Thomas Alan Waits was born on the 7th of December 1949, making the American actor, composer, musician, singer and songwriter an open, assertive, sometimes restless Sagittarius. His music is characterised by lyrics focusing on society’s underbelly and delivered in his distinctively guttural, gravelly voice.
In the 1970s he worked primarily in the jazz genre, but from the 1980s onward his music started reflecting the influences of blues, vaudeville, and more experimental genres. Kind of like the best casino games at River Belle, he just keeps getting bigger and better every year!
When he was 19-years old, Waits was a doormat at the now-defunct Heritage Coffeehouse, a historic venue that hosted some truly extraordinary musicians.
He was eventually allowed to perform his music there, but was only paid US$6 an hour, US$2 less than he earned guarding the entrance of the joint!
Waits also spent time working at a pizza restaurant, for the US Coast Guard and even drove an ice-cream truck. He’s been quoted as saying that the toughest thing about that job was getting the sound of the bell out of his head at night.
Frito-Lay, Inc., the American subsidiary of PepsiCo, ended up handing over US$2 million to Waits in compensatory and punitive damages and attorney fees in April 1990.
It all started in the mid-1980s when the Tracy-Locke Inc advertising agency developed a radio spot for Doritos’ new SalsaRio snacks inspired by Step Right Up, a song by Waits that parodied pitchmen and carnival barkers. It appeared on his 1976 album Small Change, and Tracy-Locke auditioned multiple blues singers before settling on Stephen Carter, a Dallas-based musician who had been performing Waits songs for years and even started doing impersonations of the singer.
Waits was appearing on an LA-based radio station when he heard the commercial played and was impressed by how good Carters’ impression of him was. He later revealed that he thought he’d maybe recorded the advert in a drunken blackout, but felt sure he would’ve remembered doing it!
He immediately filed suit against both Frito-Lay and Tracy-Locke in an unusual case of voice theft. A Federal Court jury awarded him damages from both companies to the tune of US$2.475 million.
In 1974, the Eagles covered Ol’ 55, the opening track and lead single from Waits’ debut studio album Closing Time. Although their version was very popular with Joe and Jane Public, he described it as antiseptic.
Not only was he born on the day that the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service attacked Pearl Harbour, but it was also just one day after Lead Belly, the iconic American folk and blues singer, passed away in New York.
Waits keeps notebooks full of interesting anecdotes, including gems like the fact that cockroaches can survive for as long as two weeks without a head.