Best known as the howling frontman of Seattle grunge-metal pioneers Soundgarden, Grammy-winning rock vocalist Chris Cornell also forged a successful career both with the supergroup Audioslave and as a diverse solo artist. From his 2006 James Bond theme "You Know My Name" until his final solo album, 2015's Higher Truth, Cornell was one of the voices of a generation until his untimely death in 2017.
Born in Seattle on July 20, 1964, his music career didn't take shape until he was a teenager when he began playing drums in a local cover band. Although he spent most of his teenage years as a loner, rock music helped Cornell overcome his uneasiness around others. After dropping out of high school and working as a cook, Cornell laid the foundation for what would become the influential grunge band Soundgarden by the mid-'80s. Cornell assumed vocal duties for the group, with friend Hiro Yamamoto on bass, Kim Thayil on guitar, and eventually Matt Cameron on drums.
Along with the Melvins, Soundgarden was one of the first rock bands to slow down punk's youthful energy to a Black Sabbath-like crawl. Following the release of several recordings on various independent labels, Soundgarden also became one of the first bands of the Seattle underground to sign with a major label, A&M, which issued Louder Than Love in 1989. After the album's release, however, Yamamoto left and was first replaced by ex-Nirvana member Jason Everman, who was later ousted by Ben Shepherd. With Soundgarden's quintessential lineup in place, the group became one of rock's most popular bands on the strength of such albums as 1991's Badmotorfinger, 1994's Superunknown, and 1996's Down on the Upside. With each album, Cornell's singing grew stronger as he demonstrated a growing mastery of his multi-octave range.
From the start, however, Cornell's talents weren't limited to his work with Soundgarden. He organized a tribute for late Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood in the form of 1990's Temple of the Dog project, which featured a stripped-down sound and yielded the enduring hit "Hunger Strike."
Issued in 1999, Euphoria Morning was a departure from his former band's sound, emphasizing Cornell's vocals and lyrics rather than meaty guitar riffs. Shortly after its release, Cornell launched his first solo tour, mixing songs from all eras of his career. After the tour's conclusion in early 2000, a tepid remix of the Euphoria Morning track "Mission" (retitled "Mission 2000") was included on the Mission Impossible 2 soundtrack. It appeared as though Cornell would take a break from music for a while, as his wife gave birth to the couple's first child in June of the same year, but by late 2000, Cornell found himself involved in a project that promised to be a classic hard rock collaboration.
Rage Against the Machine had decided not to break up after longtime vocalist Zack de la Rocha left the band, opting instead to find another singer and carry on under a different name. Cornell accepted an invitation to jam and pen a few songs (which former Rage guitarist Tom Morello described as "really groundbreaking") and, shortly thereafter, officially joined forces with the former Rage members under the moniker Audioslave. Produced by Rick Rubin, the band's self-titled debut arrived in November 2002 and went multi-platinum. The follow-up effort, 2005's Out of Exile, debuted at number one on the Billboard charts and was followed by the platinum-selling Revelations in 2006. Despite such success, Cornell left the band that same year, citing the usual "irreconcilable differences" for his departure.
Cornell returned to his solo career with 2007's Carry On. Although the album was largely biographical, it also featured a cover of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" (a rendition made famous one year later by American Idol contender David Cook) and a song from the James Bond movie Casino Royale. Two new singles, "Ground Zero" and "Watch Out," were offered as digital downloads one year later, featuring a newfound emphasis on electronics and studio trickery. The tracks had been recorded with producer Timbaland, with whom Cornell partnered for the creation of his third solo album. Stocked with drum machines and R&B melodies, Scream arrived in March 2009, heralded by Timbaland as "the best work I've done in my career" but received poorly by several critics.
The following year, Soundgarden joined the many popular '90s alternative bands who reunited in the 2000s and 2010s, headlining that year's Lollapalooza festival and releasing the retrospectives Telephantasm and Live on I-5, which documented the group's 1996 tour, as well as recording new songs. The following spring, however, Cornell returned to his solo career with the solo acoustic Songbook tour, from which came two EPs and the Songbook album, all of which were released in 2011. That September, Cornell contributed a song to the Machine Gun Preacher soundtrack. King Animal, Soundgarden's first album since Down on the Upside, appeared in November 2012 and the group supported the record with a tour. Cornell returned to his solo work in 2015, teaming with producer Brendan O'Brien to record Higher Truth, his first collection of original solo songs since 2009's Scream.
Cornell returned to Soundgarden in 2016, and the band began work on a new album. In the meantime, the group released a deluxe reissue of Ultramega OK in March 2017 and began an American tour that April. On May 17, following the band's concert at Detroit's Fox Theater, Cornell was found dead in his hotel room; he had taken his own life at the age of 52. The following year, a legacy compilation chronicling Cornell's career arrived in the form of Chris Cornell, which included key tracks from his Soundgarden and Audioslave eras, as well as touchstones from his decades-spanning solo career and a previously unreleased song. One of those tracks, "When Bad Does Good," won Best Rock Performance at the 61st Grammy Awards. ~ Greg Prato