Atlanta, Georgia, 1987. A dingy, beer-soaked bar called the White Dot, not exactly packed, but with a few dozen people woozily swaying. On the stage, a four man band. The drummer has only been playing a little more than a year. The bassist isn’t exactly locked in. The tall kid playing guitar is still in high school, and he only knows a dozen or so chords, but he thrashes the hell out of them. The super skinny kid singing emanates an almost otherworldly weirdness. He does not yet have the long hair the world will later know him for, and he’s not really figured out how to sing very well, but nobody can take their eyes off him. He’s got that rare thing that can’t be taught. He’s a natural born rock ‘n roll frontman.
The band was called Mr. Crowe’s Garden and it was led by singer Chris Robinson and his guitar-playing younger brother Rich. And though they were far from polished, the band collectively also had that thing that cannot be taught: they were rock ‘n rollers.
The band soon became The Black Crowes and by 1990 – before grunge had arrived, when the charts were dominated by the likes of Wilson Phillips, Mariah Carey, En Vogue, and Bell Biv Devoe – they were arguably the biggest and baddest rock ‘n roll band on the planet. Their debut album, Shake Your Moneymaker, went multi-platinum and contained the hits “She Talks to Angels,” “Jealous Again,” “and the Otis Redding cover, “Hard to Handle.” The raw guitar strains that open the album’s first song, “Twice as Hard,” cut through the din of the overproduced, benumbed corporate conglomerate schlock that had become the state of so-called rock music. By this time, the band were a sneering, long-haired, vaguely threatening looking crew of whacked out musical pirates.
Seemingly out of nowhere, the Crowes had not only arrived but catapulted to the top. The Rolling Stone praised the band’s “swaggering grace” and made the ultimate comparison:“...This is how the Stones might sound today if Keith had spent his salad days banging steroids instead of smack.”
The Crowes wore this influence on their black velvet and bejeweled sleeves. In fact, producer George Drakoulias had shown Rich Robinson the “Open G” guitar tuning that Keith Richards used to produce that gloriously ragged and silvery sound. But what the Robinson brothers had wasn’t about imitation. They had a unique songwriting dynamic – Rich would play chords, and lyrics and even arrangements would somehow just flow out of Chris – and every night on the stage felt like a high-wire act. This wasn’t mere entertainment. They played music as if their lives depended on it. And maybe it did.
“I got into music because it represented freedom to me,” Chris Robinson told radio host Howard Stern a few years ago. “When I grew up in Atlanta, I was always an outsider, you know, this dyslexic kid, scrawny, weird, into literature. Music and the whole idea of living my life by my creative wits….that appealed to me.”
The Robinsons have always been open about their admiration for the Rolling Stones, as well as the Faces, the late 60s, early 70s supergroup that included Ronnie Wood and Rod Stewart. But they also acknowledge a debt to punk rock, specifically the Circle Jerks and Black Flag. This isn’t the fake-it-til-you-make-it school of rock ‘n roll.
“There has to be an authentic thing about it, and that's what Rich and I have always had,” Chris Robinson told radio host Lin Brehmer. “And it’s made it difficult sometimes. Because I think it's hard for young people to realize – part of being a rock and roller and being successful was you were only as good as the trouble you made. It wasn’t like, ‘Vote for me, I go to the dentist all the time.’ We were troubled people who found their way through this music….The Black Crowes, we always had our sound. We weren’t metal, we weren’t grunge, we weren’t this, we weren’t that.”
They found plenty of trouble. Even in their whirlwind ascent in the early 90s, when they went from rough-hewn bar band to global headliners as quickly as any band in history, the Black Crowes managed to piss everyone off. The did tours as the opening band for Aerosmith and then Robert Plant – both huge gigs for and up-and-coming band – and were horrified to realize both were playing tape of pre-recorded vocal tracks while performing their live sets. The Robinsons publicly criticized both. This was both breaking an industry taboo, and embarrassing two of the more iconic front men in rock history, Plant and Steven Tyler.
“If you're an entertainer and you take it seriously, you entertain with your natural abilities,” Chris Robinson said at the time. “You go onstage and take a chance like everyone else does. People say to us, ‘Man, I heard some bad notes in your set tonight.’ Well, alright, you heard some bad notes. You saw a real band tonight, didn't you?”
His brother backed him up. “It bums him out because he feels they are better than that,” Rich Robinson said. “It made him look at the world and think, ‘Man, the world is f***ed up. The music industry is for shit.”
The next year, the Black Crowes toured as openers for ZZ Top. The tour was sponsored by Miller Lite. This began to bother Chris. Several nights, on stage, he ranted against the corporatization of rock music. He was repeatedly warned, by ZZ Top’s management, to knock it off. The Black Crowes’ did take orders well.
“This is sponsor-free, commercial-free rock ‘n roll,” Chris Robinson told the audience in a subsequent show. “We don’t need a f***ing beer company to tell us what to listen to.”
They were summarily fired from the tour. But among other things, the episode revealed the Crowes’ uncanny knack for falling upwards. Dismissed as an opening act, now they became international headliners. By the next year, the band performed at one of biggest festivals in the history of music, Monsters of Rock, headlining a lineup that included AC/DC and Metallica and playing before a live audience of 1.6 million people in Moscow.
The other knack they had, however, was causing plenty of trouble among themselves. The brothers fought everywhere – in the studio, at sound checks, at shows, in hotel rooms and restaurants – sometimes physically, always verbally. The drummer from the original lineup, Steve Gorman, would later write a tell-all book, Hard to Handle, that was largely about the Robinson brothers’ neverending squabbles.
Regardless, the Crowes prospered. Their second and third albums, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion and Amorica, were critical and commercial successes. Musically, the band just kept getting better. In 1999, the great Jimmy Page, Led Zeppelin’s legendary guitarist, enlisted the Crowes to tour as his band, playing mostly Zeppelin songs – the highest honor a rock band of their ilk could achieve, being chosen by one of the guitar gods to tour (of course, this being the Crowes, Page abruptly canceled a worldwide tour a quarter of the way through for reasons that are still disputed).
Off the stage, things just kept getting messier. The Crowes went through a period of insane drug use. Not coincidentally, they also burned through band members – outside of Rich and Chris, 20 different musicians have been Black Crowes over the years. And through it all, the brothers kept fighting each other, breaking up from 2002 to 2005 and then again in 2015. The last breakup appeared to be permanent. They didn’t talk for five years. Each embarked on solo projects, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood (so named, no doubt, to insult his actual brother) and Rich’s band Hookah Brown (which, naturally, Chris publicly accused of being a “Black Crowes’ cover band”).
In 2018, Chris formed another band, As the Crow Flies, in order to perform Black Crowes songs. In a 2019 interview with BeachLife magazine, Chris was asked, point blank, if there was any possibility of reuniting with his brother.
“Never,” he said.
His performance at the inaugural BeachLife Festival was mesmerizing. He is no longer the scarecrow-thin pirate of his early days, but has transformed into a shamanic tribal elder and soul singer. He sang most of the Crowes' most beloved songs, including a stirring “She Talks to Angels”, and later returned to join Bob Weir for a raggedly warm take on “Not Fade Away.”
Both Rich and Chris later admitted that playing Crowes’ songs while they were apart made them want to be the Crowes again. And then, their kids began asking them each what the hell was going on.
“My daughter, Cheyenne was like: ‘What’s the deal with you and Uncle Rich, and why don’t I know my cousins?’ ” Chris told the San Diego Tribune.“Those are the kind of questions that will make you think and reflect.”
And then, 2020 approached, marking the 30th anniversary of Shake Your Moneymaker. The Robinsons not only began talking to each other, but did a little tour together, just the two of them, playing acoustically. They made plans for a bigger full-band tour in which they’d play the whole Moneymaker record, in order, front to back, for the first time in their history.
“Shake Your Money Maker is the purest example of our love of rock ‘n roll music,” Chris said. “What’s funny is that when we made that record, we weren’t great musicians. But we used every bit of talent, fortitude and luck that we could, and one other element: soul.”
“If I was interested in perfection, I would have been an architect. Rock ‘n’ roll isn’t perfect. The way everyone plays is the way they are. You just don’t hire someone because they look cool or have the best chops. You want the band to be tight, but rock ‘n roll has to be a little loose and come together in this cohesive, funky way.”
The pandemic delayed that tour a year, but the brothers Robinson reformed the band in 2021, toured, released an EP, 1972, and have written 20 new songs for an upcoming album.
“It’s funny, ‘cause Rich and I, for whatever we’ve been through, the one place where we were always the most together — I mean, we fought onstage, we fought backstage, we fought in an Italian restaurant in Berlin – but when we’re writing has always been our sweet spot,” Chris said on the Eddie Trunk podcast earlier this year.
He even looks back on the chaos that accompanied the wildest parts of their ride with fondness: “...Insane nights of beautiful Bacchanalia and madness and deranged things happening all the time.”
They’ve come out on the other side, stronger than ever, side by side. A brotherhood, indeed. The Black Crowes have refused to fade away.
“The one thing about Rich and I, as well….We believe the mythos of rock ‘n roll, you know what I mean?” Robinson told Trunk. “We understand the magic of rock ‘n roll. It affects us.”
The Black Crowes play BeachLife May 7.