Ted Nugent was one of the more polarizing figures in popular music for over five decades, garnering hit records and devoted fans for his ferocious guitar playing and testosterone-soaked rock paeans to dirty good fun, while also earning an equal share of praise and brickbats for his ultra-conservative stance on hunting, gun ownership, liberalism and any other subject he deemed worthy of his incendiary comments. Politics aside, Nugent was a genuinely thrilling performer, capable of whipping a crowd to a frenzy with blazing renditions of his biggest hits, including "Cat Scratch Fever," "Stranglehold" and "Dog Eat Dog" as well as a barrage of profane stage patter and off-stage hijinks that cemented his status as a rock wildman on par with Jerry Lee Lewis, Keith Moon and other outlaw figures. Though the 1980s and 1990s were a largely fallow period for Nugent, save for his brief tenure in the rock supergroup Damn Yankees, the new millennium saw him return to prominence on the strength of his gonzo heritage, as well as political and social statements that placed him to the right of even the most extreme conservatives. Nugent's beliefs endeared him to groups like the National Rifle Association, which made him a member of its board of directors, and talk show hosts like Glenn Beck, who called upon him to generate free publicity with his outrageous comments. Unfortunately, Ted Nugent's taste for political bombast often outshone his undeniable talent as a devoted practitioner of rock-n-roll at its loudest and wildest.
Born Theodore Anthony Nugent on Dec. 13, 1948 in Redford, Michigan, he was one of four children raised by his father, Army staff sergeant Warren Henry Nugent, and his wife, Marion. By all accounts, his childhood was marked by strict discipline from his father, who installed the staunch anti-drug and alcohol stance that carried throughout his son's life and career. Nugent also began bow hunting at an early age, which was soon joined by guitar as the primary interests of the preteen boy. By the early 1960s, Nugent had done time in several early bands before forming the Amboy Dukes while living in Chicago in 1965. Upon returning to Detroit, he launched a new version of the Dukes, which quickly established a name for itself on the Motor City club circuit thanks to a blend of ur-metal power and R&B groove that was in line with many of the area's more popular underground acts like the Stooges, MC5 and Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels.
The Amboy Dukes scored a modest hit with "Journey to the Center of the Mind" (1968), a stellar showcase for Nugent's guitar skills, though he claimed ignorance about the song's obviously drug-based subject matter. But a seemingly endless string of lineup changes essentially left Nugent as its core member, which precipitated a moniker change to Ted Nugent & The Amboy Dukes, as they were billed for Call of the Wild (1971), their debut LP for Frank Zappa's DiscReet Records. By 1975, Nugent retired the Dukes in favor of a solo career, which launched with the release of an eponymous LP for Epic Records. Backed by a stellar group that included fellow Detroit club veteran Derek St. Holmes on vocals and backing guitar, the album featured the single "Stranglehold," a sinuous, eight-minute workout that underscored both Nugent's somewhat brutish stance on male-female relations, as well as his talent for high-voltage guitar work.
Nugent quickly built a sizable fan base through ceaseless coast-to-coast touring, which were anchored by Nugent's extensive jamming and unhinged stage presence, which included but was not limited to profane between-song patter and swinging onto stage wearing a caveman-styled loincloth. After hours, however, Nugent was a strict, demanding bandleader, which rankled many of his fellow musicians, including St. Holmes, who left the group during the recording of their second album, Free-For-All (1976). A then-unknown Meat Loaf handled most of the vocals for the album, which shot to No. 24 on the Billboard albums chart on the strength of the single "Dog Eat Dog," among other anthems. St. Holmes returned for the ensuing tour and its follow-up album, Cat Scratch Fever (1977), another monster hit thanks to the title track and party-hearty anthems like "Live It Up" and the jaw-dropping "Wang Dang Sweet Poontang." Nugent then took a page from fellow arena rock warriors KISS by sending his career into the stratosphere with a concert album, Double Live Gonzo! (1978). The double LP preserved the unhinged atmosphere of Nugent's live dates, with versions of "Stranglehold" and another early single, "Motor City Madhouse" that exceeded the demands of even the most rabid guitar solo addict. By the end of the 1970s, Nugent was among the biggest live draws in the United States, where he claimed the highest concert grosses of the year between 1977 and 1979.
But his grip on the music charts loosened with the dawn of the 1980s, due in part to the departure of longtime bandmates like St. Holmes, who had tired of Nugent's authoritarian stance. His albums began to sound like tired carbon copies of his 1970s efforts, and releases like State of Shock (1980) and a second concert LP, Intensities in 10 Cities (1981), failed to shore up any substantive chart hits, while a string of ill-advised business ventures had left him bankrupt. Nugent coasted through the 1980s, releasing several low-selling records before kowtowing to the pop-metal scene with Damn Yankees, a supergroup that included Tommy Shaw of Styx and Night Ranger bassist Jack Blades. Their self-titled debut album, released in 1990, went multi-platinum thanks to the power ballad "High Enough," which reached No. 3 on the Billboard singles chart. But its follow-up, Don't Tread (1992), failed to repeat the same degree of success, and Nugent soon returned to his solo career.
The success of Damn Yankees returned Nugent to the spotlight, where he made full use of electronic media for both his music career and various political standpoints. In 1994, he starred in "Spirit of the Wild," a quartet of television specials for Midwestern Public Television that provided him with a soapbox for his passion for bow hunting and conservative politics. The show's theme song also provided him with the title of a 1995 album that featured the return of Derek St. Holmes to the fold. Spirit of the Wild, which hewed closer to Nugent's hard rock sound of the 1970s than the lighter fare from Damn Yankees, led to renewed interest in his vintage material, which Nugent fed with a slew of releases, including the three-disc boxed set Out of Control (1993) and remastered reissues of his first three solo albums. Nugent also hosted a top-rated morning radio show on Detroit's WWBR-FM in 1996 and became an in-demand guest on talk shows, where he voiced his opinion on animal rights and various conservative issues. In 1998, he was the subject of one of the more eyebrow-raising episodes of "Behind the Music" (VH1, 1997- ), which discussed, among other matters, his 1978 relationship with Pele Massa, a 17-year-old Hawaiian native whose parents signed over legal guardianship of their daughter to Nugent.
The new millennium saw Nugent launch a virtual blitzkrieg upon media consumers through a variety of showcase projects, most of which focused on his outdoorsman persona. He hosted the VH1 reality series "Surviving Nugent" (2003), which had B-list celebrities learn survival skills from the singer, while 2005's Wanted: Ted or Alive (OLN/NBC Sports Network) saw contestants competing to hunt with Nugent by completing various wilderness tasks. He also penned an autobiography, God, Guns & Rock n' Roll (2001) and boasted a sizable stable of hunting-related businesses, including a hunting camp and supply store. During this period, Nugent's tone regarding issues of gun control, hunting and various conservative issues took on a strident tone that did much to neutralize his carefully conceived public persona as a likable "man's man." Comments about President Barack Obama and other prominent Democrats were graced with various obscene statements or gestures, including a 2012 statement at a NRA convention in which he declared that if Obama was re-elected, he would either be dead or in jail while also encouraging listeners to decapitate Democratic contenders. The comment earned Nugent a visit from the Secret Service and a ban from playing a concert at Fort Knox. Nugent surprised many with his stone-faced presence at Obama's State of the Union address in February 2013, which found him an aisle mate with Pink Martini bandleader Thomas Lauderdale, a longtime liberal activist.
By Paul Gaita