With his gravelly voice (described by the MusicHound Rock Album Guide as "like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months and then taken outside and run over with a car"), experimental tendencies and love of pre-rock Americana styles, such as blues, jazz and Vaudeville, Waits has built-up a distinct musical persona. Trouser Press called Waits "at once a throwback and a visionary.".
Lyrically, Waits’ songs are known for portraying bizarre, seedy characters and places, although he has also shown a penchant for more conventional ballads.
Waits has built-up a devoted cult following and has influenced subsequent songwriters with little radio or music video support. Waits’ songs are best known to the general public in the form of cover versions by more visible artists, such as Eagles, Bruce Springsteen and Rod Stewart. And though Waits' albums have usually been commercially ignored in his native United States, they have occasionally achieved gold album sales status in other countries.
Waits has also worked as a composer for movies and musical plays and as a supporting actor in films like Short Cuts, The Two Jakes, Mystery Men, Bram Stoker's Dracula and Coffee and Cigarettes, as well as having a starring role in the film Down By Law.
Born in Pomona, California to parents of Scottish, Irish and Norwegian descent, Waits began his recording career in 1971, after he relocated to Los Angeles and signed with Herb Cohen, manager of Frank Zappa, among others.
After numerous abortive recording sessions, Waits' first record, the melancholic, country-tinged Closing Time was issued in 1973. It received warm reviews, but he first gained national attention when his "Ol' 55" was recorded by Eagles in 1974. The Heart of Saturday Night showed Waits' roots as a nightclub singer, half speaking and half crooning ballads, often with a jazz background.
The 1975 album Nighthawks at the Diner, recorded in a studio but with a small audience to capture the ambience of a live show, captures this phase of his career, including the lengthy spoken interludes between songs that punctuated his live act. Regarding his music during this era, Waits reported that "I wasn't thrilled by Blue Cheer, so I found an alternative, even if it was Bing Crosby."
Small Change (1976) (featuring famed drummer Shelly Manne) was jazzier still, and songs such as "The Piano Has Been Drinking" and "Bad Liver and a Broken Heart" cemented his hard living reputation, with a lyrical style pitched somewhere between Raymond Chandler and Charles Bukowski. Foreign Affairs (1977) and Blue Valentine (1978) were in a similar vein, but showed further refinement of his artistic voice. It was around this time that Waits had a famous romantic relationship with Rickie Lee Jones.
1980 saw the release of Heartattack and Vine. Though not entirely unprecedented, the album's gritty rhythm and blues sound was different for Waits, and forshadowed the major changes in his music that would follow several years later. The same year, he began a long working relationship with Francis Ford Coppola, who asked Waits to provide music for his film One From The Heart. Waits tapped singer/songwriter Crystal Gayle as his vocal foil for the album.
Waits began his acting career with his appearance in Sylvester Stallone's 1978 film Paradise Alley and later appeared in Coppola's The Outsiders. He starred in Jim Jarmusch's Down By Law in 1987, and has played supporting roles in films like Rumble Fish, The Cotton Club, Coffee & Cigarettes (as himself) and Dracula (as the Dracula's insane slave Renfield). He has worked with such directors as Jarmusch, Coppola, and Robert Altman.
In August 1980, Waits married Kathleen Brennan, whom he had met on the set of One from the Heart. Brennan is regularly credited as co-author of many songs on his later released albums, and Waits often cites her as a major influence on his work (she introduced him to Captain Beefheart's music; Waits describes as hearing his music as a paradigm shift).
Waits left Asylum Records for Island Records. 1983 saw the release of Swordfishtrombones, a record which marked a sharp turn in Waits' output, and which cemented his reputation as a visionary, steadfastly outside the mainstream. In many ways, Waits has carved out his own musical genre.
Waits had earlier played either piano or guitar, but he began tiring of these instruments, saying, "Your hands are like dogs, going to the same places they've been. You have to be careful when playing is no longer in the mind but in the fingers, going to happy places. You have to break them of their habits or you don't explore, you only play what is confident and pleasing. I'm learning to break those habits by playing instruments I know absolutely nothing about, like a bassoon or a waterphone." 
The instrumentation and orchestration were often quite eclectic. Waits' self described "Junkyard Orchestra" included wheezing pump organs, clattering percussion (sometimes reminiscent of Harry Partch), bleary horn sections (often featuring Ralph Carney, and taking their cues from brass bands or soul music), nearly atonal guitar (perhaps best typified by Marc Ribot's contributions) and obsolete instruments (Waits is fond of a damaged chamberlin which he purchased from several surfers; recent albums have featured the little-used stroh violin.) A list of uncommon instruments featured on Waits' albums is at this external link: 
Along with a new instrumental approach, Waits gradually altered his singing style, sounding less like the late-night crooner of the 70s, instead adopting a number of techniques: A gravelly sound reminiscent of Howlin' Wolf and Captain Beefheart, a booming, feral bark, or a strained, nearly shrieking falsetto Waits jokingly describes as his Prince voice. Tom Moon describes Waits' voice as a "broad-spectrum assault weapon".
His songwriting shifted as well, becoming somewhat more abstract, and embracing a number of styles largely ignored in pop music, including primal blues, cabaret stylings, rhumbas, theatrical Kurt Weill-esque approaches, tangos, early country music, European folk music and Tin Pan Alley-era songs. He undertook a few nearly-spoken word pieces influenced by Ken Nordine's "word jazz" records of the 1950s. All of these different techniques are filtered through Waits' unique lens, however, and so rarely seem like a pastiche.
Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs and Frank's Wild Years were a trilogy of loose concept albums, following sailor Frank O'Brien, as he leaves the familiar comfort of home, sees the world, and returns. The last of these albums was also adapted as an off-Broadway musical co-written with Brennan. This was the first of several theatre collaborations Waits would undertake: with his wife, Waits wrote and performed in Big Time, a slightly surreal concert movie and soundtrack relased in 1988.
Waits appeared on Primus' 1991 album, Sailing the Seas of Cheese as the voice of "Tommy the Cat", which exposed him to a new audience in alternative rock. This was the first of several collaborations between Waits and the group; Les Claypool (Primus' singer, songwriter and bassist) would appear on several subsequent Waits releases.
Bone Machine was released in 1992. The stark record featured lots of percussion and guitar (and little piano or sax), marking another change in Waits' sound. Critic Steve Huey calls it "Perhaps Tom Waits' most cohesive album ... a morbid, sinister nightmare, one that applied the quirks of his experimental '80s classics to stunningly evocative -- and often harrowing -- effect ... Waits' most affecting and powerful recording, even if it isn't his most accessible." Bone Machine was awarded a Grammy. (Incidentally, "Bone Machine" was a song on The Pixies' earlier Surfer Rosa, though it's uncertain whether Waits borrowed the term from the Pixies or developed it independently.)
Waits wrote and conducted the music for Jim Jarmusch's 1993 film Night on Earth, which was released as an album. The Black Rider is the result of a theatrical collaboration between Waits, director Robert Wilson and writer William S. Burroughs.
Singer John Hammond's Wicked Grin was issued in 2001. Hammond and Waits are close friends, and the album is a collection of cover songs originally written by Waits, who appears on most songs (playing guitar, piano or offering backing vocals).
In 2002, Waits simultaneously released two albums, Alice and Blood Money. Both were the fruits of theatrical collaborations with Wilson; the former was originally intended as a musical play about Lewis Carroll, the latter was an interpretation of Georg Büchner's unfinished Woyzeck. The two albums revisit the tango, Tin Pan Alley, and spoken word influences of Swordfishtrombones, while the lyrics are both profoundly cynical ("Misery is the River of the World") and melancholy ("No One Knows I'm Gone").
Real Gone was released in 2004. While more refined than Bone Machine and perhaps more commercially viable than Alice or Blood Money, its sound is mostly rough and experimental (Waits beatboxes on the opening track, "Top of the Hill;" most of the album's songs began as Waits' tape-recorded "vocal percusion" improvisations) as well as more rock-oriented. In a first for Waits, he offers an explicitly political song: the album-closing "The Day After Tomorrow" takes on the persona of a soldier writing home that he is disillusioned with the war and is thankful to be leaving. The song doesn't mention the Iraq war, and, as Moon writes, "it could be the voice of a Civil War soldier singing a lonesome late-night dirge." Waits does describe the song as an "elliptical" protest song about the Iraqi invasion, however. Thom Jurek describes "The Day..." as "one of the most insightful and understated antiwar songs to have been written in decades. It contains not a hint of banality or sentiment in its folksy articulation."
Waits has steadfastly refused to allow the use of his songs in commercials and has spoken ill of other artists who do. ("If Michael Jackson wants to work for Pepsi, why doesn't he just get himself a suit and an office in their headquarters and be done with it.") He has filed several lawsuits against advertisers who used his material without permission.
(This may be part of a wariness regarding large corporations; Waits has often switched to smaller independent record companies: he signed to Asylum Records before they were bought out by Elektra Records and the Warner Bros., then during his time with Island Records they went from a small company to a music industry giant; he then signed to Anti Records, a division of Epitaph Records.
The first lawsuit was filed in 1988 against Frito Lay, and resulted in a US$2.6 million judgement in Waits' favor. Frito Lay had approached Waits to use one of his songs in an advertisement. Waits declined the offer, and Frito Lay hired a Waits soundalike to sing a jingle similar to Small Change's "Step Right Up," which is, ironically, a song Waits has called "an indictment of advertising."  ("Step Right Up" concludes with the lyric "The large print giveth, and the small print taketh away").
In 1993, Levi's used Screamin' Jay Hawkins's version of Waits's "Heartattack and Vine" in a commercial. Waits sued, and Levi's agreed to cease all use of the song, and offered a full page apology in Billboard Magazine. 
In 2000, Waits found himself in a situation similar to his earlier one with Frito-Lay: Audi approached him, asking to use "Innocent When You Dream" (from Frank's Wild Years) for a commercial broadcast in Spain. Waits declined, but the commercial ultimately featured music very similar to Waits' song. Waits undertook legal action, and a Spanish court recognized there had been a violation of Waits' moral rights, in addition to the infringement of copyright . The production company, Tandem Campany Guasch, was ordered to pay compensation to Waits through his Spanish publisher.
The Sons of Lee Marvin
Tom Waits has claimed on several occasions to be a member of the secret society, "The Sons of Lee Marvin", a group founded by Jarmusch in which all members bear a physical resemblance to actor Lee Marvin.
|1974||Heart of Saturday Night|
|1975||Nighthawks at the Diner||recorded live over two nights for small audiences|
|1980||Heartattack and Vine|
|1982||One From the Heart||Movie Soundtrack|
|1987||Frank's Wild Years|
|1988||Big Time||Live CD, movie, video release|
|1992||Night on Earth||Movie soundtrack|
|1992||Bone Machine||Won a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album|
|1993||The Black Rider||Collaboration w/ Wm. S. Burroughs|
|1999||Mule Variations||Won a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album|
- 1983 Anthology of Tom Waits (Elektra)
- 1991 The Early Years, Volume One
- 1993 The Early Years, Volume Two
- 1998 Beautiful Maladies: The Island Years
- 1991 Sailing the Seas of Cheese, by Primus: Waits does character vocals on Tommy The Cat
- 1992 Beautiful Mess, by Thelonious Monster: Waits appears as a guest singer on Adios Lounge
- 1993 Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet, by Gavin Bryars: Waits appears as guest singer
- 1997 All for Nothing/Nothing for All, by The Replacements: Waits appears as guest singer on Date to Church
- 1999 Antipop, by Primus: Waits produces the song Coattails of a Deadman and does vocals on it
- 1999 More Oar: A Tribute To Skip Spence by various artists: Waits covers Spence's "Books of Moses"
- 2000 Helium, by Tin Hat Trio: Waits appears as guest singer on Helium Reprise
- 2001 It's A Wonderful Life, by Sparklehorse: Waits does vocals on "Dog Door"
- 2002 For the Kids by various artists: Waits performs the lullaby "Bring Down the Branches"
- 2003 We're a Happy Family: A Tribute to the Ramones by various artists: Waits covers "Return of Jackie and Judy"
- 2004 The Ride by Los Lobos: Waits does vocals on the track "Kitate"
- 2004 The Late Great Daniel Johnston by various artists: Waits covers Johnston's "King Kong"
- 2005 Blinking Lights and other Revelations by Eels: Waits screams on the track "Going Fetal"
- 1995 Temptation, Holly Cole
- 1995 Step Right Up, various artists
- 2000 New Coat of Paint, various artists
- 2001 Wicked Grin, John Hammond
- 2003 Greetings from HELL - The Tom Waits Songbook, Hell Blues Choir
- 2004 Step Right Up: The Songs of Tom Waits, various artists
- 1978 Movie debut as 'Mumbles' in Paradise Alley.
- 1980 Worked with Francis Ford Coppola on the soundtrack to One From The Heart.
- 1982 Soundtrack of One From The Heart. Nominated for an Academy Award for best original score.
- Played petrified man in carnival in The Stone Boy.
- 1983 Played Buck Merrill in The Outsiders.
- Played Bennie the pool hall owner in Rumble Fish.
- 1984 Played Irving Stark in The Cotton Club.
- Soundtrack to Streetwise a documentary about street kids on Pike St. in Seattle.
- 1986 Starred as Zack in Down by Law.
- 1987 Played Rudy The Kraut in Ironweed.
- Played Al Silk in Candy Mountain.
- 1989 Played the 'Punch & Judy Man' in Bearskin: An Urban Fairytale.
- 1990 Played a plainclothes policeman in The Two Jakes.
- 1991 Played Wolf in At Play in the Fields of the Lord.
- 1992 Composer (With Kathleen Brennan) on American Heart.
- 1996 Composer on soundtrack of Dead Man Walking.
- 1999 Mystery Men -- played an inventor who specialized in non-lethal weapons.
- 2001 Composer on soundtrack of Big Bad Love.
- 2003 Appeared in conversation with Iggy Pop in Coffee and Cigarettes: Somewhere In California (filmed in 1993).
- 2004 Composer (with Kathleen Brennan) on soundtrack of Shrek 2. Also appears, in a shared role with Nick Cave, as an animated piano-playing pirate singing "A Little Drop Of Poison".
- 2005 Played the Wanderer in Domino
- 1973 Closing Time touring
- 1974-1975 The Heart Of Saturday Night touring
- 1975-1976 Small Change touring
- 1977 Foreign Affairs touring
- 1978-1979 Blue Valentine touring
- 1980-1982 Heartattack and Vine touring
- 1985 Rain Dogs touring
- 1987 Big Time touring
- 1999 Get Behind The Mule Tour
- 2004 Real Gone Tour
- Kazik Staszewski, Polish artist extensively covering Waits
- Holly Cole, Canadian artist covering Waits' songs in jazz style
- Billy's band, Russian band covering Waits' songs
- BoxSpringHogs - The Box Spring Hogs are a Tom Waits tribute band residing in Austin, Texas.
- Official Site
- Waits hasn't had fun since 1962
- Tom Waits @ the SoundtrackINFO project
- Tom Waits for No Man - a fan blog
- The Eyeball Kid - a fan blog
- Tom Waits Fan.com - a Tom Waits informational site. Also houses active forums.
- Tom Waits Supplement - a compendium of information about Tom Waits and his works
- Tom Waits Fanatics - a Live Journal fan club