Musician dubbed ‘the Persian Bono’ fled Iran at age 22 and built a genre-blending career in Los Angeles
Sam Levin in Los Angeles – The Guardian
Andy Madadian says he’s ready for a ‘new beginning’. Photograph: Courtesy Andy Madadian
At age 22, Andy Madadian fled Iran with nothing, moved to Los Angeles and started playing guitar at nightclubs to pay rent.
Now 63, the internationally celebrated pop singer says he’s ready for another “new beginning”: Madadian is getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the first Iranian artist to earn the honor.
“Many people may wonder: would you have a new beginning after 14 albums?” Madadian said days before the ceremony unveiling his groundbreaking star. “But to me it’s new … because a lot of Americans are just discovering me and my music. I’m hoping this Hollywood star will open some doors. We have a lot of great Iranian artists here in LA, and the western world has not discovered them yet.”
Sometimes nicknamed the “Persian Bono” or “Persian Elvis”, the Iranian-Armenian American artist is being honored on the Hollywood Boulevard sidewalk on Friday, after two tumultuous weeks of escalating conflict between Tehran, where he was raised, and the US, the country he has called home for decades.
“It’s a very difficult position to be in as an Iranian American artist, because whatever I produce is for my people – my American people, my Iranian people, my Armenian people,” he said on a recent afternoon, seated inside a bakery in Encino in the San Fernando Valley, not far from his home. “Unfortunately, all of them are in some kind of a clash.”
Madadian grew up 7,000 miles away in Iran’s capital, in a neighborhood home to many Armenians. Born in 1956, he shared a single room with his parents, grandmother and five siblings, and for much of his early childhood, the family didn’t have any electricity or running water. “But we had love and music,” he recalled.
He excelled in math in school and some expected him to go into economics, but he always knew he would be a musician. His dad, who worked in road construction, helped him take out a loan to buy a guitar from a neighbor when he was 14 years old, and Madadian quickly started playing gigs with other singers to pay off the debt.
While others around him were interested in Iranian music, Madadian took a liking to British and American rock, falling in love with Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Rod Stewart, Kansas and Chicago. “I was much more rebellious,” he said. Ray Charles was his vocal idol. A CBS recording branch in Iran discovered him when he was about 22 and helped him record a song he wrote in English, with plans to pitch him as an “Iranian Rod Stewart” given his similar raspy voice.
Enthralled with American-style music, Madadian knew he wanted to move to the US. But when he finally came to America, it wasn’t just to pursue his dreams. When the revolution broke out in 1979, many were forced to flee, and Madadian lost contact with the producers who had recorded the single. (“Maybe it’s better it didn’t come out, because my English was not good.”)
He got a student visa to play soccer for California State University, Los Angeles, and started playing guitar at nightclubs when he was not in school. He took the bus everywhere and invested whatever cash he saved in his instruments and paying for music lessons: “To me, that was success.”
He later formed a duo with another Persian singer, Kouros Shahmiri, and the two released several albums before Madadian went solo. Madadian eventually began working with the LA-based Iranian lyricist Paksima Zakipour, and in Persian markets, they became known as the “Elton John and Bernie Taupin of the Iranian industry”.
Over the years, Madadian has fused styles of his Iranian-Armenian heritage with western dance music, Spanish flamenco guitar, African rhythms and more. He has long attracted audiences overseas but also got mainstream US attention in 2009 when he collaborated with Jon Bon Jovi to record a Stand By Me cover in English and Farsi to show solidarity with protesters in Iran.
Bon Jovi learned the Farsi lyrics in a day, and Iranian fans thought he sang with a “cute accent”, Madadian said. “This is a New Jersey kid singing Farsi for the first time.”
Joe Jackson, Michael Jackson’s father, introduced Madadian to his daughter La Toya Jackson and the two recorded a song in Farsi called Tehran in 2016. The song, like much of Madadian’s work, was hugely popular in Iran, though all of his music is officially banned by the Iranian government. Bootlegged versions of his music have spread across the country, but he doesn’t make any money off of album sales there.
Because of the ban on his work, Madadian hasn’t been back to Iran in the 41 years since he left. While some Iranian pop stars are exiled, Madadian hasn’t tried to return and doesn’t know what would happen if he did.
“It’s the country I grew up in and I love – beautiful people, beautiful place, beautiful culture,” he said. “I would like to go back when it’s a free democratic country, and my music is not banned but is on the radio and TV. One of my biggest wishes is that one day Iran and America will be good friends where we can visit and play in both countries, and live in both countries.”
A vegetarian whose charity work focuses on animal rights, Madadian said he stays away from political activism. But he noted that that the devastating deaths from the Tehran plane crash caused by an accidental military strike were weighing heavy on him as he prepared to celebrate his Hollywood star and the triumph it represented for Iranian Americans.
Madadian will receive his star alongside a number of world-famous American musicians joining this year, including Elvis Costello, Billy Idol, Alicia Keys, 50 Cent and Muddy Waters.
The honor is a full circle moment for the artist, who remembered his first gigs in LA 40 years ago, which he would promote by posting flyers along lampposts on Hollywood Boulevard.
“I’ve lived most of my life in Los Angeles, so I am truly an Iranian-Armenian American and can say this is an American dream,” he said, adding, “The majority of Iranian artists live in LA. This is our Hollywood, also.”