A chameleon of the music world, Heart has transformed its style and membership countless times over the years. Yet at the centre of this lively group, the Wilson sisters and the men with whom they played created a phenomenon which thrived on folk music and rock, leaving a legacy of memorable anthems and contributing greatly to the formation of the genre of arena rock.
Heart’s first incarnation was as an all-male group known as The Army, made up of bassist Steve Fossen and brothers, Roger and Mike Fisher. Formed in Seattle in 1963, the group changed its name a number of times in the late Sixties and early Seventies, becoming Hocus Pocus and then White Heart. However, the band’s evolution was far from complete. It was only in 1970 that a female influence began to shape the group into the world-renowned sensation that it has become.
It was at that time that singer and flute player Ann Dustin Wilson became the band’s lead vocalist. The fact that her father was a Marine Corps captain meant that, although born in California on 19 June 1950, Wilson and her sister Nancy had lived somewhat nomadically until that point, growing up in Southern California and Taiwan before settling in Seattle, Washington.
With Mike Fisher avoiding the Vietnam draft by living in Vancouver, Canada, Heart was then comprised of Roger Fisher, Steve Fossen and Wilson. As the group toured the US’s Pacific Midwest, the power of Wilson’s voice became evident and, by the time the tour had ended, Roger Fisher was convinced of Wilson’s star quality. Roger’s brother, Mike Fisher, also fell under Wilson’s spell and, before it had even released one record, the band faced an unexpected obstacle: Mike Wilson moved to Canada as the two fell in love.
The loss of its lead singer threatened to tear the fledgling band apart, yet Roger Fisher and Fossen refused to let it die. Convinced of the group’s potential, they moved to Vancouver to join their band mates. By 1974, the ensemble began to take an altogether different form. As a first step, the group once again decided to change its name, finally becoming Heart.
This modification was shortly followed by a transformation of the group’s membership. Mike Fisher became the band’s manager and new faces joined the fold. John Hannah signed up to play keyboard and Brian Johnstone, drums, although the two musicians would only stay for a year.
It was the addition of the third new member, Ann’s younger sister, Nancy Lamoureux Wilson, which would alter Heart’s fate forever. Born on 16 March 1954, Nancy had been performing as a folk singer before she became the guitarist, mandolin player, vocalist and pianist for the now six-piece. Like her sister before her, the younger Wilson became involved with a band member, Roger Fisher. The spectacle of two sisters dating two brothers added to the band’s appeal, making it a powerful gang of firm friends in addition to its musical talents.
Heart began to establish itself as a prominent force in the Canadian music world, attracting a dedicated following. With the help of producer Mike Flicker and keyboard player and guitarist Howard Leese, they went on to record a demo tape in the hope of gaining a recording contract. Following the addition of Leese as a full-time member, Heart even went on to record an album, despite being unrepresented at the time.
The result caught the attention of fledgling Canadian record company, Mushroom Records. Impressed by their music, Mushroom’s owner, Shelly Siegel, immediately signed the group and released ‘Dreamboat Annie’ (1975) in Canada. Initial sales were disappointing, but soon rocketed to 300,000 copies. Mushroom seized on the album’s success and released it south of the border. The move worked. With hits such as ‘Magic Man’ and the Vietnam War-inspired ‘Crazy on You’, the album would go on to sell over one million copies leading Rolling Stone to dub it “the left-field commercial success of the year”.
Heart, which had by now enlisted drummer Michael Derosier as a member, continued to play in local establishments. The rebellious group were in fact fired from their final Canadian performance after refusing to abide by a club’s rules. However, it seemed that luck was on the side of the feisty clan, for it was on this same night that rock legend Rod Stewart requested that they be his opening act.
Despite going from strength to strength, Heart found itself in a dispute with Mushroom over a controversial advertising campaign. Unable to resolve their differences, the band decided it was time to enlist the help of a more powerful record label in the form of Portrait, which was a CBS (now Sony BMG) affiliate.
Yet, even upon returning to the US in 1977, Heart could not shake off its Canadian past. Just as the band was ready to release its follow up to ‘Dreamboat Annie’, they faced a confrontation with the woman who had helped ignite their career. Angered by what she viewed as a betrayal, Siegel released the unauthorised ‘Magazine’ (1978), an unfinished album made up of some of Heart’s studio demos and live recordings.
Heart demanded that the record be recalled and a bitter court battle ensued. A Seattle court eventually found middle ground by ruling that the album be withdrawn to allow the band to rerecord and finish it. Heart reluctantly obliged and ‘Magazine’ was re-released in 1978, selling over a million copies.
In the meantime, the band released their true second album, ‘Little Queen’ (1977). Maintaining the same line up that had spawned ‘Dreamboat Annie’ proved a shrewd move. The record, which included the rock anthem, ‘Barracuda’, went triple platinum, cementing Heart’s place in rock history.
The next year, propelled by their achievements, the band released their third offering, ‘Dog and Butterfly’ (1978). Fans were not disappointed and the album raced to number 17 on the Billboard Charts, its 36-week stay in the top 100 garnering it double platinum status. With Heart established as a formidable team, it seemed that their previous days of turmoil were over. However, a series of events would soon unfold to change the band’s course once again.
In 1979, amidst rumours of drugs and infidelity, Nancy Wilson and Roger Fisher’s relationship came to an end, as did Roger’s time with Heart. This breakdown was followed within a month by the demise of Ann Wilson’s relationship with Mike Fisher, instigating his retirement from the group. As two pillars of the band collapsed, it seemed inevitable that Heart would disintegrate. Now just the Wilson sisters, Derosier, Fossen and Leese, Heart was once again at a crossroads.
The Wilson sisters grasped the opportunity. Empowered by what they saw as their new found freedom, the siblings drove forward on to Heart’s next release, ‘Bebe le Strange’ (1980). The album was the first of Heart’s releases to achieve only gold status rather than platinum. It seemed clear that, whilst still popular, Heart could not command the nation’s attention as it once had. Nevertheless, the group continued to record over the next two years and, despite struggling with increasing internal disputes, released ‘Private Audition’ in 1982.
This would be the final Heart offering featuring long-term members Derosier and Fossen, who were both fired the day after recording ended. By the time Heart released their next album, ‘Passionworks’ (1983), the two had been replaced by Denny Carmassi and Mark Andes, leaving only Howard Leese as one of the original members. It seemed the damage was done. Both albums fell short of even gold status, each selling less than 500,000 copies. With two failures in quick succession, Heart was written off by the recording industry.
Yet the resilience that had served her well in the past did not desert Ann Wilson. After recording a solo track which featured on the soundtrack to the film ‘Footloose’ (1984), she turned her attention back to the band which had made her a star. In 1985, Heart released a self-titled album under their new label, Capitol. The Wilson sisters seemed to have cast off their rock roots, and ‘Heart’ (1985) featured pure pop tracks including ‘What About Love?’ and ‘These Dreams’. Fans seemed to approve and, in addition to five million album sales, four of the songs became top-ten hits. Having proven themselves worthy of a comeback, Heart went on to release two more hit albums, ‘Bad Animals’ (1987), followed in 1990 by ‘Brigade’.
Yet, just as they were gaining confidence in their abilities, Ann Wilson came under scrutiny. The formerly svelte siren began to gain weight, raising fears with Heart’s record label and even some of the band members that she posed a risk to their image. As the pressure intensified, both sisters felt that the situation was untenable and decided to “save themselves”. In 1990, the siblings formed a new band, The Lovemongers, in an attempt to clean the slate. Heart had broken up.
After a brief attempt to resurrect the band with a new line-up in 1993 and the release of the commercial failure, ‘Desire Walks On’ (1993), Heart entered a hiatus which would see each Wilson sister concentrating on their personal lives and other projects.
It was only in 2002 that Ann and Nancy Wilson reformed again as Heart. The band toured in a number of different guises and line ups. Releasing more material, including another album, ‘Jupiter’s Darling’ (2004), it seemed that fans and critics had never deserted them. Rolling Stone even quipped that the latter offering was “magic, man”.
The band returned to the spotlight in 2007 when it was honoured by VH1 and then unexpectedly drew more attention the next year, this time in the unlikely arena of politics. Republican candidate, Sarah Palin marked her exit from the 2008 Republican National Convention with Heart’s ‘Barracuda’. Outraged by the unauthorised use of their hit, the Wilson sisters issued a scathing statement emphasising that Palin “in no way represents us as American Women”. The incident served not only as an attack on the Republican Party, but also shone a light on the universal appeal and relevance of a band which many thought had died long ago.
A journey across state borders and through emotional minefields provided a backdrop for one of the great musical influences of rock. Whilst some may dispute which of the numerous line-ups is the real Heart, few would disagree that the power of their music and the charisma of the Wilson sisters was a potent combination which catapulted them to stardom. It seems that, no matter the hurdles which block their way, Heart will always find a way to keep on beating.