Born in Amsterdam, Netherlands, on January 26, 1955 Edward Lodewijk – Eddie van Halen was the son of Jan van Halen and Eugenia (née van Beers). Jan was a Dutch jazz pianist, clarinetist and saxophonist and Eugenia was born Indonesian from Indonesian and Italian parents in the town of Rangkasbitung on the island of Java in what was then called the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). Jan and Eugenie married in August 1950 and re-emigrated on March 4th 1953 on board of the ship “Sibajak” to Holland, where they settled in Amsterdam. Shortly after the birth of Eddie, the family moved to Nijmegen, where they lived at 59 Rozemarijnstraat. On February 22nd 1962 the Van Halen’s moved again, this time by boat across the Atlantic to New York. After which they proceeded on a continent-crossing journey by train to finally settle in California, where they lived in Pasadena at 1881 Las Lunas Street for two decades. It was here that the two Dutch born Indo-Americans started to write music history and the swirling Van Halen story began.
After experiencing mistreatment for their mixed-race relationship in the 1950s, the parents moved the family to the U.S. in 1962. They settled near other family members in Pasadena, California, where Eddie and his brother Alex attended a segregated elementary school. Since the boys did not speak English as a first language, they were considered “minority” students and experienced bullying by white students
Eddie and his older brother, Alex Van Halen, became naturalized U.S. citizens. The brothers learned to play the piano as children starting at the age of six. They commuted weekly between Pasadena and San Pedro to study with an elderly piano teacher, Stasys Kalvaitis.
Even though van Halen was never taught to read music, he learned by watching recitals of Bach or Mozart and improvise. From 1964 through 1967, he won first place in the annual piano competition held at Long Beach City College. His parents wanted the boys to be classical pianists, but van Halen gravitated towards rock music. Consequently, when Alex began playing the guitar, Eddie bought a drum kit for himself; however, after he heard Alex’s performance of the Surfaris’ drum solo in the song “Wipe Out”, he gave Alex the drums and began learning how to play the electric guitar. According to him, as a teen, he would often practice while walking around at home with his guitar strapped on or sitting in his room for hours with the door locked.
Van Halen and his brother Alex formed their first band with three other boys, calling themselves The Broken Combs, performing at lunchtime at Hamilton Elementary School in Pasadena, when he was in the fourth grade. He would later cite this performance as key to his desire to become a professional musician.
Eddie van Halen described supergroup Cream’s “I’m So Glad” on the album Goodbye as “mind-blowing”. He once claimed that he had learned almost all of Eric Clapton’s solos in the band Cream “note for note… I’ve always said Eric Clapton was my main influence,” he said, “but Jimmy Page is actually more the way I am, in a reckless-abandon kind of way.”
Eddie and his brother Alex formed the band Mammoth in 1972. Two years later, David Lee Roth joined Mammoth as lead singer and Mammoth officially changed its name to Van Halen and became a staple of the Los Angeles music scene, playing at well-known clubs like the Whisky a Go Go.
At a 1976 concert at The Starwood in California, the band opened for UFO. Kiss bassist Gene Simmons saw the performance, and said: “I was waiting backstage by the third song.” He asked the band about their plans, and they said: “There is a yogurt manufacturer that is going to invest in us.” Gene begged them not to go that route and invited them to record some demos at Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich Village in New York City. Gene then signed them to his company and the band recorded early demos of their songs, including “Runnin’ with the Devil“. Excited about the band, Gene approached Kiss manager Bill Aucoin and Kiss frontman Paul Stanley about them, but they dismissed his desire to sign them to Aucoin’s management fold. Stanley later said he “rejected Van Halen to protect Kiss”, and that they made an effort to make Gene drop the band to “keep Gene in check”. The discouraging words caused Gene to rip up the contract, and he “let them go” after feeling he may have held the band back. The next year, Warner Records offered Van Halen a recording contract.
Van Halen’s major label debut, their self-titled 1978 album, launched the group into super stardom with hits such as “Runnin’ with the Devil”, “Ain’t Talkin’ ’bout Love”, “Jamie’s Cryin'”. The album also contains Eddie Van Halen’s instrumental “Eruption”, considered one of the best electric guitar solos of all time. The song globally popularized the technique of two-handed tapping, which he had painstakingly perfected after seeing Jimmy Page do it on the song “Heartbreaker”. The technique was first shown by Italian Guitarist-Physician Vittorio Camardese.
The band continued their success with a string a hit albums: Van Halen II (1979), Women and Children First (1980), Fair Warning (1981), Diver Down (1982) and 1984 (1984). By the early 1980s, Van Halen was one of the most successful rock acts of the time.
In late 1982 Eddie recorded the solo on the Michael Jackson song “Beat It” when Pete Townshend became unavailable and recommended him. Eddie met with Quincy Jones and Jackson. Unsure of what he could add to a pop song, he played along with the song and ended up restructuring it and adding the classic solo.
In a 2012 CNN interview, he said, “I listened to the song, and I immediately go, ‘Can I change some parts?’ I turned to the engineer and I go, ‘OK, from the breakdown, chop in this part, go to this piece, pre-chorus, to the chorus, out.’ Took him maybe 10 minutes to put it together. And I proceeded to improvise two solos over it.” He added, “I was just finishing the second solo when Michael walked in. And you know artists are kind of crazy people. We’re all a little bit strange. I didn’t know how he would react to what I was doing. So I warned him before he listened. I said, ‘Look, I changed the middle section of your song.’ Now in my mind, he’s either going to have his bodyguards kick me out for butchering his song, or he’s going to like it. And so he gave it a listen, and he turned to me and went, ‘Wow, thank you so much for having the passion to not just come in and blaze a solo but to actually care about the song and make it better.” Eddie was so pleased he refused payment for his work.
Ironically, Jackson’s Thriller went to the #1 spot on the charts, pushing Van Halen’s album 1984 to #2. 1984 went five-times Platinum a year after its release. Its lead single, “Jump”, became the band’s first and only #1 pop hit and brought them a Grammy nomination. Beat It however became one of the best selling single ever, with more than 11 million copies sold.
In 1985 there was a falling out between David Lee Roth and the Van Halen brothers. Roth left and was replaced by Sammy Hagar. The change did not affect the Band’s popularity, clearly indicating that Eddie had the dominant drawing power of all the players in the Band. In later years Sammy Hagar was replaced by Gary Cherone, and at one point Roth actually returned for a few performances.
Van Halen engaged in several projects outside of the band, including solo work and partnerships with his brother on film soundtracks (such as The Wild Life, Twister, and Sacred Sin) as well as musical collaborations with Kiss bassist Gene Simmons, singer/songwriter Nicolette Larson, Queen guitarist Brian May, Sammy Hagar, Black Sabbath, ex-Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, Toto guitarist Steve Lukather, and LL Cool J.
In 2004, Van Halen made a comeback and announced another national tour. The tour made stops in many cities. Unfortunately the tour was marred by reported dissension among the players. But the loyalty of Eddie’s, and the Band’s, fans still made it a triumphant tour. The success of the 2004 tour made it likely that another tour would be on the horizon. And in August 2007, the Band’s Fall 2007 tour was announced. It would begin at the end of September, and make about 40 stops. The Band’s original successful lead singer, David Lee Roth, would be back, and Eddie’s son, Wolfgang [Wolfie] Van Halen would play bass.
Van Halen struggled with alcoholism and drug abuse. He began smoking and drinking at the age of 12, and he stated that he eventually needed alcohol to function. He entered rehabilitation in 2007, and later shared in a 2015 interview that he had been sober since 2008. Rock and Roll lifestyle during his rock years probably led to his many illnesses over the years.
Speaking at an event at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in 2015, Van Halen discussed his life and the American Dream, saying “We arrived here with approximately $50 and a piano, and we didn’t speak the language. Now look where we are. If that’s not the American dream, what is?” Of course this was largely due to his talent and an era in history were his talent and tenacity to learn, was greatly valued.
Van Halen was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. His son, Wolfgang Van Halen, continued his father’s legacy when he became Van Halen’s bassist in 2006. During its life, the “Van Halen’s” album sales exceeded 75 million albums. Eleven of their studio albums reached the top 20 of the Bill Board’s music charts. The Band has the most #1 hits on Bill Board’s Main Stream, a record that is recorded in the Guiness Book of World Records. A total of 26 albums, 16 singles, 2 box sets and 5 videos of the Band were produced, marketed and sold.
Eddie Van Halen died from a stroke on October 6, 2020 after a 10 year battle with lung cancer. He was 65. He is survived by his son, his wife Jamie, and his ex-wife, Valerie Bertinelli, all of whom were by his side at the hospital.
Kenny Chesney – “He was a friend and and a hero to anyone who has ever picked up a guitar and had a dream,” Chesney wrote. “Eddie and his brother Alex joined us on stage at one of our stadium shows in Los Angeles and it was one of the highlights of my touring life in all my summers on the road. I will never forget that night and how happy we both were that our musical paths crossed that night on stage. Rest In Peace to the best guitar player that ever lived.”
Valerie Bertinelli, Van Halen’s ex-wife and the mother of his son Wolfgang, shared a moving message to her ex-husband on Twitter. “40 years ago my life changed forever when I met you,” Bertinelli wrote. “You gave me the one true light in my life, our son, Wolfgang. Through all your challenging treatments for lung cancer, you kept your gorgeous spirit and that impish grin. I’m so grateful Wolfie and I were able to hold you in your last moments. I will see you in our next life my love.”
Black Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler: “Just when I thought 2020 couldn’t get any worse, I hear Eddie Van Halen has passed. So shocking,” wrote . “One of the nicest, down to Earth men I have ever met and toured with. A true gent and true genius. RIP. So sad. Thoughts go out to his brother Alex, and his family.”
Styx frontman Tommy Shaw:“I was heartbroken to hear the news of EVH’s passing.” “A genius musician and quite an interesting personality. I first met him when we shared a dressing room with them in Germany for a TV music show there in the ’70s. Van Halen was new and ascending, and I observed him practicing his amazing guitar riffs in a style I’d never seen before. His style influenced a new generation of shredders. It was sad to hear about his health struggles, but always seemed to overcome them. Thank you Eddie for the incredible gifts of your music and live performances. History and music fans will remember and cherish you with the highest esteem.”