Chris Cornell, a dynamic vocalist and guitarist whose versatile showmanship as Soundgarden and Temple of the Dog’s frontman was a signpost of the grunge era, died Wednesday night. Detroit police are investigating the death as a possible suicide, according to The Associated Press. He was 52.
The singer was in Detroit at the time of his death, having played a show with Soundgarden, who were on tour, earlier in the evening. “His wife, Vicky, and family were shocked to learn of his sudden and unexpected passing, and they will be working closely with the medical examiner to determine the cause,” his publicist said in a statement. They also asked for fans to respect their privacy.
Cornell’s artistry was marked by his impressive multi-octave vocal range and a rare sensitivity for heavy music. With Soundgarden, he could shift between raging metal declarations (“Jesus Christ Pose”), somber mood pieces (“Fell on Black Days”) and psychedelia (“Black Hole Sun”) with ease.
After years of playing generally aggressive music in the Eighties, his full range of musical expression showed in 1991 when he created Temple of the Dog – a supergroup featuring Soundgarden and eventual Pearl Jam members – to pay tribute to late Mother Love Bone frontman Andrew Wood. He later explored heavier territory with members of Rage Against the Machine in the supergroup Audioslave and his sensitive side as a solo artist, with frequent acoustic shows in recent years.
The band formed in 1984 after a period where Cornell and bassist Hiro Yamamoto played together in a band called the Shemps, eventually inviting guitarist Kim Thayil to play with them. They chose the name Soundgarden in tribute to a public organ-pipe sculpture that created sounds in the wind. With the arrival of drummer Scott Sundquist, Cornell moved to singing full-time and the next year they recorded three songs for the pivotal Deep Six compilation, which placed them alongside fellow grunge architects Melvins and Green River, the latter of which contained future Pearl Jam and Mudhoney members. Soundgarden put out their debut single, the trippy, ominous “Hunted Down,” and EP, Screaming Life, in 1987.
After the release of another EP – 1988’s Fopp, whose title track is improbably an Ohio Players cover and marked the arrival of drummer Matt Cameron – Soundgarden came into their own on their first full-length, 1990’s Ultramega OK. That record featured the brooding, dramatic Cornell standout “Beyond the Wheel,” which showed off his impressive vocal ability and the band’s proclivity for coupling heavy-metal riffing with shuddering noise affectations, foreshadowing grunge. They would later streamline this sound on 1989’s more metallic Louder Than Love, a locomotive onslaught of chunky riffs, alpha-male fantasies and quirky humor.
On March 19th, 1990, Cornell’s former roommate, Andrew Wood, died of a heroin overdose and the death shook the Soundgarden frontman. He wrote the songs “Reach Down” and “Say Hello 2 Heaven” as a visceral reaction to his friend’s death and asked Wood’s Mother Love Bone bandmates, Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, if they would record the songs with him. With the addition of local guitarist Mike McCready, an unknown guest vocalist at the time named Eddie Vedder and Soundgarden’s Cameron, the group became Temple of the Dog. Their self-titled album came out in 1991 and eventually went platinum; the group, sans the Soundgarden members, subsequently re-formed as Pearl Jam and issued their debut, Ten, the same year.
Meanwhile, Cornell and his bandmates were picking themselves up after the exit of Yamamoto, whom they replaced with bassist Ben Shepherd. Feeling energized creatively from Temple of the Dog, Cornell wrote a number of songs that would become singles on their 1991 album, Badmotorfinger.
The group’s follow-up, 1994’s Superunknown, would be their biggest release: a Number One album that would go on to be certified five-times platinum thanks to a string of hits. A creepy video for the especially psychedelic number “Black Hole Sun” helped the tune become the group’s most enduring song, while “Spoonman,” “The Day I Tried to Live,” “My Wave” and “Fell on Black Days” dominated both the mainstream-rock and alternative charts that year.
Similarly, 1996’s Number Two–charting Down on the Upside, contained several hits (“Pretty Noose,” “Burden in My Hand,” “Blow Up the Outside World,” all written by Cornell) and a Cornell-written outtake from that album, “Bleed Together,” featured on the band’s A-Sides comp would be the group’s final hit before their 1997 breakup.
Cornell issued his first solo album, 1999’s Euphoria Morning, which contained the hit “Can’t Change Me” and went on to form Audioslave two years later with Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk. As with Soundgarden’s mid-Nineties high point, the band’s self-titled 2002 debut contained several hits – their moody “Like a Stone” went gold – and their follow-up, Out of Exile, went to Number One on Billboard on the strength of the multi-textured Number One single “Be Yourself.” The band issued another full-length, Revelations, in 2006 and split up the next year, prompting Cornell to return to his solo career. Both 2007’s Carry On and 2009’s critically maligned collaboration with Timbaland, Scream, made it into the Top 20 of Billboard’s album chart.
After periods of drug and alcohol abuse throughout much of his early career, he managed to get sober in the late 2000s after a stint in rehab.
The latter part of Cornell’s life was marked by reunions. Soundgarden reactivated in 2010, issuing King Animal in 2012, while Temple of the Dog came together to tour in 2016. Audioslave played a one-off gig on inauguration day of this year. All the while, Cornell continued his solo career, putting out the live acoustic album Songbook in 2011 and studio record Higher Truth in 2015. Most recently, he’d recorded an orchestral number, “The Promise,” for the movie of the same name and had been discussing writing for a new Soundgarden album.
At the time of his death, Cornell was married to Vicky Karayiannis. They had a daughter, Toni, in 2004 and a son, Christopher, the following year. He’s previously been married to Susan Silver, sometime artist manager for Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, and had a daughter with her, Lillian Jean, in 2000.
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