From the 1970s disco explosion to today’s EDM free-for-all, featured singers on dance tracks have become an increasingly frequent chart presence, with the guest spot often serving as an audition or promo for the singer’s subsequent solo turn. In honor of our Sam Smith cover story, here are 12 vocalists from dance hits spanning the past 25 years, all of whom went on to become stars in their own right, both on and off the dance floor.
Despite a gorgeously vulnerable, technically masterful voice that would soon become iconic, Luther Vandross was still primarily a backup and jingle singer by 1979. But after linking up with Change, a studio project modeled on Chic's taut disco elan, his career caught its groove. Recording vocals in New York over tracks assembled in Italy by a squad of musicians, producers and arrangers for Change's 1980 debut The Glow of Love, Vandross shone on two minor hits — the jaunty swing of "Searching" and the title track's transcendent stroll. He immediately earned a solo deal, releasing his debut Never Too Much in 1981, going double platinum, topping the R&B albums chart and producing a Number One single with the title track. Vandross went on to sell 25 million records worldwide and received eight Grammy Awards before his death in 2005.
After the minor hit "Jackie" failed to keep her pop trio Blue Zone afloat, British singer Lisa Stansfield was featured on the rousing, cut-and-paste gospel-house track "People Hold On" by sampledelic dance-production duo Coldcut (from their 1989 debut album What's That Noise?). The song became a pop-crossover cause célèbre in the U.K. and a substantial dance hit in the U.S.; before year's end, Stansfield had released her solo debut Affection (which she co-wrote with her Blue Zone bandmates). On the strength of the singer's sultry Seventies-soul contralto and a swirling melody that nodded to Barry White's string-laden come-ons, single "All Around the Word" went Number One in seven countries (Number Three in the U.S.). The most credible white soul singer since Teena Marie, Stansfield continued recording into the 2000s and has sold more 20 million records worldwide.
Cathy Dennis was one of the first artists signed by Idol creator Simon Fuller in 1986, when she was a 17-year-old singing covers in a glitzy tube top. Eventually she was introduced to D Mob producer Dancin' Danny D and the group's first two pop-house singles featuring Dennis — 1989's frisky "C'mon and Get My Love" and 1990's more nuanced "That's the Way of the World" — were hits in the U.K. and U.S. This set up Dennis' solo debut, 1990's Move to This, which had three Top Ten U.S. solo hits, including her definitive moment, "Touch Me (All Night Long)." However, she shied from the spotlight and later focused on songwriting, helping create hits for Kylie Minogue ("Can't Get You Out of My Head"), Britney Spears ("Toxic") and Katy Perry ("I Kissed a Girl").
Growing up in the Nuyorican mecca of East Harlem, Marco Antonio Muñiz began his career as a session vocalist and songwriter for freestyle acts, in addition to working as a songwriter/backup vocalist for Puerto Rican teen-poppers Menudo. His own freestyle album, 1988's Rebel, flopped, but Anthony's career sparked up when he became a featured vocalist on a series of club hits by now-legendary New York house producer Little Louie Vega, especially 1991's "Ride on the Rhythm" — which led to Anthony and Vega opening for Tito Puente at Madison Square Garden. Off that success, he shifted his style to salsa, releasing a series of Grammy-winning Spanish-language albums, duetting with future ex-wife Jennifer Lopez, winning a Grammy for his self-titled English-language debut in 1999 and appearing in 10 films.
A motormouth weedhead shit-stirrer who fell in with Eighties U.K. soundsystem the Wild Bunch as a teenager in his hometown of Bristol, Tricky, a.k.a. Tricky Kid, got his crucial break when the Bunch split and Massive Attack emerged with their paradigm-shifting 1991 album Blue Lines (which featured Tricky on three songs). But when Tricky brought in a track that he'd crafted with the Pop Group's Mark Stewart and a teenaged choir singer named Martina Topley-Bird, Massive Attack rebuffed him. That song, "Aftermath," became a sensation as a self-released white label, which he quickly followed with 1995's Maxinquaye, one of the most visionary albums of the Nineties.
An aimless teenager and chancer actress, Beth Orton was invited to a Madonna party by the producer William Orbit, and before long she was a featured singer (or ethereal warbler) on two of Orbit's albums under his Strange Cargo alias. He even produced a sketchy, limited-release Orton solo album called Superpinkmandy. But her career actually took off when she left Orbit and the Chemical Brothers asked her to guest on "Alive Alone" and "One Too Many Mornings" from their landmark 1995 dance album Exit Planet Dust, which pushed Orton full-on into the spotlight and helped define her fresh acoustic/electronic sound. Her solo debut Trailer Park was nominated for two BRIT awards, the Mercury Music Prize and sold 300,000 copies; her subsequent albums, 1999's Central Reservation and 2002's Daybreaker were even more successful, and she closed out the latter album's tour by playing to a sold-out Royal Albert Hall in London.
It's true that Dido Florian Cloud de Bounevialle O'Malley Armstrong first impacted the pop consciousness as a featured vocalist on the first two albums — 1996's Reverence and 1998's Sunday 8PM — by her brother Rollo's genre-defying dance trio Faithless. But word of her Faithless collaborations had spread even before the group's first singles dropped. Dido soon had her own solo deal and the first two somberly romantic singles from her 1999 debut No Angel charted after help from spots in films and TV shows — "Here with Me" in Love Actually, "Thank You" in Sliding Doors. Then, in 2001, Eminem sampled "Thank You" for his single "Stan," and the album soared. It's now sold approximately 20 million copies worldwide.
A music-industry brat growing up in Australia — both parents played in bands professionally — Sia Furler frequented the jazz-funk, a.k.a. "acid jazz" scene as a teen, releasing two albums with local group Crisp, as well as a little-heard solo debut. Moving to London, she sang back-up for Jamiroquai, but her career really got its first boost when she joined up with trip-hop duo Zero 7 and was the featured singer on hit singles — most notably 2001's "Destiny" and 2004's "Somersault" — from their first three albums. She cut a deal to record moderately successful solo albums throughout this period and afterward, but it wasn't until featured spots on EDM playboy David Guetta's smash "Titanium" and Flo Rida's "Wild Ones" in 2011, that she became a pop phenomenon, scoring with 2014's "Chandelier," a Top 10 hit in nine different countries.
A good-looking bloke with a boyishly polished demeanor and silky voice, Craig David first came to fame in the U.K. as the overground conduit for the 2-step/garage underground. Featured on Artful Dodger's 1999 single "Re-Rewind (The Crowd Say Bo Selecta)," he helped the duo notch a Number Two single (he was also featured on two other tracks from their album, All About the Stragglers). David's more R&B-tinged solo debut, 2000's Born to Do It (co-written by Artful Dodger's Mark Hill), was released less than six months later, earning four Top 10 U.K. singles and two Grammy nominations in the U.S. It sold 8 million copies worldwide, and made him an international star.
A serious would-be pop star from her teens, Charli XCX released her major-label solo debut, the goth-pop/alt-rock mélange True Romance, in 2013, and while the songs were intermittently compelling, the album fizzled. But a song she wrote during the True Romance sessions, "I Love It," was released in 2012 by Swedish synth-pop duo Icona Pop, who listed Charli XCX as a featured artist (even though she didn't perform on the track). After soundtracking an exuberant party scene in the HBO series Girls, it gradually became a worldwide smash, going double-platinum. She then co-wrote and was featured on Iggy Azalea's "Fancy," which went on to be the year's biggest-selling pop single. All of this set the stage for Charli's breakthrough late 2014 album Sucker, led by the mesmerizing hit single, "Boom Clap," featured in the teen film Fault in Our Stars.
A rural English musical-theater kid, student of jazz and applicant for pop fame from age 12 (groomed by six different managers), Sam Smith moved to London at 18, and quickly got the attention of taste-making house production duo Disclosure. The trio co-wrote the lushly romantic 2012 Disclosure single "Latch" (featuring Smith's lithe falsetto), which became a pop hit in the U.K. and U.S. That same year, he co-wrote and was featured on Naughty Boy's bitter dance confessional "La La La," also an international hit. But it was his solo debut album, In the Lonely Hour, released in 2014, that contained Smith's pop masterstroke, "Stay with Me," that went on to sell six million copies worldwide. The album itself finished only behind Taylor Swift and the Frozen soundtrack in total U.S. album sales for the year.
A less gloomy, though equally coiffed version of Sam Smith, John Newman made his way from rural England to London and formed a band with Piers Agget (also of the dance crew Rudimental), briefly signing to Island Records. But as the buzz built around his friend's group, Newman became the featured vocalist on their first single, 2012's "Feel the Love," an exultant synth-stabbing hymn that could've zoomed into the ether if it hadn't been grounded by Newman's testifying. The song became a Number One U.K. hit and its follow-up, "Not Giving In," also featured Newman's grainy warble. When the album, Home, debuted at Number One, it further foregrounded Newman's name, preparing the way for his solo debut, "Love Me Again," a Motown-ish EDM burner that was a Number One U.K. single (and minor U.S. hit).