Drummers have had to learn to live with satirical jokes about their musicianship or aspects of their personalities, but Taylor Hawkins proved that the drummer could be a star in his own right, and also that being a drummer could co-exist happily with being a singer, songwriter and bandleader.
Hawkins, who has died suddenly aged 50 while on tour with Foo Fighters in Colombia, had been a member of the group since 1997. His first album with them was There Is Nothing Left to Lose (1999), which reached the Top 10 in the US and the UK and brought them their first Grammy award (for best rock album).
Hawkins was at the drumkit for seven further Foo Fighters albums, as they established themselves as one of the world’s top rock acts drawing devoted hordes of fans internationally. To date they have won 12 Grammys, and their consistently successful albums have topped the US album chart twice and the UK chart five times. Their latest album, Medicine at Midnight, is nominated for three Grammys, with the awards ceremony due on 3 April.
In addition to his musicianship, Hawkins brought humour, enthusiasm and personality to the group. As well as singing on the Foo Fighters songs Cold Day in the Sun and Sunday Rain, he would often sing cover versions with the band and was a regular songwriting contributor on their albums. Recent live shows had found him seizing the microphone to step into Freddie Mercury’s shoes – not a job for the faint-hearted – and perform an outsized version of Queen’s Somebody to Love, as he did at his final performance with the band at Lollapalooza Argentina on 20 March.
Meanwhile he always threw himself into his work behind the drums with passionate, arm-flailing intensity. His blond hair and athletic frame gave him the air of having just stepped out of the California surf, accentuated by his fondness for sleeveless T-shirts and Bermuda shorts. But he combined showmanship with technical skill, coupled with a knowledge and respect for musical history.
He recalled how attending a Queen concert in 1982 was a life-changing experience – “it was the beginning of my obsession with rock’n’roll, and I knew that I wanted to be in a huge rock band”.
One of his main inspirations was Queen’s drummer Roger Taylor, alongside the Police’s Stewart Copeland, Phil Collins, U2’s Larry Mullen and Stephen Perkins from Jane’s Addiction. He also picked up some tips from the jazz drummers Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich.
Hawkins was born in Fort Worth, Texas, to Terry Hawkins, a businessman, and his wife, Elizabeth Ann. He had two older siblings, Heather and Jason. In 1976 the family moved to Laguna Beach, California, and Hawkins graduated from Laguna Beach high school in 1990. When he was 10 his parents bought him a drum kit, which proved to be a pivotal moment.
“I was a fat, chubby, stupid kid who failed at everything and whom nobody liked,” he later recalled. “Then I started playing drums.” His mother was always supportive of his efforts at singing and playing drums. “She was a big supporter and told me I’d make it,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald. “She counteracted Dad’s stony coldness, typical of a 1970s man.”
He began performing with local groups, and after being drummer for the progressive rock-influenced outfit Sylvia he joined the backing group for the vocalist Sass Jordan. Then his profile received a major boost when he was recruited to join Alanis Morissette’s band as she toured her 1995 breakthrough album Jagged Little Pill (it sold more than 30m copies worldwide). Hawkins appeared in the video for You Oughta Know, the album’s first single, which helped trigger its meteoric success, and also in the video for You Learn.
It was while he was touring with Morissette that Hawkins got to know Dave Grohl, founder of Foo Fighters, since they would often be on the same festival bills. The pair immediately struck up a close rapport on both a personal and musical level, as Grohl described. “Our musical relationship – the foundation of that is our friendship, and that’s why when we jump up on stage and play, we’re so connected, because we’re best friends.”
When Foo Fighters needed a drummer in 1997, after William Goldsmith quit during the making of the band’s second album, The Colour and the Shape, Hawkins was the obvious choice. The fact that he also had ambitions as a singer and songwriter meant that he had little hesitation in giving up his job with Morissette.
Alongside his Foo Fighters work, Hawkins released three albums with his band, Taylor Hawkins and the Coattail Riders, played cover versions with Chevy Metal, released an album with the Birds of Satan, and had another album due for release in 2022 with NHC, which featured Hawkins alongside Dave Navarro and Chris Chaney from Jane’s Addiction.
Hawkins is survived by his wife, Alison, whom he married in 2005, and their children, Oliver, Annabelle and Everleigh.
• Oliver Taylor Hawkins, drummer, singer and songwriter, born 17 February 1972; died 25 March 2022