Who are some notable rock stars from true working-class backgrounds?

A friend and I were having this conversation last night after I jokingly referred to Bruce Springsteen as “the most authentically working class musician in popular music”, a sentiment that I know he totally disagrees with so I knew he would find it absurd. Springsteen, he says, is just putting on an act. He’s been a professional musician for his entire life - he never worked a real working-class job.

He said: “Who are the rock stars (and they don’t necessarily need to be household names) who truly put their time in, in some blue-collar field, BEFORE making it big?” The timeline we agreed on was five years. That’s long enough to exclude people who worked for their dad’s construction business briefly, or did some manual labor jobs on and off while they were struggling artists with their first band.

“Someone who spent five years, or more, doing construction or landscaping or driving a truck or working in a restaurant kitchen or welding or working in a factory or…”

We pulled out our phones and randomly started looking up whatever rock stars we could think of off the top of our heads, and found that virtually all of them made it big too early in their lives for them to have NEEDED to work a 9-to-5 job for any length of time. “Youth is a commodity in pop music,” I said. “They got discovered young because that’s how the system works.”

It’s been gnawing at our minds ever since last night, and we want to find some examples that fit the bill.

ROCK and POP music only, though. We decided that country, folk, bluegrass, jazz and other such genres would likely have far more examples of these people because they’re less commercialized (well, country is quite commercialized these days, but not originally) and so the “authentic” working-class musician would be less of a rarity in those genres.

Could anyone who knows examples please list them here?

I was thinking that most people who fit the criteria will probably be first discovered through TV, such as a talent show. That made me think of Jimmy Nail, who spent time in factories, and prison, before getting an acting role playing a labourer. He later recorded music and was very popular for a time, though you might not regard it as “rock”.

Note that there’s an inconsistency between your title and your question. Springsteen did come from a working-class family. His father was a bus driver (and held other jobs), while his mother was a secretary. Springsteen himself began working as a musician shortly after graduating from high school. He scraped by though for the first four years after that.

It’s possible to come from a working-class background and yet get into the entertainment business soon after graduating from high school. The same is true of other sorts of jobs. My father was a farmer and factory worker. My mother was a housewife who didn’t work outside the home because she and my father had eight children. I didn’t work any working-class jobs except for temporary ones. I went to four years of college and seven years in and out of graduate school. All that time up to then I was barely scraping through and accumulating debt. I then got a job that pays well where most of my coworkers, like me, have graduate degrees. I still consider that I came from a working-class background, even though I didn’t work for years at working-class jobs.

Bill Withers’ parents were a maid and a coal miner. He served in the Navy and he continued to work in aircraft assembly while he pursued a music career in his 30s.

Is he too R&B to count as a pop star? He’s in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, if that matters.

Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath was a Sheet Metal Worker. He lost part of his finger on this job.
Ozzy was also many things before success, including butchering in a slaughterhouse.

Wasn’t Kurt Cobain a janitor for a while?

According to his Wikipedia bio, Ozzy “Osbourne left school at 15 and was employed as a construction site labourer, trainee plumber, apprentice toolmaker, car factory horn-tuner, and abattoir worker. While young he dabbled in crime and spent six weeks in Winson Green Prison when he was unable to pay a fine after being convicted of burgling a clothes shop; to teach his son a lesson, his father refused to pay the fine.” The band formed in 1967 when he was 19, but didn’t fully start until 1969, so he presumably had 4-6 years as a working man.

The Gallagher brothers (Oasis not watermelon) are absolutely as working class as the come: sons of divorced Irish immigrants who grown a sketchy bit of Manchester, grew up doing petty crime and crappy jobs (and on the dole).

Even if you limit the question to rock or pop, virtually every black rock musician of the 50s came from a deeply poor background. Chuck Berry worked as a janitor and a factory worker. Fats Domino spent time as a helper to an ice delivery man. Chubby Checker got discovered while working at Fresh Farm Poultry. Bo Diddley was a carpenter and mechanic.

I didn’t deep enough to figure out whether this phase of their career lasted five years or not. I don’t think it matters. My parents met while working in the same factory, a job my father kept until he retired. They never needed to label our family as working class; the world told us that every minute of every day, thank you very much. Your upbringing, the decade or two you spend in your parents’ home, makes you working class while young, not the jobs you take after you leave. I had plenty of jobs before, during, and after college to get by, but I never worked in a factory: my parents were dead set against that. I and my numerous first cousins, all working class, wound up in an assortment of middle- and upper middle-class professions as the first generation in our family to go to college. Nevertheless, we were raised working class and I will correct anyone who thinks differently.

If the OP thinks that not having to work in a factory for five years erases that upbringing, I envy the lack of understanding of what working class means. As Beatrice Kaufman (not Sophie Tucker) first said: “I’ve been rich, and I’ve been poor. Rich is better."


It looks to me like, if anyone’s saying that, it’s the OP’s friend, not the OP (@Lamoral) himself.

I read it as Lamoral agreed with the definition and came here to confirm it with examples. Even if not, that Lamoral didn’t stomp on it instantly is telling.

The definition of “working class” in the OP is far too narrow and only boils down to “Worked at working class jobs themselves.”

Many rock musicians came from working class background. The Beatles, for instance had Paul, George, and Ringo (despite the song, John was middle class) all coming from lower class families (in a country where people were very conscious of class). Paul and George (and John) never had jobs other than as musicians. Ringo worked briefly as a clerk in a store.

Ray and Dave Davies of the Kinks were definitely working class. They had six siblings and their father worked in a slaughterhouse. Rod Stewart’s father was a builder.

So they grew up in the working class of the UK. Actually working in a working class job was something else, but any musician who succeeded probably concentrated more on their music than their job and their upbringing was just as important to class.

He doesn’t quite make the the five-year cut but Elvis was dirt poor and worked as a truck driver before he made it big.

As @Wendell_Wagner pointed out, this one of those threads where the thread title and the text of the OP ask two different questions.

And I’m going by the text of the OP, which sets up a bogus definition.

We are talking about a profession where looks and youth are nearly as important as talent. Five years of blue collar work doesn’t make anybody prettier, nor does it give one time to hone one’s musical craft.

Alright, alright, let me get a few things straight:

  1. I was really not intending to set up some kind of purity test as to who is working class and who isn’t. I probably used the wrong word anyway when I said “working-class background.” What I meant was, background as in, personal career experience. But I get that it came off as “environment that someone was raised in”. I didn’t intend it to.

For instance: I do not come from a working-class background. My parents do. I do not, I come from an upper-middle-class background, because of my parents’ very hard work, being the first members of their respective families to attend college and attain success in the white-collar world. I am, as an individual, a member of what people would describe as the working class, because I do a substantial amount of blue-collar manual construction labor in addition to being a truck driver. I’m 35 now; for most of my adult life I have done white-collar work. I voluntarily made the transition from white-collar to blue-collar because, for various reasons, the work I was doing before was more frustrating and stressful than the kind of job where you simply clock in and out.

My friend who I was initially having this conversation with, is from a working-class background. He is a few years older than me and he has spent his entire adult life doing construction work, as has his father, as had his grandfather. Does he maybe have a stricter definition of what a “real” working-class musician is? Yes, probably. His favorite musician is Bob Dylan, but he concedes that even Dylan, while having a thoroughly “authentic” persona and body of work, has been a professional musician for his entire life and never really “put in his time” as a “common man.”

  1. In the time since I posted this thread, my friend and I have discussed the topic further - at work, since we work together - and have in fact expanded our query beyond “working class” and encompassing any non-musical career at all, whether it’s a stockbroker or a dentist or a carpenter - worked at for a substantial number of years before the performer attained success as a musician. Even with this expanded criteria, we still can barely think of anyone who fits it.

One other thing I feel I should mention: I in no way am under the impression that being a professional musician isn’t hard work. I know that it IS goddamn hard work. I don’t mean to take away anything from all of the people who have made it as stars in rock or any other genre, who have held no job other than “musician.” It takes a monster work ethic to succeed in that business!

Jim Croce worked a couple of blue collar jobs - lineman, truck driver, construction - before hitting it big as a musician. A couple of his songs are based on those experiences.

Keyboardist Mike Pinder, who was a founding member of the Moody Blues, worked for about a year and a half in the early '60s as a tester at an electronics company, which it appears was named Bradmatics at that time (it later became Streetly). One of the products which Pinder worked on while he was at Bradmatics was the Mellotron, which he later used extensively with the Moody Blues.