Friday Song: “3 AM”

A rough childhood couldn't keep this singer/songwriter from finding success

Matchbox 20 lead singer Rob Thomas received his first musical instrument — a Casio keyboard — at the age of 10. He also acquired a guitar with no strings.

When Thomas was 12 years old, he spent months caring for his mother, who was battling Hodgkins lymphoma. She had been given six months to live. She beat it, and by the time Thomas was 17, she was healthy enough for him to go out on his own.

Thomas did not come from a stable home. His father was nowhere to be found. His mother was an abusive alcoholic who often went on binges, and Thomas might wake up in the morning to find 10 or more people sleeping it off around the house. His sister ran away to get married when his mother was diagnosed, leaving him alone to care for her. Thomas dropped out of high school shortly before graduation, was homeless for a time, and was incarcerated for two months for stealing a Camaro. He also famously played with dry ice during an acid trip, burning his hands so severely that doctors thought they might need to be amputated. His sister, who had returned, was worried about how he might handle daily activities, and Thomas cried out, “How am I going to get these songs in my head out if I can’t play them?”

Fortunately, Thomas connected with some musicians and began writing songs. After a few failed bands and more accusations of theft, Thomas settled down and formed a band in Orlando, which morphed under the guidance of producer Matt Serletic to become Matchbox 20.

The band’s debut album, Yourself or Someone Like You, was released in 1996, and sold 600 copies in its first week, not an auspicious start. The single the label decided to release — “Long Day” — failed to gain traction. The label was about to drop the band when they noticed that sales had spiked in Birmingham, AL, where radio stations had begun playing a different track on the album, “Push.” Releasing this song as a single gave the band a Top 5 hit, and the album was certified Gold. Their next single was “3 AM.” It was hugely popular, and the album went multi-Platinum. Two other singles from the album also charted.

Written in G# and with a lilting tempo of 108 bpm, “3 AM” has a number of interesting instrumental aspects. I chose this version of a live performance because the organ pedal tones are so clearly represented, but the guitar hooks, harmonies, and more all add to a rich sonic landscape. Also, it’s fun to see rock stars have to start cold in the morning for a performance on The Today Show.

While leading Matchbox 20, Thomas simultaneously pursued a successful solo career, and his collaboration with Santana on “Smooth” remains a fantastic way to start any day, if you want to get off on the right foot.