Born on February 18, 1933, in Tokyo, Japan; daughter of Yeisuke (a banker) and Isoko Ono; married Toshi Ichiyanagi (a composer), c. 1957 (divorced, c. 1964); married Tony Cox (an artist and filmmaker), c. 1964 (divorced, c. 1969); married John Lennon (a musician), c. 1969 (died, 1980); children: (second marriage) Kyoko; (third marriage) Sean. Education: Attended Sarah Lawrence College. Addresses: Office--Studio One, 1 West 72nd St., New York, NY 10023.
Yoko Ono has been sending shock waves through the worlds of art and music since the early 1960s. Although many think she never would have recorded a note if not for her association with John Lennon, Ono had been a musical performer for 11 years before marrying the late Beatle. By the mid-1990s, many critics had reevaluated her musical history, deeming her songs ahead of their time and influential to such cutting-edge musical entities as Public Enemy, Sonic Youth, and the B-52's. In fact, Onobox, a 1992 retrospective of Ono's solo work, received widespread critical acclaim. "That she [Ono] made music of marginal worth is repudiated once and for all by this lavish, illuminating six-CD overview of her remarkable pop life," attested David Fricke in Rolling Stone.
Born into a prominent Tokyo banking family in 1933, Yoko Ono--"Ocean Child" in Japanese--was burdened with the high musical expectations of a father who had wanted to be a concert pianist. Inevitably, his plans to create a musical prodigy backfired, leading Ono to dislike "accepted" music. After her family moved to the United States in 1951, Ono became fascinated with twelve-tone composers such as Alban Berg while attending Sarah Lawrence College. Her own compositions at school were judged too radical by her music teacher.
In 1957 Ono married composer Toshi Ichiyanagi and moved to a loft in New York City's Greenwich Village. Embracing the avant garde, she began displaying her conceptual art and staging "events" organized by eccentric composer La Monte Young. Young was part of a movement known as Fluxus that attempted to break free from conventional standards of art and music. Ono's creative output was greatly influenced by John Cage, a iconoclastic composer whose work incorporated disorder and randomness. Her first musical performance, in 1961 at the Village Gate in New York, featured mumbled words, laughter, atonal music, and an actor speaking in monotone. Perhaps not surprisingly, Ono's early work was largely ignored, and critics referred to it as little more than screaming or moaning.
After divorcing Ichiyanagi, Ono married avant-garde artist Tony Cox in 1964. The couple made a series of bizarre films in London, including 1967's Bottoms, which consisted solely of close-ups of 365 bare backsides. In Paris she met jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman, who further stimulated her interest in vocal experimentation. Her songs tapped an eclectic blend of inspirations, including Berg's operettas, the Japanese Kabuki singing called hetai, Indian and Tibetan vocal techniques, and free jazz. Referring to these antecedents, Kristine McKenna wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "Ono synthesized those elements into sound collages that had no precedent and haven't been matched yet in sheer adventurousness."
Ono met John Lennon in 1968 at a London gallery exhibition of her concept pieces. Eight years Lennon's senior, Ono claimed in a Rolling Stone interview that she had never even listened to the Beatles' music before meeting the songwriting legend. The outcry against the ensuing liaison was vicious. Although the strains of fame and a desire for individual expression--not to mention growing antipathy among band members---were already threatening to split up the Fab Four, Ono was blamed for hastening the group's breakup. As quoted in The Guests Go in to Supper, Ono recalled, "Our partnership was still great, but mainly our energies were used in fighting the world from splitting us up." Ono and Lennon began collaborating on songs, but the public would not accept her as a legitimate contributor.
Ono signed with Apple Records and continued recording her vocal experimentations. Her 1970 Plastic Ono Band set--a sister album to Lennon's identically titled offering of that year--featured the contributions of Lennon, Eric Clapton, Klaus Voorman, and Andy White but was called trash by most critics and reviled by the public. Her follow-up album, Fly, demonstrated the influences of her and Lennon's involvement in primal scream therapy. Indeed, Ono persisted in reshuffling the musical deck, integrating everyday sounds into musical patterns and news events into her lyrics. Many of her songs had a strident feminist outlook.
Reunited after a much publicized split in 1974, during which Lennon went on a drunken binge in Los Angeles, the couple had a son, Sean, who was born in 1975 on his father's birthday. Lennon took over child-rearing responsibilities while Ono managed the family's extensive financial empire. Five years later, the couple went back into the studio and created the widely praised Double Fantasy album. Soon after the album's release, in 1980, Lennon was gunned down by a psychotic fan outside the couple's apartment building in New York City. Ono--and the world--was devastated.
Ono remained active in various musical, film, and artistic pursuits after Lennon's death. A highlight was "Walking on Thin Ice," a 1981 single that earned her a Grammy nomination. In 1984 Ono released the album Milk and Honey, which showcased original material as well as previously unreleased offerings by Lennon. She produced a movie (and soundtrack) entitled Imagine in 1988, which incorporated outtakes from other film projects, videos, home movies, and new songs.
A six-CD retrospective of Ono's music, called Onobox, was released by Rykodisc in 1992. Ono followed this in 1995 with an album of new work by Ono and her son Sean, called Rising. Also that year, Ono's musical play New York Rock was produced Off Broadway in New York City. It was accompanied by an original cast recording of the show's music. Two years later, Ono released for the first time an album that she had recorded in 1974 called A Story. Still going strong in the 2000s, she released an album of new work, Blueprint for a Sunrise, in 2001.
The impact of Lennon and his top-flight musical associates on Ono's career will always be debated. Jerry Hopkins's unauthorized biography, Yoko Ono, painted a picture of Ono as an evil, manipulating dictator who used Lennon to fuel her own rise to fame. But others view the much-vilified Ono as a victim whose own artistic development suffered because she was trapped in Lennon's shadow. She has transcended her scapegoating to forge her own musical path, refusing to be deterred by a lack of acceptance by critics or the public. As Fricke said of Ono in Rolling Stone, "Her husband may have punched her ticket into the mainstream, but Mrs. Lennon was nobody's rock & roll fool."
by Ed Decker and Michael Belfiore
Yoko Ono's Career
Member of Fluxus avant-garde movement, 1960s; made stage debut with performance art piece, Village Gate, New York City, 1961; collaborated with composers La Monte Young, John Cage, and Ornette Coleman in art shows and musical performances; author of Grapefruit, 1964, and A Hole to See the Sky Through, 1971; with Cox, made film Bottoms, 1967; exhibited conceptual pieces, London, 1968; signed with Apple Records; recorded with John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band; released Plastic Ono Band, 1970; released multiple albums, both as a soloist, and with John Lennon through the 1970-80s; released albums on her own, 1990-2000s; musical play, New York Rock, produced in New York City, 1995; released original cast album of the music of New York Rock, 1995; released album with son Sean, Rising, 1995; released album recorded in 1974, A Story, for the first time in 1997; released Blueprint for a Sunrise, 2001.
Yoko Ono's Awards
Grammy Award, Album of the Year for Double Fantasy, 1981.
- Selected discography
- Plastic Ono Band Apple, 1970.
- Fly Apple, 1971.
- Approximately Infinite Universe Apple, 1973.
- Feeling the Space Apple, 1973.
- Season of Glass Geffen, 1981.
- Starpeace Polygram, 1985.
- Onobox Rykodisc, 1992.
- New York Rock (original cast recording), Capitol, 1995.
- Rising Capitol, 1995.
- A Story Rykodisc, 1997.
- Blueprint for a Sunrise Capitol, 2001.
- With John Lennon
- Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins Apple, 1968.
- Wedding Album Apple, 1969.
- Live Peace in Toronto Apple, 1969.
- Some Time in New York City Apple, 1972.
- Double Fantasy Geffen, 1980.
November 2004: Ono scored a No. 1 record for the second time in 2004, with the dance single "Everyman/Everywoman." Source: E! Online, www.eonline.com, November 10, 2004.
August 2005: Ono served as an advisor for the Broadhurst Theater production of Lennon. Source: New York Times, www.nytimes.com/2005/08/26/theater/newsandfeatures/26jame.html, August 28, 2005.
December 1, 2005: Ono's book Memories of John Lennon was published by HarperEntertainment. Source: Amazon, www.amazon.com, January 17, 2006.
- Brown, Peter, and Steven Gaines, The Love You Make: An Insider's Story of the Beatles, McGraw-Hill, 1983.
- Golson, Barry G., editor, The Playboy Interviews With John Lennon and Yoko Ono, conducted by David Scheff, Playboy Press, 1980.
- Hopkins, Jerry, Yoko Ono, Macmillan, 1986.
- Hounsome, Terry, New Rock Record, Facts on File, 1983.
- Rees, Dafydd, and Luke Crampton, Rock Movers & Shakers, ABC/CLIO, 1991.
- Seaman, Frederic, The Last Days of John Lennon: A Personal Memoir, Birch Lane, 1991.
- Sumner, Melody, Kathleen Burch, and Michael Sumner, editors, The Guests Go in to Supper, Burning Books, 1986.
- Creem, May 1992.
- Entertainment Weekly, March 6, 1992.
- Interview, February 1989.
- Los Angeles Times, April 11, 1993.
- Metro Times (Detroit, MI), September 29, 1993.
- Musician, April 1992.
- New York Times, March 13, 1994.
- Oakland Press (Oakland County, MI), September 25, 1993.
- People, July 23, 1992.
- Publishers Weekly, December 19, 1986.
- Rolling Stone, March 19, 1992; February 18, 1993.
- Spin, September 1992.
- "Yoko Ono," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (January 23, 2004).
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from liner notes to Onobox, Rykodisc, 1992.