Sting - Biography
By Marcus Kagler
Think twice before wearing that black shirt with yellow stripes to your next gig. You may end up with a nickname like Sting. After playing a show in the mid-70’s with The Phoenix Jazzmen it happened to Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner, and he’s still known by the obtuse moniker over 30 years later. Widely recognized as the Police frontman, Sting is one of the few musicians whose solo career exceeded his former band’s iconic status. A steadfast sonic adventurer, Sting has fashioned an illuminating solo canon that’s taken him from wildly popular radio friendly singles to jazz fusion, down a dark path of autobiographical terrain then segueing into world fusion and recently renaissance lute pieces. Although the artist has mellowed significantly in the twilight of his career, Sting’s thirst for sonic exploration has not waned. If anything, Sting has earned the right to take more risks as an older musician than when he was churning out Top 10 hits during his heyday. These risks have not come without commercial disappointment but Sting has earned the right to play the music industry game his own way. Outside the realm of music, Sting is also held in high regard as a philanthropist who uses his celebrity to raise awareness for environmental causes and the rights of the impoverished throughout the world.
Born on October 2, 1951 in Wallsend, North Tyneside, England, Sting is the eldest son to dairy manager Ernest Sumner and his wife Audrey Cowell. As a young child he was fascinated by both music and while attending the University of Warwick the budding musician would often sneak out to attend concerts by Jack Bruce and Jimi Hendrix at the Club-A-Go-Go. It wasn’t long before he struck out on a career of his own, earning his stripes in jazz and big band ensembles like The Phoenix Jazzmen and The Newcastle Big Band. In early 1977, Sting’s ambition brought him from New Castle to London where he quickly teamed up with American drummer Stuart Copeland and guitarist Andy Summers to form The Police. Combining a punk attitude, accomplished pop sensibilities, literate lyrics, and thick reggae influence The Police were an unstoppable force from the moment they released their debut album, Outlandos d’Amour (1978-A&M) until their abrupt implosion at the height of their popularity in 1984. During their short lifespan The Police earned six Grammy Awards with their final album, Synchronicity (1983-A&M) going platinum eight times over in the U.S. alone. As the group’s primary songwriter, Sting imbued his songs with infectious pop sensibilities that masked the experimental nature at the core of most Police material. Although the band never officially broke up, the individual members agreed to pursue solo interests after a tumultuous worldwide tour supporting the Synchronicity album. After a disastrous reunion tour in 1986, Sting earnestly struck out on his own with so much success it would be twenty years before he agreed to return to his former band.
Contrary to popular belief, Sting flirted with a solo career more than three years before the eventual (and some would claim inevitable) split of the Police. Eager to participate in the fourth Amnesty International benefit dubbed The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball in 1981, Sting performed a solo acoustic set of Police material. It was the start of his long term commitment to international charity groups like Amnesty International and Bob Geldof’s worldwide Live Aid festivals. The following year Sting released the Vivien Ellis cover, “Spread a Little Happiness” as a single from the television play Brimstone and Treacle, which surprisingly broke the UK Top 20. After the initial split of The Police the frontman wasted no time releasing his first solo album. Collaborating with veteran jazz musicians Kenny Kirkland, Omar Hakim, and Branford Marsalis, Dream of the Blue Turtles (1985-A&M) was an instant worldwide success spawning the hit singles, “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free”, “Fortress Around Your Heart”, “Love is the Seventh Wave”, and the cold war ballad “Russians”. Within a year Dream of the Blue Turtles had gone platinum and earned Sting his first solo Grammy nomination proving there was already a built in audience hungry for solo material. After a failed half hearted Police reunion the following year Sting’s solo career took off, leaving The Police a distant memory.
Sting assemble an all star cavalcade of guest musicians that included Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Ruben Blades, Gil Evans, and old Police pal Andy Summers for his follow up solo full length, …Nothing Like The Sun (1987-A&M). Taking the title from Shakespeare’s Sonnet #130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”) the album exceeded the success of Dream of the Blue Turtles by going double platinum and generating the international hit singles, “We’ll Be Together”, “Englishman In New York”, “Fragile”, and the soulful eulogy to his recently deceased mother, “Be Still My Beating Heart”. The following year saw the release of Nada Como de Sol (1988-A&M) a five song selection from …Nothing Like The Sun sung by Sting in Spanish and Portuguese. Sting spent the rest of the year campaigning for Amnesty International while establishing his own Rainforest Foundation, designed to raise awareness for the devastating deforestation of the Brazilian rainforest along with other environmental causes. Dedicated and inspired by the death of his father, The Soul Cages (1991-A&M) was a far darker, moodier affair than previous Sting releases. Although the album eventually went platinum and spawned the moderate hit singles “All This Time” and the Grammy Award winning title track, “The Soul Cages” the album did little to expand Sting’s fanbase and was considered a moderate disappointment at the time.
As a reaction to The Soul Cages melancholy tone, Sting delved headlong into more familiar pop territory for his fourth full length, Ten Summoner’s Tales (1993-A&M), the title being a play on words of Sting’s last name and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The infectious pop rock single “If I Ever Lose My Faith In You” took the world’s airwaves by storm and became a massive hit with the lilting ballad “Fields of Gold” eliciting a similar reaction shortly thereafter. Ten Summoner’s Tales once again garnered Sting nominations for the Mercury Prize and a Grammy Award. Sting’s collaboration with Rod Stewart and Bryan Adam’s on the one off single, “All For One” for the Disney film The Three Musketeers would be the biggest hit of his career. The collaboration between three of the biggest names in contemporary rock proved golden and the single held the #1 slot on the Billboard Charts for five solid weeks. “All for One” was also the first indication of Sting’s audience growing more adult contemporary, foreshadowing the softer pop sound he would produce on future releases. Fields of Gold: The Best of Sting (1994-A&M) bookended the first act of Sting’s career as international mega-star. From here on out Sting would split his time between experimental concept albums and formulaic contemporary pop releases.
Mercury Falling (1996-A&M) is Sting’s first release of streamlined adult contemporary material and although the album debuted within the Top 10 it quickly fell from view. A subsequent tour was moderately successful but Sting’s mainstream popularity was slipping to younger more current artists of the time. Sting’s next release was far more inspired and revolutionary. It would also be the last Sting album to take over mainstream airwaves. Featuring notable contributions from Stevie Wonder, BJ Cole, and James Taylor, Brand New Day (1999-A&M) was another soirée into the realm of mainstream pop rock, only this time Sting infused his sound with a distinct middle eastern flair. The single, “Desert Rose” featuring guest vocals by renowned Middle Eastern singer Cheb Mami was a massive worldwide hit that once again shot Sting to the top of the charts and earned him Grammy Awards for Best Album and Best Record for the title track “Brand New Day.” Sting's subsequent performance of “Desert Rose” with Cheb Mami at the Grammy Awards ceremony also earned him the Kahlil Gibran Spirit of Humanity Award from the Arab-American Institute Foundation for raising western awareness of Middle Eastern recording artists.
Sting's first official live album, All This Time (2001-A&M) was meant to be an intimate affair recorded at his luxurious Tuscan villa with a free live stream of the concert via the Internet. Recorded on September 11, 2001 the show was a victim of horrendous timing with the live stream only lasting one song before shutting down out of respect for those who lost their lives in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Sting later took part in the worldwide 9/11 telethon to raise money for the victims of the World Trade Center tragedy. The album was released later that year and is dedicated “to all those who lost their lives that day.” The following year Sting joined cellist Yo-Yo Ma and The Mormon Tabernacle Choir to perform “Fragile” during the opening ceremonies for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. He was also inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame that same year. Sting returned in 2003 with his seventh full length album, Sacred Love (2003-A&M). Reaching back to his commercially successful rock pop formula the album also attempted to capitalize on the guest artist trend of the times with varying degrees of success. Although his duet with Mary J. Blige, “Whenever I Say Your Name” was nominated for a Grammy the album wasn't nearly as successful as Brand New Day, and quickly slid off the charts. Sting spent the majority of 2004 touring Sacred Love with former Eurythmics vocalist Annie Lennox. The following year he embarked on a three month “college tour” of the United States, performing at small intimate clubs with just a four person band. His next full length album would come as a left field surprise for both critics and fans. Songs for the Labyrinth (2006-Deutsche Grammophone) was a collection of poetic lute music written by Elizabethan composure John Dowland, and featured collaborations with Bosnian lute maestro Edin Karamazov.
Sting remained relatively quiet until early 2007 when rumors of a potential 30th anniversary Police reunion began to spread like wildfire throughout the Internet community. Sting validated the rumor a few weeks later, stating the band would make their debut performance at the 2007 Grammy Awards before embarking on a massive year long world tour. Known for vicious infighting and long term grudges the individual members later admitted to reconciling their differences during the tour. Plans for new Police material remain doubtful, although the band has not ruled out a new album.