Melissa Etheridge became one of the most popular recording artists of the ’90s due to her mixture of confessional lyrics, pop-based folk-rock, and raspy, Janis Joplin/Rod Stewart-esque vocals. But the road to stardom was not all smooth sailing for Etheridge as she debated behind the scenes whether or not to disclose to the public that she was gay early on in her career. Born May 29, 1961, in Leavenworth, Kansas, Etheridge first picked up the guitar at the age of eight and began penning her own songs shortly thereafter. Playing in local bands throughout her teens, Etheridge then attended the renowned Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. The up-and-coming singer/songwriter and guitarist dropped out after a year before making her way to Los Angeles in the early ’80s to take a shot at a career in music. At this point, Etheridge’s music was slightly more bluesy than her subsequently renowned folk-pop style, as a demo of original compositions caught the attention of Bill Leopold, who signed on as Etheridge’s manager. Soon after, steady gigs began coming her way, including a five-night-a-week residency at the Executive Suite in Long Beach, which led to a bidding war between such major record labels as A&M, Capitol, EMI, and Warner Bros., but it was Island Records that Etheridge decided to go with.
Etheridge’s first recorded work appeared on the forgotten soundtrack to the Nick Nolte prison movie Weeds before her self-titled debut was issued in 1988. The album quickly drew comparisons to such heavyweights as Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp, as it spawned the hit single “Bring Me Some Water” and earned gold certification. In the wake of the album’s success, Etheridge performed at the Grammy Awards the following year and contributed vocals to Don Henley’s The End of the Innocence. Etheridge managed to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump with 1989’s Brave and Crazy, which followed the same musical formula as its predecessor and proved to be another gold-certified success. It would be nearly three years before Etheridge’s next studio album appeared, however, and 1992 signaled the arrival of Never Enough, an album that proved to be more musically varied.
But it was Etheridge’s fourth release that would prove to be her massive commercial breakthrough. Tired of rumors and questions regarding her sexuality, Etheridge decided to put the speculation to rest once and for all, titling the album Yes I Am. Ex-Police producer Hugh Padgham guided the album, which spawned two major MTV/radio hits with “I’m the Only One” and “Come to My Window” (the latter of which featured a video with movie actress Juliette Lewis); the album would sell a staggering six million copies in the U.S. during a single-year period and earned a 1995 Grammy Award for Best Female Rock Vocalist. But subsequent releases failed to match the success of Yes I Am, including 1995’s Your Little Secret, 1999’s Breakdown, and 2001’s Skin, the latter of which dealt with her separation from Julie Cypher. (Cypher had birthed the couple’s two children via artificial insemination; CSN&Y’s David Crosby was the father.)
Etheridge’s autobiography, The Truth Is: My Life in Love and Music, was released in 2002, and 2004’s Lucky was her celebration of a new romance. Later that same year Etheridge revealed that she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer. But early detection allowed for recovery, and she gave strength to many of those stricken by the disease with a powerful performance of Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” at the 47th annual Grammys, held in February 2005. That September, Etheridge released Greatest Hits: The Road Less Traveled, a compilation of career highlights and new material. It featured a cover of Tom Petty’s “Refugee” as well as “Piece of My Heart” and a new song dedicated to breast cancer survivors. In 2007, Etheridge released her first studio album of new material in three years, The Awakening, on Island, following it a year later in 2008 with a holiday album, A New Thought for Christmas, also on Island. Fearless Love appeared early in 2010. Her 12th studio album, 4th Street Feeling (named for the main drag in her hometown of Leavenworth, Kansas) was released in 2012; it marked the first occasion in her career when Etheridge played all the guitar parts on one of her recordings.