If you only know singer and songwriter Marc Cohn for his greatest hit, “Walking in Memphis,” you only know half the story behind this American folk-rock singer. Cohn’s career is more complex than one international hit song and includes a hard-fought rise to fame, a self-imposed 10-year sabbatical from the music industry, and a tragedy that nearly took his life.

In 2016, Marc Cohn is celebrating the 25th anniversary of his platinum album, Marc Cohn, which included his mega-hit, “Walking in Memphis.” As Cohn looks back on an illustrious career, music fans around the world should take a moment to reflect on a life that has survived ups and downs, while still producing music the world craves.

A Cross-Country Journey

Cohn has literally travelled from sea to shining sea in the United States in search of the musical career he now enjoys. Born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1959, Cohn stayed close to home throughout high school. As a young man, he learned to play the guitar in junior high, and even began to write some of his own songs around the same time. He was also part of a local band called Doanbrook Hotel, in which he both played the guitar and sang.

After graduating from Beachwood High School in suburban Cleveland, he eventually made the first of two cross-country treks during college. He started his college life at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. While there he taught himself the piano, and eventually felt an increased pull toward a career as a musician.

Taking a chance on music, Cohn transferred to UCLA in Los Angeles, California, and spent his free time performing in coffeehouses throughout the LA metropolitan area. Once his college career was over at UCLA, he made another big move across the country. This time, the move represented a huge gamble. He was betting on his own musical talent and determination to help him get a foot in the door of the music industry.

Following graduation, he relocated to New York City to chase his ambitions as a singer and songwriter. He spent much of his early time there demoing his music for writers such as Jimmy Webb and Mike Stoller. His career started off humbly enough, working as a backup artist in recording sessions for other artists.Growth of a Folk Rock Legend

Marc Cohn performs at the Ottawa Bluesfest

Marc Cohn performs at the Ottawa Bluesfest which was established in 1994.
Photo: Paul McKinnon

Growth of a Folk Rock Legend

Cohn established himself on solid footing in the industry in 1986. He assembled at 14-piece cover band that played at the wedding of Caroline Kennedy, the current United States Ambassador to Japan and only surviving child of US President John F. Kennedy. One year later Cohn would lend his vocal talents to a Phil Ramone-produced album featuring Andrew Lloyd Webber material, singing in, “One Rock and Roll Too Many” and “Pumping Iron.”

For a time, his career continued as a cover band artist and backup performer. In 1989 he was a backup pianist for Tracy Chapman’s second album, which landed him a contract with Atlantic Records. This led directly to Cohn’s debut studio album, the 1991 self-titled, Marc Cohn. Within a year of its release, the album was certified gold by the RIAA and went on to achieve platinum status in 1996.

The hit song, “Walking in Memphis”, contributed to much of the success of his debut album, earning nominations at the 34th Annual Grammy Awards for Song of the Year and Best Pop Vocal. Although the song itself did not win, Cohn was victorious on the night as the Grammy Award winner for Best New Artist.

To attribute the future success of his career to one song on that debut album would be foolish. For example, “True Companion”, from the same album, became an immensely popular song amongst couples. In fact, it served as the background music for a marriage proposal that occurred on The Tonight Show, starring Johnny Carson.

A Change of Course

Cohn’s career continued on a positive path in 1993 with the release of his second studio album, The Rainy Season, but his career was about to undergo numerous changes in direction. Some of these were chosen and some were the result of unforeseen circumstances.

His second album featured guest appearances from notable performers such as David Crosby, Graham Nash, and Bonnie Raitt. He spent much of the 1990s touring the world, including a visit to Australia where he performed alongside Raitt, who was the headliner on the tour. While he was in Australia, he felt called to rediscover his love of poetry and writing that served as a backbone for so much of his early work.

To that end, his song, “My Great Escape”, appeared in the 1995 film by Peter Horton entitled The Cure. Cohn would go through a stretch of relative inactivity in the coming years, not releasing a third studio album until 1998. Almost immediately after doing so he took a decade-long sabbatical from the music industry. He would return to music in 2007, but he would be a changed man and have a new fire fueling his passions.

Elizabeth Vargas and Marc Cohn attend the premiere of "Les Miserables" in New York

TV personality Elizabeth Vargas and Marc Cohn attend the premiere of “Les Miserables” at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York City. Photo: Debby Wong

Surviving the Unthinkable

Although Cohn was on a sabbatical from 1998 to 2007, he wasn’t completely removed from the musical industry. In fact, in 2005 Cohn self-released a live album entitled Live 04-05. He also continued to tour and perform his music live around the country. In 2005, Cohn was co-headlining a national tour with Suzanne Vega when his life changed forever.

After an August 7, 2005, performance in Denver, Cohn and his band mates were leaving the site of a tour stop when he was shot in the head during an attempted carjacking. News reports at the time cited a disturbance that started at a nearby hotel and proceeded out in the streets. As a suspect fled hotel security after trying to use a credit card (presumably stolen), he attempted to hijack the tour van driven by Cohn’s driver.

As the driver swerved to try and avoid the carjack, the individual began firing into the vehicle. While the passengers tried to duck and avoid the gunfire, Cohn was struck in the head. The bullet just missed his eye and lodged in his right temple. Doctors were able to remove the bullet, but in a later interview, Cohn revealed just what that night was like, including how close to death he had come:

“I touched myself and there was blood all over my hands and my clothes. And I realised I was the one who’d been hit. Every second that passed by I thought that’s the last one, that’s the last second I’ll be here. I hear Shayne (Fontayne) who’s in the back yelling at Jay to try to gain control of the wheel. I think he assumed that if anybody had been shot, it was the driver….so I went and grabbed the wheel.”

Doctors later said that the bullet didn’t simply graze Cohn’s head, but had, in fact, hit him straight on. The bullet did not strike his skull with enough velocity to fracture it but instead was moving just slow enough to be stopped by his skull and held in position between his skull and skin by the soft tissue on the side of his head. Had Cohn been struck with any more force, the bullet would have fractured his skull and penetrated his brain.

If Cohn had moved even five centimetres more to the left when he himself spotted the shooter and yelled out, “duck,” the bullet would have penetrated his eye.

Marc Cohn’s Resurgence

By 2007, Cohn had recovered from his injuries and used that, and the horrific incidents surrounding Hurricane Katrina, to power a soulful and moving album release entitled Parade. His fourth studio album is, to date, his most critically acclaimed. The post-traumatic stress he suffered following the shooting, combined with the horrific scenes following Hurricane Katrina’s arrival in the southern US, provided inspiration for the emotion in the album as a whole, as well as the track, “Dance Back from the Grave.”

Cohn has since released (March 2016) an album entitled, Careful What You Dream: Lost Songs and Rarities, as well as a bonus album, Evolution of a Record. He is also performing on a concert tour in honour of the 25th anniversary of his debut album, proving that musical careers can survive ups and downs, as well as tragedies, and come out ahead.