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Early acts of 50 famous musicians

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Len Trievnor // Getty Images

Early acts of 50 famous musicians

Even the most gifted of musicians has to start somewhere. Some performers strike gold right off the bat writing top 10 hits, but most have had more modest beginnings, from street busking and bar bands, to frequent rejections on their way to that coveted big break.

In an industry that’s always seeking the next big thing, major musicians may have had different names, looks, and sounds over the course of their careers. Some took off as part of groups that later splintered while others took a while to find their own sound in a world of fierce competition.

To help broaden your musical IQ, Stacker has compiled a list of famous artists across different eras and genres with first acts you may not know about. Read on to discover the softer side of gangsta rappers, folk heroes who traveled with funkier acts, and which country star was first famous for his javelin-throwing skills.

RELATED: Cher and 50 other musicians over 50 you can still see live

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Eric Koch // Netherlands National Archive

The Beatles

The genre of “skiffle”—a type of rootsy folk music—isn’t one that gets much attention, but it’s how one of the biggest bands of all time got started. John Lennon had founded a skiffle group called The Quarrymen in high school, which Paul McCartney and George Harrison signed on with. Eventually the trio adopted the name “Beatles” as a tribute to Buddy Holly and The Crickets. The name evolved into The Silver Beetles and then finally just The Beatles. While enjoying a residency in Hamburg, they recruited Pete Best as their drummer, although he was eventually replaced by Ringo Starr.


 

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Jason Persse // Flickr

Dr. Dre

Born Andre Young, Dr. Dre made his mark on hip-hop long before he became a solo artist. Like Ice Cube and the late Eazy-E, his big breakthrough was as one of the founding members of L.A.-based rap group N.W.A. But that wasn’t Dre’s first time in the spotlight. In the early '80s, Dre was a member of World Class Wreckin’ Crew, a hip-hop and R&B group known for its slick dance moves and glammed-out costumes. It’s an image that doesn’t mesh well with his tough guy persona, and made him subject to homophobic disses by his rivals. Even Dre himself is hesitant to talk about it.

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Elvert Barnes // Flickr

Tupac Shakur

Dr. Dre wasn’t the only West Coast rap icon with a background that contradicted his image. Tragically murdered at age 25, Tupac Shakur will forever be known as one of the world’s greatest MCs, with provocative lyrics that painted a portrait of inner-city life. But his beginnings were not what one would expect: He was a graduate of a performing arts high school and was active in drama and dance—even ballet. He first made his foray into rap as a member of Oakland-based Digital Underground before releasing his debut album, “2Pacalypse Now.”

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Joost Evers // Netherlands National Archive

Simon & Garfunkel

The acoustic duo comprised of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel had been harmonizing together since the days of their youth. They were first signed at age 15 as an act called Tom & Jerry and released the single “Hey Schoolgirl,” which sold more than 100,000 copies. The pair had a series of separations and reunions in the years to follow—including another pseudonymic duo as Kane & Garr—but eventually reunited using their real names in 1963.

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Nat Ch Villa // Flickr

Beyoncé

At 8 years old, the future Mrs. Knowles-Carter, along with LaTavia Roberson, auditioned for an R&B group called Girl’s Tyme; childhood friend Kelly Rowland joined in 1992. The group performed in the Houston area at various talent shows and even made it on Star Search; a clip of the girls’ performance can be heard as the intro to Beyoncé’s song “Flawless.” They were eventually signed to Elektra Records, but dropped shortly after. An arrangement with Sony allowed the group to record a debut album, after which they were picked up by Columbia Records. In 1996, they changed their name to Destiny’s Child—climbing the charts with hits including “Bills, Bills, Bills,” “Survivor,” and “Say My Name”—and Beyoncé’s star power rose to new heights.

 

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kallerna // Wikimedia Commons

Pharrell Williams

Williams has found success as a musician, producer—both on his own and with frequent Neptunes and N*E*R*D collaborator Chad Hugo, fashion designer, and all around pop culture icon. A protégé of Teddy Riley, Williams got his start while he was still in high school by penning his mentor’s verse on the 1992 hit “Rump Shaker” by Wreckx-n-Effect.

 

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Toasty Ken // Flickr

Sia

The Australian vocalist, whose full name is Sia Furler, has widespread fame from both her solo efforts as well as her high-profile collaborations. Her previous endeavors include being a member of the group Zero 7 and singing hooks on hits by artists like Eminem.

 

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Nicholastbroussard // Wikimedia Commons

The Beastie Boys

Although they’re best known for their MC talents, the New York-based trio started out in 1979 as a punk/hardcore band called The Young Aborigines. After losing a member, they became The Beastie Boys, which featured Adam Yauch on bass, Michael Diamond (Mike D) as lead vocals, Kate Schellenbach on drums, and John Berry on guitar. Berry left the group and was replaced by Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock). They released the hip-hop-influenced single “Cookie Puss” in 1983, and Schellenbach moved on from the group—she would later play drums for Luscious Jackson—as the trio transitioned to the sound that made them famous.

 

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Heinrich Klaffs // Flickr

Johnny Cash

The Man in Black began playing music in high school before joining the U.S. Air Force in 1950, but it wasn’t until after his return to civilian life that he began to pursue fame. While living in Memphis, he auditioned for Sam Phillips at Sun Records but was initially rejected due to his gospel influences. He returned with a more rockabilly sound—and his first hit, “Cry, Cry, Cry.” The the rest is musical history.

 

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thecomeupshow // Wikicommons

Drake

Born Aubrey Drake Graham, the Canadian hip-hop artist began his celebrity turn as a child actor. He was best-known for his role on the teen drama “Degrassi,” playing a star basketball player. Never afraid to poke fun at himself, Drake embraces his Degrassi roots—he even held a cast reunion in the video for his single, “I’m Upset.”

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Bertrand // Flickr

Björk

Electronic musician and vocal powerhouse Björk has been captivating listeners since her youth. She released her first album at age 11, mostly folk music, and sang in anarchist punk bands in her teen years. She formed the new wave group The Sugarcubes, which had an MTV hit with “Birthday” and performed on Saturday Night Live in 1988. In 1990, she demonstrated her ability to hop genres once again—joining a jazz trio and releasing an album named “Gling-Gló.” The Sugarcubes released another record in 1992, and Bjork’s breakthrough solo album, “Debut,” was released in 1993.

 

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Gage Skidmore // Flickr

Justin Timberlake

Many know Justin Timberlake as a former *NSYNC frontman, but die-hard fans will recall that he was one of the stars of “The All-New Mickey Mouse Club” on the Disney Channel. But J.T. built his musical chops well before that: he began performing gospel and country fare as a youngster—under the moniker Justin Randall—and even made it to "Star Search."

 

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Raph_PH // Flickr

Sheryl Crow

There are few contemporary artists as enduring as this Missouri native, whose career began nearly a decade before her breakout hit, “All I Wanna Do.” She began recording jingles in her teens before hitting the road with none other than Michael Jackson, providing live vocals on his “Bad” world tour. On top of that, the singer-songwriter has a degree in music education and worked as an elementary school music teacher before hitting it big.

 

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monosnaps // Flickr

Rod Stewart

Before his multi-decade-spanning solo turn, Rod Stewart brought his signature vocals to a range of collaborations and bands. While still in his teens, he performed as a street musician alongside folk singer Wizz Jones, and was even deported from Spain for vagrancy. By 19, he had adopted a unique fashion sense and was known as “Rod the Mod” due to his dandy '60s style. After years of supporting other acts, including The Jeff Beck Band and The Small Faces—later known as just The Faces—he released his first solo record in 1969.

 

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Matt Winkelmeyer // Getty Images

Cardi B

With mega-hits like “Bodak Yellow” and “I Like It,” Bronx-born rapper Cardi B has made a big splash in the world of music in a relatively short time. Cardi B amassed a major following on social media during her first on-stage career as an exotic dancer, and was a cast member of MTV’s “Love & Hip-Hop: New York” while she pursued her musical calling.

 

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Hannu Lindroos / Lehtikuva // Wikimedia Commons

Jimi Hendrix

Another artist with a military past, James Marshall “Jimi” Hendrix moved to Tennessee after a year in the U.S. Army. He first found success as a guitarist on the Chitlin’ Circuit, playing with acts like the Isley Brothers and Little Richard, before relocating to England and hitting the big time with his own signature sound.

 

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EWatson92 // Flickr

Childish Gambino

Donald Glover has been in the realm of entertainment well before his music hit the masses. A graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Glover was discovered after submitting a spec script for “The Simpsons” that was forwarded along to Tina Fey. Fey brought him aboard the writing staff for “30 Rock,” on which he made a handful of cameos, but his best-known acting break was on cult-favorite sitcom “Community.”

 

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Jason Persse // Flickr

Kanye West

It’s hard to imagine a time when Kanye West wasn’t in the spotlight, but the hip-hop artist first got his footing in the industry behind the scenes as a producer. He was signed to Roc-A-Fella in 2002 for his studio skills and unique beats, which can be found on hits by Jay-Z, Cam’ron, and Beanie Sigel, and had also produced tracks for Alicia Keys, Ludacris, and others. ‘Ye wanted to be a rapper above all else, and finally made his name as a performer through his debut album “The College Dropout.”

 

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Zach Cierzan // Wikimedia Commons

Gwen Stefani

Seemingly ageless musician and fashionista Gwen Stefani was introduced to ska and punk music in her teens by her older brother Eric, whom she would go on to perform with in No Doubt. Gwen’s star power paved the way to a prolific solo career, clothing lines, a role on multiple seasons of “The Voice,” and recently, a Las Vegas residency.

 

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paveita // Flickr

Sting

Born Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner to a working-class English family, Sting first worked as a schoolteacher after graduating college. He played jazz in the evenings, and was known for donning a black and yellow striped sweater that his bandmates teased him for, saying he looked like a bee or a wasp. Hence, a stage name was born. Sting went on to lead chart-topping rockers The Police before branching out as a successful solo artist.

 

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Alterna2 // Flickr

Neil Young

The Canadian singer-songwriter might not be the first person you’d imagine as a Rick James collaborator, but one of his first gigs was as part of R&B group The Mynah Birds, fronted by James. The two were even roommates for a time. Young went on to perform with Stephen Stills in Buffalo Springfield, and reunited with Stills later on—adding his surname to the group known then as Crosby, Stills & Nash.

 

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Eva Rinaldi // Flickr

Katy Perry

Under her original name, Katy Hudson—which she changed as to not get mixed up with actress Kate Hudson—the pop songstress first enjoyed fame as a Christian recording artist before switching gears to a more provocative persona. Katy has also written for other artists, including Kelly Clarkson’s hit “I Do Not Hook Up.”

 

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mylerdude // Flickr

John Mayer

Guitar virtuoso John Mayer was accepted to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, but dropped out in 1997 to form his first band, Lo-fi Masters. His big break as a solo artist was at the 2001 South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.

 

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musicisentropy // Flickr

Tom Petty

The late rock musician, born in Gainesville, Florida, started playing guitar at a young age and even took lessons from future Eagle Don Felder. Before The Heartbreakers, he founded a country-rock band called Mudcrutch that relocated to Los Angeles with hopes of being signed. The group didn’t perform well on the charts and eventually disbanded, with two of the members following Petty to form The Heartbreakers. Mudcrutch reunited in 2007—this time, they released two different albums that each made their way to top 10 Billboard slots.

 

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chrisweger // Flickr

Madonna

The would-be pop superstar received a scholarship to the University of Michigan to further pursue her talents. She eventually dropped out of college and relocated to New York City with $35 in her pocket, working at Dunkin Donuts and taking classes at local dance studios. Madonna began her foray into music in 1979 on tour with disco musician Patrick Hernandez; it was around that time that she began a relationship with musician Dan Gilroy. She was a member of Gilroy’s band The Breakfast Club—the subject of an upcoming docudrama)—in which she played drums and guitar in addition to singing. Her next endeavor was a leading a band called Emmy, based on Madonna’s nickname at the time, before her breakout turn as a solo artist.

 

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Sgt. Christine Jones // U.S. Air Force

Lionel Richie

One of the best-selling musicians of all time, Lionel Brockman Richie Jr. was born in Tuskegee, Alabama, and grew up on the campus of the Tuskegee Institute—a school he would later attend on a tennis scholarship. While in college, he joined a band called The Mystics as a saxophonist, composer, and vocalist. The band would eventually evolve into '70s funk/soul outfit The Commodores, which set Richie’s musical career into motion.

 

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Hugo van Gelderen // Netherlands National Archive

The Rolling Stones

Although they were part of the “British invasion,” The Rolling Stones’ core members got started playing music that was distinctly American. Dubbed Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys, the trio of Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Dick Taylor covered classics by artists like Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters. Later on, they joined up with Brian Jones and Ian Stewart to form a Chicago blues-inspired band that would become the first Stones lineup.

 

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Art Siegel // Wikimedia Commons

Van Morrison

Van Morrison’s first musical foray was through a skiffle group called The Sputniks that he formed at just 12 years old. By 17 he was touring as a saxophone, guitar, and harp player with Irish showband The International Monarchs. Before he was 20, he joined up with rock/R&B outfit Them, which had hit singles like “Baby Please Don’t Go” and “Gloria.” Morrison eventually left the group and took on a more eclectic, organic sound as a solo artist, starting with his debut album “Astral Weeks.”

 

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Anthony Quintano // Flickr

CeeLo Green

The Atlanta native, born Thomas DeCarlo Callaway, was a member of rap group Goodie Mob, which rose to prominence in the mid-'90s. The group frequently collaborated with Outkast and are featured on hits like “Git Up, Get Out.” Green’s backing vocals can also be heard on the TLC hit, “Waterfalls.” CeeLo would go on to collaborate with producer Danger Mouse as Gnarls Barkley before becoming a household name as a solo artist.

 

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Moses Namkung // Flickr

Dave Matthews

Although his music is what made him famous, Dave Matthews was an acclaimed local stage actor while living in Charlottesville, Virginia, in his early 20s. Since hitting it big in the '90s with the Dave Matthews Band, he’s also held roles in movies such as “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry,” "Just Go With It," and Disney’s adaptation of “Where the Red Fern Grows.”

 

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Clinton Presidential Library // Wikimedia Commons

Whitney Houston

Houston’s soulful-yet-effervescent voice has genetics on its side: Her mother is gospel artist Cissy Houston, and her aunt is Dionne Warwick. Before the late vocalist won the world over with her pipes, she was a teen model—in fact, she was one of the first black models on the cover of “Seventeen.”

 

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Bob Jagendorf // Flickr

Willie Nelson

After serving in the U.S. Air Force, the ginger-haired country star was on the radio in a different form—as a DJ. He worked at stations in Texas, California, and Oregon in the '50s, while also making his way as a musician. He played bass in Ray Price’s band and wrote songs for other artists as well—including “Crazy,” made famous by Patsy Cline. He took off as a solo artist in the '70s as part of the “outlaw country” movement, and is well-known today for a variety of interesting business ventures, from biodiesel to recreational cannabis.

 

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Heinrich Klaffs // Wikimedia Commons

Elton John

A skilled pianist as a child, the artist born Reginald Dwight landed a junior scholarship to London’s Royal Academy of Music at age 11. By 15, he had formed a band called Bluesology that backed popular artists The Isley Brothers and Patti LaBelle. An ad placed by Liberty Records led the young musician to his long-term collaborator, lyricist Bernie Taupin. After impressing the label with his take on Bernie’s words, they were hired as a songwriting team. The pianist also worked as a studio musician and played on hits like The Hollies’ “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” before emerging as one of the 1970s' most dynamic performers.

 

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fatherspoon // Flickr

Garth Brooks

Although he casually played music in his youth, Brooks was known more for his athleticism—he was skilled in football and baseball and earned a track and field scholarship to Oklahoma State University, where he competed in javelin-throwing. After graduating with an advertising degree, he set his sights on a music career. His influences were more rock- and folk-oriented until 1981, when he became inspired by George Strait’s debut single, “Unwound.” Country was a good fit for Garth, who relocated to Nashville in 1985 and was signed two years later. Today, he remains one of the biggest-selling artists in the genre.

 

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Zoltán Szabó // Flickr

Shania Twain

Growing up as part of a working-class Canadian family, Shania began singing in bars at 8 years old to help her family pay the bills. She was invited to perform on the CBC at age 13, and fronted a local Top 40 band called Longshot. Her dreams were placed on hold at age 21—her mother and stepfather were killed in a car accident, and she returned home to raise her younger siblings. Shania performed show tunes at a local resort to support the family, and her performances eventually caught the eye of Mercury Records. In the years to follow, her career exploded—today, she remains the top-selling female country artist of all time, and third-ranked among the genre’s performers, just behind George Strait and Garth Brooks.


 

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swimfinfan // Flickr

Haim

Comprised of sisters Este, Danielle, and Alana Haim, the indie-pop trio came from a musical family and played with their parents in a group called Rockenhaim. Este and Danielle were first in the national spotlight as part of teen-popsters The Valli Girls, whose claims to fame include singing the theme song for a UPN animated series about troll dolls. They became the trio Haim in 2007, playing occasional small gigs. Danielle eventually began touring with musicians like Jenny Lewis and Julian Casablancas. Realizing she’d rather be performing with her sisters, she brought a new level of energy back to the group. In 2012, they toured with Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and released their debut EP, “Forever.”

 

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Eddie Mallin // Flickr

Bob Marley

The man born Robert Nesta Marley first found success as an artist in Jamaica’s burgeoning ska scene. His first recordings were under the names Robert Marley and Bobby Martell. As ska gave way to the slower grooves of rocksteady and reggae, Marley formed The Wailers along with childhood friend Bunny Wailer, as well as Peter Tosh. The band landed an opening spot on a Sly & the Family Stone tour, but they were fired after four shows because they were overshadowing the main acts with their popularity. The original Wailers broke up soon after, but Bob continued to perform as Bob Marley & The Wailers, beginning his rise to icon status.

 

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daigooliva // Flickr

Steven Tyler

Before he was the flamboyant lead singer of Aerosmith, Steven Tyler—known then by his original last name, Tallarico—fronted '60s pop-rock group The Chain Reaction from behind the drumset. Their sound was inspired by the British mod scene, and their business card had the tagline “English Sounds, American R&B.” The group brought Steven to New Hampshire, where he met future Aerosmith bandmate Joe Perry.

 

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Deedar70 // Wikimedia Commons

Billy Joel

The Piano Man’s first serious gig was with a band called The Hassles, who were signed to United Artists Records but did not garner much sales success. After the group split in 1969, the heavy metal craze was taking hold, and Joel formed a duo called Attila with Joe Small, The Hassles’ drummer. Their collaboration ended when Small’s wife left him for Joel, but perhaps it was for the best—their self-titled record has been dubbed one of the worst albums of all time. Joel himself called it “psychedelic bullsh*t.”


 

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possan // Wikimedia Commons

Billy Idol

Known for his platinum hair and punk-rock sneer, Billy Idol was making music long before “White Wedding.” He joined the band Chelsea in 1976 as a guitarist, eventually leaving with bandmate Tony James to form Generation X—featuring Idol as a lead vocalist. The group’s original lineup split in 1979, but Idol and James reformed as Gen X. The reunion didn’t last long, but their single “Dancing With Myself” was successfully repurposed by Billy on his solo EP, “Don’t Stop.”

 

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Andrew St.Denis // Wikimedia Commons

Phil Collins

The English rocker began his performance career as a child actor; his roles included the Artful Dodger in a London stage performance of “Oliver!” and as Mike Lucas in a children’s movie, “Calamity the Cow.” His addition to prog-rock-turned-pop group Genesis in the '70s brought forth hits like “Follow You, Follow Me” and “Invisible Touch.”

 

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Andrew Sutherland // Flickr

Elvis Costello

Born in England as Declan McManus, Elvis Costello formed a handful of small folk and rock groups in his youth. The bespectacled singer-songwriter’s first recording was at age 20, when he sang backup for his father in a famous lemonade commercial. By 25 he had released his major-label debut.

 

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ABC Television // Wikimedia Commons

David Bowie

Born David Robert Jones, the otherworldly performer first recorded in the early '60s under the name “Davie Jones,” but eventually changed it due to its similarity to The Monkees’ Davy Jones. Adopting the name David Bowie in tribute to both the American pioneer and his namesake knife, the androgynous English musician quickly attracted a global audience with his space-punk aesthetic and rock anthems.


 

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Teddyyy // Wikimedia Commons

Nina Simone

Simone’s musical gifts were evident at a young age. She was regarded as a piano prodigy and attended a Julliard workshop after graduating high school in preparation for an audition at Philadelphia’s Curtis School of Music. Although she was not accepted to the institution, her career flourished in the years to follow, thanks to her distinct sound and unshakable artistry.

 

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NordoffRobbins // Wikimedia Commons

Kylie Minogue

Australian pop sensation Kylie Minogue was first on the radar as a soap opera actress, playing Charlene on “Neighbors.” Her character’s popularity was so pervasive that 20 million Australians tuned in to Charlene’s wedding episode. Although her biggest U.S. hit was in the early 2000s, she had been releasing internationally charting records since the late '80s.

 

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Anna Bleker // Wikimedia Commons

Little Richard

A native of Macon, Georgia, Little Richard first got his taste for the stage performing gospel at his church in his teens. His family didn’t approve of R&B, calling it “the devil’s music,” but he soon found success starting in the late '40s in various variety acts and bands—even performing in drag. By 1952 he had released a series of recordings with RCA Victor, and was on the road to solo success.

 

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Jared Eberhardt // Flickr

Jenny Lewis

If indie-rock frontwoman Jenny Lewis looks a little familiar, it’s probably because of her past as a freckle-faced child actor. Lewis was featured movies “Troop Beverly Hills” and “The Wizard,” and had cameos on TV’s “The Golden Girls” and “Growing Pains.” All grown up, she’s been involved in major projects: she’s the founder of Rilo Kiley and has enjoyed a successful solo career, taking part in collaborations with artists like Bright Eyes and The Postal Service.

 

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Kevin Burkett // Flickr

Ozzy Osbourne

If his hard-livin’ image didn’t make it obvious, Ozzy has been impacting rock for decades, beginning with '60s psych-metal outfit Black Sabbath. Osborne was ultimately fired from the group, but it worked in his favor—he went on to enjoy a lucrative solo and reality TV career.

 

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Lisa Liang // Wikimedia Commons

Lauryn Hill

Before the formation of The Fugees, Hill was a teenage actor. She had an early role on “As the World Turns” and a part in “Sister Act 2,” in which her powerful singing voice was introduced to the masses.  

 

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Brothers Le // Wikimedia Commons

Bruno Mars

The pop-soul dynamo born Peter Gene Hernandez first caught eyes in his native Hawaii as the youngest member of his family’s band, “The Love Notes.” He also gained attention as a child Elvis Presley impersonator—which landed him a cameo in the film “Honeymoon in Vegas.”





 

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