Biography of John Lennon

John Lennon, founder of The Beatles, led a remarkable 40-year life as pop-star, songwriter, peace campaigner, artist, actor and author.

The Liverpool-born musician, who was co-lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist of the Beatles, had a profound influence on rock music and in expanding the genre's boundaries during the 1960s. The Beatles released their first single, Love Me Do, in October 1962, peaking on the British charts at No. 17. And Lennon wrote the group's follow-up single, Please Please Me, which topped the charts in Britain the following year.

Lennon, is widely considered one of the most influential singer-songwriter-musicians of the 20th century. His lyrics were as varied as they were brilliant - often leaning to the more serious and political at times, then the more surreal as exemplified on Strawberry Fields Forever and I Am the Walrus.

Lennon’s relationship with his Beatles bandmates, including Paul McCartney, became strained after the death of their manager Brian Epstein in 1967 and during Lennon's artist partnership with second wife Yoko Ono. Lennon left the Beatles in September 1969, just after the group completed recording Abbey Road, the sleeve cover of which where The Beatles stroll along the zebra crossing near the St John’s Wood studio is legendary.

Renowned for his rebellious nature, non-conformity and acerbic wit, Lennon courted much controversy in his lifetime. During his last two years as member of The Beatles, Lennon remained as vocal as ever, spending much of his time with Ono on public displays speaking out against the Vietnam War, and for peace. He sent back the MBE he got from the Queen of England, reportedly “with love”, to protest British support of the Vietnam War and their involvement in African affairs.

In 1971, Lennon released Imagine, the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed of all his post-Beatles efforts, and collaborated with David Bowie in 1975, co-writing and providing guitar and backing vocals on Bowie’s hit song Fame. Shortly thereafter, Ono gave birth to their son and Lennon decided to leave the music business to focus on being a father and house husband.

Lennon returned to the music world in 1980 with the album Double Fantasy. A few weeks after the album's release, a fan, Mark David Chapman shot Lennon several times in front of his apartment complex in New York City. Lennon died at New York City's Roosevelt Hospital on 8 December 1980, at the age of 40. Although he died young, he left an immense legacy.

1. Lennon's early life

Paul McCartney, George Harrison and John Lennon during a Beatles performance for Dutch television on June 5th 1964 (© Omroepvereniging VARA, CC BY-SA 3.0 nl)
A photo of John Lennon during a Beatles performance for Dutch television on June 5th 1964 (© Eric Koch, CC BY-SA 3.0 nl)
A photo of John Lennon's childhood home at 251 Menlove Avenue in Liverpool, England, named Mendips (after the Mendip Hills) (© Havaska, CC BY-SA 3.0)

John Winston Lennon was born on 9 October 1940, in Liverpool, England, during a German air raid in World War II.

He was born to Julia and Alfred Lennon, who named him John Winston Lennon after his paternal grandfather, John "Jack" Lennon, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Lennon’s childhood was tumultuous. His father was a merchant seaman who was absent throughout most of Lennon’s life. When he was four years old, Lennon's parents separated and he ended up living with his Aunt Mimi. Lennon's mother, Julia, remarried but visited him and Mimi regularly.

Lennon displayed his artistic side from a young age. He often drew comical cartoons that appeared in his own, self-made school magazine called the Daily Howl.

Lennon’s mother Julia also encouraged her son’s artistry, teaching him how to play the banjo and the piano on her visits to Mimi’s. She even purchased his first guitar, and introduced him to Elvis Presley and Fats Domino.

Elvis Presley's explosion onto the rock music scene inspired a 16-year-old Lennon to create the skiffle band called the Quarry Men, named after his school. Lennon met Paul McCartney at a church fete in 1957, and invited him to join the group. The two eventually formed one of the most successful songwriting partnerships in musical history.

A year later, Lennon was devastated when his mother Julia was fatally struck by a car driven by an off-duty police officer in July 1958. The event influenced many of Lennon’s later songs, and was also one of the factors that cemented his friendship with Paul McCartney, who lost his mother to breast cancer at the age of 14. Lennon would later pen a song entitled Julia in honour of his mother.

After failing his O-level examinations, Lennon’s Aunt Mimi was able to get him accepted into the Liverpool College of Art by showing them some of his drawings.

John steadily grew to hate the conformity of art school. At the college, he started wearing Teddy Boy clothes and was threatened with expulsion for his behaviour. While there he also met his future wife, Cynthia Powell.

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2. The Beatles and Beatlemania

Lennon autographing a copy of Double Fantasy for Chapman, six hours before his death.
The Beatles performing in their 1967 television film Magical Mystery Tour (© Parlophone Music Sweden, CC BY 3.0)
Recording 'Give Peace a Chance' during the Bed-In for Peace at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, Montreal (© Roy Kerwood, CC BY 2.5)

Lennon’s group The Quarry Men later became The Silver Beetles (a tribute to Buddy Holly's Crickets) and soon afterwards was shortened to The Beatles.

A year after meeting Lennon, McCartney introduced him to George Harrison. Harrison and art college buddy Stuart Sutcliffe also joined Lennon's band. The first recording they made was a cover version of Buddy Holly's That'll Be the Day in 1958.

The Beatles were discovered by Brian Epstein in 1961 at Liverpool's Cavern Club, where they performed on a regular basis. Epstein secured a record contract with EMI. With a new drummer, Ringo Starr, and George Martin as a producer, the group released their first single, Love Me Do, in October 1962. It peaked on the British charts at No. 17.

The Beatles went on to become the most popular band in Britain with the release of subsequent hits as Please Please Me, She Loves You and I Want To Hold Your Hand.

Lennon married Cynthia Powell in August 1962 after she became pregnant. The couple had one son together, Julian, who was named after Lennon's mother.

In 1964, the Beatles became the first British band to break out big in the US, beginning with their appearance on television's The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. Beatlemania launched a "British Invasion" of rock bands in the US that also included the Rolling Stones and the Kinks. Following their appearance on Sullivan, the Beatles returned to Britain to film their first film, A Hard Day's Night (1964), and prepare for their first world tour.

The Beatles' second film, Help!, was released in 1965. That June, Queen Elizabeth II announced that the Beatles would be named a Member of the Order of the British Empire. In August 1965, the foursome performed to 55,600 fans at New York's Shea Stadium, setting a new record for largest concert audience in musical history. When the Beatles returned to England, they recorded the breakthrough album Rubber Soul (1965), noted for extending beyond the love songs and pop formulas for which the band was previously well-known.

By 1966, the magic of Beatlemania started to lose its appeal after Lennon's remark that the band was "more popular than Jesus now" caused Beatles records to be thrown on bonfires in the US Bible belt. The Beatles gave up touring after a concert at San Francisco's Candlestick Park the same year.

After an extended break, the band returned to the studio. Never ones to shy away from experimenting, The Beatles also channelled different genres during their 13 studio albums including pop, classical, Indian music, psychedelia and hard rock. The album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), considered by many to be the greatest rock project in musical history, followed the hit single Strawberry Fields Forever.

The Beatles suffered a huge blow when Epstein died of an accidental overdose of sleeping pills on August 27, 1967. McCartney took on the leadership role and the group filmed Magical Mystery Tour.

Magical Mystery Tour failed to achieve much commercial success, and the Beatles retreated into Transcendental Meditation and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, which took them to India for two months in early 1968. In November 1968, the Beatles' double-album The Beatles (also known as The White Album) displayed their divergent directions.

That year, Lennon also divorced Powell, and married the Japanese avant-garde artist Yoko Ono in 1969. Lennon and Ono invented a form of peace protest by staying in bed while being filmed and interviewed, and released their single "Give Peace a Chance" (1969). The presence of Ono, who always accompanied Lennon in the studio, caused tension amongst the group.

Lennon left the Beatles in September 1969, just after the group completed recording Abbey Road. The news of the break-up was kept secret until McCartney announced his departure in April 1970, a month before the band released Let It Be, recorded just before Abbey Road.

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3. His Solo Career

Advertisement for John Lennon's 'Imagine' from Billboard, 18 September 1971
Publicity photo of Lennon and host Tom Snyder from the television programme Tomorrow. Aired in 1975, this was the last television interview Lennon gave before his death in 1980.)
A photograoh of John Lennon and Yoko Ono in 1980 taken by Jack Mitchell (1925-2013) (© Jack Mitchell, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Lennon released his debut solo album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, soon after leaving the Beatles. He followed it up with 1971's Imagine, the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed of all Lennon's post-Beatles efforts.

Imagine also included the track "How Do You Sleep?," a response to veiled messages at Lennon in some of McCartney's solo recordings. Although the former songwriting duo later buried the hatchet, they never formally worked together again.

During his time recording with his second wife, Lennon’s songwriting became very political. Lennon and Ono moved to the United States in September 1971, and released their Anti-Vietnam War song "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" single in December.

Some Time in New York City was released as a double LP in 1972, containing songs about women's rights, race relations, Britain's role in Northern Ireland and Lennon's difficulties in obtaining a green card (which he was denied due to his activism but finally granted in 1976).

Two more albums of personal songs, Mind Games and Walls And Bridges, and one of cover versions of rock and roll songs of his youth, came before 1975 when he and Ono welcomed their son, Sean Lennon. Lennon decided to leave the music business to focus on being a father and house husband.

He returned to the music scene in 1980 when he and Ono produced Double Fantasy, a concept album dealing with their relationship. Tragically, just a few weeks after the album's release, a fan, Mark David Chapman shot Lennon several times in front of his apartment complex in New York City. Lennon died at New York City's Roosevelt Hospital on 8 December, 1980, at the age of 40. When Lennon died his remains were cremated and his ashes were scattered in New York's Central Park, where the Strawberry Fields memorial was later created.

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4. Lennon's legacy

A photo of the Star “John Lennon” at the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Los Angeles, California (© Dietmar Rabich, CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Steinway piano that Lennon used to compose the song 'Imagine' on exhibit in the Artist Gallery of the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona (© Marine 69-71, CC BY-SA 4.0)
Wintertime at Strawberry Fields in Central Park with the Dakota in the background (© Neptuul, CC BY-SA 3.0)

As the founder of the best selling-band in history and arguably the driving force of the Beatles, Lennon’s influence was wide and far-reaching.

His way with lyrics and the power of his words was inimitable, earning him numerous accolades throughout his lifetime and a BBC poll identified the UK's favourite song lyric as "Imagine".

Lennon also produced musings in various formats including short stories, poetry, plays and drawings. After his death, a series of works were published, including Skywriting by Word of Mouth (1986), Ai: Japan Through John Lennon's Eyes: A Personal Sketchbook (1992), with Lennon's illustrations of the definitions of Japanese words, and Real Love: The Drawings for Sean (1999).

In honour of Lennon’s legacy, Yoko Ono and the BMI Foundation, in 1999, established an annual music competition programme for songwriters of contemporary musical genres to honour John Lennon's memory and his large creative influence. Over $400,000 has been given through BMI Foundation's John Lennon Scholarships to talented young musicians in the US.

In his home town of Liverpool, the airport was renamed the Liverpool John Lennon Airport in honour of the legendary musician, and the John Lennon Peace Monument was unveiled in Chavasse Park.

Lennon was not afraid to speak his truth and express too the uncomfortable truth of what was going on in the world and address his concerns, including racial segregation in the US. The Beatles refused to do a gig in the US unless the audience were integrated as one. His anti-war stance and his desire for peace in the world has inspired people worldwide to take a stand for what they believe in.

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