The 1980s – not an era remembered for great classic rock ‘n roll music. The airwaves seemed to have been taken over by New Wave and synthesized pop tunes. Rock was dominated by glittery hair bands that seemed to be mostly pretty boys with Spandex and Aqua-Net, with a side order of eyeliner and lip gloss.
And along came Great White. Mark Kendall and Jack Russell formed the band in 1981, mostly ignoring the hair band glitz and focusing on straightforward rock, with a generous dose of raunch. They spent much of the early 80s working on albums and trying to get noticed, touring with groups like Whitesnake, Judas Priest, and Dokken.
Their first big commercial success came with 1987’s platinum Once Bitten. In 1989, Twice Shy went double platinum, and it seemed like Great White was everywhere. The single “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” become a top 5 hit, and received a Grammy nomination for Best Hard Rock Performance. Great White had arrived, and it seemed that the band was just one step away from mega-stardom.
They toured non-stop with some of the biggest names in rock. Great White was on the Monsters of Rock tour in Europe with KISS, Iron Maiden, and Anthrax. They toured the U.S. with Ratt, and co-headlined a tour with Tesla. But touring takes a toll, especially when combined with the live-hard-party-harder lifestyle. Kendall suffered a hemorrhage due to alcohol abuse, and had to miss most of the tour for Hooked. The album went gold, far short of the expectations set by Twice Shy. The hair band era was fading away, and Great White seemed to be fading with it.
The band continued to tour and record, making several changes of label and producers. In 1997, they found a home with Portrait Records, and a new producer in Jack Blades (Night Ranger, Damn Yankees). It seemed as though Great White was poised for a comeback. And then came The Station.
On February 20, 2003, Great White was playing at The Station in West Warwick, Rhode Island. Pyrotechnics used by the band sparked a fire in the acoustical foam used on the club’s walls. The blaze sped through the club, killing 100 people and injuring over 200 more. Horrifically, the fire was caught on videotape, and played repeatedly on newscasts around the world.
In December 2003, the club’s owners Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, and Great White’s tour manager Dan Biechele were each charged with 200 counts of involuntary manslaughter – two counts for each death. Although all three originally pled not guilty, Biechele changed his plea in 2006, stating in court that he set off the fireworks during the show. The Derderians eventually changed their plea to ‘no contest.’ Biechele and Michael Derderian were each sentenced to 15 years in prison and will have to serve four years before parole. Jeffrey Derderian received a 10 year suspended sentence.
Great White went back on stage in July 2003, and toured through 2005 raising money for the Station Family Fund. Alcohol and drug use derailed the band, and Russell entered rehab for his alcohol and cocaine addictions. In 2006, it was officially announced that the band was reforming yet again, and they played their first gig in January 2007. They released a new album, Rising, in April 2009.