As the lead singer for Matchbox Twenty, Rob Thomas helped give angst the face of the guy next door. Unlike the grungy Seattleites who defined the first half of the 1990s, Thomas was clean cut and not opposed to pop hooks or layers of production gloss, a combination that helped camouflage the pain at the heart of Matchbox Twenty's 1996 debut, Yourself or Someone Like You. The band's first record built into a blockbuster, by which time Thomas stepped outside of the confines of the group to co-write and sing "Smooth," a record-breaking smash hit for Santana in 1999. "Smooth" ruled the airwaves during the Y2K era, helping Thomas become a star on his own. While he never left Matchbox Twenty behind, he did pursue a concurrent solo career beginning with 2005's …Something to Be. On his solo material, Thomas embraced his adult contemporary inclinations without abandoning the confessional qualities of his earliest work.
An army brat, Rob Thomas was born in Landstuhl, Germany. When he was two, his parents divorced, with his mother retaining custody. During his childhood, his mom moved Thomas and his sister from town to town through the American South, usually returning to her mother's home in Lake City, South Carolina. By the time he was ten, the family moved to Florida, initially relocating to Sarasota before setting their anchor in Orlando. During this period, Thomas began to learn how to play keyboards, picking up guitar not long afterward.
Personal problems plagued the adolescent Thomas. His mother struggled with addiction and her illness had ramifications in his personal life, contributing to him leaving high school just prior to his scheduled graduation. At the age of 17, he briefly went to jail for stealing a car, and he spent his early adulthood drifting before finally finding a measure of stability with music.
Tabitha's Secret, a band he founded with bassist Brian Yale, was Thomas' first serious group. Formed in 1993, the band played the Orlando circuit, eventually earning the attention of Matt Serletic, a record producer who recently scored a hit working with Collective Soul. Not long after this introduction, Tabitha's Secret split, but Thomas, Yale, and drummer Paul Doucette formed Matchbox Twenty in its wake. Serletic guided them through their demos, then produced their debut, Yourself or Someone Like You.
Released on Atlantic's subsidiary Lava in 1996, Yourself or Someone Like You got off to a slow start, yet the singles "Push," "3AM," "Real World," and "Back 2 Good" pushed it up the charts, turning Matchbox Twenty in general and Rob Thomas in particular into rock stars. Thomas' profile gained a considerable boost in 1999, when he co-wrote and sang "Smooth" for Supernatural, the star-studded Santana comeback album masterminded by Clive Davis. "Smooth" stayed on the top of the Billboard charts for 12 weeks, spending 30 weeks in the Top Ten and becoming one of the biggest hits in Billboard history.
After "Smooth," Thomas' star shone brightly, but he remained in Matchbox Twenty, who released their second album, Mad Season, in March 2000. Thanks to the number one single "Bent" and its Top Ten sequel "If You're Gone," Mad Season was another platinum smash. Arriving in 2002, More Than You Think You Are maintained their success, with its lead single, "Unwell," reaching the Top Ten.
Thomas stepped outside of Matchbox Twenty for his first solo album …Something to Be in 2005; it debuted at number one on Billboard's Top 200. Thomas supported the album with a solo tour, then returned to Matchbox Twenty to record new songs for the compilation Exile on Mainstream, which came out in 2007.
Cradlesong, Thomas' second solo album, arrived in 2009; it debuted at three on Billboard, with lead single "Her Diamonds" reaching number two on the Adult Contemporary Charts. In 2012, Matchbox Twenty reunited for North, which became their first album to hit number one in the U.S. upon its September release. Thomas resumed his solo career with the release of The Great Unknown in 2015. Although the album generated no Hot 100 singles, "Hold on Forever," "Pieces," and "Heaven Help Me" all reached the Adult Contemporary chart.
Thomas worked with producer Butch Walker for his fourth solo album, 2019's Chip Tooth Smile. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine