John Mellencamp grew up in Seymour, Indiana. By seventeen he was married, and at nineteen he was a father, pouring concrete for a living and then working as a lineman for the telephone company.
He kicked around the local Seymour bar scene, and in 1975 – with aspirations to make it in the music business – he took his demo tapes to New York. Eventually, he linked up with Tony DeFries, David Bowie‘s manager, who got him a deal with MCA Records.
His debut LP, Chestnut Street Incident, was released in 1976. John was surprised when the record came out to see the name ‘Johnny Cougar’ on the cover. DeFries explained to John that the name was just like Bowie using the character of Ziggy Stardust. Nobody bought it.
Cougar was dropped from MCA before he could deliver a second LP and met Billy Gaff (then Rod Stewart‘s manager), head of Riva Records through his attorney.
His first Riva album, John Cougar (1979), was full of tough but passionate songs, and Cougar’s penchant for mining real-life stories from the Midwest seemed palatable enough to radio programmers hungry for a gravel-throated AOR heartthrob. I Need A Lover became his first hit, and Pat Benatar later covered it on her debut LP.
Cougar’s next album, Nothin’ Matters And What If It Did (1980), was produced by Steve Cropper and yielded two singles; This Time – a puff-pastry ballad a-la Rod Stewart‘s Tonight’s The Night – and Ain’t Even Done With The Night. But John was unhappy with the end result and vowed to produce and record himself next time around.
He pruned his band, The Zones, to a tougher guitars-bass-and-drums outfit, shedding the horns and keyboards, and with Don Gehman co-producing, American Fool (1982) became the kind of album John knew he could make all along. It also provided the mega-hit singles Hurts So Good and Jack and Diane (a heartfelt tribute to two typical Midwestern adolescents).
With some commercial success now under his belt, John had sufficient clout to force the record company to compromise on adding his real surname to his stage moniker. Uh-Huh (1983) was released under the name John Cougar Mellencamp.
By Scarecrow (1985), the “Cougar” was gone altogether.