Ben Harper is a Grammy Award–winning singer, songwriter and guitarist known for albums like Diamonds on the Inside and Give Till It’s Gone.
Born on October 28, 1969, in Pomona, California, Ben Harper grew up in a musical family and developed his craft as a singer-songwriter and guitarist. He has released albums known for their social consciousness and genre fusions, such as his debut Welcome to the Cruel World and Diamonds on the Inside, and has won Grammys for his work with the Blind Boys of Alabama. He was married to actress Laura Dern.
Background and Early Career
Musician Benjamin Chase Harper was born in Pomona, California, on October 28, 1969. He was brought up in a family of musicians, with his grandparents establishing the Folk Music Center and his mother and father trained as a singer-guitarist and percussionist, respectively.
Harper took to the guitar as well as a child, teaching himself to play, and would eventually grow to love playing his trademark Weissenborn lap guitars. After listening to hip-hop for a time, he immersed himself in the sounds of the blues, studying the music from figures like Robert Johnson and playing sets as a teen. He was asked to go on tour by iconic bluesman Taj Mahal, with whom he performed on television as well.
Socially Conscious Debut
J.P. Plunier eventually became Harper's manager and helped forge a deal in which the young musician signed with Virgin Records. Harper released his debut album, Welcome to the Cruel World, in 1994, which featured the songs "Like a King," which references both the dream of Martin Luther King Jr. and the beating of Rodney King, and "I Rise," with lyrics adapted from Maya Angelou's famous poem "Still I Rise."
Musical evidence of Harper's sociopolitical awareness continued with 1995's Fight for Your Mind, which was certified gold. Harper's lyrical themes were fueled by his experiences growing up with a mixed-ethnic heritage and experiencing racial prejudice. He also has a diverse musical palette that fuses often disparate categories like folk, soul, classic rock and alt-pop.
Harper's supporting band was billed as the Innocent Criminals, and his third album, The Will to Live, came forth in 1997, with Burn to Shine dropping two years later. Harper's first studio album of the new millennium was Diamonds on the Inside (2003), which showcased two spiritual songs recorded with South African artists Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Harper turned to gospel with his next album, There Will Be a Light, which he recorded with the Blind Boys of Alabama. As a result, Harper and the group received a Grammy for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album, while the track "11th Commandment" won Harper an award in the category of Best Pop Instrumental Performance.
His next two albums, the two-disc Both Sides of the Gun (2006) and Lifelines (2007), reached the top 10 of Billboard's main albums chart. Harper then teamed with the band Relentless7 to release 2009's White Lies for Dark Times.
In 2011, Harper continued his steady output with the rock- and funk-oriented full-length effort Give Till It's Gone, fronted by the rousing single "Rock n' Roll Is Free." The retrospective collection By My Side was released in the fall of 2012. Harper then teamed up with legendary blues harmonica player and guitarist Charlie Musselwhite for the 2013 album Get Up! Harper also signed a co-publishing agreement with BMG Chrysalis U.S. the same year.
Over the years, Harper has released several live albums, including Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals: Live From Mars (2001), Ben Harper and the Blind Boys of Alabama: Live at the Apollo (2005) and Ben Harper and Relentless7: Live From the Montreal International Jazz Festival (2010).
Marriage to Laura Dern
After a previous marriage, Harper wed actress Laura Dern in 2005, and the couple had two children. (Harper has two additional children from a previous marriage.) Citing irreconcilable differences, Harper filed for divorce in 2010. Though the couple attempted to reconcile, Dern re-started divorce proceedings in 2012.