The ultimate cult artist, it is hard to think of another American who had such an impact on rock music as a whole while being almost completely unknown to his countrymen as Scott Walker.

Walker (born Scott Engel, the name his songs are often credited to) grew up in Texas, New York City and Southern California but found fame in mid-1960s England as part of the Walker Brothers at the same time that U.S. audiences were going crazy for British groups. The non-related Walker Brothers were a vocal trio who married soaring vocal harmonies, Spectoresque production techniques, Spaghetti Western soundtrack arrangements and a decidedly dark lyrical worldview into one uniquely melodramatic package.

Scott Walker’s voice (probably the most beautiful male non-soul voice of the rock era) and increasingly free-thinking beatnik attitude was at the center of the band’s appeal. Although the Walker Brothers became huge in Europe and boasted a fan club bigger than even The Beatles, Walker’s eccentricity cast a pall over the band’s public persona, in part because he recoiled at having his hair pulled out by crazed fans and in part because his French girlfriend introduced him to the world-weary, socially-charged, yet romantic songs of Jacques Brel.

Scott had already begun writing ambitious, twisted, highly literate numbers with the Walker Brothers but he upped the bleakness quotient even further when he launched an initially successful solo career (variety TV show included) in 1967. Alternating covers of standards and translations of Brel tunes with his distinctly arty and pained original numbers, Scott Walker albums of this period marry classic pop craftsmanship and string-laden arrangements with lyrics about doomed love affairs, dreams dashed and lives left unfulfilled (imagine a successful collaboration between Jack Jones, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, and Jean-Paul Sartre). While his first three solo efforts (Scott, Scott 2, and Scott 3) were chart successes, the entirely self-penned Scott 4, widely considered his masterpiece of the period, was released in 1969 under is real name, Scott Englel, and failed to chart at all.

As the public moved on to swarthy, dirt-encrusted 1970s guitar rock, the ever-elusive Scott Walker slowly withdrew from public view. Reuniting with the Walker Brothers later in the decade, Scott’s voice had already lost some of its former majesty but this mirrored his newfound interest in the synth-driven avant-garde, which he helped revolutionize to major critical success and minor public attention via four extrordinary tracks on the final Walker Brother’s album Nite Flights and later on his olny solo outing of the 80’s, Climate of Hunter.

Walker disappeared again but artists as diverse as David Bowie, Julian Cope, Bryan Ferry, Ultravox and Marc Almond championed his unique body of work, citing him as a primary influence on their careers (Cope even put out a retrospective of his favorite Walker tracks in 1981 titled “Fire Escape in the Sky: The Godlike Genius of Scott Walker” which introduced him to new audiences).

This helped keep the shy recluse’s reputation alive until he resurfaced in 1995 with Tilt, a challenging, deeply unsettling album that completely strips off the dark romanticism that once filtered light through in his work. Walker went on to compose a film soundtrack (Pola X), write and arrange scary songs for German cabaret artist Ute Lemper, produce Pulp’s excellent album We Love Life (2001) and acted as guest artistic director of the prestigious British Meltdown arts festival’s 2000 edition.

Instead of living up to the stereotype of the tortured artist, recent interviews have Scott Walker coming across as plainspoken, unpretentious and honest. He is currently recording for the 4AD label, which includes a large roster of artists who were influenced by his work.

(biography courtesy RollingStone.com ©Copyright 2006 Rolling Stone)