Robbie Williams embodies the constant ups and downs of the music industry like hardly any other artist. The one-time teen idol celebrates his 40th this year on February 13.
The Brit's musical career got off to a hesitant start, and it certainly didn't involve learning an instrument. Instead, Robert Peter Williams - better known today as Robbie Williams - became interested as an adolescent in a musical style that wasn't exactly popular with young audiences. But swing has remained a key influence for him up to the present, and it's even inspired two of his albums.
When Williams' father, Peter, left his family, the future performer was just three years old. Peter left behind vinyl albums from big names like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and many other swing and jazz stars.
When it would rain in Stroke-on-Trent, Robbie Williams' birthplace, he couldn't find much to do except listen to those records. At 15, Williams' mother pushed him to register for the casting that would later make him part of one of the most successful boy bands of the 90s: Take That. Soon, he was the best-loved member of the band and an apparent teen idol.
When Williams' work with Take That ended in 1996, the British government went so far as to set up telephone hotlines to deal with teenagers who were distraught over the news.
The artist says his relationship to his fans has changed since back then: "Now I'm a little bit more humble and I feel incredibly lucky that I'm stretching this out as fast as it can stretch."
In his first years as a solo artist, everything ran smoothly for Robbie Williams. He still holds the record for the most tickets sold on a single day: 1.6 million. Furthermore, he secured one of the most lucrative record contracts ever, raking in over 125 million euros ($170.4 million). He's also received a total of 17 Brit Awards - more than any other artist.
However, the pressures of life in the spotlight eventually proved too much for the British star. It didn't help matters that he seemed unable to manage a breakthrough in the key US market despite his success in many other parts of the world.
In 2006, he declared the music business an "evil place" and resolved to pull back. "I sat on a sofa, ate some crisps, got stoned, and watched reality TV shows. And my brain started to eat itself," he said in a recent interview.
Brought back by boredom
After a two-year creative hiatus, the singer felt the urge to get back on stage and celebrated his comeback in 2009. The fundamental change in his attitude toward his career was apparent in a 2010 reunion with colleagues from Take That, resulting in albums together and a world tour.
Fans could detect a more humble air to the star, who offered a blunt assessment of his appetites: "I'm a very addictive person. I love things that change the way I feel - whether that be computer games, sex, drinks, drugs, food."
2010 also marked the year in which the one-time teen idol married American actress Ayda Field. They became the parents of a daughter named Theodora Rose, nicknamed Teddy, in 2012. The entertainer says they now help keep him grounded - even if he allows himself the little extra here and there.
That's the case with his plans for his 40th birthday. Instead of a party, he's going to get a Rolls Royce, he said, quipping, "I'm now 40 - I like comfort and being in one of those cars is like being in your pajamas at all times. So I think I'll wait to my 50th with the party."