The prodigal son of squeaky clean boy band Take That took a big risk in breaking out alone, but as the man with the largest number of No 1 albums in the world - barring Elvis - Robbie Williams has enjoyed an extraordinarily successful and colourful career.
Robert Peter Maximillian Williams was born on 13 February 1974 in Stoke-on-Trent. At the age of three, Williams' parents divorced and he went to live with his mother and sister.
At school Williams became labelled as mischievous and subsequently his jester nature left him with no GCSEs. With few options left he took a job as a salesman but fate intervened; his mum Jan noticed an article in the local newspaper for a boy band audition. Knowing Williams had already shown promise with his singing and acting abilities, she managed to get him an audition at one of the many being held throughout Manchester. It seemed his rebellious nature at school did him no harm in the end, as his audition was a grand success, so beginning his uphill journey to fame.
In 1990, the boy band Take That was formed by manager Nigel Martin-Smith. Williams was the last to join the four other members – Gary Barlow, Mark Owen, Jason Orange and Howard Donald – and at only 16-years-old, was also the youngest. For five straight years, the success of Take That was undisputed, topping the charts time after time and touring the world to sold out stadium gigs. But in 1995, Williams decided enough was enough and announced his departure from the band in his bid to go solo as a singer.
Take That's image had always adhered to the typical boy band persona of clean cut living, in keeping with the average age of its fan base, but as soon as Williams left the band he hit the headlines for his outlandish behaviour. Clearly ecstatic to be rid of his managed personality and teen idol status, he was soon photographed partying at the ’95 Glastonbury with Oasis, a band so far from Take That's musical sound and reputation that it was obvious Williams was sending a silent smug message regarding his past five years in the band. He soon changed his own image, wearing grungy clothes, growing a beard and piling on the pounds to gain a significant beer gut: it seemed as though he was intentionally distancing himself from the band that had made him a star.
Williams' intention had always been to go it alone though and in 1996 his solo singing career began with a cover of George Michael's ‘Freedom’, reaching number two in the UK singles chart. Recording for his first album began in March 1996 and meeting songwriter and producer Guy Chambers would be the assurance of success, leading to the pair's long-term collaboration. ‘Old Before I Die’ was the first single released from the debut album, reaching number two, and ‘Life Thru A Lens’ was released in September 1997.
Williams' wild partying in the years following his departure from Take That led him down into the dark and apparently inevitable world of drink and drugs. Before long he found his way along the path endless celebrities take, landing in rehab before the album had even been completed. Life Thru A Lens marked a mediocre success for Williams, failing to make the number one spot and the third single, ‘South of the Border’, sank into a mild oblivion outside of the top ten. Some critics and fans began to question how far Williams was going to be able to take his solo mission, and whether he could compete with even half of the success of Take That.
In 1998, Williams and Chambers began writing songs for album number two from Jamaica. Borrowing the musical arrangement used by Nancy Sinatra in James Bond's ‘You Only Live Twice’, the first single, ‘Millennium’, was released in 1998, knocking All Saints' ‘Under The Bridge’ off the number one slot – an ironic coincidence, given that Williams was engaged to one of its band members, Nicole Appleton, at the time. When the album ‘I've Been Expecting You’ was released in October 1998, it shot straight to number one and became the best selling release in the UK for the year. Learning from the first album's initial failure, this time Williams’ record label ensured that publicity was spread outside the UK and the single ‘No Regrets’ impacted well in Europe and Latin America.
In 2002, Williams signed a record-breaking £80 million contract with EMI, reportedly the biggest in British history, proving that the high school dropout from Stoke was well and truly a mega star. After a year off from recording, Williams began working on his fifth album. ‘Escapology’ signalled a new era for Williams. He had made a caustic split from his long time collaborator Guy Chambers, with both parties making contrary statements for the parting. This left Williams with a more active role in the making of the new album, indicating his confidence in the studio, and three of the tracks were the first songs that he had written without Guy Chambers' input.
Its release in 2002 hit number-one in the UK but still only found its way to number 43 in the US. A mammoth summer tour in 2003 climaxed with three concerts at Knebworth with a record 375,000 fans turning out to watch him. The shows were released as Williams' first live album in 2003 and it became the fastest selling live album, beating Oasis' sales by double. A year after the live album's release, Williams decided that it was time to take a step out of the limelight and take a fresh perspective on his career to date by working with some new talents. He began collaborating with British songwriter Stephen Duffy in 2004, and a greatest hits compilation was released the same year which hit the number one spot in 18 countries.
On 4 October 2007, Williams made a return to the live stage after almost a ten month break in a guest appearance at Mark Ronson's concert in LA. He performed The Charlatans classic, ‘The Only One I Know’, which features on Ronson's album ‘Version’. In January 2008, the long silence since the release of Rudebox in 2005 prompted rumours that Williams was 'on strike' at his record label, EMI. His manager Tim Clark dismissed the claims and insisted plans to record were simply on hold. The new EMI owner Guy Hands told the Financial Times that “we don't have an issue with Robbie Williams. What has happened is that his manager has made a number of statements, but Robbie has not. Robbie has spent a large number of years working full-time and he wants to take 2008 quietly. We do not have a need to push Robbie Williams into making an album.” Tim Clark, Williams' manager, declined to comment.
Roll on two years and it was announced that Robbie was set to release his second greatest hits album, ‘In and Out of Consciousness: The Greatest Hits 1990–2010’, to mark the singer's 20 years in the business. The album included a song, ‘Shame’, written in conjunction with Robbie's old band mate, Gary Barlow. This collaboration added fuel to the rumours that a reunion with Take That was on the cards.
An official announcement was made on 15 July that Robbie Williams had been working with his old boy band, Take That and it was confirmed that the group had written an album together. The statement issued at the time read: "The rumours are true ... Take That: the original lineup, have written and recorded a new album, to be called ‘Progress’, for release later this year." On 20 September 2010, the singer released his second book 'You Know Me' in collaboration with Chris Heath. It features photographs of the star over his 20-year career and his comments on them. In October the same year, Media Control named Robbie as the most successful album-artist of the millennium due to the amount of time he had spent in the German charts.
Progress was released in November 2010 and became the second fastest selling album in UK history.
Robbie and the band also announced that they would be touring together in 2011. The tour, Progress Live 2011, was the fastest selling of any band, ever in the UK and culminated with an eight night stint at Wembley Stadium.
On 15 and 16 July 2011, the band were due to perform sold-out gigs in Copenhagen, Denmark as part of their tour but they were forced to cancel them - the first concerts they had ever cancelled - as Robbie had a stomach infection.
Chinese whispers have since spread of Williams working on a song with former Ian Dury and the Blockheads star, Chaz Jankel, and that he and Chambers may still remain apart in the songwriting stakes. But one thing his fans and critics can be assured of is that Williams has not tired of the fame game yet. He may have a reported £130 million in the bank but his natural hunger for attention and entertainment will guarantee he'll never be too far from a microphone.
In late 2011, Robbie will be releasing a solo album, produced by Barlow, with the singer expected to undertake a new duet with either Adele or Adam Lambert. On 6 October 2011, Robbie launched a radio show entitled 'Radio Rudebox' in which he interviewed Barlow and played music.There have also been rumours that Robbie has left Take That once again following an interview given by Barlow to the Radio Times.It has since emerged that Barlow meant that the group are on hiatus as both singers are currently pursing solo projects. Watch this space!