Jack White is known across the world of contemporary rock as an eccentric singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, but he was not always the wild guitarist we now know and admire. Jack White, originally John Anthony Gillis, was born in Detroit in 1975 to a Catholic family. We now appreciate White for his passionate displays of guitar on stage, but as a child he was mild-tempered and even served as an altar boy in his family’s church.
The facilitator to White’s inclination toward music, and subsequent progression, was his older brothers’ band. This band, ironically named Catalyst, catalyzed his interest in music, sparking an obsession that grew into a longstanding profession. Listening to his brothers’ band pushed Jack to dust off an old broken-down drum set and imitate them. White’s musical interest was initially dominated by classical music, but he quickly deserted his fixation on the genre when he was exposed to rock ’n’ roll and the blues.
White’s fascination with the music of Led Zeppelin, Son House and the Flat Duo Jets largely influenced the music he produced later in life. Listening to those bands prompted him to pick up the guitar and chase after the sound of the Mississippi Delta blues. When he first heard Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, he must have been mesmerized by the sound of his rough tenor, because he eventually took on a very similar style. Like Plant, White is a natural tenor and sings with an aggressive bite. Led Zeppelin’s guitarist, Jimmy Page, was also an inspiration for White, who saw him as one of the best interpreters of the Mississippi blues legends.
Son House was a guitarist, singer and one of the original slide guitar-playing Mississippi Delta blues legends. White continually cites him as one of the most transformative musical figures in history and credits him with much of his inspiration. White has worked relentlessly to make House’s music more popular among the public by adapting a similar style and promoting Son House’s original tunes.
The Flat Duo Jets were a rock-country-blues hybrid duo that dominated the contemporary rock scene in the ‘80s and ‘90s. They are not a widely known band, but they paved the way for groups like the Black Keys and the White Stripes by combining blues, rock, country and psychedelic music into a form never seen before. When White first saw the Jets, he claimed the experience “opened up a whole new inspiration for me about the guitar.”
Jack White has been a member of many bands throughout his life but is best known for his work in the White Stripes, the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather. Jack met Meg White, his future wife and drummer for the White Stripes, in high school. She slowly learned to play the drums by listening to him play. It didn’t take long before they made a name for themselves across Detroit’s underground garage rock music scene, and in 1999, they produced their first album, titled “The White Stripes.”
The simplicity of Meg White’s drumming complemented Jack White’s eccentric riffing seamlessly, playing tunes that strip down rock into a form anyone can play, but only Jack can perfect. They continued to shock the rock world with their simplistic yet electrifying music, winning two Grammy awards for best alternative music album for “Get Behind Me Satan” and “Icky Thump.” The White Stripes’ breakup was as heartbreaking as it was inevitable, but all good things eventually come to an end. The divorce between Meg and Jack White was unexpected and led many to think it would immediately tear the band in two, but they performed live songs for a few more years following their breakup in 2009.
While still in the White Stripes, he started the Detroit-based band the Raconteurs. They produced their first hit single, “Steady as She Goes,” in 2006, followed by the release of their first album, “Broken Boy Soldiers.” In 2008, they released “Consolers of the Lonely” but afterward endured an extended recording hiatus. They popped back up in the rock scene with their release of “Help Us Stranger” in 2019. The music of the Raconteurs is gritty, but not nearly as experimental as the albums produced by the White Stripes. The addition of two more band members helps to anchor the listener to a set rhythm — something the White Stripes struggled to do with only two members — but it lacks the flare exhibited by White in his freestyle riffs with the Stripes.
While the Raconteurs were performing a festival in Tennessee, White lost his voice and asked Alison Mosshart, the lead singer of the Kills, to step in. She sang “Steady as She Goes” with such intensity that he asked her to record a song with him and the bassist from the Raconteurs. White decided that he wanted Mosshart to be on lead vocals and he on the drums. He had been experimenting with the drum set during that time and reignited his former passion. It was at that moment that the Dead Weather was born. Their debut album, “Horehound,” released in 2009, and preceded two more albums: “Sea of Cowards,” in 2010, and “Dodge and Burn,” in 2015. The Dead Weather, though not as popular as the White Stripes or the Raconteurs, produced music reminiscent of the White Stripes sound.
The White Stripes gleaming success created opportunities for Jack White to explore a solo career, and with much success. White has produced three solo albums since 2012: “Blunderbuss,” “Lazaretto” and “Boarding House Reach.” As Jack White has progressed through his musical career, he’s changed the instruments he plays and how he plays them, but always stays true to the roots set in the Detroit and Mississippi Delta sound. These roots anchor him to something distinctive, but he’s taken these roots and grown them into his own musical tree, one that he climbs and grows upon with freedom and experimentation.