Steve Harwell, the good-natured co-founder and the original lead singer of Smash Mouth — the late ‘90s California-based band renowned for ska-tinged hits such as “Walkin’ on the Sun” and the perennial anthem “All Star” — Harwell died at his home in Boise, Idaho, on Monday. The musician was in hospice care owing to multiple health complications; he was 56.
Harwell’s manager Robert Hayes confirmed the news to Variety, writing in a statement, “Steve Harwell was a true American Original. A larger than life character who shot up into the sky like a Roman candle. Steve should be remembered for his unwavering focus and impassioned determination to reach the heights of pop stardom. And the fact that he achieved this near-impossible goal with very limited musical experience makes his accomplishments all the more remarkable. His only tools were his irrepressible charm and charisma, his fearlessly reckless ambition, and his king-size cajones. Steve lived a 100% full-throttle life. Burning brightly across the universe before burning out.”
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Over the last decade Harwell, who had long struggled with alcohol abuse, also suffered from a number of ailments that impacted his motor functions, speech and memory, which increasingly impacted his performances. By October 2021, after a concert in Bethel, N.Y., where the singer appeared to be intoxicated and threatened audience members, he announced his retirement from Smash Mouth due to ongoing health issues.
“Ever since I was a kid, I dreamed of being a Rockstar performing in front of sold-out arenas and have been so fortunate to live out that dream,” he said in a statement at the time. “To my bandmates, it’s been an honor performing with you all these years and I can’t think of anyone else I would have rather gone on this wild journey with.”
Born Steven Scott Harwell on January 9, 1967 in Santa Clara, Calif., Harwell started his career as a Chuck D-inspired rapper for the hip-hop ensemble F.O.S. (Freedom of Speech), which released a single titled “Big Black Boots” in 1993. However, he shifted gears to alt-rock and formed Smashmouth — originally styled as one word — with childhood friend/ drummer Kevin Coleman and two veterans of the San Jose punk band Lackadaddy, songwriter-guitarist Greg Camp and bassist Paul De Lisle.
When San Jose radio station KOME-FM began airing a demo of the group’s song “Nervous in the Alley,” the group signed with powerhouse Interscope Records, split their name into two words, and released their debut album, “Fush Yu Mang,” in 1997.
Along with a raucous cover of War’s “Why Can’t We Be Friends” (which appeared in 1998’s Kevin Bacon film “Wild Things”), the Camp-penned “Walkin on the Sun,” Smash Mouth’s first major label single, helped push “Fush Yu Mang” to double platinum-selling status.
“Greg is probably one of the best songwriters I’ve ever been around,” Harwell told Vice. “I’ve seen the guy write a song in a half hour. He’s a huge part of why we’re here. Greg and I and Paul, we just clicked from day one.”
Camp was the principal songwriter behind the band’s second album, 1999’s “Astro Lounge,” Smash Mouth’s move from ska-inflected alt-rock to power pop, and manically catchy tracks featuring Harwell’s booming voice such as “All Star” and “Then the Morning Comes.” And while “Astro Lounge” itself was eventually certified as triple platinum, Smash Mouth’s momentum was greatly advanced by the appearance of “All Star” (along with their cover of the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer”) on the soundtrack of 2001’s animated “Shrek” film, and their physical appearance in the busy action film, “Rat Race,” that same year.
Those years were the peak of the band’s career. The group followed with “Get the Picture?” in 2003, and performed a cover of the Louis Prima Disney favorite, “I Wanna Be Like You” for the animated “Jungle Book 2” that same year, but were dropped by Interscope. He also endured a tragedy during this time when he and his then-wife’s newborn son died of acute lymphocytic leukemia at just six months of age; Harwell created a medical research fund in Presley’s name.
After signing to Universal Records in 2005, Smash Mouth released a greatest hits compilation, a Christmas album, and recorded a new album to be titled “Old Habits.” Harwell took a starring role on the sixth and final season of “The Surreal Life” reality show on VH1 in 2006, along alongside fellow musician C.C. DeVille of Poison.
Universal delayed “Old Habits” several times, hoping to capitalize on Harwell’s reality television fame, but instead, “Old Habits,” was shelved with several of its tracks remixed and released on “Summer Girl,” a 2006 album through Beautiful Bomb Records — their last original album featuring guitarist-songwriter Camp.
Smash Mouth the group continued to tour regularly throughout the 2010s, recording a new album in 2012 ( “Magic”) and an acoustic re-recording of “Fush Yu Mang” funded through PledgeMusic for the album’s 20th anniversary in 2018.
However, Harwell’s condition began to affect his live performances. He screamed profanities at the audience during the group’s set at a June 2015 food festival in Fort Collins, Colorado. In August of the following year, he collapsed onstage in Illinois and was taken by ambulance to a hospital. During the group’s performance at a controversial 10-day motorcycle rally held in South Dakota during the peak of the pandemic in the summer of 2020, he taunted crowds about vaccines, mask wearing and pandemic prevention. Following his departure from the band in the wake of the October 2021 incident in Bethel, the group recruited a new lead singer, Zach Goode, and released several new songs.
Yet “All Star,” which continues to be used regularly in sports programming and other platforms, is likely to be his and the band’s greatest legacy. “I’m not going to toot my own horn, but nobody else could have sung that song,” Harwell boasted to Rolling Stone in 2019. “It was Greg singing the demo, so it didn’t sound like it should… didn’t sound rock and roll. Once I got my hands on it, we turned it into Smash Mouth.”
Additional reporting by Michaela Zee.
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