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Group formed in Seattle, Wash., in 1970; originally billed as White Heart; also performed briefly as Hocus-Pocus before adopting name Heart, 1970. Original band members iuncluded Anne Wilson (vocals), Nancy Wilson (guitar), Roger Fisher (guitar), Howard Leese (guitar), Michael Derosier (drums), and Steve Fossen (bass); have subsequently included more than twenty other members. Addresses: Office --Suite 333, 219 First Ave. North, Seattle WA 98109.
Heart is one of the few rock groups to feature women--Seattle-born sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson--as lead performers. The band has been working together, with some personnel changes, since the early 1970s, when the members were living in western Canada. Since their first album, Dreamboat Annie, went platinum in 1975, the entertainers in Heart have known every extreme that plagues famous rock bands, from the most dizzying heights of success to the most frustrating lulls in appeal.
As Gwenda Blair noted in Ms. magazine, however, the Wilson sisters "have always managed to hold up, whether they were facing ... breakneck superstar tours, or ... the seemingly endless uphill struggle to break out of ... obscurity." Blair attributed the group's tenacity to the Wilsons' special bond, "the easy camaraderie of best girlfriends mixed with the special familiarity and sensitivity of sisterhood." The reporter added: "The continuity and companionship provided by that combination have carried the Wilsons a great distance over the years."
Indeed, Heart has enjoyed an impressive level of success throughout most of its two-decade-long existence: four platinum albums, scores of sold-out tours, and number-one hits in the 1970s and 1980s. Blair described the group's draw on its listeners: "Heart's music, with its ... bouncing-up-and-down-in-your-seat sound is what millions of people like. To some critics Heart's sound may be sheer bubblegum blare fit only for undiscerning and voracious teen appetites. But to Ann and Nancy, escape and fantasy, not heavy messages or avant-garde music, is what rock is all about."
Press coverage of Heart has centered on the Wilson sisters almost since the band began playing together in a one-room house in Vancouver. By all accounts, including their own, Ann and Nancy were ordinary, middle-class young women who grew up in Bellevue, a suburb of Seattle, Washington. They were teens in the 1960s, daughters of parents who embraced the radical causes and experimental lifestyles of that era. "We were pretty normal for the time we grew up in," Ann told Rolling Stone. "What we experienced was going on in suburbs all over the country. We weren't that different." On the other hand, high school chum Sue Ennis, who has since written songs for Heart, recalled that the Wilsons were aloof from most of their peers, disdainful of the standard high school popularity contests, and happiest when they were alone in a bedroom, composing or listening to rock music. To quote Rolling Stone contributor Daisann McLane, as teenagers Ann and Nancy "played and wrote songs constantly, moody evocations of late-adolescent alienation."
Ann graduated from Sammamish High School in 1968 with one ambition: to sing in a band. She began working with Tex Blaine and the Skyway Ranch Boys, but soon joined a psychedelic rock band called White Heart, staffed by guitarist Roger Fisher and bassist Steve Fossen. After doing a few gigs under the name Hocus-Pocus, the group members opted to call themselves Heart. Ann began a long romantic relationship with Michael Fisher, Roger's brother, and Nancy eventually became involved with both the band (as a guitarist and flute player) and with Roger Fisher. Blair wrote of the Wilsons: "Two real-life Barbies, they ... acquired their very own Kens--two handsome brothers who were also members of Heart."
Heart's early existence can hardly be described as a Barbie-and-Ken dream life. The band members moved to Vancouver and subsisted on brown rice and stolen fruit while trying to build a following. Laura Fissinger describes the group's struggle, and ultimate success, in Rolling Stone: "In the early Seventies, Heart was just one more club band, doing six nights a week, four sets a night, and letter-perfect carbons of 'Stairway to Heaven.' Guitarist Howard Leese--the only other Heart member still around from the early days--was working for Mushroom records in Vancouver when he was tapped to produce the group's first demo. Leese's employers initially courted Ann as a solo act. When she said no, they took the whole passel."
That "whole passel" turned out a debut album, Dreamboat Annie, that went platinum in seven months despite its obscure Canadian label and minimal promotion budget. The best known song from the album, a mysterious rocker called "Magic Man," is today considered a classic. Heart turned out several more hit albums-- Little Queen (1977), Magazine (1978), Dog and Butterfly (1978), and Bebe Le Strange (1980)--and had smash singles with "Crazy on You," "Barracuda," and "Dog and Butterfly." McLane noted that the most successful Heart songs "graft heavy-metal musicianship to emotional, image-laden lyrics. This unlikely combination is held together by Ann's powerful, three-octave soprano. She can belt and screech the hardest rock tune, then slide through every delicate nuance of a tender folk ballad."
Nonstop touring also helped to promote Heart as a top rock band. The group's dynamics--two sisters romantically involved with two brothers--made for frenzied press coverage and, at first, energetic live shows. Then problems began to beset Heart. First the group broke its contract with Mushroom and underwent a costly court battle over some unfinished tapes the label wanted to release. Then Ann ended her involvement with Mike Fisher, even though she credited him with the band's success and suffered pangs of anxiety without his support. Nancy followed suit by breaking up with Roger Fisher and then firing him from the band. For a variety of reasons--the loss of Roger's riveting concert presence among them--Heart went into a nosedive in the early 1980s.
The group continued to tour relentlessly, and continued to produce albums, but popular support faded. "Our management had us on the road nonstop," Nancy told Rolling Stone. "We surfaced from our exhaustion just long enough to see that we were being mishandled and swept under the carpet." Having taken responsibility for the direction of the band, the Wilsons switched from Epic to Capitol records in 1984. The following year--and on into 1986--Heart experienced a major comeback with their ninth album, Heart, and two top-selling singles, "What About Love" and "These Dreams."
Ann and Nancy, whose titillating music videos have occasionally angered censorious critics, admit that their music is "wrong for any given time for what was in"--an observation echoed by some rock writers. The media may be condescending toward Heart's "basic blueprint of heavy metal meets Joni Mitchell," to quote Fissinger, but audiences respond to it warmly. According to Ariel Swartley in Rolling Stone, the members of Heart "need no showmanship to carry them: conviction has already been built into the melody, tension embedded in the harmonies." Swartley also concluded that in Ann Wilson, Heart has "possibly the greatest female rock & roll singer ever.... And when she's hot ... the only reserved you're thinking about is your seat for the next show."
by Anne Janette Johnson
- Selective Works
- Dreamboat Annie Mushroom, 1976.
- Little Queen Portrait, 1977.
- Magazine Mushroom, 1978.
- Dog and Butterfly Portrait, 1978.
- Bebe Le Strange Epic, 1980.
- Greatest Hits Live Epic, 1980.
- Private Audition Epic, 1982.
- Passionworks Epic, 1983.
- Heart Capitol, 1985.
- Bad Animals Capitol, 1987.
- High Fidelity, February, 1978.
- Mademoiselle, June, 1982.
- Rolling Stone, November 30, 1978; March 22, 1979; April 24, 1986.
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