ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
And I'm Guy Raz.
GOP presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman says he's the most qualified Republican in the race for the White House. He points to his resume: governor of Utah, corporate executive, U.S. ambassador to China. But if Huntsman had lived out his youthful ambition, he would have been none of those things.
JON HUNTSMAN REPUBLICAN, FORMER GOVERNOR, UTAH: My initial passion in life was to be a rock-and-roll musician.
RAZ: Huntsman's passion was strong enough that he dropped out of high school to travel with his band in a Ford Econo-line van.
As part of our series on the candidates' early working experience, NPR's Scott Horsley reports on Huntsman's short-lived musical career and the more buttoned-down path that followed.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Jon Huntsman told graduates of the University of South Carolina this summer, life is not a straight and narrow route. It's full of turns. And he went on to describe his own youthful detour into 1970s progressive rock.
UTAH: My hair was Rod Stewart shaggy. I wouldn't wear anything but super skinny jeans. I ended up leaving high school a bit short of graduation to play with a band called Wizard. I thought it was my ticket to fame.
HORSLEY: Wizard started out as a guitar-based band, playing a lot of Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith covers. Bass player Eric Malmquist says once Huntsman joined, they took on a softer sound, playing songs by Yes, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and REO Speedwagon.
ERIC MALMQUIST: "Roll with the Changes" by REO was kind of a closer. It was a big platform for Jon as well, 'cause it had some really great solos for him.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "ROLL WITH THE CHANGES")
HORSLEY: This, by the way, is the real REO Speedwagon. Although Wizard spent a good bit of time in the recording studio, the band never produced an album of its own. But not for lack of trying, says drummer Howard Sharp.
HOWARD SHARP: I think we thought we were going to go somewhere, maybe move to L.A. or something. But coming out of Salt Lake, it's just high school silliness. But it was fun.
HORSLEY: Salt Lake City was not an obvious launching pad for aspiring rock stars. Malmquist remembers a lot of the band's early gigs came at youth-oriented music stomps, sponsored by the Mormon Church.
MALMQUIST: We knew we couldn't sing certain songs, so we'd have to change the words to them. Like we'd play "Cocaine," you know, Eric Clapton's "Cocaine." But instead of singing cocaine, which you would, you know, probably wouldn't do in church, we'd change the word to propane.
HORSLEY: The new lyric didn't make any sense but it kept the church leaders happy. Malmquist says two of the band members came from prominent families in the church, including Huntsman's.
MALMQUIST: Oh, you knew the Huntsmans were.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MALMQUIST: Everybody knew who the Huntsmans were. They lived in the castles on the hill.
HORSLEY: Huntsman's father, Jon Senior, had launched a business selling Styrofoam egg cartons, and later the containers for McDonalds' Big Macs. Today, Huntsman Corporation is a multi-billion dollar chemical conglomerate. But friends say the younger Huntsman didn't show off his family's money.
MALMQUIST: That's one thing that really was neat about him is he obviously knew he had wealth. You know, at 16, his dad bought him this incredible silver Bronco with red interior. The thing was, like, you know, the dream car of any 16-year-old boy. But he didn't flaunt it. He would go out and get dirty with anybody. He was a really grounded kid.
HORSLEY: Wizard never achieved rock stardom. And Huntsman eventually left the band to serve his Mormon mission in Taiwan. When he returned, he traded rock and roll for work in the Reagan White House, following the example of his father, who once served as staff secretary for Richard Nixon.
Political scientist Tim Chambless, of the University of Utah, says for the next 20 years, Huntsman's professional life alternated between political appointments in the federal government and working for his family's chemical business.
PROFESSOR TIM CHAMBLESS: Certainly his father's business efforts have opened doors of opportunities. But he also has his own skills.
HORSLEY: Chambless calls Huntsman a good listener and a bridge-builder, skills that helped make him a popular two-term governor.
Huntsman told the South Carolina graduates, even though his band didn't make it, he'll never regret following his passion. For a young man who'd spend much of his life following in his father's footsteps, drummer Howard Sharp says Huntsman's days with Wizard were an important chance to stand on his own two feet.
SHARP: I don't think I realized at the time. But as I look back, it is clear that he really wanted to do his own thing. And I think he always loved and respected his family. They're great. But, you know, Jon kind of went his own way. And he really kind of was his own man.
HORSLEY: And some 25 years after Wizard broke up, then-Governor Huntsman found himself on stage at the Utah State Fair, jamming with REO Speedwagon.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.