Johnny Thunders was an American guitarist, singer, and songwriter, best known as a member of bands such as the ‘New York Dolls’ and ‘The Heartbreakers.’ Born and raised in Queens, New York City, Thunders began performing during his high-school years. He was a huge fan of the hard rock genre and idolized bands such as ‘Shangri-Las’ and ‘The Rolling Stones.’ He took inspiration from Keith Richards and copied his style during his teenage years. During his late teens, he joined several bands, such as ‘Johnny and the Jaywalkers’ and ‘The Reign.’ In 1971, he joined the band called the ‘New York Dolls’ and released albums such as ‘New York Dolls’ and ‘Too Much Too Soon.’ In the mid-1970s, he left the ‘New York Dolls’ and started a new band named ‘The Heartbreakers.’ With the latest band, he released just a single album, titled ‘L.A.M.F.’ In 1978, Johnny went solo and released his debut solo album, ‘So Alone.’ The album became a huge critical and commercial success. He then released more albums, such as ‘In Cold Blood,’ ‘Hurt Me,’ and ‘Copy Cats.’ Johnny remained a lifelong drug addict and passed away due to a drug overdose at the tender age of 38. However, the true cause of his death is still debated.
Childhood & Early Life
Johnny Thunders was born John Anthony Genzale, on July 15, 1952, in Queens, New York, to Emil and Josephine Genzale. He was the second child of his parents and had an older sister. Soon after he was born, his father abandoned the family and never returned.
Ever since he was a kid, he was exposed to all sorts of music. His older sister played loud rock music in her room, and Johnny eventually became accustomed to it.
However, the thought of becoming a musician arrived late to him. At first, he was a keen baseball player. He played it throughout, from his childhood years to his teenage years. He also tested with the ‘Philadelphia Phillies’ and was almost selected. However, the selection criteria also included presence of the father. Thus, he was disqualified.
While he was growing up, he idolized Keith Richards, the guitarist of the band ‘The Rolling Stones.’ He was also a huge fan of the band ‘Shangri-Las.’
Keith completed his high-school graduation in 1969. Soon, he began working as a sales clerk at a local shop, with his eyes set on becoming a musician later. He joined a few music bands, such as ‘The Reign,’ during his teenage years. He also performed at a few local venues, without much success.
In November 1969, he made an appearance in the documentary titled ‘Gimme Shelter,’ which was shot during ‘The Rolling Stones’ concert at the ‘Madison Square Garden’ in New York.
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In the early 1970s, he lived in London for a while and eventually returned to New York, where he began looking for collaborators. He frequented a local club, where he met Arthur Kane and Rick Rivets. They were members of a band named ‘Actress’ and were impressed by Johnny’s talent as a guitarist. Soon, they included him in their band.
However, soon after he joined the band, it reshuffled its members. With some new additions, the band was renamed the ‘New York Dolls.’ Johnny adopted the name “Johnny Thunders” as his stage name. It was inspired by a comic book character of the same name.
The ‘New York Dolls’ signed with ‘Mercury Records’ and released their debut album, ‘New York Dolls,’ in 1973. In order to promote the album further, the members appeared as drag queens on the album cover. The album managed to attain widespread critical acclaim. However, it did not manage to earn enough commercial success.
The band had a controversial image. The weird wardrobes they had kept them from getting offers to perform at live shows. Although their album was a huge failure commercially, it was later accepted as a precursor to the punk rock genre in the American mainstream music scene and is now hailed as one of the greatest debut rock albums of all time.
The band released their second album, ‘Too Much Too Soon,’ in 1974. It had the same fate as its predecessor. The album sold poorly despite receiving some really good reviews. The problems did not end there. The highly erratic behavior the members exhibited had the label ‘Mercury’ canceling their contract. Following this, the members of the band parted ways.
Soon, Johnny gathered like-minded musicians and formed a new band, ‘The Heartbreakers.’ He moved to the UK with his band and performed alongside bands such as the ‘Sex Pistols,’ ‘The Damned,’ and ‘The Clash,’ during the much hyped ‘Anarchy Tour.’
For the next few years, the band stayed back in the UK, and as they gained popularity there, their fame reached the US, too. In the UK, they signed up with ‘Track Records’ and released their debut and only official album, ‘L.A.M.F.’ Although the album was received positively by critics, it failed to sell too many records, owing to its poor production quality. This led to an internal conflict in the band. Soon, the band members parted ways.
He went solo shortly after. Within a year of the split of ‘The Heartbreakers,’ Johnny released his debut solo album, ‘So Alone.’ Released in 1978, the album became a thundering success.
His second solo album was released in 1983. Titled ‘In Cold Blood,’ the album became a success. The same year, Johnny released another album, ‘Diary of a Lover.’ By the end of the 1980s, he had released three more albums, ‘Hurt Me’ (1983), ‘Que Sera Sera’ (1985), and ‘Copy Cats’ (1988). Thus, he enjoyed the best success of his musical career in the 1980s.
Family, Personal Life & Death
Johnny Thunders was married to a woman named Julie. They had three children, John, Vito, and Dino. With Susanne Blomqvist, he had a daughter named Jamie Genzale.
Johnny passed away on April 23, 1991, in his hotel room in New Orleans, Louisiana. His demise was apparently caused due to a drug overdose. However, it was discovered that the amount of drugs found in his system was not fatal, which later intensified the mystery surrounding his death.
‘Louisiana Police’ refused to investigate the matter further, saying that it was a simple case of drug overdose.