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- Limited edition 7CD Box Set featuring FM broadcasts
Waits signed to Asylum Records in 1972, and after numerous abortive recording sessions, his first record—the jazzy, folk-tinged Closing Time—was released in 1973. The album—produced and arranged by former Lovin' Spoonful member Jerry Yester—received positive reviews, but Waits didn't gain widespread attention until more prominent artists covered a number of the album's tracks. Lee Hazlewood became one of the first major artists to cover a Tom Waits song, using the title variation "Those Were Days Of Roses (Martha)" on his album for Capitol, "Poet, Fool, or Bum". Also in 1973, Tim Buckley released the album Sefronia, which contained another cover version of Waits' song "Martha" from Closing Time.
This cover later appeared in the 1995 compilation Step Right Up: The Songs of Tom Waits. The album's opening track, "Ol' '55", was recorded by the Eagles in 1974 for their On the Border album.
He began touring and opening for such artists as Charlie Rich, Martha and the Vandellas, and Frank Zappa. Waits received increasing critical acclaim and gathered a loyal cult following with his subsequent albums. The Heart of Saturday Night (1974), featuring the song "(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night", revealed Waits's roots as a nightclub performer, with half-spoken and half-crooned ballads often accompanied by a jazz backup band. Waits described the album as: a comprehensive study of a number of aspects of this search for the center of Saturday night, which Jack Kerouac relentlessly chased from one end of this country to the other, and I've attempted to scoop up a few diamonds of this magic that I see.
In 1975, Waits moved to the Tropicana Motel on Santa Monica Boulevard and released the double album Nighthawks at the Diner, recorded in a studio with a small audience in order to capture the ambience of a live show. The record exemplifies this phase of his career, including the lengthy spoken interludes between songs that punctuated his live act. That year, he also contributed backing vocals to Bonnie Raitt's "Your Sweet and Shiny Eyes", from her album Home Plate. By this time, Waits was drinking heavily, and life on the road was starting to take its toll. Waits, looking back at the period, has said,
I was sick through that whole period ... It was starting to wear on me, all the touring. I'd been traveling quite a bit, living in hotels, eating bad food, drinking a lot – too much. There's a lifestyle that's there before you arrive and you're introduced to it. It's unavoidable.
In reaction to these hardships, Waits recorded Small Change (1976), which finds him in a much more cynical and pessimistic mood, lyrically, with many songs such as "The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me) (An Evening with Pete King)" and "Bad Liver and a Broken Heart (In Lowell)". With the album, Waits asserted that he "tried to resolve a few things as far as this cocktail lounge, maudlin, crying-in-your-beer image that I have. There ain't nothin' funny about a drunk [...] I was really starting to believe that there was something amusing and wonderfully American about being a drunk. I ended up telling myself to cut that shit out. “The album, which also included long-time fan favorite "Tom Traubert's Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen)", featured jazz drummer Shelly Manne and was, like his previous albums, heavily influenced by jazz.
Small Change, which was accompanied by the double A-side single "Step Right Up"/"The Piano Has Been Drinking", was a critical and commercial success and far outsold any of Waits's previous albums. With it, Waits broke onto Billboard's Top 100 Albums chart for the first time in his career (a feat Waits would not repeat until 1999 with the release of Mule Variations). This resulted in a much higher public profile, which brought with it interviews and articles in Time, Newsweek, and Vogue. Waits put together a regular touring band, The Nocturnal Emissions, which featured Frank Vicari on tenor saxophone, Fitzgerald Jenkins on bass guitar, and Chip White on drums and vibraphone. Tom Waits and the Nocturnal Emissions toured the United States and Europe extensively from October 1976 until May 1977, including a performance of "The Piano Has Been Drinking" on cult BBC2 television music show The Old Grey Whistle Test in May 1976.
Foreign Affairs (1977) was musically in a similar vein to Small Change, but showed further artistic refinement and exploration into jazz and blues styles. Particularly noteworthy is the long cinematic spoken-word piece, "Potter's Field", set to an orchestral score. The album also features Bette Midler singing a duet with Waits on "I Never Talk to Strangers."
The album Blue Valentine (1978) displayed Waits's biggest musical departure to date, with much more focus on electric guitar and keyboards than on previous albums and hardly any strings (with the exception of album-opener "Somewhere" – a cover of Leonard Bernstein's song from West Side Story – and "Kentucky Avenue") for a darker, more blues-oriented sound.
The song "Blue Valentines" was also unique for Waits in that it featured a desolate arrangement of solo electric guitar played by Ray Crawford, accompanied by Waits' vocal. Around this time, Waits had a relationship with Rickie Lee Jones (who appears on the sleeve art of the Blue Valentine album). In 1978, Waits also appeared in his first film role, in Paradise Alley as Mumbles the pianist, and contributed the original compositions "(Meet Me in) Paradise Alley" and "Annie's Back in Town" to the film's soundtrack.