Ten Famous Artists Who Started Out As Backup Singers

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Britt Bickel
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The road to becoming a successful artist is a long and arduous one.  Even some of the most talented and best-selling artists in music history spent years building up their resume by singing backup vocals for other artists before becoming overnight sensations.

Recently, a newly released documentary 20 Feet From Stardom even chronicles the journey many singers face in the music industry on the road to becoming an establish artist.

As they say, everyone needs to start out somewhere. Check out some of the most famous voices who got their start as backup singers.

Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for IRC

Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for IRC

John Legend: Before making it big with his hit “Ordinary People,” the talented pianist/singer got his start singing backing vocals on a variety of records including Kanye West’s remix of “Me Against The Music,” Jay-Z’s “Encore” and most notably Alicia Keys’ 2003 hit “You Don’t Know My Name.” That’s also him playing piano on Lauryn Hill’s “Everything Is Everything.”

Photo credit: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Photo credit: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Whitney Houston: Before she became “The Voice,” Houston sang backup on Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman” (which she would later turn into a hit herself) at just the age of 15. She also sang on albums by Lou Rawls and Jermaine Jackson.

Photo Credit: Larry Busacca/Getty Images

Photo Credit: Larry Busacca/Getty Images

Mariah Carey: She’s famous for her incredible five-octave vocal range, but before her voice graced the airwaves, Carey got her start singing backup for pop artist Brenda K. Starr in the late ’80s. Starr later passed along Carey’s four-song demo tape to Columbia Records executive Tommy Mottola, which kickstarted her career.

Photo by Scott Harrison/Getty Images

Photo by Scott Harrison/Getty Images

Luther Vandross: Vandross began his music career in various music groups and singing backing vocals for a who’s who of R&B artists like Roberta Flack, Chaka Khan, Bette Midler, Diana Ross, Carly Simon, Barbra Streisand, and Donna Summer.

Photo Credit: Michael Buckner/Getty Images

Photo Credit: Michael Buckner/Getty Images

Mary J. Blige: Mary J. has made quite the career for herself as the Queen of Hip Hop-Soul, but before she was churning out  hits that earned her nine Grammy awards, she got her start as a background singer for Uptown Records in 1989.

Photo: SEBASTIEN FEVAL/AFP/Getty Images

Photo: SEBASTIEN FEVAL/AFP/Getty Images

Phil Collins: Before he was the frontman for Genesis, Collins originally came into the group as the drummer and backing vocalist. He took over as lead singer upon Peter Gabriel’s departure in 1975.

Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Cher: She’s the master of reinvention, but before the Sonny & Cher singer first came on the scene in the ’60s, Cher started as a aspiring backup singer on numerous records including Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin.’”

Photo Credit: D Dipasupil/Getty Images

Photo Credit: D Dipasupil/Getty Images

Elton John: With 30 albums to his name and six Grammy awards under his belt, famed singer/pianist Elton John got his start singing background vocals for the music/comedy trio The Scaffold in Liverpool furing the ’60s. He also played piano for artists like The Hollies.

Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images

Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images

Sherly Crow: She’s sold millions of her feel-good pop-country records, but before she was a successful solo artist, Crow sang backup on a Michael Jackson tour in the ’80s. She’s also sang with artists like Stevie Wonder, Belinda Carlisle, and Don Henley.

Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Vesta Williams: The late singer/songwriter scored six top-ten hits in the ’90s, but first got her start singing backing vocals for notable artists like Chaka Khan, Gladys Knight, Sting, Stephanie Mills, Anita Baker and Gordon Lightfoot.

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