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It also dovetails nicely with a blazing career. Thomas, 28, and his Matchbox mates—drummer Paul Doucette, 28; bassist Brian Yale, 31; rhythm guitarist Adam Gaynor, 36; and lead guitarist Kyle Cook, 25—are performing before sold-out audiences on a 30-city tour ending in San Diego on Oct. 22. They are there to promote their multi-platinum album Mad Season by Matchbox Twenty, a follow-up to the band's 13 million-selling 1996 debut, Yourself or Someone Like You. Last year Thomas added to his fame—and certainly his fortune—by cowriting and singing lead vocals on the chart-topping single "Smooth," which revived the long-dormant career of guitarist Carlos Santana, who put the song on his Grammy-winning album Supernatural. "Rob takes songwriting very seriously," says Matchbox producer Matt Serletic. "He says he'd be in therapy if he didn't have his songs."
These days many of his lyrics revolve around life with Marisol (née Maldonaldo), a New York City model of Puerto Rican and Spanish descent. The two were introduced by a mutual friend after a 1998 Matchbox Twenty show in Montreal. "Rob and I met for literally 10 minutes," says Marisol, 24. "When I left, I looked at my girlfriend and said, 'That's the man I'm going to marry.' " After a months-long courtship by phone, Thomas, who had been on the road in Europe, had his first date with Marisol at a Boston music festival. Afterward, he says, "I told everyone I was going to marry her." The twin predictions came true in a private ceremony at his manager's California home last year. Still, says Marisol, laughing, "girls are like, 'My God! Do you realize that's Rob Thomas?!' I think it's really funny. He's a boy who's very sloppy and has to be shown where the hamper is."
Thomas's sister Missy Scott, mother of three and director of a Bradenton, Fla., daycare center, has also witnessed a less stellar side of the star. "They haven't seen him running around in his underwear eating Chee-tos," says Missy, 33. For all her ribbing, though, she admits to a deep affection for her kid brother. "A lot of the time," she says of the hard-knocks life they shared as children, "he had no one to count on but me." Says Thomas: "Me and Missy, we weathered the storm."
The tempest in Thomas's life began swirling soon after he was born on Valentine's Day, 1972, in Landstuhl, Germany, where his father, Bill (now 49 and a textile company supervisor in Manning, S.C.), was stationed in the Army. Robert Kelly Thomas was 6 months old when his family moved back to the U.S. Two years later Bill Thomas and his wife, Mamie, now 49 and employed at a software company in Orlando, divorced, and Rob and Missy (Mamie's daughter from a previous marriage) moved with their mother to Lake City, S.C. There they lived briefly with their maternal grandmother (now deceased), who owned a roadside market where she sold moonshine and marijuana under the counter. "Everyone in my family," Thomas says in his Carolina drawl, "sounded like Elvis when they talked. We were these barefoot, dirty redneck kids."
As his mother moved from town to town, before settling in Orlando in 1983, Thomas and his sister lived in a succession of low-rent apartments and trailers. "For a while we had no furniture," he recalls. "We'd put newspaper down and say, 'This is our couch.' That was our big joke."
Young Kelly, as Thomas's family still calls him, was only 12 when his mother was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease. "I would be up all night taking care of her," recalls Thomas, whose sister moved out of the house to get married at age 17. "I felt a lot of resentment, like I was dealing with things nobody else was dealing with. I felt all this was her fault. She had totally robbed me of my youth." Once his mother's cancer went into remission (it is currently dormant), she adopted a free-spirited approach to life. "There were always bikers around the house," Thomas says. "There were wild parties, and my mom would wake me up and introduce me to her friends—'This is my son'—and I was like, 'Aw, I've got to get to bed.' By the time I was 16, I felt old." Estranged from his father as well, Thomas (who has since grown close to both parents) left home, crashing with friends. "I would sneak into their houses at night and stay in their closets. Sometimes friends would leave the family car open and let me sleep in it."
Before dropping out at 17, Thomas (who later earned a G.E.D.) attended Lake Brantley High School in Altamont Springs, Fla., where he joined the chorus because, he says, "I had the hots for a girl." At the same time, a friend taught him to play keyboards, and he began "writing really cheesy love songs so I could play them to all the girls at parties."
He joined forces with Doucette and Yale in a succession of Orlando bar bands before they were signed by Atlantic Records in 1996. (Cook and Gaynor were recruited a short while later.) So far the group's enormous success hasn't seemed to swell egos. "We all keep our heads on our shoulders," says Thomas. "He is modest to a fault," adds Marisol, who recently moved with her husband from a Manhattan loft to a home in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Westchester County, N.Y. "He tells me, 'The day will come when you're the only one who's still going to think I'm hot.' "
At least one megastar doesn't think much of him. Thomas cringes as he remembers approaching Leonardo DiCaprio at a New York City night-club in 1998 and introducing himself. When the Titanic star gave him the cold shoulder, Thomas took a humiliating walk back to his seat. "I realized I'm still such a fan," he says. "I've had to learn to back off. If you're in a restaurant and Billy Joel's there, just leave him alone."
Michael Haederle in Tallahassee and Austin