12 Famous Musical Acts With Ties To Iowa

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Beyond being a former high school band president and someone who can still play the 1960s “Batman” TV show theme song on piano, my musical contribution to the world is minimal. 

Fortunately, other Iowans have provided the world with significant music contributions. These musicians come from all corners of the state so turn on your music app and get the knee ready to be slapped. It is time to start listening to music from these famous Iowa musicians. 


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It would not be an Iowa musician list without the mask-wearing, heavy metal band formed in the capital city of Des Moines. For over 25 years, they have performed with a variety of different band members. The band struck gold in 1999 with “Slipknot,” its double-platinum debut album. 

That success has allowed the group to perform nationwide and around the world. Slipknot’s lyrics are aggressive, and Allmusic described the lyrical themes of the band’s third album, Vol. 3: (The Subliminal Verses), as “anger, disaffection, and psychosis.”

While nominated for 10 Grammy Awards and winning one, this wild band is known for its elaborate stage performances and signature masks. Wearing the masks allows the band to be more intimate with music, lead singer Corey Taylor told NYRock. The masks have led to some mishaps. At a Dec. 5 show, a security guard removed band member “Tortilla Man” from the stage because he thought “Tortilla Man” was an overzealous stage crasher, Far Out Magazine reported.


The members of American Hip Hop and R&B group TLC perform on an episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show, Chicago, Illinois, November 17, 1992. Pictured are, from left, Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopez (1971 – 2002), Tionne ‘T-Boz’ Williams, and Rozanda ‘Chilli’ Thomas. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

Born in Des Moines, Tionne Watkins, better known as T-Boz, is a third of the supergroup TLC. The Des Moines Register noted she moved to Atlanta, Georgia, when she was 9. In her adult life, T-Boz has been no scrub. TLC won four Grammy awards and its “CrazySexyCool” album is 12x platinum. T-Boz has also released her own singles and appeared on several television shows.

Outside of her entertainment career, T-Boz has advocated for patients with sickle cell anemia, a disease she has had since childhood, according to the Register.

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C.W. McCall

THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON — Pictured: (l-r) Musician C.W McCall during an interview with Host Johnny Carson on May 20th, 1975 — (Photo by: Ron Tom/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)

Ole C.W. had a different path to success than most musicians. Born in Audubon as Billie Dale Fries, he changed his name to William Dale Fries Jr., according to the New York Times. While working at an advertising agency in Omaha, he created the character of C.W. McCall. C.W. was originally a truck-driving country singer for a series of bread commercials. The ads won the Clio Awards as the nation’s best overall television advertising campaign in 1974.

Due to this success, C.W. teamed with writer and Mannheim Steamroller founder, Chip Davis, and they wrote his most successful song “Convoy.” The success of the song led to a film based on it starring Kris Kristofferson. While he released other singles and an album, nothing else was quite the hit. Fries later retired to Ouray, Colorado, and was elected mayor in 1986 and served until 1992.

Glenn Miller

Portrait of Glenn Miller, with trombone (Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns)

Born in Clarinda, Glenn Miller became one of the most popular and successful bandleaders during the 20th century and big band era. Glenn Miller and His Orchestra charted multiple Billboard No. 1 songs in the United States, according to the American Music Research Center. The Discography of American Historical Recordings notes in only four years, Glenn Miller scored 16 No. 1 records and the band’s 69 top hits were more than Elvis Presley and the Beatles got in their careers.

During the height of World War II, Glenn Miller volunteered to lead the Major Glenn Miller and the Army Air Force Band to perform for the overseas troops. Sadly, on a flight from England to Paris on December 15, 1944, Glenn Miller went missing as his aircraft disappeared, according to the National World War II Museum.

Maddie Poppe

Maddie Poppe (Eric McCandless/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images)

Hailing from Clarksville, Maddie made Iowa proud by winning season 16 of “American Idol.” After her win, Clarksville declared “Maddie Poppe Day,” according to the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. Gov. Kim Reynolds also declared a statewide Maddie Poppe day around the time of her 2018 victory. As part of her “American Idol” contract, Maddie released her debut studio album, “ Whirlwind.”  Maddie plays a variety of instruments including the guitar, piano, and ukulele. Her father, Trent, is also a musician.

Simon Estes

Opera singer Simon Estes stars in ‘King the Musical’ in London, 13th April 1990. The show is based on the life of American civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Photo by Georges De Keerle/Getty Images)

If you have been to downtown Des Moines, chances are you have seen the Simon Estes Riverfront Amphitheater. Born in Centerville, Estes attended the University of Iowa where he became the first Black member of the university’s Old Gold Singers. Charles Kelos, his voice teacher at Iowa, set him down the path of opera, according to Opera America. After his time at Iowa, Estes was awarded a full scholarship to the Julliard School of Music in New York City.

He has performed with 84 of the major international opera companies and 115 orchestras around the world. The best part of Simon’s success is he came back to the Hawkeye State and did a “Full Grassley” in 2015

Tommy Bolin

Tommy Bolin, posed, studio, with guitar and drink in cocktail glass (Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns)

Born in Sioux City, Tommy Bolin was an American guitarist and songwriter who played with Zephyr, The James Gang, and most famously, Deep Purple. Tommy’s brother Johnnie told the Sioux City Journal, Tommy’s music still feels as contemporary today as it did years ago. Unfortunately, Tommy died in 1976 from an overdose of multiple drugs at age 25.

Vanilla Fudge’s Mark Stein told Fox News Tommy always made him smile and he was a young, talented musician whose life ended too soon. He also believed if Tommy would have lived, he would have been one of “the greats.” 

The Williams Brothers

Andy Williams (far R) and his brothers performing when they were the singing group The William Brothers. (Photo by Ray Fisher/Getty Images)

Four brothers, Bob, Don, Dick, and Andy came from Wall Lake. They started singing in the Midwest before moving west where they appeared in multiple films, according to Discogs. According to Music Finder, they toured nightclubs and cabarets throughout the world with Kay Thompson until they broke up. Andy became the most famous brother. He was nominated for six Grammy awards and recorded 43 albums, 15 of which went gold and three went platinum, according to the  RIAA.

After the release of the “Andy Williams Christmas Album” in 1963, Andy became synonymous with the holiday season wrote the Palm Springs Life. He also hosted “The Andy Williams Show,” a variety show that won three Emmy awards, according to IMDbHowever, the brothers continued to reunite annually on “The Andy Williams Christmas Special.” 

Art Farmer

Art Farmer during the Capital Jazz Festival, Knebworth, Hertfordshire, England, July 1982. (Photo by Jazz Services/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Born in Council Bluffs, Art Farmer was a renowned jazz trumpeter and flugelhorn player. Art and his twin brother, double bassist Addison Farmer, started playing professionally while in high school. The Los Angeles Times described Art’s playing as “A sweetly lyrical tone and melodic approach to phrasing, neither of which minimized his capacity to produce rhythmically swinging phrases.” He also created the “Flumpet ” which was a trumpet-flugelhorn combination.

According to the official Art Farmer website, he collaborated with a variety of musicians including Quincy Jones, Benny Golson, and Gerry Mulligan. Some of his top honors include the NEA Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts and being inducted into the American Jazz Hall of Fame.

Arthur Russell

Mural of Arthur Russell/Shutterstock photo

Growing up in Oskaloosa, Arthur Russell learned to play cello and piano. While his music spanned genres such as disco, folk, pop, and country, he only released three solo albums. After his early death at 40 due to AIDS-related illnesses in 1992, his apartment was overflowing with stacks of boxes containing notebooks, letters, handwritten scores, and nearly 1,000 tapes of recorded material, according to the Economist. He was not well known until this century when Soul Jazz and Audika Records released compilations of his work, according to XLR8R. Famous Columbia Records producer, John Hammond said Russell had the potential to become the next Bob Dylan, according to NPR

Meredith Willson

Meredith Willson at home in Bel-Air, California. . (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

Mason City’s own Robert Reiniger Meredith Willson had successful stints in Hollywood and in radio, but his biggest success came well into his fifties when he created “The Music Man,” a musical tribute to his hometown.

The production premiered on Broadway in 1957 and was a box office smash and critical darling. The musical was nominated for eight Tonys and won five, and its Broadway run lasted five years and included 1,375 performances. “The Music Man” was adapted into a film twice, once in 1962 and in 2003. In addition to “The Music Man,” Wilson also created “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” “1491,” and a Broadway adaptation of Miracle on 34th Street called “Here’s Love.” He also wrote the popular Christmas song, “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.” 

Bix Beiderbecke

Portrait of Bix Beiderbecke, jazz cornetist and composer of the late 1920s who had a significant impact on the history of music before his death at the age of 28. Getty Images

Growing up in Davenport, Bix was one of the most influential cornet players of his time due to his inventive lyrical approach and purity of tone. One contemporary described it as “shooting bullets at a bell” according to Muse Views. Riverwalk Jazz noted, in his autobiography “My Life in New Orleans,” Louis Armstrong wrote that “Every musician in the world knew and admired Bix. We all respected him as if he had been a god.”

Riverwalk Jazz also wrote he had an amazing ear for music and his kindergarten teacher said Bix could pick out the exact notes on a piano after singing a song once with classmates. Fellow musician, Jack Teagarden remarked, “Bix would hear something once and he would have it. He could pick up intricate modulations and tricky arrangements in just one hearing.” During the 1920s, Bix caught on with bandleaders such as Jean Goldkette and Paul Whiteman. Unfortunately, he passed away at the early age of 28 from lobar pneumonia and the effects of alcoholism.


by Sean Dengler

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