When we listen to songs on the radio or watch our favorite artists perform live, one of the last things we pay attention to are the backup singers and dancers. Sure, their performance can make a track more compelling, but if we’re being honest, it’s almost always the main act who stays in the spotlight. What if we said that among those backup vocalists were future pop sensations and Grammy winners? Or what if we said that some of them were even more talented than the entertainers who took center stage?
It’s wild to think about, but several of today’s biggest artists actually started out as backup dancers and vocalists for other famous singers. It was only a matter of time before they stepped out of the shadows and into the spotlight themselves! See which stars got their big break after performing as backup singers and dancers.
1. Mariah Carey
It’s hard to believe, but there was a time when Mariah, the vocal powerhouse who can hit over a dozen octaves, struggled to break into the music industry. In the late ’80s, she was a background singer and dancer for a singer named Brenda Starr. In fact, it was Brenda who helped Mariah land her first record contract by giving her demo tape to Columbia Records. Tommy Mottola, who was the head of the label at the time, had only listened to two of her songs before agreeing to sign her on!
2. Mary J. Blige
Before she released her popular debut album What’s the 411?, Mary started out as a backup vocalist for Uptown Records. In 1988, she recorded a cover of Anita Baker’s “Caught Up in the Rapture,” and with the help of her mother’s then-boyfriend, her recording reached the president and CEO of the label. In the following year, she joined the label and did backup vocals for artists like Father MC and Jeff Redd. Plus, she became the label’s youngest and first ever female artist.
In 1962, Cher’s soon-to-be partner in crime, Sonny Bono, introduced her to his record producer, Phil Spector. Then, Phil signed Cher on as a backup vocalist for several songs, some of which include The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and The Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.” She eventually got to release her first solo single, “Ringo, I Love You,” under the name Bonnie Jo Mason, but it didn’t do well commercially. So when she teamed up with Sonny to form the duo Sonny & Cher, that’s when her rise to pop stardom began.
4. Sheryl Crow
Sheryl went from being a music teacher and part-time performer to being a backup vocalist for some of the biggest names in music. After landing a few commercials with companies like Toyota and McDonald’s, she actually snuck into an audition to be one of Michael Jackson’s background singers and she landed a spot! She joined him during his Bad World Tour and even got to perform alongside him for “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.” Other artists that she got to record background vocals for include Stevie Wonder, Belinda Carlisle and Don Henley.
5. Keri Hilson
Before she gave us hits like “Pretty Girl Rock” and “Knock You Down,” Keri worked with producer Anthony Dent as a songwriter and background singer. In fact, when she was only a teenager, she did background vocals for artists like Ciara, Usher, Kelly Rowland, and Ludacris. After writing several hit songs for other artists, she eventually got introduced to rapper and producer Timbaland. He signed her to his label and just one year later, they came out with her first hit single, “The Way I Are.”
When she was just a young teenager, Pink sang backup when she performed at Philadephia clubs. But it wasn’t long before she got spotted by someone who took an interest. An executive from MCA records encouraged her to audition for a girl group called Instinct, but only two years after they formed, the band broke up. Pink also got the opportunity to join a group called Choice, but that didn’t work out so well either. With the help and support of her record label, she bounced back from those setbacks and successfully went solo.
At the beginning of her music career, Dido was a backup singer for Faithless, a British electronica band led by her brother. Aside from providing vocals for several tracks, she also co-wrote a few songs. Nettwerk management signed her after taking notice, and this was when she got to work on her debut album, No Angel. Though the release got delayed, she received tons of exposure and the album did extremely well when it *finally* came out.
8. Faith Evans
In 1993, Faith worked as a backup vocalist for Al B. Sure and Troy Christopher Williams. But then Diddy (aka Sean Combs, then known as “Puff Daddy”), discovered her and was so impressed by her talent that he signed her to his label. In 1994, Faith became the first female artist to get signed to Bad Boy Entertainment. But even after she got signed, she continued to do backup vocals for artists like Mary J. Blige and Usher.
After dropping out of college in 1978, the pop star moved to New York, worked odd jobs, and decided to take classes at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. She not only became a backup dancer for popular artists, but she also performed as a backup singer for the French disco artist Patrick Hernandez. While touring with Patrick, Madonna dated a musician named Dan Gilroy and formed her first rock band. She left it within two years and formed a second, but by that time, she had a change of heart and preferred to go solo.
10. Gwen Stefani
It was Gwen’s older brother, Eric, who invited her to do backup vocals for his band, No Doubt. But after he left to pursue a career in animation, she stepped up as their lead singer and the group got signed by Interscope Records. Before the group made it big, Gwen also did vocals for Sublime’s song, “Saw Red.” Gwen’s band released five albums before she decided to go solo.
11. Tamar Braxton
In the early ’90s, this singer and TV personality sang backup for her sister Toni Braxton on her very first tour and joined her for promotional appearances. She also got featured with her sisters Traci, Towanda, and Trina in Toni’s music video for “Seven Whole Days.” But by 2001, Tamar started working right alongside her sister on several songs and she made tons of music video cameos. Aside from doing background vocals, she also co-wrote songs for many of Toni’s albums. And at the same time, she was actually working on her own debut album, Ridiculous.
12. Angie Stone
After the R&B; singer formed her own rap group, The Sequence, she did vocals for Lenny Kravitz’s fifth studio album, 5. She also co-wrote songs and did background vocals for R&B; singer D’Angelo’s first two albums, Brown Sugar and Voodoo. Just a few years later, she signed with Arista Records and released her own album, Black Diamond, which was actually certified gold!
13. Elton John
When Elton first started out, he joined DJM Records as a staff songwriter who wrote material for artists like Roger Cook and Lulu. He also provided background vocals and instrumentation for a ton of popular entertainers. Just a few include The Scaffold, The Isley Brothers, Patti LaBelle, The Bluebelles, and Neil Sedaka. But little did he know at the time that he was on his way to becoming one of the biggest music icons ever.
14. John Legend
Back when the R&B; star still went by “John Roger Stephens,” he was hired to sing hooks and background vocals for the up-and-coming rapper, Kanye West. After signing to West’s label, he continued to collaborate with other well-known artists and wrote some of their biggest hits. For instance, he did vocals for Alicia Keys’ “You Don’t Know My Name,” played piano on Lauryn Hill’s “Everything Is Everything,” and co-wrote Janet Jackson’s “I Want You.” By 2004, he released his debut album Get Lifted, which was certified gold and went on to win the Grammy Award for Best R&B; Album.
15. Phil Collins
In the ’70s, Phil used to play the drums and sing backing vocals for the band Genesis. After their lead vocalist, Gabriel, left the band, Phil stepped up and took his place. From that point on, the English rock band became even more successful and started gaining fans around the world. But when the group went on hiatus in the early ’80s, Phil took that opportunity to release his first solo album, Face Value.
16. Jennifer Lopez
Most fans might know that she was one of the original “Fly Girl” dancers from In Living Color (she managed to land a spot out of over 2,000 applicants!). But even before then, she was a backup dancer for New Kids on the Block. She got to perform with them at the 18th Annual American Music Awards in 1991, and at one point, she also worked as a backup dancer for Janet Jackson. She was set to join the singer on her Janet World Tour, but then she backed out at the last minute because she wanted to focus on acting.
17. Whitney Houston
The music icon spent a lot of her teenage years singing in her church choir, and touring and performing with her mom. When she was just 14, she did backing vocals for The Michael Zager Band’s single “Life’s a Party.” And at 15, she became a background singer for Chaka Khan and Lou Rawls. Several recording agencies took notice of Whitney’s talent and tried to make offers, but her mom insisted that she wait until after she completed high school. Shortly after she graduated, Whitney met Clive Davis and signed with Arista Records.
18. Katy Perry
Before she became a huge pop sensation and an American Idol judge, Katy sang backup vocals for a Christian nu-metal band called Payable on Death (also called P.O.D.). During that time, she went by the name “Katy Hudson” and actually appeared in one of P.O.D’s music videos, “Goodbye for Now” (you can see her in it here). Shortly after that, she released a Christian rock album as Katy Hudson, but it didn’t do very well. However, she started to rise to fame after she switched genres, moved on to a new record label, and started going by Katy Perry.