As the most daring and outspoken of the four Beatles, John Lennon helped shape the agenda of the Sixties - socially and politically, no less than musically. As a solo artist, he made music that alternately disturbed and soothed, provoked and sought community. As a human being, he served as an exemplar of honesty in his art and life. Lennon didn’t invent rock and roll, nor did he embody it as toweringly as figures like Elvis Presley and Little Richard, but he did more than anyone else to shake it up, move it forward and instill it with a conscience. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.
As Jann Wenner wrote in the foreword to a collection of writings entitled The Ballad of John and Yoko, “Of the many things that will be long remembered about John Lennon - his genius as a musician and singer, his wit and literary swiftness, his social intuition and leadership - among the most haunting was the stark, unembarrassed commitment of his life, his work and his undernourished frame to truth, to peace and to humanity.”
Born on October 9, 1940, during the Nazi bombing of Britain, Lennon was given the timely middle name of Winston (though he later changed it to Ono). A 5-year-old Lennon was sent to live with his "Aunt Mimi" when his parents separated, and in 1956, Mimi bought Lennon his first guitar. Lennon played the instrument incessantly, and within a year formed his first group, the Quarrymen, which evolved into the Beatles. Lennon's voice powered such indelible Beatles classics as "Help!" (Help!, 1965), "Strawberry Fields Forever" (Magical Mystery Tour, 1967) and "All You Need is Love" (Yellow Submarine, 1969), as well as outré tracks that included "I am the Walrus" (Magical Mystery Tour, 1967) and "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" (Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967). The uncensored, self-lacerating aspect of the Lennon persona reached a fevered pitch with the drug-withdrawal blues of “Cold Turkey,” a 1969 single released under the name Plastic Ono Band.
His most fully realized statement as a solo artist was 1970’s John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. It followed several collaborative sound collages recorded toward the end of the Beatles era with Lennon's wife and collaborator Yoko Ono. The raw, confessional nature of Plastic Ono Band reflected the primal-scream therapy that Lennon and Ono (pictured) had been undergoing with psychologist Arthur Janov. He dealt with such fundamental issues as “God” and “Mother” and the class system (“Working Class Hero”) on an album as full of naked candor as any in rock has ever been. Many of Lennon’s post-Beatles compositions – “Give Peace a Chance” (1969), “Instant Karma!” (1970), “Imagine,” (Imagine, 1971) and “Mind Games,” (Mind Games, 1973) – have rightfully become anthems, flaunting tough-minded realism, cosmic epiphany, hard-won idealism and visionary utopianism in equal measure. In 1974, Lennon had his first Number One single with the release of "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night" (Walls and Bridges, 1974), which featured Elton John on backing vocals and piano. On November 28, 1974, Elton John cajoled Lennon into joining him onstage at Madison Square Garden, where they performed "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night," "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and "I Saw Her Standing There." It would be Lennon's last public performance.
Lennon's enduring legacy reaches beyond music, resonating as much for his ability to lead by example. The celebrated romance of Lennon and Ono yielded performance art pieces – bed-ins, happenings, full-page ads declaring "War Is Over!" – that spread their message of peace. Beginning with the birth of his second son, Sean Ono Lennon, in 1975, John Lennon dropped out of sight for five years. During this period, he chose to lay low and raise Sean as a proud househusband. Simply by stepping back and “watching the wheels,” Lennon made a statement about priorities that said more than words and music. On November 17, 1980, Lennon's triumphant return to recording arrived in the form of Double Fantasy. Less than a month later, a brilliant life came to an untimely end when Lennon was shot to death outside his New York City apartment as he returned from a recording session for an album that was posthumously released as Milk and Honey. Three weeks later, as the rock world mourned, "(Just Like) Starting Over" (from Double Fantasy) hit Number One on the charts.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum is proud to curate an extensive collection of John Lennon artifacts. "One of the most precious artifacts that we have in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's collection is John's acoustic guitar," says Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum Curator Howard Kramer. Although it went through a number of cosmetic iterations, Lennon's Gibson J160-E (pictured) appeared on numerous recordings, was seen in A Hard Day's Night and Help! and was literally at Lennon's bedside during poignant periods in the late Sixties. "This guitar, in the same condition that you see now, was the one that he used at the 'bed-in' in Montreal to record the song 'Give Peace a Chance.'" The guitar features carvings of John Lennon and Yoko Ono to commemorate their Amsterdam and Montreal bed-ins in 1969.
WATCH: In this All Access Video, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum Curator Howard Kramer talks about Lennon's famous acoustic guitar.