One of the loudest voices in rock fell silent on May 18, 2017. Chris Cornell, best known as the vocalist for the legendary rock band Soundgarden, passed away at the age of 52. His death, ruled a suicide, sent shockwaves throughout the music world, and the loss is still felt to this day. Cornell’s legacy grows with each passing year as countless new listeners discover the music he made while part of one of the ‘90s biggest bands.
However, Cornell made music outside of Soundgarden. The man who embodied the “Loud Love” philosophy – featured on the Loud Love Collection, and Soundgarden’s Pride tee – shared his talents with a handful of groups, many of which featured his Seattle and grunge contemporaries. Here’s a look back at part of Chris Cornell’s music legacy.
Chris Cornell in his pre-Soundgarden band, The Shemps. (1982)
Hiro Yamamoto, SG’s original bassist, is second from the right. pic.twitter.com/n7FMYu8MuA
— Corbin Reiff (@CorbinReiff) March 1, 2021
The foundation that would make up Soundgarden began in 1981 when guitarist Kim Thayil and bass player Hiro Yamamoto began playing music together while growing up in Illinois. The two attended Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, before transferring to the University of Washington to be closer to Seattle’s music scene, according to Kyle Anderson’s book, Accidental Revolution: The Story of Grunge.
Yamamoto began playing bass in a cover band called The Shemps, and the group put out a “vocalist wanted” ad in a local paper. The man who eventually filled the role was a young drummer named Chris Cornell, who wanted to try out singing.
“I annoyed the shit out of them by spending my whole childhood beating on things,” Chris told Classic Rock magazine in 1996. “I drove them to distraction, and I never thought they’d give me a drumkit in a million years. By the time I was 15, my mom had just about given up on me. But she must have figured that at least I had an interest in something other than drugs or being a criminal, so she bought me a snare drum. After a couple of days whacking that, I bought the rest of the kit for $50 from a guy I knew. Two weeks later, I was in my first band.”
The band played “mostly classic rock tunes (and by all accounts, they played the tunes relatively poorly),” according to Anderson. Yamamoto eventually left the group, and Thayil stepped in as a replacement bassist. The Shemps lasted until 1984 before calling it quits. Afterward, Cornell and Yamamoto moved in together, where they began jamming before bringing in Thayil.
Soundgarden formed in 1984. The group took its name from A Sound Garden, an art installation in Seattle. Originally a three-piece, the fledgling group hired Scott Sundquist to play drums, allowing Cornell to focus mainly on singing. “People hated us in the beginning,” Chris told Classic Rock in 1992.“I’d come on stage with no shirt on, whipping my hair around and generally being a sweaty young rock guy. I used to have about 50 ribbons in my hair, which didn’t exactly please the jocks in the audience. They were probably worried because they found me a little too attractive.”
Sundquist left in 1986 to spend more time with his family, and the group found his replacement in Matt Cameron, drummer for Seattle band Skin Yard. The band released their debut EP, Screaming Life, in 1987 on the fledgling label Sub Pop. They followed it with 1988’s Fopp before signing with legendary punk label SST to release their debut full-length, Ultramega OK, in 1988. The group signed with A&M Records and began working on Louder Than Love, their major-label debut.
Louder Than Love peaked at No. 108 on the Billboard 200, but the music and cultural landscapes were shifting. As the ‘80s turned into the ‘90s, the sound coming from the Pacific Northwest was starting to take hold. Eventually (A&M) is gonna expect us to sell records, but I don’t really feel any pressure at this point,” Cornell told the Los Angeles Times in 1991, right before the band was about to release their new album, Badmotorfinger. “I’m satisfied with the idea that every time we release a record it sells more and we have more and more people coming to our shows.”
“I don’t think a band should compromise themselves for anything. Not for an audience, not for a record label. Because I don’t think a fan is gonna believe in what you do,” Cornell told the times. “Fans invest a lot into groups they choose to be fans of. . . . It’s identifying with somebody, which can be a real powerful thing in somebody’s life. The feeling that you’re true to yourself translates almost every time to your audience. That’s the main point that rings true for us and keeps it inspiring and keeps fans inspired. I’m definitely proud of that.”
Founding member Hiro Yamamoto departed after Louder Than Love’s release, and the band replaced him with Ben Shepherd. The new lineup would stay consistent until Cornell’s passing. Shephard’s addition revitalized the band, and that shows on 1991’s Badmotorfinger. The album hit No. 39 on the Billboard 200 and marked a turning point in the band’s history, with singles “Outshined” and “Rusty Cage” becoming staples of MTV’s 120 Minutes and Headbanger’s Ball.
Then, grunge blew up. Nirvana’s Nevermind arrived in September 1991, a month before Badmotorfinger. By the following year, every major label was trying to sign their own Seattle band, which was “really surreal for us,” Cornell told Rolling Stone in 2014. As grunge became a defining sound of the decade, the band began working on its next album, 1994’s Superunknown.
“[When] Soundgarden made Superunknown, we had been a band for a long time – like, over eight years. Superunknown was one of the most dramatic shifts in what we were doing musically. I don’t think I realized it at the time,” Cornell told Rolling Stone in 2014 when discussing the album’s reissue.
“I never felt bad about being lumped in with other Seattle bands,” continued Cornell. “I thought it was great. But I also felt like all of us were going to have to prove that we could also exist with autonomy, and we deserved to be playing on an international stage, and we deserved to have videos on TV and songs on the radio, and it wasn’t just a fad like the ‘British invasion’ or a ‘New York noise scene.’ Superunknown was that for me. It was showing what we were [was] not just a flavor of the month. We had the responsibility to seize the moment, and I think we really did.”
Boasting the band’s most widely-known song – “Black Hole Sun” – and a handful of similarly successful songs (“Fell on Black Days,” “Spoonman”), Superunknown debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 2000 chart. So far, it’s been certified platinum six times by the RIAA. It launched the band into a new level of commercial success, putting Soundgarden on the same level as Nirvana, Alice In Chains, and Pearl Jam.
In 1996, the band released Down on the Upside. The album debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, but the band would call it quits a year later. “We broke up because we were bored of the periphery, all of the things that are outside of the band playing music and writing songs, playing shows – that part got really boring,” Chris told OnstageWeb in 2012, per Loudwire.
The band would stay dormant for twelve years. They reunited in 2010 and released Telephantasm: A Retrospective, which included the unreleased song, “Black Rain.” In 2012, they released King Animal, the sixth and final album. The band continued to tour North America, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe until Cornell’s death in 2017.
In January 2019, Soundgarden performed for the final time. The surviving members joined for a five-hour tribute concert that featured Melvins, Foo Fighters, Metallica, and appearances by Perry Farrell, Juliette Lewis, Brandi Carlile, Dave Grohl, Geezer Butler, Miley Cyrus, Taylor Hawkins, Chris Stapleton, and more, per Yahoo. Afterward, the name Soundgarden was retired.
TEMPLE OF THE DOG
On March 19, 1990, Cornell’s friend and roommate, Andrew Wood, died from a heroin overdose. Andrew was the lead singer of Mother Love Bone, one of the early pioneers of the alternative metal scene of the ‘80s and ‘90s. “I don’t really remember doing much else after the funeral other than just being swept up in the grief of the moment,” Cornell told Rolling Stone in 2016, “but after a couple of weeks, I wrote two songs [“Say Hello 2 Heaven” and “Reach Down”] for Andy.”
“I initially had this idea that maybe as a tribute I could record them with the band and it could be a cool as a tribute,” added Cornell. “Also, it would be cathartic and take up some time because from hour to hour it was just sort of difficult to deal with. But then I sort of forgot about it. Two weeks later, I ran into [Mother Love Bone’s bassist] Jeff Ament somewhere. I can’t recall where. He said he heard the songs, he loved them, and wanted to record them. That made me happy since he had the same idea without me bringing it up.”
The band would consist of Cornell and Ament, Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron, Mother Love Bone guitarist Stone Gossard, Gossard’s friend Mike McCready, and a man who flew up to Seattle from San Diego to audition for Gossard/Ament/McCready’s new band: Eddie Vedder.
“We only had nine songs for the album, and that didn’t seem complete to me. It seemed like ten songs was a complete album. I thought that “Hunger Strike” would be a good message to end the album on, but it wasn’t complete,” Cornell told Rolling Stone. “It was just one verse. I was singing the chorus in the rehearsal space, and Eddie just kind of shyly walked up to the mic and started singing the low ‘going hungry,’ and I started singing the high one. When I heard him sing, the whole thing came together in my brain. I just felt like, ‘Wow, his voice is so great in this low register. He should sing on it. I’ll sing the first verse and then he’ll come in. Even though it’s the same lyrics, it’s a different singer, and it’ll feel like two verses.’”
“Hunger Strike” became a staple of alternative radio of the ‘90s, peaking at No. 4 on the US Mainstream Rock charts. The album failed the chart. Cornell and Cameron returned to Soundgarden, while the rest of Temple of The Dog continued to perform together as Pearl Jam.
When Soundgarden ended, the A&R Records issued a statement that the band had “mutually and amicably disbanded to pursue other interests.” SPIN reported at the time that Cornell was “anxious to start a solo career.” Chris would have a robust solo career, releasing Euphoria Morning in 1999. It arrived to generally favorable reviews and peaked at No. 18 on the Billboard 200.
“My only direction when I recorded my first solo album was I wanted anything that wouldn’t be a Soundgarden song,” Cornell told The Stranger in 2015 “(A) Because I’d been writing so much in that context, and (B) because I had such a high regard for the band that I didn’t want to corrupt it by doing some slightly more commercial version of the same thing—which is usually what happens, especially with singers of a band.”
Cornell was able to engage in music beyond the confines of the grunge or alternative label. His 2007 album, Cary On, saw him cover Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” The 2009 album, Scream, featured a Justin Timberlake cameo (“Take Me Alive”). Chris released Higher Truth in 2015, and in 2020, No One Sings Like You Anymore, Vol. 1, his first posthumous album, was released.
At the turn of the century, two of the biggest bands of the ‘90s had broken up: Soundgarden and Rage Against The Machine. RATM’s lead singer, Zack de la Rocha, left the group, leaving Tom Morello, Brad Wilk, and Tim Commerford in a crisis. Music producer Rick Rubin suggested the three play with Cornell, and the result was the new band, Audioslave.
Audioslave released three albums – the self-titled debut in 2002, Out of Exile in 2005, and Revelations in 2006. During the recording of the first album, the group knew they had something special going on. “[Cornell] stepped to the microphone and sang the song, and I couldn’t believe it,” the guitarist said. “It didn’t just sound good. It didn’t sound great. It sounded transcendent,” said Morello, per MTV.com. “And … when there is an irreplaceable chemistry from the first moment, you can’t deny it.”
The second Audioslave album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, while the first has since been certified triple-Platinum. The group was short-lived, however. RATM reunited in 2007, and Chris announced his departure from Audioslave. “Due to irresolvable personality conflicts as well as musical differences, I am permanently leaving the band Audioslave,” he wrote in a statement, per MTV. “I wish the other three members nothing but the best in all of their future endeavors.”
“Audioslave was a very fresh collaboration because it was very much like a young band, where you all write together in a room,” Cornell told MTV. “But my experience, in terms of songwriting and record-creating, is not like a 19-year-old guy in a rock band. For me to be satisfied, I think I need to be able to be on my own, in the long run.”