If you’ve been to a dentist or grocery store since the 1980s and 1990s, then you’re probably familiar with Michael Bolton. Bolton mightily belted songs about love and heartbreak that topped the charts in that era, and found longevity in Muzak systems that will pipe his signature voice into retail experiences for eternity. His sound, one part opera and one part metal, still gets airplay as of this writing, especially with the tracks "How Am I Supposed to Live Without You," "Love Is a Wonderful Thing," and his cover of "When a Man Loves a Woman."
Bolton became a major celebrity, not just for his music, but because of his vibe — being handsome and sporting long hair while singing love songs certainly didn’t hurt a guy’s chances of becoming a romantic idol in the ’90s. The "Said I Loved You But I Lied" crooner has been around for years, and his life is as interesting (but probably not as gut-wrenching) as the emotional content of his songs. Here’s a look into the life, loves, and works of the king of soft rock, Michael Bolton.
Michael Bolton rocked it out
While Michael Bolton is certainly one of the most successful acts in the long, smooth history of soft rock, and one of the names most closely associated with the genre, he’s kind of an odd fit. That immensely strong voice, and all that long hair (in the ’80s and early ’90s at least) suggested that Michael Bolton would’ve been more at home in a hard rock band. Well, he might have been — but that career path didn’t work out all that well.
In the late 1970s, young Michael Bolotin (that’s his real name) fronted a Foreigner-like or Bad Company-esque band called Blackjack. As it was performing the kind of radio-friendly rock that was popular at the time, Blackjack landed a deal with Polydor Records and released two albums: 1979’s self-titled LP (above) and Worlds Apart the following year. However, neither album sold particularly well or topped the charts, and a modest national concert tour didn’t help matters, nor did a pre-MTV promotional video. The band members had all gone their separate ways by early 1981, although rappers would later almost inexplicably sample Blackjack songs. Jay-Z used part of "Stay" on his 2002 song "A Dream," and Kanye West interpolated "Maybe It’s the Power of Love" for "Never Let Me Down" in 2004.
Did Michael Bolton almost replace Ozzy Osbourne?
While Blackjack recorded some catchy songs with a hard edge, it’s an empirical fact that the band was not all that successful. What was undeniable about the group was Michael Bolton’s talent — the man could thunderously belt out a song. After his time in Blackjack came to an end in the early 1980s, Bolton explored what could have been a major career breakthrough and which would’ve rewritten heavy metal history.
After virtually inventing (or at least popularizing) heavy metal in the 1970s, Black Sabbath fired its charismatically menacing lead singer Ozzy Osbourne at decade’s end. His replacement: big-piped metal wailer Ronnie James Dio (of the bands Dio and Rainbow). After he departed in 1982, the band was once more on the hunt for a frontman. David Coverdale declined the offer (so as to form ’80s hair metal band Whitesnake), leading to auditions with other singers. "We would audition various singers, including Michael Bolton, believe it or not — he was one of them, which was an odd one," Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi said on GibsonTV’s Icons in February 2020. Ultimately, the band went with Deep Purple singer Ian Gillan.
Despite Iommi’s confirmation, Bolton denies the audition ever took place. "That rumor about me auditioning for Black Sabbath was only a rumor, I don’t know how on earth it started," Bolton told Echo in 2014.
Michael Bolton wrote tons of hit songs for others
Michael Bolton experienced many different stages of his career, and a lot of them before he ever even found fame as a soft rock balladeer. After his ’70s solo albums didn’t sell, his stint with Blackjack didn’t last, and a second solo period proved a non-starter, Bolton moved into writing (and co-writing) songs for other people — and at that, he was quite successful.
Adult contemporary legend Laura Branigan, who some might call the Michael Bolton of the early 1980s, scored a #12 hit with Bolton’s anguished "How Am I Supposed to Live Without You," and a minor hit in 1985 with the triumphant "I Found Someone," which was a top 10 hit for Cher in 1988. Just weeks after Bolton himself would take "How Am I Supposed to Live Without You" to #1 in 1990, the rock band Kiss landed one of its biggest hits ever with the ballad "Forever," which was also co-written by Bolton. Bolton also wrote album cuts for acts as varied as classic rocker Joe Cocker, Broadway star Sheryl Lee Ralph, synth pop band Starship, teen idol Rex Smith, and the Michael Bolton of smooth jazz, Kenny G.
Michael Bolton’s first few albums flopped
Before he sang with Blackjack, Michael Bolton had already released solo material, and under his real name: Michael Bolotin. According to the Schenectady Gazette, he signed a contract at age 15 with Epic Records to record a pop single (well, his mother signed for him because he was a minor), but by the time his seventeenth birthday rolled around, no single had been recorded and the deal fell apart. However, rock icon Leon Russell asked him to be his opening act for a show in Philadelphia, Pa. and then invited the young singer to record some demos at his home studio in Oklahoma. Bolotin got a new contract with RCA Records, and staged his first comeback.
In 1975 and 1976, he released Michael Bolotin and Everyday of My Life. Neither album received much attention from the music press or record buyers, leaving Bolotin to regroup and join Blackjack. After his rock period proved fallow, Bolotin returned to solo stuff, and R&B-influenced pop. Now rebranded as Michael Bolton, the singer released two more albums and experienced some minor successes: Michael Bolton (above) hit #89 on the Billboard album chart in 1983, while the single "Fool’s Game" peaked at #82 on the pop chart. It wasn’t until Bolton’s The Hunger hit stores in 1987 that he’d become a superstar.
Does this Michael Bolton track sound familiar?
The first single from Michael Bolton’s 1991 album Time, Love & Tenderness was the Billboard 100 #4 smash "Love Is a Wonderful Thing." It also aroused the attention of Ronald and Marvin Isley of the legendary R&B group the Isley Brothers, who thought Bolton had actually covered their 1966 single "Love Is a Wonderful Thing." "When I first heard his version of the song on the radio, I was really pleased," Ronald Isley told Billboard. "Then I went out to pick up the record and looked for my credit. I was upset because the credits weren’t on there." In 1992, the Isleys sued Bolton, credited co-writer Andrew Goldmark, and rights holder Sony Music Publishing in 1992 for copyright infringement.
In April 1994, a jury ruled against Bolton and company, determining that his song plagiarized the Isleys’ song in five distinct ways. Based on a formula to determine how much of the song’s success was due to pilfered material, the court ordered Bolton, Goldmark, and Sony to pay $5.2 million to the Isley Brothers. At the time, this was the biggest financial judgment ever in a music plagiarism case. Bolton and his cohorts appealed, and it wasn’t settled until 2001 — when the courts upheld the ruling. Bolton was on the hook for $933,000, Goldmark for $221,000, and Sony for $4.2 million.
Love ended up not being such a wonderful thing for Michael Bolton
Michael Bolton has been half of two big relationships in his adult life. His first marriage occurred before he was famous, with a woman named Maureen McGuire. While it led to Bolton becoming a dad to three daughters, the couple split up in 1990 after 15 years of marriage. Before long, Bolton moved on.
In 1991, Knots Landing star Nicollette Sheridan married L.A. Law star (and People‘s Sexiest Man Alive) Harry Hamlin. But one night when he was out of town, Sheridan went to a party with some of her closest friends: popular saxophonist Kenny G and his wife, Lyndie. That night, Kenny G introduced Sheridan to another of his many celebrity friends: Bolton. ("Michael was so funny," Sheridan told TV Guide (via the Official Guide To Knots Landing blog), adding, "He makes me laugh more than anyone else I ever met.") The pair started dating in 1992, after Sheridan split from Hamlin, a divorce allegedly caused somewhat by the increasing attraction between the soap star and Bolton.
According to People, Bolton and Sheridan stayed together for five years, splitting up in 1997. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, they rekindled the relationship in 2005, and in 2006, about 14 years after their first meeting, announced that they were engaged. But alas, it wasn’t meant to be the second time around either, and Sheridan and Bolton broke up for good in 2008.
Michael Bolton loves softball almost as much as he loves soft rock
Celebrities, like less fabulous people, are also rabid sports fans, only they can afford to do things like buy court-side seats, purchase parts of sports franchises, or devote endless hours to their game of choice. Michael Bolton isn’t a hardcore Lakers fan or co-owner of the Memphis Grizzlies or anything — he’s just extraordinarily into, of all things, softball, a sport that’s played primarily by children and office teams.
Back in the ’90s, Bolton formed his own workplace softball squad, leading a team composed of members of his band. The "Bolton Bombers" suited up for charity softball games around the country, and according to Baseball Prospectus, raised about half a million bucks over more than 50 games. In 1993, Bolton released an instructional home video on the sport called Michael Bolton’s Winning Softball. He brings in softball expert Dave Carroll to deliver solid tips for both hitters and pitchers, like "relax[ing] their arms" and how to throw a "side spinner," respectively. Bolton appears throughout the video to engage with the viewer, all while wearing both a hat and an old-fashioned baseball jersey emblazoned with the word "BOLTON."
Cheesy Michael Bolton songs wouldn’t be possible with cheese
Michael Bolton has a voice like no other singer. It’s deep and throaty yet simultaneously wailing and high-pitched. It’s a distinctive voice that’s propelled its owner to international success and millions of dollars in wealth. And while many vocalists lose some of their range, power, and nuance over the years, Bolton hasn’t — he sounds virtually the same on "Jack Sparrow" as he did on "When a Man Loves a Woman." What’s his secret? Gargling with gravel and then following it up with toothing tea and lemon? Actually it’s what he doesn’t do that preserves his voice.
Catarrh describes an abundance of mucus in the throat or other airways, which can be devastating to a singer. Bolton avoids it by avoiding milk products. "I love pasta, pizza, and ice cream, but too much sweet dairy induces catarrh and affects my voice," Bolton told the Daily Mail in 2013. Beyond that, he stays in a state of good general health by "work[ing] out four days a week" and sticking to a vegetarian diet for more than 40 years.
Michael Bolton, comedy star
In 2011, Michael Bolton scored his first entry on the Billboard Hot 100 since 1997, when his Hercules theme "Go the Distance" was a big hit. Bolton was listed as a featured performer on "Jack Sparrow," a cut off Turtleneck & Chain by the comedy trio The Lonely Island, and popularized via one of the group’s extremely popular "Digital Short" segments on Saturday Night Live. The premise: The Lonely Island (led by Andy Samberg) are attempting to record a sick hip-hop jam, and hire Bolton to provide the hook… only he gets sidetracked and sings about all the movies he loves, particularly the Pirates of the Caribbean saga. The video features Bolton dressed up like the rascally Captain Jack Sparrow, as well as Tony Montana from Scarface, and Erin Brockovich.
So how did an adult contemporary singer past his heyday wind up on a rap song by a comedy troupe? "The Lonely Island guys reached out to my management and said they wanted to do this," Bolton told Entertainment Weekly, adding that he was initially skeptical of the project. "I was automatically scanning through my memory banks of the most wicked language and visuals. You want to work with guys like this. But at the same time I get invitations to perform at the Vatican!" Bolton agreed to do it, but worked with The Lonely Island to tone down the lyrics, which at first were "intense and off-color."
Critics hate Michael Bolton, but he has his apologists
Michael Bolton made a name for himself as an earnest singer of overwrought ’80s and ’90s ballads that now seem almost as dated as the stringy long hair Bolton rocked in the same era. For those reasons and others, Bolton is a cultural punchline and punching bag. Rolling Stone called him "one of the most reviled figures" in music; Blender placed him at #3 in its "50 Worst Artists in Music History" list; and he’s a running joke in Office Space, where character Michael Bolton resents sharing a name with a "no-talent a** clown."
The vitriol doesn’t seem to bother Bolton very much. Why should it? Lots of people clearly like the guy and his music: He’s sold over 75 million records, won a couple of Grammy Awards, and has earned praise from figures that he respects. In 1990, the great Bob Dylan asked Bolton to write with him (which became the song "Steel Bars" from Bolton’s album Time, Love & Tenderness). And in 1987, after he recorded a cover of Otis Redding’s peerless classic "(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Day," the late Redding’s widow, Zelma, publicly praised him. "It brought tears to my eyes," she told Jet. "It reminded me so much of my husband that I know if he heard it, he would feel the same."