12 famous singers who started as backup vocalists
- Some famous singers shot straight to stardom as lead acts while others had to cut their teeth as backing vocalists before making it on their own right.
- Mariah Carey sang backing vocals for Brenda K. Starr, Sheryl Crow toured with Michael Jackson, and Whitney Houston started working as a backup vocalist when she was just 14 years old.
- Before Katy Perry was a pop sensation, she sang backup vocals for a Christian heavy metal band.
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There's no one right way to make it big as a singer.
There's the classic method of sending demo tapes to record labels with the hopes that an exec will like what they hear and offer a record deal. There are people like Kelly Clarkson and Britney Spears who found success after appearing in competition shows like "American Idol" and "Star Search," respectively, and there are singers like Justin Bieber who had mentors show them the ropes during the beginning of their careers.
Then there are those who work as backup singers for famous artists with the hopes of being noticed and breaking out on their own. It can be a tough path to success but it yields industry experience and connections that can pay off in the long run.
We've rounded up 12 singers who started their careers as backup vocalists. Keep scrolling to check out who's on the list.
Before she was the Christmas queen, Mariah Carey sang backing vocals for Brenda K. Starr.
After studying cosmetology and working as a waitress, Mariah Carey finally landed a gig singing backing vocals for the '80s pop and R&B sensation. It was Starr who handed Carey's demo to then-chairman and CEO of Sony Music Entertainment Tommy Mottola (Carey's first husband), launching her superstar career, according to New Jersey 105.1.
Mary J. Blige spent years as a backing vocalist for Uptown Records.
Blige found herself on Uptown Records' radar after some execs listened to a cassette tape of the 17-year-old singing a karaoke version of Anita Baker's "Caught Up in the Rapture," according to NBC. The label immediately hired her as a backup vocalist and she earned her first credit on '80s rapper Father MC's track "I'll Do 4 U."
Blige sang backing vocals on countless artists' tracks until the release of her 1992 genre-defining debut album "What's the 411?," which paved the way for her to become the "Queen of Hip-Hop" we respect today.
Sheryl Crow worked with Michael Jackson before going solo.
Sheryl Crow sang backing vocals for Jackson on his Bad tour in the late '80s — just look at that hair! — and appeared in the music video for "Dirty Diana."
According to USA Today, Crow told the Telegraph in 2019 that she didn't watch the documentary "Finding Neverland," which focused on two men who allege they were sexually abused as children by Jackson, but that she saw things while on tour with the singer that made her uncomfortable.
"I haven't seen the documentary and I don't want to see it," Crow told the Telegraph. "I was around for some things that I thought were really strange, and I had a lot of questions about."
Luther Vandross has one of the most impressive resumes among backup vocalists.
Back in the '70s, Vandross was the No. 1 choice for artists — including David Bowie, Bette Midler, Chic, and Ringo Starr — who wanted to add a soulful punch to their harmonies. His guttural soul crooning eventually gave him the platform to move on as a solo artist, which resulted in the chart-topping hit "Dance With My Father" and other songs like "Power of Love."
Gwen Stefani started as No Doubt's backup singer before switching to lead vocals.
Stefani's older brother Eric started the band No Doubt with his friend John Spence in 1986. Stefani started out singing backup vocals for the band but in 1987 after Spence tragically died by suicide, Stefani took over as lead vocalist and cemented her status as one of punk rock's greatest singers.
Katy Perry launched her musical career as a backup singer for a Christian metal band.
Yup, you read that right. Back in 2005 when she went by Katy Hudson, Perry sang backup vocals for the Christian metal band P.O.D. She was featured on the song "Goodbye for Now," appeared in the tune's music video, and even performed it live with the group on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," according to HuffPost.
Thanks to Kanye West, John Legend broke into the music scene as a backing vocalist.
After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1999, Legend moved to New York City where he eventually linked up with West in 2001. Through the rapper, Legend began singing backing vocals and contributing piano to artists including Alicia Keys, Talib Kweli, and the Black Eyed Peas, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.
Legend helped West make his 2004 hit album, "College Dropout," and, not long after, the rapper made his own record label G.O.O.D. Records with Sony Music. The first album West produced was Legend's "Get Lifted," and the rest is history.
Before Sonny and Cher took the world by storm, Cher contributed backing vocals to many of Phil Spector's songs.
Before singing together or getting married, Cher and Sonny Bono both worked for Phil Spector. The record producer and songwriter initially had Cher singing backup vocals for multiple artists he worked with.
Cher's backup work includes the Crystals' "Da Do Ron Ron," the Ronettes' "Be My Baby," and the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling."
Phil Collins sang backup vocals while drumming before becoming Genesis' front man.
Most people know Phil Collins for singing '80s megahits like "In the Air Tonight" and "Sussudio." But before Collins went solo he drummed and sang backup vocals for the band Genesis.
Collins sang backup for the band until original singer Peter Gabriel left Genesis in late 1975 after touring "The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway." Following Gabriel's departure, Collins moved from behind the kit to the front of the stage where he proved he could carry his own weight as a lead singer — he also became famous for his tambourine dance.
Keri Hilson sang background vocals for singers like Usher and Ciara before becoming a Grammy Award-nominated artist in her own right.
Thanks to her time working with producer Anthony Dent (Destiny's Child, Diddy) during her mid-to-late teens, Hilson sang backing vocals or wrote songs for multiple artists including Usher, Ludacris, Kelly Rowland, and Ciara, according to Allmusic.
Hilson moved on from Dent to work with Southern rapper Polow da Don who introduced her to producer Timbaland, who signed her to his label Mosley Music imprint in 2006.
After writing songs for the likes of Mary J. Blige and Britney Spears under Polow da Don and releasing some lackluster singles, Hilson finally released her debut solo album "In a Perfect World…" in 2009, which earned Hilson a pair of Grammy nominations and a pair of hits in "Knock You Down" and "Turnin Me On."
Michael McDonald backed multiple artists before joining The Doobie Brothers as a lead vocalist.
Before Michael McDonald wrote and sang the monster hit "What a Fool Believes" and other songs for The Doobie Brothers, he was busy singing backup vocals for artists including Tim Moore, Stephen Bishop, Gary Wright, and most notably, Steely Dan (you might recognize his saintly harmonies on "Peg").
Whitney Houston began singing backup vocals at age 14.
Following in the footsteps of her mother, Cissy, who was a backup singer for soul superstars including Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett, and Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston began her career as a background vocalist.
Houston got her start in 1977 when she was 14. One of Cissy's fellow backing vocalists didn't show up for a session, so she recommended her daughter fill in for the recording, according to Biography.com.
From that moment forward, Houston was recognized as a serious vocalist and went on to back artists including Jermaine Jackson, Chaka Khan, and Lou Rawls before venturing on as a Grammy Award-winning singer.
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