Singer/songwriter Conor Oberst is considered something of a boy wonder. He trod the way for off-the-beaten path, alt-folk indie rock in the late '90s and early aughts.
Born February 15, 1980, he began his music career at the tender age of 13. By the time he was 15, he had already accumulated tenure in half a dozen bands, at least a couple of which -- specifically the Faint and Bright Eyes -- went on to national prominence.
Driven by ambition, he's gone on to helm the Mystic Valley Band, essentially a solo vehicle spun off from Bright Eyes, and taken part in the alt-folk supergroup Monsters of Folk alongside Jim James of My Morning Jacket, M. Ward, and fellow Bright Eyes alumnus Mike Mogis.
It's a testament to Oberst's prolific prowess that he's participated on no fewer than 15 albums over the course of that career. Perhaps more impressively, he was significantly involved in the founding of two record labels, Saddle Creek and Team Love, that, in turn, have spawned a number of up-and-coming artists. Still, Oberst has rarely taken time to rest on his laurels. In 2005, he released two albums simultaneously, I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn as Bright Eyes, yet further confirmation of his overachiever status.
What is most impressive about Oberst's ambitions is the fact that they flourished in a place far removed from America's music capitals. Oberst began his musical journey in Omaha, Nebraska, singing in the school choir and dabbling with various makeshift outfits.
After being invited to play with one of the more popular area bands, he quickly put together a full repertoire of original songs. He recorded them on cassette in his parents' basement. By mid-1993, he had released Water, his first solo album, and laid the seeds for what would eventually become Saddle Creek Records. Two more individual efforts would follow, leading to a succession of budding combos -- Commander Venus, the Faint, the Magnetas, Park Ave. -- all prior to the formation of Bright Eyes at the still-tender age of 15.
Truth be told, rock and pop are the domain of the young, oftentimes the very young. And while Oberst's accomplishments are certainly impressive, he's hardly the only one who's carved a niche at an early age. We're not even including such teeny-bop wonders as Hanson or Jason Bieber in that number.
In honor of your special day, we'd like to mention the following young wünkerkinds for comparison purposes:
The Bee Gees
Brother Barry and twins Robin and Maurice Gibb had their first international success while still in their teens. They initially began performing when barely out of adolescence, taking on a succession of band names like the Rattlesnakes and Wee Johnny Hayes and the Bluecats before eventually settling on the Bee Gees. Contrary to popular belief, the moniker was chosen not because it referenced the Brothers Gibb, as is commonly assumed, but because the name matched the initials of promoter Bill Goode, the man who discovered them and became their first mentor.
An early American R&B singer and songwriter, Lymon was a boy soprano who helmed the vocal group the Teenagers in the mid='50s. Their first hit, "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" in 1956, was also their biggest, and after that, Lymon went solo while still in his teens. Sadly, his future didn't turn out very well, and Lymon lived only a little while longer, succumbing to a heroin overdose at 25.
Now super successful on his own and in collaboration with his wife, Susan Tedeschi, Trucks had the benefit of a great pedigree. His uncle, Butch Trucks, was a founding member of the Allman Brothers Band, but it was his amazing talent that found him first playing guitar at age 5. He subsequently evolved into a child prodigy and gave his first concert at age 11. Even more remarkably, he jammed with the great Buddy Guy prior to turning 13 and then went on to tour with the Allman Brothers while barely into his teens.
Making his debut as a preteen with the song "Fingertips (Part Two)," he was able to adopt Wonder as his surname because it spoke to his talent. Yet it was no wonder at all that his first album -- recorded live, no less -- was credited to the "12 Year Old Genius." Originally dubbed "Little" Stevie Wonder, the prefix was dropped early on, and indeed, was no longer applicable. Wonder was, and is, a giant of modern music.
Winwood went on to help change rock's trajectory with the band Traffic in the late '60s, followed shortly thereafter by the supergroup Blind Faith with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker. But first, Winwood made his mark at age 14 with the Spencer Davis Group, which also featured his brother Muff. The band had their first hit with the song "Keep on Running," but it was Winwood's voice, which obviously emulated Ray Charles, and his skills as a keyboardist, guitarist, and songwriter that assured the hits would keep on coming.
Tucker notched up her first hit, "Delta Dawn," in 1972 at the age of 13, and from that point on, she became one of the most successful singers in country music. Her troubled personal life and a series of well-publicized romantic liaisons soiled her image, but her singing speaks for itself.
Of course, the sad story of Michael Jackson's superstardom and subsequent slide into a personal abyss is well-known in recent history. But the sight of a preteen Michael belting out classics like "ABC," "I Want You Back," and the ballad "I'll Be There" still inspires absolute awe.
Not bad company to keep. Happy birthday, Conor!
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