Former Smash Mouth lead singer Steve Harwell, whose distinctive rasp can be heard on the ska/punk-pop classics “Walkin’ on the Sun,” “All Star,” “Then the Morning Comes,” and “I’m a Believer,” has died, following a long battle with various health issues that forced him to retire from music in 2021. He was 56 years old. On Sunday, it had been announced by Smash Mouth manager Robert Hayes that Harwell was in hospice care, being looked after by his fiancée, for final-stage chronic liver failure, and that he had “only a week or so to live.”
Hayes said in a statement that Harwell “passed peacefully and comfortably” on Monday morning at his home in Boise, Idaho, “surrounded by family and friends,” adding: “Steve has been retired from Smash Mouth for two years now, and the band continues to tour with new vocalist Zach Goode. That said, Steve’s legacy will live on through the music. With Steve, Smash Mouth has sold over 10 million albums worldwide and topped the charts with two No. 1 hit singles, five top 40 singles, three Hot 100 singles, four Billboard 200 albums and a Grammy nomination not to mention the hundreds of film and television placements and of course those musical features in Shrek.
“Steve’s iconic voice is one of the most recognizable voices from his generation. He loved the fans and loved to perform,” Hayes continued. “Steve Harwell was a true American original. A larger-than-life character who shot up into the sky like a Roman candle. Steve should be remembered for his unwavering focus and impassioned determination to reach the heights of pop stardom. And the fact that he achieved this near-impossible goal with very limited musical experience makes his accomplishments all the more remarkable. His only tools were his irrepressible charm and charisma, his fearlessly reckless ambition, and his king-size cajones. Steve lived a 100 percent full-throttle life. Burning brightly across the universe before burning out.”
Steven Scott Harwell was born Jan. 9, 1967 in Santa Clara, Calif., and after fronting a rap group called F.O.S. (Freedom of Speech) in the early ‘90s, he formed Smash Mouth in San Jose with drummer Kevin Coleman, guitarist Greg Camp, and bassist Paul De Lisle in 1994. After Smash Mouth (formerly stylized as Smashmouth) signed to Interscope Records in 1997, they release their debut album Fush Yu Mang, which was buoyed by the fuzzy-funk groove of the spy-movie/beach-blanket romp “Walkin’ on the Sun” and a bouncy, earnest cover of War’s “Why Can’t We Be Friends.”
“Walkin’ on the Sun” went to No. 1 on Billboard’s Alternative Airplay chart and Fush Yu Mang sold 2 million copies, but Smash Mouth’s 1999 sophomore album, Astro Lounge, was even more successful, going triple-platinum and yielding an even bigger hit single, “All Star.” The sunny stadium anthem peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and received a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals. Two decades later, “All Star” took on a whole new unexpected life as an internet meme, becoming one of most-streamed rock songs in the U.S. between 2017 and 2021.
“I try not to pay attention to social media very much. I try not to personally read and look at all that shit. But I think it’s cool that ‘All Star’ has made such a resurgence” Harwell told Stereogum in 2017.
Over the course of their career, Smash Mouth sold more than 10 million albums and charted 10 total Billboard hits. Along with their originals, they were known for their spirited covers, including “Why Can’t We Be Friends,” the Neil Diamond-penned Monkees classic “I’m a Believer,” Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” and Question Mark & the Mysterians’ “Can’t Get Enough of You Baby.”
Along with “I’m a Believer” for 2001’s Shrek and “Why Can’t We Be Friends” for 1998’s Wild Things, Smash Mouth recorded other movie songs, like a cover of the Beatles’ “Getting Better” for The Cat in the Hat and a new version of “I Wan’na Be Like You” for The Jungle Book 2, both in 2003. Harwell and Smash Mouth also composed two original songs, “Beside Myself” and “Everything Just Crazy,” for the 2013 South Korean animated film Pororo, the Racing Adventure. In 2001, the group appeared as themselves in the Jerry Zucker comedy flick Rat Race. Harwell also famously appeared as himself on the small screen in 2006, on the sixth season of VH1’s “celebreality” show The Surreal Life, alongside roommates Alexis Arquette, Sherman Hemsley, and Tawny Kitaen (all of whom have since died) and Poison guitarist C.C. DeVille.
In 2013, Harwell was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy (a form of heart disease that causes the heart muscle becomes enlarged and weak), an acute neurological condition called Wernicke encephalopathy, and heart failure. He also struggled with alcohol abuse for much of his life. In August 2016, while performing at the Urbana Sweetcorn Festival in Urbana, Ill., he collapsed onstage and was taken by ambulance to the hospital, while De Lisle filled in on lead vocals for the remainder of Smash Mouth’s set. In 2017, the band postponed several concerts while Harwell underwent treatment for his heart problems. A replacement singer was brought in to take over for some gigs, surprising many attendees who initially did not notice the switch.
Harwell eventually returned to live performing, but in October 2021, he made a bizarre appearance at the Big Sip beer and wine festival at Hudson Valley’s Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, during which he seemed intoxicated — slurring his words, threatening the audience, and even giving what appeared to be a Nazi salute. Following that debacle, which had gone viral via TikTok, Harwell officially announced his retirement due to his “longstanding medical issues.” A Smash Mouth representative explained at that time that the singer had forgotten “where he was [and] his own lyrics” at Bethel Woods and had “limited understanding of his environment due to one of his episodes.”
Smash Mouth’s rep then revealed that Harwell had “suffered profusely over the years with several types of addiction,” which had “greatly impacted his motor functions including speech and impaired memory. … Despite Steve’s best efforts to work through these ailments, he is heartbroken to share that it has become impossible for him to continue doing what he loves most, performing in front of the band’s millions of fans around the world.”
“Ever since I was a kid, I dreamed of being a rock star performing in front of sold-out arenas and have been so fortunate to live out that dream,” Harwell said in a 2021 statement upon his retirement. “To my bandmates, it’s been an honor performing with you all these years and I can’t think of anyone else I would have rather gone on this wild journey with. To our loyal and amazing fans, thank you, all of this was possible because of you. I’ve tried so hard to power through my physical and mental health issues, and to play in front of you one last time, but I just wasn’t able to.”
With Harwell’s support, his Smash Mouth bandmates (De Lisle being the sole remaining member from the original ‘90s lineup) then sought out a new permanent frontman, eventually hiring Zach Goode in January 2022. “I am so grateful to each and every one of you who has helped Smash Mouth sell over 10 million albums worldwide, put us on top of radio charts, and those who have kept ‘All Star’ relevant as one of the top memes on the internet today,” Harwell said. “I cannot wait to see what Smash Mouth accomplishes next and am looking forward to counting myself as one of the band’s newest fans.”
This is not the first time that the Harwell family has experienced a health tragedy. In 2001, the Smash Mouth frontman’s 8-month-old son with then-wife Michelle Laroque, Presley Scott Harwell, died of complications from acute lymphatic leukemia after being ill with the disease for only a few weeks. The singer later created the Presley Scott Research Foundation for Leukemia in his son’s honor.
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