One of the most celebrated British guitar heroes to emerge in the late 1970s and '80s, Mark Knopfler first rose to fame as the leader of Dire Straits, where his songwriting and incisive guitar work played a decisive role in making them an international success story. Landing major chart hits on both sides of the Atlantic with songs like 1978's "Sultans of Swing" and 1985's "Money for Nothing" (the latter anchoring their landmark 1985 album Brothers in Arms), Knopfler's dry wit and smooth, earthy guitar style helped Dire Straits cut a unique throughline that somehow traversed both the more traditional pub rock style of the '70s and the excess of the MTV era. Meanwhile, he began to accumulate an impressive résumé as a producer, sideman, songwriter, and film composer in the '80s, eventually moving on to a successful career as a solo artist in which he continued to explore his interest in country, Americana, and roots music. With albums like 2004's Shangri-La, the 2006 Emmylou Harris duets album All the Roadrunning, and 2012's Privateering, Knopfler established himself as an organically rooted solo act and collaborator with a widespread global audience.
Mark Freuder Knopfler was born in Glasgow, Scotland on August 12, 1949. His father, a Hungarian émigré, worked as an architect, while his mother, of English heritage, was a schoolteacher. The Knopfler family moved to England when Mark was seven, settling in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, and he developed a passion for music while spending time with his uncle; as he told journalist Dan Forte, "I heard my Uncle Kingsley playing boogie-woogie on the piano when I was about eight or nine, and I thought that those three chords were the most magnificent things in the world — still do." A few years later, Knopfler began learning to play guitar, first on an inexpensive Hofner model before moving up to a Fender electric his father bought for him. At 16, Knopfler and some pals cut a demo single that was never released, and he performed in a vocal group that was successful enough to merit an appearance on local television.
In 1967, Knopfler enrolled at Harlow Technical College, where he studied journalism, and a year later he landed a job at the Yorkshire Evening Post, where he wrote news stories and music criticism. After two years at the Post, Knopfler opted to return to school, studying English at Leeds University. While at Leeds, he became friends with a fellow guitarist named Steve Phillips, and they began playing out under the name the Duolian String Pickers; while working with Phillips, Knopfler began developing the fingerpicking style that would become his trademark.
After graduating from Leeds in 1973, Knopfler moved to London and joined a pub rock band called Brewer's Droop, featuring drummer Pick Withers. Knopfler's tenure with the band was short-lived, and he took a position as a lecturer at Essex's Loughton College. Knopfler became friends with a handful of local musicians, and they formed a new band called the Café Racers. Mark's brother, David Knopfler, who was also a guitarist and songwriter, introduced Mark to a fellow musician John Illsley, who played guitar but was also a solid bassist. When the Café Racers found themselves in need of a bass player one night, Mark asked Illsley to sit in, and before long, Mark, David, and John were sharing an apartment and working on songs, with Mark on lead guitar, David on rhythm, and John on bass. Mark invited Pick Withers to play drums with the new combo, and while they played their first few gigs as the Café Racers, before long they adopted a new name coined by Withers: Dire Straits.
After cutting a demo tape, Dire Straits found a champion in BBC disc jockey Charlie Gillett, who began playing their demo on his show, attracting the attention of manager Ed Bicknell and Polygram A&R man John Stainze. Bicknell took Dire Straits under his wing and Stainze signed the group to Polygram's progressive and hard rock subsidiary Vertigo Records; Warner Bros. picked up the band for U.S. distribution. Dire Straits' self-titled debut album was released in the fall of 1978, and the song "Sultans of Swing" became a surprise hit single in both America and the U.K.; the album followed it into the charts, as the group's clean, expert playing, and Knopfler's deft lead guitars, Dylanesque vocals, and evocative songs won the band airplay on pop and classic rock playlists. It was the first of a long string of successes for Dire Straits, and while the lineup would shift frequently over the group's lifespan — Mark Knopfler and John Illsley would prove to be the group's only constants — between 1978 and 1995 the group was a top concert draw and a frequent presence on radio and record charts; their landmark 1985 album Brothers in Arms sold over nine million copies in the United States alone, and was the top-selling CD of the '80s in the U.K.