each of its first three releases, although none of the albums quite achieved gold status (sales of 500,000). That all changed with the release of 1994's four; the album spawned two Top 10 singles, "Run-around" and "Hook," and went on to sell over six million copies.

Apart from the healthy boost in record sales, the band's profile was also rising due to the ever-growing popularity of the HORDE (Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere) Tour, which Popper had organized in 1992 after the band failed to get a support slot on a major tour. HORDE has become a summertime staple for concertgoers--it was the fourth-biggest grossing tour of summer of 1996--and as it grows, so does its ability to attract some of the biggest names in rock; over the years, Phish, Spin Doctors, the Black Crowes, Neil Young, Beck, Sheryl Crow, and Dave Matthews Band have all played the traveling summer fest.

On their rise to the lofty ranks of the multi-platinum, the members of Blues Traveler have achieved some significant career milestones: they reached their goal of having played in all fifty states in December 1995; they guest-starred on an episode of Roseanne in 1995; they have appeared on Late Night With David Letterman more than any other band in the history of the show; and they sold out Madison Square Garden for their annual New Year's Eve show in December 1996. Somehow, during all that excitement, they managed to compile tracks for a two-CD live set called Live From the Fall, which was released in 1996.

The year 1997 promises to bring the New Jersey four back to their boyhood roots. Earlier this year, Blues Traveler released its fifth album, Straight on Till Morning. In September, Popper and company open the first stadium dates for their boyhood idols, the Rolling Stones, on the Stones' Bridges to Babylon tour. And to bring things back full circle to their Blues Band days, they will appear in the upcoming sequel to The Blues Brothers.