Even “overnight” sensations were undoubtedly years in the making. For many – if not most – musicians, the road to success is marked by speed bumps, switchbacks and blinking yellow lights. Here are the stories of 10 famous performers and the songs that brought them up to superstar speed.
Katy Perry, “I Kissed a Girl”
Christian pop singer Katy Hudson’s first single, released in 2001, was called “Trust in Me.” Though it went nowhere on the charts, its author took the song’s message to heart. Seven years later, after bouncing from label to unsatisfied label, the determined young woman signed with Capitol Records, after reinventing herself as Katy Perry, a brash pop vixen in candy colors. The audacious “I Kissed a Girl” hit Number One in practically every western country, launching a phenomenal run that has since included six more Number One hits.
U2, “New Year’s Day”
After trundling through band names including Feedback and the Hype, a punk-era Dublin band settled on the name U2 and began releasing records in Ireland. Though “I Will Follow,” an inspired song from the band’s 1981 debut album, earned them some radio play in the U.S., the band’s second album, October, failed to sustain the momentum. But after singer Bono and his bandmates struggled through a spiritual crisis, they achieved their first real international breakthrough with the anti-violence 1983 album War and its anthemic first single, “New Year’s Day,” which set in motion a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame career.
Eminem, “My Name Is”
In 1996 an aspiring Detroit rapper released a debut album called Infinite. Though it endured some harsh criticism and only sold about 1000 copies, Marshall Mathers – who called himself Eminem – began to attract major label attention after performing well in emcee competitions. His major label debut, The Slim Shady LP, featured the loping, comical lead single “My Name Is,” the video for which eventually took the top spot on MTV’s then-hugely influential Total Request Live, making Eminem the first rapper to hold the distinction. He went on to become the best-selling artist of the 2000s.
Alanis Morissette, “You Oughta Know”
Alanis Morissette was well-known in Canada as a former child star, starring on a kids’ show called You Can’t Do That on Television before she cut two dance-pop albums as a teenager. Though the records sold well in her home country, she was little known in the U.S. when she released Jagged Little Pill, a very different kind of album produced by songwriter Glen Ballard, in 1995. “You Oughta Know,” a bitter blast at an ex-boyfriend, eclipsed the singer’s pop-oriented past and helped propel the album to massive sales of well over 30 million copies worldwide.
David Bowie, “Space Oddity”
British singer Davey Jones, a big fan of the musical star Anthony Newley, had little luck with his first several singles during the Swinging London years, scoring one minor hit in 1967 with a curiosity called “The Laughing Gnome.” After reinventing himself as David Bowie (in part to distinguish himself from the Monkees star Davy Jones), Bowie landed a surprise international smash with “Space Oddity,” which established the otherworldly persona the singer would carry through the glam era and beyond.
Whitney Houston, “You Give Good Love”
She was born to an extraordinarily gifted family: her cousin was Dionne Warwick, her “aunt” was Aretha Franklin and her mother was gospel singer Cissy Houston. Whitney Houston was destined for stardom, but first she paid her dues, singing background vocals for Chaka Khan and Lou Rawls and recording a duet with Teddy Pendergrass. Taken under the wing of record mogul Clive Davis, Houston released her debut album in 1985. The album’s first single in the U.K., the upbeat “Someone for Me,” failed to chart, but it was another single, the ballad “You Give Good Love,” that broke open a blockbuster mainstream career in the U.S.
Def Leppard, “Photograph”
Formed during the latter stages of the punk era, Def Leppard was already well-known to British hard rock fans when the band released their debut album, On Through the Night, in 1980. Fans took offense when the group seemed to focus on winning an American audience, and their second album, High ‘n’ Dry, didn’t sell well despite an early MTV success (with the video for “Bringin’ On the Heartbreak”). It wasn’t until the band’s third album, 1983’s Pyromania, that they became superstars, when the lead single, “Photograph,” bumped Michael Jackson‘s “Beat It” as the most requested song on MTV.
James Taylor, “Fire and Rain”
The young folk-style songwriter James Taylor was sufficiently touted to become the first act from outside the U.K. to sign with the Beatles‘ new label, Apple (in 1967). By then he’d already logged time on the Greenwich Village scene with a band called the Flying Machine. Despite a rave review from Jon Landau in Rolling Stone, Taylor’s solo debut sold poorly, and the single “Carolina in My Mind” failed to crack the top 100 in the U.S. In 1970, however, recovered from drug abuse and a nasty motorcycle accident, Taylor earned a proper career launch with the Number Three single “Fire and Rain,” a melancholy tribute to a friend who committed suicide.
Notorious B.I.G., “Juicy”
Nicknamed Biggie Smalls for his plus-sized stature, the New York rapper Christopher Wallace started his recording career with a well-received demo tape and a flurry of guest appearances on singles by Mary J. Blige, Neneh Cherry and others. Reinvented as the Notorious B.I.G., Wallace ensured the huge success of his debut album, Ready to Die, with the self-mythologizing tale behind its classic lead single, “Juicy.”
Sheryl Crow, “All I Wanna Do”
Sheryl Crow was an elementary school music teacher, a jingle singer and a background vocalist for Michael Jackson before she tried her hand at a solo career. Her planned 1992 release was rejected by her label; a year later she brushed herself off and released Tuesday Night Music Club. The album appeared destined for little success until the lighthearted song “All I Wanna Do” began to draw belated attention the following year. By 1995 the singer had a multi-platinum album, several more hit singles and the Record of the Year and Best New Artist Grammys to her name.