Meat Loaf obituary

<span>Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

Bat Out of Hell singer known for his powerful maelstrom of sound and spectacular live shows, including the Rocky Horror Show

If all he had ever done was record the album Bat Out of Hell, Meat Loaf, who has died aged 74, would still be guaranteed his own plinth in the museum of rock’n’roll. Released in Britain in early 1978, the album might have been conceived as the antidote to punk rock, which had been wreaking havoc on the music industry. The unlikely-looking figure of Meat Loaf stood at the centre of a bombastic maelstrom of sound, an operatic blend of heavy rock, fantasy lyrics, a choir of backing vocalists and long, multipart songs. It was rock’n’roll redesigned as gothic movie and Broadway spectacle.

Meat Loaf had met the songwriter Jim Steinman, his collaborator on Bat Out of Hell, when he auditioned successfully for Steinman’s musical More Than You Deserve in New York in 1973. The pair worked on the Bat Out of Hell material for several years and were rejected by numerous record companies before the album appeared on Cleveland International label, distributed by Epic Records. The album reminded many listeners of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, and its producer, Todd Rundgren, initially thought that Steinman and Meat Loaf were deliberately parodying Springsteen.

Sales of the record got off to a slow start – it took the airing of a three-song video on the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test to kick it off in Britain – but the album turned into a slow-burning phenomenon, becoming an almost permanent fixture on charts around the world on its way to selling 43m copies. In Britain, it has spent more than 500 weeks on the album chart.

Meat Loaf, right, with the songwriter Jim Steinman in 1978, the year they released their multimillion-selling album Bat Out of Hell.
Meat Loaf, right, with the songwriter Jim Steinman in 1978, the year they released their multimillion-selling album Bat Out of Hell. Photograph: Michael Putland/Getty Images

Though Meat Loaf enjoyed a follow-up hit in 1981 with the album Dead Ringer (another collaboration with Steinman and a UK chart-topper), he then suffered declining sales until he made lightning strike a second time by reuniting with Steinman for Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell (1993), which topped the charts in the US, the UK and several other countries, with sales of 20m. He completed the trilogy with Bat Out of Hell III: The Monster Is Loose (2006), although that managed to sell only a couple of million copies.

Meat Loaf was born Marvin Lee Aday in Dallas, Texas. His father, Orvis Aday, was a police officer, and his mother, Wilma (nee Artie), a schoolteacher and gospel singer with the Vo-di-o-do Girls quartet. Orvis was a notorious drunk, and Wilma would sometimes leave Marvin with her mother for safety when her husband had been drinking.

After Thomas Jefferson high school and a stint at Lubbock Christian college, Marvin enrolled at North Texas State University. A keen football player, he acquired his nickname after an impatient football coach yelled “hey, meatloaf!” at him.

When he was 20, a violent confrontation with his father prompted him to leave Dallas. “He came home drunk and tried to kill me with a butcher’s knife,” Meat Loaf told a BBC documentary in 2015. He caught a flight to Los Angeles, where he aimed to make a career in show business. He put a band together, called Meat Loaf Soul, who played their first gig in Huntington Beach as opening act to Van Morrison’s band Them.

The band went through several different lineups and names – they became Popcorn Blizzard and then Floating Circus – and in the process of building a local following opened shows for numerous big names including The Who, Iggy and the Stooges, Pink Floyd and the Grateful Dead. When Popcorn Blizzard recorded a single called Once Upon a Time, Meat Loaf’s voice was so loud that the microphone had to be placed on the opposite side of the studio from the singer.

Floating Circus split up in late 1968 and Meat Loaf returned to LA. He was working as a car park attendant when a stranger suggested he audition for the stage musical Hair. That led to him spending six months in the Detroit production of the show. As the production came to a close, Loaf and a fellow cast member, Shaun “Stoney” Murphy, were asked to record a duet album for Motown, called Stoney and Meatloaf, and they toured with Jake Wade and the Soul Searchers in support of it.

After the tour Meat Loaf joined the Broadway production of Hair, and during the run he auditioned for Steinman’s More Than You Deserve. Their Bat Out of Hell project would grow out of songs that Steinman wrote for another projected musical, Neverland (a version of the Peter Pan story). In the meantime, Meat Loaf appeared in The Rocky Horror Show and the subsequent movie The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), and was also recruited to The National Lampoon Show on Broadway as understudy to John Belushi. It was after the Lampoon show ended that Meat Loaf and Steinman focused all their energies on Bat Out of Hell.

The record’s vast success was not all plain sailing for Meat Loaf. He and Steinman formed the Neverland Express band to play the material on tour, but in Canada he broke a leg when he fell off the stage. Depressed and unable to perform, he suffered a nervous breakdown and started using cocaine.

“I was an angry, violent guy who was out of control,” he later admitted to the Los Angeles Times. “I didn’t know how to deal with being popular.” He also lost his voice, prompting Steinman to turn the proposed follow-up album, Bad for Good, into his own solo album. The singer recovered and made Dead Ringer, which comprised eight Steinman songs and delivered a No 5 UK hit with Dead Ringer for Love, a duet with Cher.

Meat Loaf had a falling-out with Steinman, who felt he had not received enough credit for the success, and also became embroiled in litigation with his former manager. He later told the Guardian he had “45 lawsuits totalling $80m thrown at me”, and was forced to declare bankruptcy.

In 1983 Meat Loaf released Midnight at the Lost and Found, comprising his own material and that of a variety of songwriters, although not Steinman. The disc was a critical failure and sold poorly. Two follow-ups, Bad Attitude (1984) and Blind Before I Stop (1986), were similarly disappointing, and he was forced to rebuild his career by performing to smaller audiences, playing in the US, Europe and the Middle East, and gradually working his way back to arenas and stadiums.

By 1990 the seemingly impossible occurred, and Meat Loaf and Steinman began collaborating again on what would become Bat Out of Hell II. Bat II sold even more quickly than its predecessor, shifting 10m copies in three months and delivering a monster international chart-topper with I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That), boosted by a lavish Beauty-and-the-Beast-themed video. In 1994 the song won Meat Loaf a Grammy for best male rock vocal performance. He promoted the album with a theatrical Broadway-style tour, and his status was now sufficiently restored to earn him a guest spot in Luciano Pavarotti’s all-star benefit concert for Bosnian children in Italy in 1995.

His last studio album of the 90s was Welcome to the Neighbourhood (1995), which went platinum in Britain and the US, and yielded the hit singles I’d Lie for You (And That’s the Truth) and Not a Dry Eye in the House, both written by Diane Warren.

In his autobiography, To Hell and Back (1999), Meat Loaf recounted stories about dragging his hard-drinking father out of squalid bars, being at Parkland hospital in Dallas in 1963 when the mortally injured President John F Kennedy was brought in, and once picking up a hitchhiker named Charles Manson. He commented that “people in Texas … love stories, and the best stories naturally have some bizarre aspect to them”. The following year the book was turned into the TV movie Meat Loaf: To Hell and Back. This starred W Earl Brown as the singer; Meat Loaf’s teenage daughter, Amanda Aday, had a small role as a grocery clerk.

It was not until 2003 that he released a new album, the modestly selling Couldn’t Have Said It Better, though through the 90s and into the new century Meat Loaf had undertaken a string of acting roles in movies including Spiceworld: The Movie (1997), Crazy in Alabama (1999), Fight Club (1999), The 51st State (2001) and Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny (2006). He also made appearances on TV series including House, Monk and Glee. The Bat Out of Hell musical opened in 2017 in London and received the Evening Standard best musical award.

Meat Loaf and his wife, Deborah Gillespie.
Meat Loaf with his wife, Deborah Gillespie. Photograph: Ian West/PA

Follow-up albums to Bat Out of Hell II sold in a downward trajectory. Braver Than We Are (2016) was his last collaboration with Steinman, who wrote or co-wrote all 10 songs, and was more a rehashing of past glories than a new musical departure. It reached No 4 on the UK chart and 31 in the US.

A collapse on stage in 2003 led to a diagnosis of Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome. He collapsed again during a 2016 performance.

In 2001, he changed his real name from Marvin to Michael. The same year his first marriage, to Leslie Edmonds, ended in divorce.

He is survived by his second wife, Deborah Gillespie, whom he married in 2007, and his daughter, Amanda, and stepdaughter, Pearl, both from his first marriage.

• Meat Loaf (Michael, previously Marvin, Lee Aday), singer and actor, born 27 September 1947; died 20 January 2022