In 1973 Aerosmith’s eponymous first album was selling poorly, and as a result the band were close to being dropped by their label. At this low point Steven Tyler however was able to draw on something that harked back to when he was just a few years old, and used to lie under the piano as his father played; because that was where he got the original chordage for Dream On. Tyler developed the idea into an early draft on his piano when he was a teenager and then eventually completed it when he was living with the rest of the band a number of years later. Despite their serious doubts, Columbia were persuaded to release it as the band’s first single, and it reached number 59 in the US charts. It was then re-released in late 1975, eventually peaking at number 6, and the band would be forever more in the spotlight.
Steven Victor Tallarico was born on 26 March, 1948, into a family that had a strong Italian heritage but which also contained an extraordinary range of other ethnicities, including Polish, German, English, Ukranian and African American. His father Victor was a particular influence on him as he was a Julliard trained classical musician who taught music and had played at the Carnegie Hall.
As the family had a piano Tyler was soon taking classes but later explained: “I sat at the piano when they tried to give me lessons but I started yawning and so I got whacked – I was from an Italian family. I was into the drums. My friend down the street had a set of Slingerlands; I couldn’t believe such things were built! So my father bought me a set and I would play drums in his band in the summertime.”
Music was an escape for the young Tyler because at school he was being mercilessly bullied, but ironically this also seems to have provided him with some of his drive to be successful in a band. “I was beaten up at school and called pinhead, n***** lips and queer, but when I got in a band and played at school and saw Sally sitting in the corner [I could see that she] liked me [laughs]; it’s all about that, you know!”
The Everly Brothers were a huge influence on him.“It was the first time I felt sexual feelings – in their harmonies lived something so wonderful that I had never heard,” he said. “[However I really] wanted to become a rock star after I saw Janis Joplin when I was 15, and I heard her sing. I couldn’t believe she was smoking on stage, drinking Southern Comfort and singing like no other. She could sing a song entitled Take a Little Piece of my Heart and deliver it beautifully.”
At 17 Tyler went to see a Rolling Stones concert in New York, and even "got to touch them." "Everybody told me that I looked just like Mick Jagger,” he said, “and Keith Richards basically was the music I used to love more than anything."
Stories differ about how Tyler actually first met ‘his Keith Richards’, guitarist Joe Perry. One version has it that in 1969, Tyler attended a local rock show in Sunapee, New Hampshire, where he first met Perry and bassist Tom Hamilton, and was impacted by the energy of their playing. In another interview Tyler says he was in a car with his family when “we came from this place called The New Anchorage restaurant in New Hampshire and we stopped. There I had the best french fries I’d ever tasted and later I went back to see who made them and there was Joe in horn-rimmed glasses, hair down to here… just the kind of guy I wanted for a brother for the rest of my life – and I got him!” In another version Tyler says he had a fight with the guitarist in his band at the time and hitched home. “The next day I got up crying and mowed the lawn, like I have been doing all my life, and up comes Joe Perry in an MG with his horn-rimmed glasses and I said ‘hey man what are you doing up here?’ and he said ‘come and see my band tonight!’ I saw them and I thought if I can add what I do to what he is doing […] I’ve got a band.”
The band that Tyler, Perry, and Hamilton formed was joined by Joey Kramer, an old acquaintance of Tyler's from New York, who was recruited to play drums after Tyler insisted that he wanted to be lead singer. Another of his childhood friends, Ray Tabano, was enrolled to play rhythm guitar and in 1970 they all moved to Boston where they felt they had more chance of developing their career. However at this point it became clear that Tabano failed to show the level of commitment the group sought and so Brad Whitford took over his role.
The group soon attracted the attention of New York managers David Krebs and Steve Leber which, in early 1972, led to a gig at the iconic Max's Kansas City and being signed by Columbia Records. In the following two years they released the albums Aerosmith and Get Your Wings; however it was not until the release of Toys in the Attic (1975) and Rocks (1976), that they really started to gain a following. In particular singles Sweet Emotion, Dream On, Walk This Way, Last Child, Back in the Saddle, and Home Tonight all helped them create big waves.
By 1976, Aerosmith were headlining at stadiums and large rock festivals. Tyler made the cover of Rolling Stone, and the track Draw the Line, along with constant touring, helped them grow further. A reworking of the Beatles Come Together marked a particular high water mark, but it also signalled a period of nearly a decade where rows, drugs and exhaustion took prominence over hits.
It is worth highlighting at this point that Tyler and Perry’s relationship, for both good and ill, formed the heart of the band. Tyler has commented that hearing Perry pick out a melody, perhaps on his Fender Custom Telecaster or his Gibson Joe Perry 1996 Les Paul Custom, would inspire him to write lyrics and grow a song. On the other hand, Tyler has described the band as the ‘most dysfunctional on the planet’ as they have broken up at least five times, including on one occasion after a gig in July 1979 when Perry left Aerosmith to start his own band, The Joe Perry Project. However ‘breaking up and then making up’ for Tyler evokes new emotions and helps create the stimulus for new albums and tours, and that euphoria of rebirth has always created magic. “There is love but there is also co-dependency,” he says.
That co-dependency famously extends to drug taking. The ‘toxic twins’, as they are often known, have consumed what Tyler once estimated at around five million dollars of cocaine and heroin, among other substances, since he was expelled from school for smoking marihuana.“It is not my fault [that we have broken up so many times],” Tyler says in one interview, ”I am a drug addict. I’m as good a drug addict as I am a singer.”
Tyler was once asked: ‘could Aerosmith have been successful without drugs?’ and his response was “from ‘71 to ‘79 we played every state in America seven times and we couldn’t have done all that touring without that Peruvian Marching Powder, Methamphetamine […] I snorted half of Peru […]”, he says, “I am tempted by the euphoric recall.”
Tyler’s drug taking has resulted in a number of accidents, some of which have caused major changes in both his life and that of the band. While his worst period of addiction is said to have been between 1979 and 1982, in August 2009 for example, he fell off the stage because, he said later, he had been sniffing too much cocaine. That fall resulted in a broken shoulder and a head wound that required 20 stitches. On another occasion concerts had to be cancelled because of a leg injury he sustained when a 20 pound microphone stand smashed into his knee during an encore. A motorbike crash and problems with his feet also required surgery and extended hospital stays, and have sometimes caused ruptions within the band. In one interview he says he regrets a lot of that “because when the curtain goes up and there’s 80,000 people, that really is the biggest rush in the world.”
Another ‘euphoric recall moment’ occurred in 1986 when Tyler completed drug rehabilitation and Aerosmith arose again when Tyler and Joe Perry joined Run-DMC for a reworking of their classic Walk This Way. The song, which combined elements of hip-hop and rock, hit the Top 5 and rejuvenated the band. The albums Permanent Vacation, Pump, Get a Grip and Nine Lives followed, which led to long world-wide tours.
Since then Tyler has embarked on several solo projects and worked closely with Alice Cooper, Mötley Crüe, Santana, and Pink, participated in a number of films and even been a judge on American Idol: “it was a risk and something to do other than the day job. We had just done a big tour of America and Europe and I thought ‘what the heck I’ll give it a try!’ I like to jump into things that I’m not sure of,” he said.
In 2001, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with Aerosmith and, in 2013, Tyler and Perry were inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame.
Outside of music Tyler is a long time motorbike fanatic and has designed his own bikes. He has said that one of the great pleasures of his life is getting on a plane where no-one can call him, and he can read the magazine Popular Mechanics in peace. As a philanthropist he established Janie's Fund in 2015 – named after the band’s 1989 track Janie's Got a Gun – to provide support for young female victims of abuse.
However, it is Aerosmith that continues to provide him with his greatest occupational happiness. “There isn’t a day when I don’t wake up and think how lucky I am to be in this band. It’s phenomenal […], I look around the stage and I see the original band - Joey, Kramer, Tom Hamilton - we are just like we were 40 years ago, coming to your town to [have] fun,” he concludes. “It’s been a magical journey!”