Rock and Roll was a very youth oriented genre. Young people loved it and many songs were about rebellion and standing up for what is right. The slogan of the 60s generation was “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” Many rock stars got their start in their early 20s and were topping the charts.
Some of these musicians when they made it were not even adults, and in some cases were not even teenagers or were barely in their teenage years. They were making hits before they were able to vote in an election or rent a car.
Many musicians today were young when they made it such as Taylor Swift, Lorde, and Rihanna, but they were far from the first teenagers to make it in music. Here are some classic rock musicians who started their careers at a very young age.
Brenda Lee (age 10): Brenda Lee was born on 11 December 1944 in Atlanta, Georgia and got her start in music at the age of 10 in the mid 50s. At that age, she was the breadwinner in her family because of her mature sounding voice.
She started winning singing contests as a little kid, aged 5 or 6, and because of that she started appearing on the radio, and from there getting bigger and bigger platforms. She was so short, that she had to stand on a box to be able to use the microphone.
When she was 10, she took a chance and instead of appearing on a radio show, she decided to go to see country singer Red Foley’s show. A local DJ got in contact with Foley and asked him to hear her sing. Foley was blown away and the audience were wowed and wanted to hear more. From there, she became a regular on Ozark Jubilee. At the age of 11, she got a record deal with Decca Records and the next year, she got her first hits with “One Step at a Time” and “Dynamite”, the latter of which became her nickname, Little Miss Dynamite, because she was 4’9″.
After that, it was hit after hit with songs like “Sweet Nothins”, “That’s All You Gotta Do”, “I’m Sorry, “I Want to be Wanted”, “Emotions”, “You Can Depend on Me”, “Fool No. 1”, and “Everybody Loves Me But You” being on the charts before she was 18.
The Christmas staple “Rockin Around the Christmas Tree” was recorded when Brenda Lee was 13.
Michael Jackson (age 11): Michael Jackson and his brothers had a band called The Jackson 5. The Jackson 5 were made up of brothers Jackie Jackson, Tito Jackson, Jermaine Jackson, Marlon Jackson, and of course Michael Jackson. This was all before his solo career and his being dubbed The King of Pop. The Jackson 5 got a record deal with Motown in March 1969. 1969 was a big year for Michael Jackson and his brothers. They met Diana Ross (of The Supremes fame), made TV appearances, and their debut single “I Want You Back” sold 2 million copies in 6 weeks. 1970 was another big year for the band because they had their first national tour, were on the cover of Soul Magazine, and they had three #1s with “I’ll Be There”, “ABC”, and “The Love You Save”.
Stevie Wonder (age 12): First number one was “Fingertips” from 1963. The album “Fingertips” was on was called The 12 Year Old Genius. At the age of 13 he had a #1 on the Billboard charts and is still the youngest solo artist to top the charts. He had multiple hits before his 18th birthday including “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” (aged 15 – #3 US) and “I Was Made To Love Her” (aged 17 – #2 US). Both of those songs have him credited as a co-writer.
Steve Marriott (age 13): Before starting The Small Faces in 1965, he was an actor. At the age of 13 he was The Artful Dodger in the West End production of Oliver!. He continued to act for a short time, but he went back to his passion, music. Before starting The Small Faces, he had a band called The Moments. Here’s a cover they did of The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me”.
Steve Winwood (age 13-14): A multi-instrumentalist who plays organ, guitar, bass, mandolin, drums, and violin. He also is known for his singing abilities. He got his start in the blues scene in his hometown of Birmingham, England. He was a part of the backing bands for blues and rock musicians such as Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, BB King, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley when they played in Birmingham. At the age of 14 he joined The Spencer Davis Group. The band got their first number one in 1965 with “Keep On Running” when Winwood was 17. By the time he was 19 he left The Spencer Davis Group for Traffic.
Jimmy McCulloch (age 14): He was born in Dumbarton, Scotland on 4 June 1953. His band One In A Million were the supporting act for The Who during their 1967 tour of Scotland. Even before that he was a protege of The Shadows guitarist Hank Marvin at the age of 11. In 1969 Thunderclap Newman were formed with the help of The Who guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend. They were made up of Speedy Keen, a friend of Pete Townshend’s who wrote “Armenia City In The Sky”, Andy “Thunderclap” Newman, a jazz pianist, and a 15 year old Jimmy McCulloch. The group had a #1 with the song “Something In The Air” from 1969. Jimmy McCulloch was the youngest person to play on a number one in the UK. Jimmy McCulloch did a lot of session work after his time with Thunderclap Newman and joined Wings at the age of 21. Jimmy McCulloch died at the age of 26 in 1979.
Helen Shapiro (age 14): She started off from humble beginnings in Hackney, London in a Jewish family. Her life changed radically when at age 14 she got one number one and one number three on the UK charts in the year 1961. “Don’t Treat Me Like a Child” went to #3 and “You Don’t Know” was a #1. “Walkin’ Back To Happiness” was a number one for Helen Shapiro when she was 15. By her late teens her career declined and she played her last concert in the early 70s.
Ari Up (age 14): German born punk musician. She grew up around lots of musicians and founded The Slits in 1976 at the age of 14. The following year, her band opened for The Clash. She had to work very hard to be taken seriously and because English was not her first language, that added another layer of challenges.
Davy Jones (age 15): Like Steve Marriott, he started off in acting before starting his music career. At one point he considered being a jockey. He ended up sticking to acting and singing. Like Steve Marriott, he also played The Artful Dodger in a West End Production of Oliver! Davy Jones appeared on soap opera Coronation Street at the age of 15 in 1961. He was on The Ed Sullivan Show on the same 9 February 1964 show The Beatles made their first appearance on. He was casted as one of The Monkees in 1965 and the show aired from 1966-1968.
Lulu (age 15): She was born in Scotland on 3 November 1948. She was signed to Decca Records at the age of 15. She released her first single in 1964, a cover of The Isley Brothers’ “Shout”. It was #7 on the UK Singles Chart. A few other hits for Lulu include “Here Comes The Night”, “The Boat That I Row”, and “To Sir With Love”. She represented the UK at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1969 with the song “Boom Bang-a-Bang”.
Janis Ian (age 15): Born in New York City to a Jewish family. He first single “Society’s Child (I’ve Been Thinking)” was a hit. The song was about an interracial relationship. She wrote the song when she was 13. In 1967, at the age of 16 she released her first album.
Shuggie Otis (age 15): Started playing in his dad’s band at the age of 12. His dad was Johnny Otis, born Ioannis Veliotes, was born to Greek parents, and was a bandleader. In 1969, he was approached by Al Kooper to play on Kooper Session. He did collaborations with the Johnny Otis Show around the same time. Also in 1969, he worked with jazz musician Preston Love. He also played bass on the Frank Zappa song “Peaches en Regalia”. Influences of Shuggie Otis include Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, and Arthur Lee. He released his first album in 1970 Here Comes Shuggie Otis, at the age of 17. Later on he wrote “Strawberry Letter 23”, which The Brothers Johnson did. That song topped the charts.
Mike Oldfield (age 15): Started playing in folk clubs and was inspired by bands like The Shadows. He released his first album in the folk duo The Sallyangie in 1968. It was called Children of the Sun. At the age of 17 he worked with Kevin Ayers. When he was 19 he recorded Tubular Bells, his most famous work.
Carl Carlton (age 15): Was born in Detroit on 21 May 1953. Recorded his first single “Competition Ain’t Nothing” in 1968. The song was a bigger hit in the UK in the Northern Soul scene than it was stateside. He was often compared to Stevie Wonder, especially when he used the name Little Carl Carlton. His biggest success came when he was 21 when he sang “Everlasting Love” in 1974. His version was the most successful version released in the US, peaking at #6. The most successful version in the UK was a chart topper by Love Affair.
Steve Bartek (age 15): Member of the Strawberry Alarm Clock. While still in secondary school, he played flute on the first two Strawberry Alarm Clock albums, Incense and Peppermints and Wake Up… It’s Tomorrow. Later on, he was a member of new wave band Oingo Boingo.
Peter Frampton (age 16): Joined The Herd at 16, and at the age of 18 he joined Steve Marriott’s new band Humble Pie. He was known as the Face of ’68 at the age of 18. A hit from his time in The Herd is “I Don’t Want Our Lovin’ To Die” – which got him recognised in the UK. He later on had a successful solo career and is best known for the live album “Frampton Comes Alive” and his usage of the talk box while playing guitar, making his guitar talk. Here’s a song from Peter Frampton’s time in Humble Pie, written and sang by Peter Frampton.
Alex Chilton (age 16): Lead vocalist of The Box Tops. He joined the band in 1966 after the band members discovered him at his secondary school’s talent show. The band’s first single, “The Letter” went to number one a few months before his 17th birthday. The band had other hits like “Neon Rainbow”, “Cry Like a Baby”, and “Choo Choo Train”. Alex Chilton would later go on to found the influential power pop band Big Star. He turned down an offer to be the lead singer of Blood, Sweat & Tears. He passed away in 2010 after a heart attack.
Ranking Roger (age 16): Vocalist in English ska band The Beat. He was born Roger Charlery in Birmingham in 1963. As a teenager he was a big fan of punk music and was in a band called the Nam Nam Boys before joining The Beat. He spontaneously started toasting while gatecrashing The Beat’s gigs and they saw his talent and invited him in the band.
The Beat’s first single, a cover of Smokey Robinson’s “Tears of a Clown” peaked at #6 in 1979, when Ranking Roger was 16.
The Beat recorded their first album, I Just Can’t Stop It, in 1980. The album was critically acclaimed and ranked high in NME‘s and The Village Voice‘s best albums of the year lists. “Mirror in the Bathroom” and “Best Friend” were successful singles from the album.
Carl Wilson (age 15-16) and Dennis Wilson (age 17): Carl Wilson was the youngest of the three Wilson brothers who started The Beach Boys. He played lead guitar in the band He was 15 when “Surfin” became a local hit in the Los Angeles area and it wasn’t too much longer until The Beach Boys would become famous around the world with songs like “Surfin’ Safari”, “Surfin U.S.A.”, “Surfer Girl”, “Fun Fun Fun”, and “I Get Around” being recorded and released before Carl turned 18. Dennis Wilson was also rather young when The Beach Boys started getting famous.
The Runaways (ages 16-17): Made up of members Cherie Currie, Joan Jett, Sandy West, Jackie Fox, and Lita Ford. Jett and West were in contact with Kim Fowley and he found the rest of the band members. They got a record deal with Mercury Records in 1976 and released their self titled debut that year. They played sell out shows in Japan and were one of the top acts there. Joan Jett had a successful solo career after being in The Runaways with hits such as “I Love Rock n Roll” and “Bad Reputation”.
Ritchie Valens (age 17): He died at the age of 17, but he had two major hits in the US and was the first Hispanic rock star. He was signed to Del Fi Records and was called “The Little Richard of The Valley”. He was on American Bandstand and was part of Alan Freed’s Christmas Jubilee. Donna was #2 on the charts and La Bamba was #22 on the charts.
Cliff Richard (age 17): Got a #2 with “Move It” in 1958 right around his 18th birthday, but the song was recorded when he was 17. The following year he got his first #1 with the song “Living Doll”. Cliff Richard would get a lot of top 10 hits throughout the 60s. The Drifters became The Shadows and many of the members (Hank Marvin, Tony Meehan, and Bruce Welch) were not even 20 when they first made it big with “Apache” in 1960.
Eddie Cochran (age 17): An influential rockabilly musician from the 50s. Before his death at age 21, he got a few chart hits with “Summertime Blues”, “Sittin’ In The Balcony”, and “C’mon Everybody”. Fans of his music include The Who, Paul McCartney, Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, The Bee Gees, Rush, Rod Stewart, Van Halen, and The Sex Pistols. He was one of the first musicians to both write his own songs and overdub tracks.
Kenney Jones (age 17): He was the drummer for 60s mod band The Small Faces. Here’s a song from their first album. This song may sound familiar to you because Led Zeppelin did this song as “Whole Lotta Love”, but this was actually a blues cover written by Willie Dixon and performed by Muddy Waters as “You Need Love”. Interestingly enough, the song was credited as being written by The Small Faces, but they were never sued. Led Zeppelin on the other hand were sued for ripping off the song.
Keith Moon (age 17): Joined The Who just before his 18th birthday. However, The Who didn’t get into the charts until Keith Moon was 18, in early 1965 when “I Can’t Explain” went to #8 in the UK pop charts. The rest of the members were young when “I Can’t Explain” charted. Pete Townshend was 19 going on 20 and Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle were 20 going on 21.
Danny Kirwan (age 17): Was brought to the attention of Peter Green at the age of 17. His band at the time, Boilerhouse, opened for Fleetwood Mac a few times. However, Peter Green and the rest of the band members were not so sure about Danny joining the band yet and he did not join the band until he was 18. At 18 he played on Fleetwood Mac’s only #1 in the UK, “Albatross”. Peter Green said that if it wasn’t for Danny Kirwan, he would never have recorded that song. Sadly after his time in Fleetwood Mac and his mid-late 70s solo career he suffered from mental health issues and he left the music industry. Other Fleetwood Mac songs he played on were “Oh Well”, “Black Magic Woman”, and “The Green Manalishi (With The Two-Prong Crown)”.
Mick Taylor (age 17): Former member of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. He saw them live when he was 16 and played with them when Eric Clapton did not show up. He replaced Peter Green. Later on he was in The Rolling Stones, replacing Brian Jones. His first performance with the Rolling Stones was when he was 20. He played on two tracks of Let It Bleed. He played on the albums Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main St. Besides John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and The Rolling Stones, he has worked with Jack Bruce and Bob Dylan and did session work on Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells.
Ed King (age 17): Founding member and guitarist of Strawberry Alarm Clock, but best known for his guitar work in Lynyrd Skynyrd. The two bands crossed paths while touring; Lynyrd Skynyrd opened for Strawberry Alarm Clock.
He was born in Glendale, California, a suburb of Los Angeles and founded Strawberry Alarm Clock. He co-wrote, but did not receive credit for, their biggest hit “Incense and Peppermints”, which was released as a single before his 18th birthday. Their first album is very psychedelic and is excellent with many other good songs besides the title track. Their second album, Wake Up… It’s Tomorrow, has a bit more of a jazzy sound to it and it mixes well with their trademark psychedelic style. Love the sitar in the album!
Shona Laing (age 17): When this Kiwi singer-songwriter was still in secondary school, she was on a nationwide talent show called New Faces. She performed an original song, “1905”, which was about her celebrity crush Henry Fonda. Fonda was born in 1905, and Shona was born in 1955, which is the meaning of the lyric “the turn was mine 50 years later”. She won second place and her rise to fame was meteoric. She won the Tokyo Song Festival in 1973 with the song “Masquerade”. She represented New Zealand again in the Tokyo Song Festival the following year.
Millie Small (age 17): When she released her first single, a cover of “My Boy Lollipop” she had just immigrated from Jamaica to the UK. It was big and more than just a success for her! The song made it to #2 in the UK and US pop charts. The song also did well in Canada, making it to #3. The song is the first reggae song to appear in the mainstream charts. You might say that it opened the door for mainstream popularity of the genre in the late 60s and beyond. Before Desmond Dekker went to #1 with “Israelites”, there was Millie Small with “My Boy Lollipop”.
Robin & Maurice Gibb (age 17): While the Bee Gees appeared on TV for the first time in 1960 when Barry was about 14, and Robin and Maurice were about 10, they didn’t have much success in Australia. They left for England in 1966. It wouldn’t be long until they would get a string of top 20 hits: “Spicks and Specks” (which they found out was a hit en route to England), “New York Mining Disaster 1941”, “To Love Somebody”, and “Massachusetts”. All of this happened before Robin and Maurice turned 18 in December 1967.