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In March, five new performers will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It's an eclectic group of selections, ranging from New Orleans funk giant Dr. John to gravel-voiced skid-row balladeer Tom Waits. But in spite of their differences, each of these singers adopted a special identity or image to stand out from the rest of the pack. Over the next several weeks, Morning Edition will look behind the stage personas of this year's inductees.
Vince Furnier's first stage costume was a Beatles wig. He and some buddies from the Cortez High School cross-country team in Phoenix entered a talent show in 1964, doing their impression of the Fab Four. They went over so well that they cut a record the following year. They called themselves the Spiders, and Furnier says they really took their stage image seriously.
"There was a giant web behind us. We wore all black," Furnier says. "We didn't just show up and stand up on stage, we appeared on stage."
And that became a key to the band's success. They headed for Los Angeles and a name change.
"That was the point where I said, 'Let's not be obvious. Let's not call ourselves the Tarantulas. Let's go the other way. Let's go for something that sounds like a little old lady," Furnier says. "I said, 'Alice Cooper,' and that just kind of stuck."
The band found that the more confusing their image was, the more gigs they got. Vince Furnier dressed his little old lady character in black leather pants. He borrowed his girlfriend's slip and threw some stage blood on it.
"And people would look at it and go, 'What the hell is that?' " says Furnier, now more popularly known as Alice Cooper.
Critics had the same reaction to the Alice Cooper band's first album, Pretties for You, which was released in 1969 on Frank Zappa's Straight Records label. Zappa saw Alice Cooper as a bizarre comedy act, but the band's first two albums tanked. Then, producer Bob Ezrin came in and took a song that was originally called "I'm Edgy" and turned it into the commercial pop hit "I'm Eighteen."
"He kept dumbing it down until it was a three-minute anthem for every kid that was 18 and an outcast," Cooper says.
The band kept building its image, staging theatrical concerts, which generally involved the character of Alice being executed, via hanging, electrocution or a guillotine. Once, he brought a live boa constrictor on stage. Rumors circulated that he bit the heads off of chickens, but Cooper insists they were just that: urban myths. Nevertheless, when Zappa got wind of the stories, he asked Cooper if they were true. Cooper denied them, to which Zappa responded, "Don't tell anyone else that," Cooper says.
A key to his persona has always been a sense of humor. Cooper appeared on The Muppet Show, and in a Staples commercial, playing a father shopping with a sullen daughter for school supplies.
"I think the shock value of Alice is over," Cooper says. "I don't think you can shock an audience anymore, really. I mean, Lady Gaga shocking? I don't think so."
Cooper knows that "image" is just that, and he's a bit bemused by some of the musicians who have followed in his footsteps.
"You get these bands that are, [growls] 'Oh-h-h, we are the Baby Eaters [or] we're the Satan Worshipers' and all this," Cooper says. "And then you meet them offstage and they're going, [meekly] 'Hello, Mister Cooper, this is my mother. She made cookies for you.' "
After all these years, the person behind the lyrics, the black leather and the mascara, is still ... a nice guy.