Life and Legacy: Chris Cornell

By Amy Szmik, Contributor 
[Photo by Universal Music Enterprises]

The news of legendary grunge musician, Chris Cornell’s death shocked the music world when he died May 18, 2017.

Best remembered as the lead singer of grunge band Soundgarden and rock band Audioslave, he was noted for his incredible four-octave vocal range. Cornell had cemented a place for himself in rock history thanks to his part in the introduction of grunge music, along with his diverse discography and wildly successful career.

Cornell’s musical achievements including his many awards and praise of his vocal range are too great to be forgotten. 

Born July 20, 1964, as Christopher Boyle, his parents’ divorce in his teenage years caused him to take his mother’s maiden name, Cornell.

He had a love for rock music growing up, especially The Beatles. He suffered from severe depression causing him to be a loner and rarely leave the house. His mother eventually bought him a snare drum that he claimed “saved his life.”

In his teens, he joined a cover band called The Shemps, which included founding Soundgarden members Kim Thayil and Hiro Yamamoto. The Shemps broke up shortly but all three members had kept in touch. 

In 1984 Cornell, Thayil and Yamamoto formed Soundgarden. Adding heavy metal elements to hardcore, they emerged at a time that had never heard this kind of sound.

Matthew Cameron joined in 1986 as a guitarist, and Cornell became the lead singer and songwriter of the band. Yamamoto left the group in 1989 and was replaced by Ben Shepard on bass. 

Soundgarden released their debut album Ultramega OK in 1988, but it was their 1991 album, Badmotorfinger that shot Soundgarden to high ranks.

Thanks to their attention to the grunge sounds of Seattle, Soundgarden quickly took over as one of the most prominent grunge bands of the ’90s.

Several singles on the Badmotorfinger LP received considerable airplay, securing the group a Grammy nomination in 1992 for Best Metal Performance.

The 1994 album Superunknown debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 chart along with worldwide fame.  

Cornell also fronted the supergroup Temple of the Dog, which was comprised of him and several members of the fellow grunge band Pearl Jam. Created in 1990, Temple of the Dog was a one-off side project that Cornell would lead.

Dedicated to friend Andy Wood of Mother Love Bone who died of a heroin overdose, Temple of the Dog enjoyed popularity as well. Their sound was different from the heavy sounds of Soundgarden, taking a more soulful approach to music. The change in sound showed off Cornell’s versatility as a vocalist.

Soundgarden decided to break up in 1997. A series of internal disagreements lead to their disbandment, but at the same time, Cornell was experiencing tumultuous events in his own life. His first marriage was in the midst of failing and he was turning to alcohol and Oxycontin as a form of healing.

After the break up of Soundgarden, Cornell decided to start writing solo material.

In 1999, he released his first solo album entitled Euphoria Morning. The complete opposite of his former grunge sound, he tackled a more melodic approach and emphasized his skills as a songwriter and vocalist.

He was nominated for a Grammy for the best male rock performance in 2000 for that record. The same year Rage Against The Machine was looking for a new frontman after theirs left. Cornell was suggested for the position and thus Audioslave was born. 

Extremely successful, Audioslave became a multi-platinum selling band. They were the first rock band from America to play in Cuba during Fidel Castro’s reign.

During this time period, Cornell was dealing with alcoholism and drug addiction. His addiction almost caused the band to disband. Checking himself into rehab, Cornell managed to get clean and continue on with Audioslave.

The band officially announced their disbandment in 2007. 

Continuing on with his solo career, Cornell released his second solo album, Carry On in 2007 and his third solo album Scream in 2009.

In 2011, he embarked on a solo tour named “Songbook.” Receiving critical acclaim, the tour was a sold-out success.

Starting April 1, 2011 and ending Dec. 17, Cornell would release an acoustic live album also entitled, Songbook that featured songs from the North American leg of the tour.

His final solo album, Higher Truth, was released in 2015 with a sold-out accompanying tour. 

In 2010, Soundgarden reunited to headline the music festival Lollapalooza. The group’s album King Animal was released two years later and received wide praise. Soundgarden continued to tour over the next few years and started to work on another new album. Soundgarden’s latest tour was supposed to start April 2017 and end in late May.

But, after their show in Detroit on May 17, police were called to Cornell’s hotel room and found him with an exercise band on the floor. He was pronounced dead at the scene at the age of 52. 

The news of his death sent shockwaves through the music world.

An important figure since the ’90s, Cornell was well respected in the industry. His talent for redefining sound and his skills as a lyricist were his staples. Open about his struggles with addiction and depression, Cornell poured that into his songs.

His sales and streams saw a jump after his death as well. 

Cornell was active in several charities throughout his lifetime. He and his wife, Vicky, founded the Chris and Vicky Cornell Foundation to help children to get an education. Cornell and his wife have also worked with several charities that helped victims of sexual abuse. Even after his passing, Vicky is keeping their charitable actions alive. 

Forever a prominent figure in music and Seattle, Cornell was honored throughout Seattle during his funeral and memorial.

Remembered as one of the leading pioneers in grunge, Cornell was able to keep going even after Soundgarden’s disbandment. His influence over music was unprecedented, with so many looking up to him. Every musical endeavor he went on received high praise.

With a career like his, Cornell is impossible to forget even after his passing. 

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