Over the years, Greater Cincinnati has quietly been a boundless source of musical talent. Whether it has been from the birth of contemporary rock and roll from King Records, underground hip hop from the acclaimed Scribble Jam festival, or indie rock mainstays the Afghan Whigs, Cincinnati has maintained an important role in a wide variety of musical genres in the US. This is the first installment of blogs exploring the local talent from the area.
Adrian Belew, most famously of the prog-rock band King Crimson, is a Northern Kentucky native and Boone County High School graduate. After picking up the guitar as a child, Belew became one of rock’s most critically acclaimed singer/songwriters and guitar virtuosos. Besides being the longest member of King Crimson alongside founder Robert Fripp, he has recorded and toured with Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Paul Simon, Talking Heads, and Nine Inch Nails. He is also a founding member of the Tom Tom Club (with members from the Talking Heads), the Bears, GaGa, as well as a successful solo musician. Belew is known for a distinct guitar sound, often making his guitar mimic the sounds of animals and machines. His art direction and guitar work have proved invaluable to dozens of records over the years.
Belew, born in Covington in 1949, spent his childhood performing in Ludlow’s Marching Band and formed his first band with friends while attending Boone County High School. During a short time in his teens when he was unable to perform in the marching band due to illness Belew taught himself to play guitar. A natural talent, Belew understood the complexity of the guitar and immediately picked up playing the instrument. Belew’s first band was called the Denims, a band formed with friends that played Beatles covers. After high school, Belew moved to Nashville to pursue a career in music where he performed in local cover bands in hopes to get recognized.
Finally, in 1975, Belew’s big break came in a very exciting way. He was discovered by Frank Zappa in a club in Nashville while playing with his band Sweetheart. Belew auditioned months later with Zappa and the two hit it off. Belew described Zappa as father figure for himself during this time period after losing his father at age 19. For a year, Belew worked directly under Zappa learning new techniques of the guitar and spent considerable time with him, even living at his home during periods of the year. Later that year, while on tour in Europe with Zappa’s band, Belew was discovered by Brian Eno who then passed his name along to David Bowie. Zappa’s band was scheduled to go on hiatus after the tour to work on other projects and Belew was recruited to work with Bowie.
Belew joined the Heroes tour with Bowie which also included Robert Fripp. Eno also introduced Belew to the Talking Heads during this time period where he recorded on the album Remain in Light and toured with the band during 1980 and ‘81. He then formed the Tom Tom Club with members of the Talking Heads where he recorded on their first album with his trademark solo guitar work.
In the years following his breakout as a sought after musician, Belew eventually focused on his solo career and time with King Crimson. During the 80’s Belew recorded 4 solo albums, 3 albums with King Crimson, and formed his band The Bears with Cincinnati musicians. In 1986 he recorded with Paul Simon on his famous Graceland album.
During the 90’s and 00’s he continued his solo and King Crimson work. He also continued his work with the more popular rock and roll weirdos of the nineties. He built a relationship with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and advised him on his Downward Spiral album. He was the music director for Bowies Sound+Vision tour in 1990. King Crimson toured the world and opened shows for Tool during their 2001 Lateralus tour. In 2005 he was nominated for a Grammy from his solo album Side One which was partly recorded with Les Claypool and Danny Carey.
Belew regularly tours and always makes a stop in his hometown. Several years ago at his 30th high school reunion the Denims performed in front of his graduating class. He maintains a cult-like status in the rock and roll world where he currently has over 20 solo albums and a long history as a studio musician.
Interested in hearing some of Adrian Belew’s music? These albums are available for checkout at the Kenton County Public Library:
Written by Jamie Crouch, Library Associate, Local History and Genealogy Department, Covington