Born: 1934 in Montreal
- Canadian Music Hall of Fame (1991)
- U.S. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (2008)
- Juno Award for Male Vocalist of the Year (1993)
- Two thousand renditions of his songs have been recorded.
Most Well-Known Song:
Some Other Well-Known Songs:
- “Sisters of Mercy” (1967)
- “Bird on the Wire” (1969)
- “The Story of Isaac” (1969)
- “Last Year’s Man” (1971)
- “Joan of Arc” (1971)
- “Famous Blue Raincoat” (1971)
- “Chelsea Hotel No. 2″ (1974)
- “Who by Fire” (1974)
- “Coming Back to You” (1985)
- “Hallelujah” (1985)
- “Everybody Knows” (1988)
- “First We Take Manhattan (1988)
- “Tower of Song” (1988)
Leonard Cohen with his signature gruff, monotone voice, picturesque and unsettling lyrics, and rudimentary, melancholy music is considered the most successful singer/songwriter of the late 60s who is still making music today.
Cohen is as much a poet as a musician. He, himself, conceded that his strength lies in his poetry rather than his vocal offerings when he remarked after winning a Juno Award, “Only in Canada could I get ‘Male Vocalist of the Year’”. Indeed, if one surveys the scores of popular singers Canada has produced over the years one does realize to some extent that you do not have to sing anywhere near as well as Celine Dion to become a pop star in Canada. In all fairness, though, Cohen’s voice is perfectly suited to the material at hand, which is, in the words of music critic Bruce Eder, “drenched in downbeat images and a spirit of discovery as a path to unsettling revelation”.
Despite lavish praises by American critics and musicians and his induction into the U.S. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, his albums have never sold well there (his highest chart position was #63). They have done much better in other countries: five have peaked in the Top 3 in Norway. Two have topped the charts in Poland. Four have made the Top 10 in Sweden, three in the U.K., and two in both Belgium and Ireland. In his home country of Canada, four albums have made the Top 10. Like Buffy Sainte-Marie, poppier covers of Cohen’s songs have often done better than his own darker, low-key versions.
Born in 1934 in the Montreal suburb of Westmount, Cohen’s father died when he was nine years old. His mother encouraged him in his pursuits as a writer, especially of poetry. At age 13, he learned the guitar initially to impress a girl and later on to play country tunes at local cafés. He started a band called the Buckskin Boys. By the time he graduated from university in 1955, his creative writing earned him an award and he published a book of poetry a year later. His second book of poetry (1961′s Spice Box of Earth), unlike his first, became an international best-seller. He continued publishing books of poetry and novels while traveling around the world including a lengthy stay in Greece. In 1966, he began writing music but as a natural extension of his poetry.
Initially feeling too modest to get involved in the vanity of the music business, he allowed his song “Suzanne” to be picked up by established folk singer Judy Collins who put it on her album In My Life. The song received considerable airplay. Collins encouraged Cohen to begin performing again and his professional debut performance came in the summer of 1967, care of the Newport Folk Festival. Two sold out shows in New York followed before the telecast “Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen”. Around this time, a second cover of “Suzanne” by Noel Harrison brought the song onto the pop charts. Impressed with Cohen, legendary producer John Hammond Sr. got him a recording contract with Columbia Records and The Songs of Leonard Cohen LP was released at the end of the year.
The album, too dark to be a commercial success, was as big a hit as a folk album could be. University students, especially, got into it. And it spent a full year on the album charts in Britain. Robert Altman’s 1971 film, McCabe And Mrs. Miller featured almost the entire album as the soundtrack. In 1968, he released a new volume of poetry which earned him Canada’s highest literary honour—the Governor General’s Award. He humbly declined it.
In 1970, Cohen, along with Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, and Canada’s Joni Mitchell, appeared at the post-Woodstock gathering of rock stars in England: The Isle of Wight Festival. He performed before an audience of 600,000 people. By the time he released the album Songs of Love and Hate, Cohen had gained an international cult following.
He released Death of a Ladies’ Man in 1977 which suffered from disagreements over mixing between him and its producer—Phil Spector. Recent Songs came in 1979. A six-year lapse followed, after which he did an album with Seattle-born Jennifer Warnes: Various Positions (1985). Cohen had met Warnes (who incidentally sang Canadian Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Oscar-winning song) in the mid-70s and had been collaborating and performing with her since then.
In 1988, the more pop-oriented, electronic-tinged I’m Your Man came out and first introduced what has become one of Cohen’s best-known songs in Canada—“Everybody Knows”. The album went 4x Platinum in Norway. The Future was released in ’92, becoming his biggest success in Canada (in terms of studio albums), where it went 2x Platinum. Three tracks from the album were featured in the movie Natural Born Killers. A couple of tribute albums came out, the second of which was entitled Tower of Song and featured covers of Cohen’s songs by superstars like Billy Joel, Elton John, Sting, Peter Gabriel, and others. In the late-90s, Leonard Cohen became a Buddhist, spending time in a Zen retreat writing new material. New collaborations with Sharon Robinson led to her producing his next album, Ten New Songs (2001). It was a bestseller. Cohen released Dear Heather in 2004 and, at the age of 77, released Old Ideas in 2012 which topped the Canadian Billboard Albums Chart.