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Lou Gramm's soaring vocals were the cornerstone of the Anglo-American rock band Foreigner, which enjoyed a dozen Top 20 hits between 1977 and 1984, including "Cold as Ice," "Hot Blooded," "Double Vision" and "I Want to Know What Love is." Gramm also co-wrote most of the band's biggest songs with guitarist and founder Mick Jones, with whom he enjoyed a contentious relationship over the course of nearly four decades. Though the band had mined its greatest successes with high-voltage arena rock, Gramm sought to introduce synthesizers and other electronic elements into its sonic palette in order to keep the band in line with then-current trends, while Jones remained fastidious about guitar-driven rock and power ballads. Frustrated with the schism, Gramm generated a pair of well-received solo albums as well as a Top 5 single in "Midnight Blue" (1987). However, he was unable to sustain the same degree of success on his own as he had enjoyed with Foreigner, and soon returned to the group for another decade before splitting from them once again in 2003 to pursue a mix of mainstream and Christian rock. Despite the bad blood that flowed behind the scenes with Foreigner, Lou Gramm's extraordinary vocals helped to produce one of the most popular catalogs of rock songs in the 1970s and 1980s.
Born Louis Andrew Grammatico on May 2, 1950 in Rochester, NY, Lou Gramm was the son of bandleader Bennie Grammatico and his wife, Nikki Masetta, a singer. He began singing as a teenager, performing with area groups before earning his first taste of fame as vocalist and drummer for the band Black Sheep. The group scored a minor hit single in 1973 with "Stick Around" for the Chrysalis label before releasing two largely unheard records for Capitol in 1974 and 1975. Black Sheep was eventually picked to open concert dates for KISS in 1975, but an accident involving their equipment truck prevented them from performing and promoting their music, which led to their breakup. The following year, Gramm was invited to audition for the vocalist slot in a new group formed by ex-Spooky Tooth guitarist Mick Jones. Gramm's powerhouse voice soon minted him as frontman for Trigger, which was later renamed Foreigner, a moniker inspired by the band's lineup of British and American players. Their eponymous debut album, released in 1977, was an immediate hit, selling over four million copies in the U.S. alone. Gramm's soaring vocals invited comparison to such iconic rock vocalists as Robert Plant, while he also proved a capable rock songwriter with such Top 10 tracks as "Cold As Ice," "Hot Blooded," "Blue Morning, Blue Day" and other collaborations with Jones.
By 1981, the band was at its peak and scored some of their most enduring hits, including "Waiting for a Girl Like You," Urgent" and "Juke Box Hero," with their fourth album, simply titled 4. But the collaborative chemistry between Gramm and Jones had begun to wane over issues of musical direction. Gramm sought to push the group towards synthesizer-driven material, while Jones wanted to remain true to their rock origins. Their sixth album, Agent Provocateur (1984), managed to score a hit with each viewpoint: "I Want to Know What Love Is," which provided Foreigner with their only chart-topping hit, was a soaring, gospel-styled number featuring the New Jersey Mass Choir, while the more hard-driving "That Was Yesterday" reached No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100. Despite proving that they could deliver both types of music within the context of the group, Gramm and Jones continued to be at odds with each other, prompting Foreigner to go on hiatus. Gramm seized the opportunity to release his solo debut, Ready or Not (1987), which generated a Top 5 hit with "Midnight Blue."
Foreigner reconvened in 1987 with Inside Information, which produced two Top 10 hits with "Say You Will" and "I Don't Want to Live Without You." But Gramm continued to mine Top 40 material with his second album, Long Hard Look (1989), and by the following year, he had decided to sever ties with Foreigner in order to form his own band, Shadow King. Their self-titled debut album, released in 1991, earned positive critical response but failed to deliver any hits, which prompted Gramm to disband the act. By 1992, he was back in the Foreigner fold to record three new songs for their compilation The Very Best of ... and Beyond, while also committing to a new faith as a born-again Christian. Foreigner's comeback album, Mr. Moonlight, was slated for release in 1994, but distribution and marketing issues delayed it until 1995, by which time the album had failed to reach its intended audience.
Two years later, Gramm was diagnosed with a slow-growing brain tumor that forced him to abandon an upcoming tour of Japan. Though the benign mass was removed by surgery, his pituitary gland was damaged, which affected both his weight and vocal stamina. A year of rehabilitation and radiation treatment returned Gramm to his former abilities, which allowed Foreigner to tour on the lucrative festival circuit. But by 2002, Gramm's second tenure in Foreigner had come to a close. His relationship with Jones had again reached an untenable point, which forced him to quit the group in order to pursue his solo career. With his voice still retaining much of its early firepower, he formed the Lou Gramm Band with his brother Ben, and toured throughout North American, performing a mix of Foreigner classics, his early solo hits and Christian rock. A self-titled debut album was released in 2009 on the independent Spectra Records label.
By Paul Gaita
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