Jack White: A Biography of Rock’s Enigmatic Virtuoso

who is jack white

Photo by David James Swanson

Jack White is an artist who has evolved in front of our eyes, from the frontman of the scrappy blues-rock duo The White Stripes to a world-class showman with a stage show worthy of the greats. Over the years, it has slowly become clear that we have been witnessing a rock icon in the making. The man is a guitar virtuoso with an unparalleled sense of confidence. White is the recipient of a staggering nine Grammy Awards in seven different categories. His company Third Man Records is an industry innovator that aims to remind listeners that music is sacred. And that’s just the beginning of his list of accomplishments.

So who is Jack White? Jack’s about to drop a new solo album titled Boarding House Reach (due 3/23), so now seems like a great time to take a look back at the life of this enigmatic showman.

Jack White: Child of Detroit

Jack White was born John Anthony Gillis on July 9, 1975. His parents, Teresa and Gorman Gillis, were a religious couple who named the boy after John the Baptist (source: Nick Hasted, Jack White: How He Built an Empire From the Blues). Jack was the youngest of ten children. He told Marc Maron, “I got nine brothers and sisters… I’m the last one. My mom was 45 when she had me, and it was seven years since the ninth child. So I was way tacked on at the end. It was basically like they found an orphan in the house. It was bizarre, all my brothers and sisters were like 21, they coulda been my parents.”

Jack was raised in Southwest Detroit in an area called Mexicantown. He lived at that house at 1203 Ferdinand Street for many years, and the house can be seen in various White Stripes videos and publicity photos.

As a young man, Jack launched a furniture upholstery business called Third Man Upholstery (source: ‘The Big Interview with Dan Rather: Jack White’). Jack would later use the name Third Man for his vinyl empire, as well as the company’s yellow-and-black color scheme (used for uniforms and branding).

The White Stripes

who is jack white

The White Stripes. Photo by Michael Morel

In 1996, John (Jack) Gillis and Megan (Meg) White were married, and Jack took Meg’s last name (source: Time, ‘White Lies and The White Stripes’). The following year, Jack and Meg White formed The White Stripes. The band told audiences and journalists that they were brother and sister, but official documents of their marriage and subsequent divorce eventually began circulating on the internet and in the press. Jack stubbornly refused to acknowledge the ruse, but came close during an interview with Rolling Stone. In that interview, Jack said he believed that a band of siblings would be perceived in a more favorable way than a band of lovers, saying, “You care more about the music, not the relationship — whether they’re trying to save their relationship by being in a band.”(source: Rolling Stone, ‘The Mysterious Case of the White Stripes’)

This sentiment – that music matters most – is characteristic of this intensely private man, who will direct your attention back to his art anytime an inquiry gets too personal.

Jack and Meg White were divorced in 2000.

The White Stripes were a guitar-and-drums duo that fused primal blues simplicity with raw rock aggression. The band also had a clever concept and brand: they dressed in red and white. This was another piece of mythology that the band spun for interviewers. In 2001, Jack explained his band’s wardrobe to Spin magazine, saying, “We walked into a drugstore and saw peppermint candies and thought, ‘That seems like our music: really childish. So those are our colors.’”

The White Stripes released their self-titled debut in 1999, and dropped their breakthrough sophomore album, De Stijl, the year after. To give you a sense of the band’s DIY beginnings, those two records were both recorded in Jack’s living room (source: Pitchfork: An Annotated Look At ‘White Blood Cells’). The band’s third record, White Blood Cells, was recorded during a six-day recording spree in a Memphis studio.

The band’s 2003 classic Elephant yielded their biggest hit: ‘Seven Nation Army,’ an unlikely mainstay at sports arenas worldwide to this day.

If you want to see the White Stripes at their most electrifying, watch their 2004 performance in Blackpool England, which was released as a live DVD titled Under Blackpool Lights. One highlight of this set is the band’s performance of Dolly Parton’s classic ‘Jolene.’ Dolly’s song was written from the perspective of a woman who is begging a younger rival not to take her man.

Jack opens the song by addressing the crowd. He asks about Blackpool Lights, which is an annual lights festival held in the seaside town dating back to 1879. Since The White Stripes had missed the festival by a few months, Jack asks the crowd if he’s in the right place at the wrong time, saying, “That’s how I feel every day.”

The performance of ‘Jolene’ is an absolute scorching ripper that boils over with anguish and menace.

In 2011, the The White Stripes announced their breakup on their website, saying, “The White Stripes would like to announce that today, February 2nd, 2011, their band has officially ended and will make no further new recordings or perform live.” The band have shared a few rarities since, like ‘City Lights,’ as well as an EP of their first show.

Third Man Records

Third Man Records was launched by Jack White in Detroit, MI in 2001. White opened his Third Man Records building in Nashville in 2009. This headquarters-slash-record store includes offices, a warehouse, a small concert venue called The Blue Room, and a 1947 fairground recording booth called Jack’s Voice-O-Graph (source: MOJO, Jack White Interview). Neil Young recorded an entire album called A Letter Home in that booth. According to Third Man, The Blue Room is the “world’s only live venue with direct-to-acetate recording capabilities.”

The label is known for its innovations in vinyl – such as when they played a record in space (technically it was still in Earth’s atmosphere but hey, whatever).

The Raconteurs

who is jack white

The Raconteurs were a group of musicians who were collaborating together on various projects before they had the realization that they were a band. Their debut, Broken Boy Soldiers, was released in 2006. For White Stripes fans, the Raconteurs offered a chance to hear Jack in the fleshed-out setting of a full rock band. If the White Stripes offered the precision attack of a sharp machete, the Raconteurs were a sledgehammer.

Jack told one interviewer that the Raconteurs came together organically, saying “We were all running in the same circles back in Detroit. We have been friends for so long and we have all played together in different ways over the years … We ended up playing a bunch of shows together in Detroit and from there, we all talked about making a record” (source: The Acquarian Weekly, ‘The Raconteurs: Interview with Jack White’). Primary songwriters White and Benson were sharing the responsibility of songwriting for the first time – and the result is a natural, dynamic push and pull between the sensibilities of the two men.

In the same interview, White summed up his ethos about music: “I feel bad for a generation that has to grow up and weave their way through technology and internet blogs, especially with all the cynicism, sarcasm and the jaded way of living, especially here in America. I just wish I could explain to them how much more beautiful and romantic it is to buy a vinyl record and crack it open and smell it. That to me is so much more romantic and powerful than reading some blog.”

The Raconteurs their second LP, Consolers of the Lonely, in 2008. Like The Dead Weather, it remains unclear if the band will perform or record together anytime soon.

The Dead Weather

who is jack white

Photo by Craig Carper

In 2009, Jack White debuted another supergroup called The Dead Weather. The band featured White, Alison Mosshart (The Kills, Discount), Dean Fertita (Queens of the Stone Age) and Jack Lawrence (The Raconteurs, The Greenhornes, City and Colour). White told Rolling Stone that the band began when he was ill and asked Mosshart to handle his vocal duties on part of The Raconteurs’ tour.

The Dead Weather have released three studio albums: Horehound (2009), Sea of Cowards (2010), and Dodge and Burn (2015). In 2017, Mosshart told NME that the door was open for a new Dead Weather album, pending availability of the group’s members.

‘Citizen Jack’

Jack White has a reputation as an eccentric. Many have compared him to the protagonist of Citizen Kane, Charles Foster Kane. White expressed an appreciation for Citizen Kane on the White Stripes song ‘The Union Forever,’ in which he repurposed dialogue from the film for the song’s lyrics. A Jack White biography by author Nick Hasted was even written with the working title Citizen Jack (source: Pop Matters, ‘How to Insult Jack White’).

White recently declared that no cellphones would be allowed at concerts on his 2018 tour – a decree that mirrors a similar policy enforced by another eccentric: Glenn Danzig, who recently banned cellphones from his Misfits reunion concerts. These two men actually have a lot in common; they’re both defiant rock deities who sometimes come across as overly serious and stuck in past.

In 2015, the music press had a field day when the University of Oklahoma published details of White’s performance at the University. The University said they paid Jack White over $80,000 for the performance, and they published the artist’s full 22-page contract and tour rider. It was a fascinating peek behind the curtains of major label tour life. White’s tour rider stipulated that this was a “no banana tour,” saying “Seriously. We don’t want to see bananas anywhere in the building.” It also calls for fresh guacamole, and includes an actual guacamole recipe that features the proviso, “please don’t make the guacamole too early before it’s served” (source: OU Daily, ‘Jack White concert costs OU over $80,000’).

Jack responded to claims that he was being a diva by releasing a letter through his former PR firm, Nasty Little Man. (Here’s a fun trivia fact for you: Nasty Little Man is the source of the Beastie Boys album title Hello Nasty. When the Beasties used to call Nasty Little Man, the receptionist would answer the phone saying, “Hello, Nasty.”)

Jack’s disdainful open letter to the media said “bananas: did it occur to anyone that someone on the tour might have an allergy to them? no? hmmm.” He also explained “this guacamole recipe is my hilarious tour manager’s inside joke with the local promoters; it’s his recipe, not mine” (source: The Telegraph, ‘Jack White’s very angry letter’).

He also expressed disappointment in the University’s decision to publish the contract, and said, “i know it’s a fun thing for people to try to turn me into a jerk and a diva, but in this case it’s pretty ridiculous and has almost nothing to do with me.”

Jack White’s Solo Career

Jack White has worked as a producer and performer in various capacities with artists including Alicia Keys, Loretta Lynn, Beck and The Rolling Stones. His debut solo album, Blunderbuss, was released in 2009. The album was met with critical acclaim; Rolling Stone called it “expansive and masterful” while Pitchfork said the record had “some of his best pure songwriting yet.” In 2014, White released Lazaretto, which also received praise.

When White stepped out on his own, White Stripes fans may have wondered if the enigmatic Detroit native could still bring the thunder in a solo context. If you’ve ever seen White live, you know the answer is a resounding yes.

White returns with Boarding House Reach this March; here is the album’s first single:


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