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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”2018 All rights reserved.