The most celebrated British guitar hero to emerge in the 1970s and '80s, Mark Knopfler rose to fame as the leader of Dire Straits, and his songwriting and incisive guitar work played a decisive role in making them an international success story. At a time when punk and new wave were making technique for its own sake seem irrelevant, and metal was taking the guitar solo in noisier and unpredictable directions, Knopfler's clean but dexterous picking proved there was still room for traditionalism and chops in mainstream rock & roll. But even without considering Dire Straits, Knopfler has accumulated an impressive résumé as a producer, sideman, songwriter, and film composer, working alongside some of the best and best-known figures in the music business.
Mark Freuder Knopfler was born in Glasgow, Scotland on August 12, 1949. His father, a Hungarian émigré, worked as an architect, while his mother, of English heritage, was a schoolteacher. The Knopfler family moved to England when Mark was seven years of age, settling in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, and he developed a passion for music while spending time with his uncle; as he told journalist Dan Forte, "I heard my Uncle Kingsley playing boogie-woogie on the piano when I was about eight or nine, and I thought that those three chords were the most magnificent things in the world -- still do." A few years later, Knopfler began learning to play guitar, first on an inexpensive Hofner model before moving up to a Fender electric his father bought for him. At 16, Knopfler and some pals cut a demo single that was never released, and he performed in a vocal group that was successful enough to merit an appearance on local television.
In 1967, Knopfler enrolled at Harlow Technical College, where he studied journalism, and a year later he landed a job at the Yorkshire Evening Post, where he wrote news stories and music criticism. After two years at the Post, Knopfler opted to return to school, studying English at Leeds University. While at Leeds, he became friends with a fellow guitarist named Steve Phillips, and they began playing out under the name the Duolian String Pickers; while working with Phillips, Knopfler began developing the fingerpicking style that would become his trademark.
After graduating from Leeds in 1973, Knopfler moved to London and joined a pub rock band called Brewer's Droop, featuring drummer Pick Withers. Knopfler's tenure with the band was short-lived, and he took a position as a lecturer at Essex's Loughton College. Knopfler became friends with a handful of local musicians, and they formed a new band called the Café Racers. Mark's brother, David Knopfler, who was also a guitarist and songwriter, introduced Mark to a fellow musician, John Illsley, who played guitar but was also a solid bassist. When the Café Racers found themselves in need of a bass player one night, Mark asked Illsley to sit in, and before long, Mark, David, and John were sharing an apartment and working on songs, with Mark on lead guitar, David on rhythm, and John on bass. Mark invited Pick Withers to play drums with the new combo, and while they played their first few gigs as the Café Racers, before long they adopted a new name coined by Withers -- Dire Straits.
After cutting a demo tape, Dire Straits found a champion in BBC disk jockey Charlie Gillett, who began playing their demo on his show, attracting the attention of manager Ed Bicknell and Polygram A&R man John Stainze. Bicknell took Dire Straits under his wing and Stainze signed the group to Polygram's progressive and hard rock subsidiary Vertigo Records; Warner Bros. picked up the band for the United States. Dire Straits' self-titled debut album was released in the fall of 1978, and the song "Sultans of Swing" became a surprise hit single in both America and the U.K., with the album following it into the charts, as the group's clean, expert playing, and Knopfler's deft lead guitars, Dylanesque vocals, and evocative songs won the band airplay on pop and classic rock playlists. It was the first of a long string of successes for Dire Straits, and while the lineup would shift frequently over the group's lifespan -- Mark Knopfler and John Illsley would prove to be the group's only constants -- between 1978 and 1995 the group was a top concert draw and a frequent presence on radio and record charts; their landmark 1985 album Brothers in Arms sold over nine million copies in the United States alone, and was the top-selling CD of the '80s in the U.K.
It wasn't long after Dire Straits made their commercial breakthrough that Knopfler began expanding his creative boundaries. In 1979, he was invited to play lead guitar on Bob Dylan's album Slow Train Coming, and in 1983, he produced Dylan's Infidels, as well as leading the backing band. In addition to producing much of Dire Straits' catalog, Knopfler was behind the controls for albums by Aztec Camera, Randy Newman, and Willy DeVille. Knopfler lent his talents as a session guitarist to an impressive and diverse range of artists, including Van Morrison, Phil Lynott, Steely Dan, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Cliff Richard, and Scott Walker. He also penned the song "Private Dancer" for Tina Turner's triumphant comeback album of the same name, and found his songs being covered by the Shadows, whose legendary guitarist Hank Marvin was one of Knopfler's first inspirations. In 1983, Knopfler added "film composer" to his résumé when he wrote the score for the Scottish comedy Local Hero; Knopfler's music was cited in many of the film's rave reviews, and he would later score the films Cal, The Princess Bride, Last Exit to Brooklyn, and Wag the Dog, among others. And when Weird Al Yankovic asked Knopfler's permission to record a parody of Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing" for the soundtrack to his film UHF, Knopfler agreed under one condition -- that he be allowed to re-create his guitar parts for Yankovic's version. Weird Al happily acceded to Knopfler's request.
After Knopfler made guest appearances on several albums by another of his heroes, Nashville icon Chet Atkins, the two cut a collaborative project in 1990, called Neck & Neck, which was the first non-soundtrack album Knopfler released under his own name. Knopfler also showed off his love of country sounds with his side project, the Notting Hillbillies, which featured Brendan Croker, Guy Fletcher, and Mark's old Duolian String Pickers partner Steve Phillips. In the fall of 1992, Dire Straits played their last concert, a show in Spain on the tour in support of On Every Street, and in 1995, Knopfler quietly announced that he'd retired the band, feeling they'd become too big. Released in 1996, Golden Heart became Knopfler's official solo debut, followed in 2000 by Sailing to Philadelphia, which included guest appearances by Van Morrison, James Taylor, Gillian Welch, and Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford of Squeeze. The newly prolific Knopfler shortly returned to the studio and released The Ragpicker's Dream in the fall of 2002; a world tour was planned, but after Knopfler was involved in a motorcycle accident that left him with a broken shoulder and collarbone, the dates were canceled. However, he was soon feeling well enough to go back to recording, and issued Shangri-La in 2004, a set recorded at the Malibu compound where the Band recorded and rehearsed in the '70s.
As Knopfler's taste for rootsy, country-influenced sounds became a growing presence in his solo work, he began working on material with singer Emmylou Harris, and their collaborative album, 2006's All the Roadrunning, was recorded during sessions spread over seven years. Knopfler and Harris toured together in support of the set, and a live album, Real Live Roadrunning, came out later the same year. Knopfler continued to record at a steady pace, releasing Kill to Get Crimson in 2007 and Get Lucky in 2009, while still finding room to contribute to albums by Sonny Landreth, Bill Wyman, Diane Schuur, Bap Kennedy, and America. The year 2012 found Knopfler releasing Privateer, the first double-disc studio set of his career; the album debuted at eight in the U.K. Three years lafter, Knopfler returned with Tracker; the album debuted at three in the U.K. and 14 in the U.S. In 2016, he collaborated with Evelyn Glennie on the soundtrack for Altamira. ~ Mark Deming