The Voice that Outshined the Rest: The success of Chris Cornell

Chris Cornell on stage | July 10, 2009 | Alberto Cabello | Courtesy of Flickr

In the world of music, most people never hit what is called the mainstream of music. From struggling in the underground, trying to find a label, to gaining a fan base, anyone wanting to make it in music has it stacked against them. Even to make it into the public eye is a dream most artists never achieve; the legendary Chris Cornell was no different. When Cornell started his music career, he bounced around ten various bands in two years. By chance, it wasn’t until the early 1980s when Cornell joined a band called The Shemps that he met his future bandmates Hiro Yamamoto and Kim Thayil. However, after several months of playing in bars, The Shemps decided to end the band. This event would lead to Cornell teaming up with Yamamoto and Thayil to create the one-day legendary band Soundgarden.1 Going from the underground Seattle music scene to being the leader of a music genre and a household name, Cornell was able to live out the dream of thousands of ambitious musicians.

Chris Cornell at Peace & Love | June 27, 2009 | Andreas Eldh | Courtesy of Flickr

Cornell discovered music at a young age. Learning the piano and guitar, his teacher saw him as a natural. So Cornell started to be taught piano, and guitar, and joined his school’s choir. Yet as time went by, Cornell’s want for independence created problems with his more traditional teachers. Then, as his voice changed with puberty, he gave up on the choir too.2 After a few years, and thanks to his mother, he discovered his love for the drums. Yet his practice of music was stopped in his pre-teen years by a heavy drug addiction. It wasn’t until he had a bad PCP experience that his love of music started to come back. He then decided to pursue a music career. After dropping out of school, he worked in restaurants while he tried to get his music career off the ground. Cornell’s first band, out of his mother’s garage, was with kids in the neighborhood. It was not until the ending of The Shemps that he found the first place he belonged.3  From Soundgarden’s start in 1984, Thayil captivated listeners on guitar, Yamamoto supported on bass, and Cornell led on drums and instrumentals. Starting like everyone, they began to play some bars in the Seattle area to gain exposure. Cornell’s earliest performances were described as “… a total rock star in the the making…”4 From his unique voice, his stage presence, and his tendencies to perform shirtless, he gave the band a difference in the area. By standing out, it allowed for an event thousands can only dream of. Overnight, Soundgarden went from a rising band in Seattle to an example of Pacific-Northwest Rock and Roll. However, before any idea of becoming big, there was a loose end within the band. The drummer Scott Sundquist was having problems committing to a future in music due to family problems. Thankfully for the future of Rock and Roll, this lead to the addition of long-term drummer Matt Cameron.5

They now had all the needed pieces for the band’s rise. All that was left for their big break was for the band and Cornell’s voice to be heard by more than bar crowds. Thankfully with Thayil’s connections, that break came in the form of Sub Pop 100. Sub Pop 100 was a collection of underground rock bands by a small-time record label; it was so successful that it quickly sold all 5,000 albums made. Following the collection, Sub Pop signed Soundgarden to their first record deal.6 Since Sub Pop was still a brand new label founded around Soundgarden, the band used a friend’s connection to record their first songs. Eventually, their debut single “Hunted Down” was released and became a staple of the band’s sets during the Sub Pop Sunday night showcases. Thanks to all the traction and dedication, eventually, the band’s first album of many, EP Screaming Life came to life.

Chris Cornell Lollapalooza Argentina | April 2, 2014 | Leonardo Samrani | Courtesy of Flickr

Sub Pop was just the first of many stepping stones for the future Platinum-level band. Being produced by a small label allowed Cornell’s voice to start reaching further than the Pacific North-West. Carried by Cornell, the band gained the attention of the major label SST Records. At the time, SST Records was the most prominent label regarding post-punk and hardcore music. With most of the mainstream artists in the genre either signed with or releasing an album with SST, Cornell saw that SST was the goal even before they signed with Sub Pop.7 Before signing with SST, and while still with Sub Pop, their fourth single, “Fopp” met with success with the fan base, but it wasn’t seen as a significant song. Then in 1988, the first major break for the group was finally on the horizon. At the beginning of 1988, with SST, the idea of the first full-length studio album was put into the works. The album titled Ultramega OK was released on October 31, 1988. Following the album’s release, Soundgarden’s first music for a song titled “Flower” reached the popular MTV channel’s streaming. As “Flower” became a regular video for MTV’s two-hour show, allowing for more national exposure, Soundgarden started to become a nationwide name. It began to attract more top-named labels in the industry. Out of all the band members, this surprised Cornell the most, because of the labels’ talent.8 It was now becoming clear that Cornell had led his band from the underground to the mainstream.  As Ultramega OK was well-received, a smaller tour of the United States was planned for 1989, earning the group a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Performance in 1990. This album was the major bridge for the band from their humble beginnings into mainstream-music’s spotlight.9

After the 1989 tour for Ultramega OK concluded, Soundgarden became once again targeted by more successful labels. A&M Records was one of the front runners, describing Cornell on stage as a “Rock God.” His presence just gave the audience the feeling of an acid trip without acid. The success of Soundgarden was quickly starting to change the rock scene in the country. The band’s significant interest brought back labels from New York and Los Angeles, leading to the discovery of future bands like Nirvana, Mother Love Bone, and Alice In Chains. Eventually, the group decided to sign with A&M Records.10 With A&M Records, the Seattle-based band started to branch out, doing regular shows up and down the West Coast, and annual shows in New York. As a major-label band, the group was determined to make their next album standout over Ultramega OK. The new album led to a new direction for their sound, with a switch from puck/hardcore to more of a metal sound. Everyone in the band was excited with the change except Yamamoto, who believed that the new direction was not who the band was. With his firm beliefs, a rift between Cornell and Yamamoto emerged, leading to Yamamoto having a minimal contribution to the new album. Cornell eventually had the lyrical credit for eleven of the album’s twelve songs, with the last being inspired by a note from Yamamoto’s girlfriend. Sadly, this change led to Yamamoto’s departure from Soundgarden after the completion of the album.11

Chris Cornell preforming with Audioslave in Dublin | June 19, 2003 | Roger Woolman | Courtesy of Wikipidea Commons

Even with Yamamoto’s struggles, the second studio album Louder Than Love made its way to fans ears in September of 1989, landing at 108 on the Billboard 200. With a mostly positive review of the album, it proved to have taken the group in the direction they wanted to go. The most credible event showing the success of the group was a Rolling Stones interview. In 1989, the most influential band at the time was Guns N’ Roses, led by singer Axl. In an interview with Rolling Stones magazine about his music taste, Axl gave a very expected answer, but at the end of his list, he mentioned Soundgarden, and that he was drawn to Soundgarden by Cornell’s voice, saying, “The singer just buries me.”12 The album would spring the band into a nationwide tour, and a tour of Europe opening for Mudhoney, and it appeared on The John Peel Session on BBC. It was towards the end of this tour that Yamamoto decided to leave after being burnt out. With the departure of Yamamoto, Soundgarden was left with an essential part of their sound missing. Now it was time to look around for a replacement. After looking around, two candidates stuck out: Jason Everman, and long-time fan Ben Shepherd. Originally Everman was picked, but after a few months, “Jason just didn’t work out.”13

Now, with the long-term band set, it was time to get back into the studio. While preparing for the next album, Cornell took this time to put in all the effort he could. To get ready for the beginning of the group’s recording sessions, Cornell completely secluded himself from the outside world for a few weeks to write his lyrics. This would come to pay off as it allowed for Cornell’s lyrical ability to grow substantially. His lyrics started to express more of the darker side of the world, as it was believed he could find more of himself in his songs. This album became more open and relatable than anything that Cornell and Soundgarden had done before.14 After his return, his life revolved around recording the soon-to-be third album, Badmotorfinger, spending every day for months on end on its production, putting his all into his work. He experimented, by recording his ideas in the booth, using his newfound creativity to help his music stick out. In certain songs, he invited listeners to see some of the darker parts of himself. This also led to his becoming an alcoholic, as he used liquor to find new prospects for their sound. Along with his growth, Shepherd’s addition gave the group a new spark that had been lacking from Louder Than Love.15 Released in September of 1991, Badmotorfinger quickly gained listeners due to its darker lyrics and sound, yet it also led to controversy. With the use of religious symbolism, it causes a backlash from Christian groups. However, this did not stop the album from becoming an instant hit, landing it in the top 100 selling albums of the year, gaining a Grammy nomination for Best Metal Performance in 1992, and sparking another nationwide tour.16 Soundgarden was finally becoming the higher-level band that Cornell believed they could become. Following their 1992 tour, Soundgarden was hand-picked by Guns N’ Roses to be their opening act. Even while being paired with the juggernaut that was Guns N’ Rose in certain places, they would attract thousands of fans who would come to hear the glory that was Cornell’s voice. With their massive following in the summer of 1992, Soundgarden was invited to Lollapalooza along with big-name artists such as Peral Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Ice Cube. This became a great point of exposure for Soundgarden, allowing the band to be seen on the same stage with the biggest bands of Rock. Eventually, after the event, a special Lollapalooza version of Badmotorfinger was released, containing the live version of the songs and a cover of a Black Sabbath songthat would go to be nominated for a Grammy in 1993 for Best Metal Performance.17

Cover for Rolling Stones Magazine | June, 1994 | Matt Crowley | Courtesy of Flickr

Following the success of Badmotorfinger, Cornell started to resent the useless media coverage he began to receive. Being in the spotlight and being in the mainstream of music, he pushed himself even further than the last album. Cornell spent all his free time creating demos and sending them to the label producers to look over. However, like some artists, the music can become more about pleasing the fans than making the music that the artist wants to make. At the start of this new album, Cornell’s producer sat down and talked to Cornell about making the music that inspired him and that he wanted to make. Shortly after this conversation, Cornell created the base for Soundgarden’s most well-known song.18 Releasing on March 8, 1994, the album that placed Soundgarden as one of the most prominent groups of their time graced the world. Titled Superunknown, it captured the creativity of their original work while still talking about darker topics. It boosted the band into the full spotlight. Led by the single “Black Hole Sun,” Soundgarden went to the top of the Billboard 200, winning the MTV Video Music Award for Best Metal/Hard Rock Video and going five-times platinum in the United States. Along with these awards, they were nominated for 3 Grammy’s in the same year, while finally winning their first Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance (for “Black Hole Sun”) and Best Metal Performance (for “Spoonman”). Thus, Chris Cornell and Soundgarden was now unequivocally one of the most significant influences in modern Rock/Metal music.19 

After multiple tours across the United States and Europe, along with their 1996-released fifth album Down on the Upside, the band started to have problems. With tension in the band over creative differences, and the band being burned out from the continuous touring, the band announced their split up on April 9, 1997. After Soundgarden, Cornell would form Audioslave with the instrumentals from “Rage Against the Machines” from 2000-2007. He also pursued a solo career, releasing six albums, and covers of other Rock/Metal songs. In 2010, Soundgarden reformed, creating another album titled, Telephantasm, and multiple tours. Sadly on May 18, 2017, while on tour, Chris Cornell was found dead by suicide in his hotel room, finally ending his musical journey.20 Despite their shorter time in the mainstream spotlight, Cornell’s influence was still felt by the Rock world. Multiple tributes happened by Rock/Metal performers for the following weeks, showing Cornell’s voice’s impact. Even in his death his career still influences music today.

  1. David Fricke, Kory Grow, and Ashley Zlatopolsky, “Chris Cornell 1964-2017 (Cover Story),” Rolling Stone Magazine (website), (June 2017), 40-45. ​​​https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/chris-cornell-inside-soundgarden-audioslave-singers-final-days-120252/
  2. Corbin Reiff, Total F*cking Godhead: The Biography of Chris Cornell (New York: Post Hill Press, 2020), 14-15.
  3. Corbin Reiff, Total F*cking Godhead: The Biography of Chris Cornell (New York: Post Hill Press, 2020), 16-17.
  4. Corbin Reiff, Total F*cking Godhead: The Biography of Chris Cornell (New York: Post Hill Press, 2020), 51.
  5. Corbin Reiff, Total F*cking Godhead: The Biography of Chris Cornell (New York: Post Hill Press, 2020), 56.
  6. Corbin Reiff, Total F*cking Godhead: The Biography of Chris Cornell (New York: Post Hill Press, 2020), 59-60.
  7. Corbin Reiff, Total F*cking Godhead: The Biography of Chris Cornell (New York: Post Hill Press, 2020), 65.
  8. Corbin Reiff, Total F*cking Godhead: The Biography of Chris Cornell (New York: Post Hill Press, 2020), 72-73.
  9. “Soundgarden,” GRAMMY.com, November 5, 2020. https://www.grammy.com/grammys/artists/soundgarden/15924.
  10. Corbin Reiff, Total F*cking Godhead: The Biography of Chris Cornell (New York: Post Hill Press, 2020), 73-74.
  11. Corbin Reiff, Total F*cking Godhead: The Biography of Chris Cornell (New York: Post Hill Press, 2020), 91.
  12. Corbin Reiff, Total F*cking Godhead: The Biography of Chris Cornell (New York: Post Hill Press, 2020), 95-96.
  13. David Fricke, Kory Grow, and Ashley Zlatopolsky, “Chris Cornell 1964-2017. (Cover Story),” Rolling Stone Magazine (website), (June 2017), 40-45, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/chris-cornell-inside-soundgarden-audioslave-singers-final-days-120252/
  14. Corbin Reiff, Total F*cking Godhead: The Biography of Chris Cornell (New York: Post Hill Press, 2020), 127-128.
  15. Corbin Reiff, Total F*cking Godhead: The Biography of Chris Cornell (New York: Post Hill Press, 2020), 131-132, 137.
  16. “Soundgarden,” GRAMMY.com, November 5, 2020. https://www.grammy.com/grammys/artists/soundgarden/15924.
  17. David Fricke, Kory Grow, and Ashley Zlatopolsky, “Chris Cornell 1964-2017 (Cover Story),” Rolling Stone Magazine (website), (June 2017), 40-45, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/chris-cornell-inside-soundgarden-audioslave-singers-final-days-120252/.
  18. Corbin Reiff, Total F*cking Godhead: The Biography of Chris Cornell (New York: Post Hill Press, 2020), 131-132, 137.
  19. “Soundgarden,” GRAMMY.com, November 5, 2020. https://www.grammy.com/grammys/artists/soundgarden/15924.
  20. David Fricke, Kory Grow, and Ashley Zlatopolsky, “Chris Cornell 1964-2017. (Cover Story),” Rolling Stone Magazine (website), (June 2017), 40-45.https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/chris-cornell-inside-soundgarden-audioslave-singers-final-days-120252/.

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email

9 Responses

  1. Amazing! Soundgarden is not my kind of metal, but I definitely can appreciate the talent of Chris Cornell. I always knew who he was but had no idea about his contributions to his music industry, nor his life and career. It’s unfortunate that such an influential artist had to pass so soon.

  2. As someone who absolutely adores Chris Cornell, I can say that this article does a fantastic job cataloging his early life and career. Admittedly I am more of an Audioslave fan than a Soundgarden fan but the story of the events that lead him to reach such heights is truly inspiring. Chis Cornell is someone who was taken from us too soon and this article honors his memory by remembering the powerhouse he was in his youth.

  3. This is an excellent article! The author did a great job of presenting Chris Cornell’s life and achievements. For as long as he lived, he was able to achieve important achievements in the music industry. He managed to accomplish this by creating amazing music, and it frustrates me that he died young. I think the author did a very good job with this article.

  4. Great job Christian! Passion is always what makes us strive to achieve our target, and Chris Cornell had successfully peaked in his music career. I used to hear his music, and it is truly beautiful and pleasant helped me relax after a tiring day. It was sad to hear that he had suicided in 2017, but I still respect the music works he left for life.

  5. This is a very good article ! The author did very well with describing Chris Cornell’s story and accomplishments. For as long as he lived, he was able to contribute a lot to the music industry. He did that by creating great music and it saddens me that he passed away too soon. I think the author did a good job with this article.

  6. I was a fan of Chris Cornell, but I didn’t know about all of this. His death was a huge surprise, but I am grateful for what he contributed to music and entertainment while he was still around. Chris Cornell contributed to making some of my favorite songs and I am glad you spent some time researching and writing about him. Great article.

  7. I thought this article was very well written. I really like how you stayed on topic in this article. Cornell was awesome and so was the band. I never knew he passed away so recently since it was in 2017. All of the songs I thought were amazing and easily connected to. I really like the plot here in this article as well. Since Cornell sadly passed away we won’t be able to see what else he could’ve came up with.

  8. I used to listen to Chris Cornell when I was little because my mom loved when he had his band Audio Slave. It was so sad to hear about his death back in 2017. He was an amazing artist whose songs still bring up good topics and have great lyrics unlike the artist of today’s media.It would’ve been awesome to see him in concert! I enjoyed this story of how Chris Cornell rose up to be the famous rock star he will always be.

  9. Great article! Very insightful and well written. Learned a lot about the behind the scenes of such an iconic band, at least for my generation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.