Tommy Hoehn (1953 — ) is a gifted songwriter and musician from Tennessee who was one of the central artists in the American power pop movement during its heyday in the 1970s. His musical style is heavily influenced by The Beatles, local Memphis R&B, and the British punk movement (including more mainstream contemporaries like Badfinger). Hoehn's oeuvre is a curious hybrid of bubblegum pop, hard-driving rock (like The Who) and cerebral punk (a la Elvis Costello).
Born Thomas Forbes Hoehn in Memphis, Tennessee, his late father, Theodore William "Bill" Hoehn, Jr., was the wealthy owner of that city's sole Chevrolet dealership. Tommy grew up amongst the privileged white upper-class of Memphis during the 1960s, but eventually found himself to be the "black sheep" of the family - probably due to the cultural change in America at the time of his adolescence. Most of his siblings were older, and several of them followed in the family tradition of opening automobile franchises. Much to his family's disdain, Tommy's prevailing interest in private enterprise involved music, and he has followed that calling throughout his life, regardless of the costs.
Hoehn's professional career began through his close association with other young Memphis musicians during the late 1960s. His childhood friends included Chris Bell, Alex Chilton, Jody Stephens, Rick Clark, and a list of other recognizable names that are too lengthy to mention here. The "Anglo-pop" music scene in Memphis at the time was quite incestuous, and produced numerous interconnected bands such as the Clits, the Scruffs, and of course, the legendary Big Star. Everybody knew each other, played with each other, dated each other, and partied like there was no tomorrow. If you weren't playing R&B, Memphis was an island back then.
Fame, such as it was
After innumerable collaborations with other local musicians, Tommy's standing as a solo artist began to rise during the mid-1970s. He hit paydirt in 1975 with "Blow Yourself Up," a song that would help to shape the definition of power pop. It is featured on the 1993 Rhino Records' compilation D.I.Y.: Come Out and Play: American Power Pop (1975-78). Power pop as a genre is often mistaken for its watered-down sibling, New Wave.
The music industry began to take notice after Hoehn's 1977 debut album, Spacebreak, was released on the now-defunct Powerplay label. He signed a contract with the legendary London Records, and his London LP, Losing You to Sleep (1978), was very well received in Europe. Unfortunately, it hardly made a dent in the American charts, which was becoming dominated by disco music. While his fan base overseas continued to grow, Tommy was busy preparing a second album for London when the label was bought out by PolyGram and dropped him from their roster, along with dozens of other artists. Power pop was dead it seemed, but Hoehn would never accept this fate.
Still revered in Europe but largely unknown in the United States, Hoehn's efforts as a professional musician met with many obstacles following this setback. He released another album on his own in 1981, but without a distribution deal or the promotional backing of a major label, it quickly went nowhere. Nearly bankrupt at this point and having no one to sponsor his songwriting or recording, Tommy pretty much dropped off the cultural radar and into obscurity as a footnote in pop music history.
The silent years
After his major label deal with London tanked, Tommy's career went into a tailspin. During the 1980s and 1990s he worked diligently to promote himself and seek new interest in his songwriting. He continued to record whenever he could afford it, begging favors from Ardent Studios' owner John Fry and paying for studio time and production costs whenever he could raise the money. In the mean time he did his best to settle down in Nashville and raise a family with his wife Lesa. They have three children (to my knowledge, as of this writing): Forbes, 18, Tristan, 13, and Elizabeth, age 11.
In spite of Hoehn's modern obscurity as a popular artist, he has long been associated with the Memphis music scene of the 1970s, and these historical connections would eventually pay off in the fullness of time. Tommy's wife, Lesa Aldredge, is one of the sisters from whom Big Star's Third/Sister Lovers album takes its name. Around 1973-74 when this album was being recorded, Alex Chilton was dating Lesa, and Hoehn was dating Lesa's sister, making Hoehn and Chilton the "sister lovers" of the album's title. While Hoehn never recorded or performed with Big Star as a band, he has played and written music with Chilton and its other members, including its founder, the late Chris Bell, with whom he co-wrote the popular song "Cuba".
Eventually, the tide of popular musical trends shifted (as it always does), and the years of Hoehn's inhuman perseverance paid off. Scraping together the production work of nearly two decades of shoestring-funded studio recordings, Tommy found support for his work in Frankenstein Records, and secured distribution for two new albums in 1997. Another solo album followed in 1999, as well as a collaboration with fellow Memphis musician Van Duren in 2002. As I can find no information about the Frankenstein label on the Internet, I am left to speculate that this is a small independent label funded by private sources (perhaps even by Hoehn's own trust fund).
Tommy Hoehn's musical career is the story of a bright spark that died out far too soon. Critic Tim Sendra describes him in the All Music Guide as "another in a long line of musicians from Memphis who should have been big but never even came close." This realization has been made by nearly everyone from that place and time, but apparently not by Tommy. He refuses to give up his dream, and fights on to reclaim the fame and glory which was once in his grasp, but is probably lost forever.
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