There’s a lot of pressure in this world to have it all figured out at a very young age. You pick your programme in university when you’re 17, in my case I was 16 since that’s when I graduated from secondary school.
In reality, it’s never too late to go back to school. I had classmates who got their bachelors in their 40s or even 50s. My grandmother got her Master’s when she was in her 50s, and that didn’t come without difficulties. One school flat out turned her down because of her age, and it was legal then. It was the 70s and there were no age discrimination protections in education at that time.
Recently, I was inspired to write this series because of my interview with Aly Cook, a New Zealand based singer-songwriter who released her first album at 46. She’s in her 50s now and she’s continuing to write and record music. Her story is really inspiring!
In the celebrity world you’re considered old when you’re in your 30s, or in some cases in your late 20s is considered a bit old to be releasing a debut album. The 60s and 70s particularly were a youthful era with many teenagers and young adults amassing chart hits. So it was common to see a popular musician having many hits under their belt and lots of professional recording experience by the age of 25. The music industry privileges youth. If you’re “too old”, you might be dismissed.
Makes me feel like a failure. I’m 25 and what am I accomplishing? Making a few funny memes and writing some blog posts about classic rock? Many of my idols are dead so they’ll never notice me. This gif of Squidward Tentacles is so relatable to any starving artist:
But that’s enough self-loathing…
This attitude of “25 is old” (or even “22 is old”) is reflected in this quote from The Who’s song “Success Story”:
“The big break better happen soon ’cause I’m pushing 21”
– John Entwistle (1975)
To contrast with my post on musicians who made it when they were teenagers, here are some musicians who didn’t get their big break until they were 25 or older. I find that the stories of the musicians who made it when they were older have more interesting elements to them.
In this post, we’ll look at the songs that made these musicians famous and who they were before the fame. This list is quite diverse: men and women from all genres who got famous at a variety of ages
Andy Mackay (26), Bryan Ferry (27), and Graham Simpson (29): Vocalist, Saxophone/Oboe player, and bassist, respectively of Roxy Music. The band’s first hit single was their 1972 glam rock debut “Virginia Plain”, which peaked at #4 in the UK, #6 in New Zealand, #20 in Germany, and #18 in the Netherlands. It was a song that broke all the rules: no chorus, a prominent oboe, an intro that fades in, and an abrupt end with “What’s her name? Virginia Plain.” It’s so different from other songs and the first time I heard it I was captivated, taking me to a time I didn’t live in.
Their first single to reach the top 40 in America was “Love is the Drug”, in 1975. It was their most successful single in the US.
Before the fame: Bryan Ferry studied fine art at Newcastle University. Before Roxy Music, he was a pottery and art teacher.
Andy Mackay was a classically trained woodwind player. He studied music and English at Reading University. He joined Roxy Music with Brian Eno in 1971.
Graham Simpson was friends with Bryan Ferry and was shortly a member of Roxy Music, only playing on their debut album. He left the band because of depression after his mum died of cancer.
Ann Wilson and Roger Fisher (25 going on 26): Heart’s first album, Dreamboat Annie, was released on Valentine’s Day 1976, a few months before she turned 26 and on Roger Fisher’s 26th birthday. “Crazy On You” peaked at #25 in Canada in May 1976 and #35 in the US in June. That same year, “Magic Man” was a top 10 hit. But this wasn’t the peak of Heart’s success. Their most commercially successful period was in the mid 1980s, their poppier Aqua-net and cleavage heavy, commercialised MTV comeback.
Before the fame: As a child, Ann Wilson moved around a lot because her father was a major in the Marine Corps. She grew up listening to a lot of music and singing helped her overcome her stutter.
Roger Fisher is from Seattle and as a teenager started a band called The Army, which went onto be White Heart. He dated Nancy Wilson. His older brother, Michael, dated Ann.
In the early 70s, Ann joined White Heart, the band that would become Heart. She pretty much always worked as a musician. In the early 70s, Ann’s boyfriend, Michael Fisher dodged the draft by moving to Canada and she followed him. Nancy came along and so did the rest of the band and they got their start in Vancouver. “Magic Man” tells the story of this period of Ann’s life. At first, Heart played in dodgy bars and the Wilson sisters were on the receiving end of sexist comments.
Aretha Franklin (25): Aretha Franklin’s first big hit came in 1967, when she got signed to Atlantic Records. She had experience recording professionally since the early 60s, but she wasn’t a household name yet. It was in the late 60s that she really took off with hit after hit: “Respect” (Otis Redding cover), “Chain of Fools”, “Think”, “I Say A Little Prayer” – these are just her most well known ones from 1967 and 1968. I Never Loved a Man The Way I Love You was her first album to get a Gold certification.
Before the fame: She was signed to Columbia Records from 1961-1966. Her first five albums didn’t have much commercial success, but Runnin’ Out of Fools, Yeah!!!, and Soul Sister made the top 10 on the R&B albums charts. Of all the singles she released between those years, only one, “Rock-a-bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody”, broke the top 40 on the pop charts, reaching #37.
A few of her songs reached the top 10 on the R&B charts: “Today I Sing The Blues”, “Won’t Be Long”, and “Operation Heartbreak”. Record producer John Hammond believed that Columbia Records didn’t understand her gospel background and didn’t bring that side out of her, so that’s why she wasn’t commercially successful. You listen to her hits from the late 60s, and that’s where really you feel like you’re being taken to church.
Arthur Brown (26): Best known for his 1968 one hit wonder, “Fire”. It reached #1 in the UK and Canada and #2 in the US. He got his nickname from the opening lyrics of that song, “I am the God of Hellfire“. The song stands out for its shock rock sound. In the promotional video for the song, Arthur Brown wore a burning helmet, which added to the shocking, spooky sound. What’s really interesting about the song is that there’s no guitar or bass guitar in it and how it pulls you in from the start – there’s no build up. It’s just BAM!
While it’s not the first impactful shock rock song, that would be Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell On You”, it was an influence on Alice Cooper, David Bowie, Kiss, Peter Gabriel, and Marilyn Manson and their outrageous stage presence. You can also say that shock rock sounds were a form of proto-metal. Glam rockers, metalheads, and shock rockers were paying attention to this song.
If you want to find out more about the song and Arthur Brown’s story, check out this episode of Todd in the Shadows’ One Hit Wonderland:
Before the fame: He was a student at University of London and University of Reading, studying philosophy and law. However, he was drawn to music and joined a few bands, including being a part of the Ramong Sound, who went on to become The Foundations. He left them to start The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. What makes him really cool is his eclectic inspirations: paganism, the occult, kabuki theatre, meditation, and African tribal dances.
Benjamin Orr (31) and Ric Ocasek (34): Founders of The Cars. They met in 1965 and became friends. They formed The Cars in 1976. The Cars are known for their sound that marries synthesisers and guitars perfectly for that power pop sound. In 1978, they released their self titled debut and they got their first top 30 hit with “Just What I Needed”. That album had two other hits: “My Best Friend’s Girl” and “Good Times Roll”.
In 1979, they got their first top 20 hit with “Let’s Go”, from their sophomore album, Candy-O.
The band’s most successful hits were in the 80s: “Shake It Up” (#4 US), “You Might Think” (#7 US), “Drive” (#3 US), and “Tonight She Comes” (#7 US).
Before the Fame: Benjamin Orr and Ric Ocasek met in 1965 and became friends. Before forming The Cars, they formed a folk band called Milkwood. That band only released one album, How is the Weather? and it was a failure.
Big Mama Thornton (26): R&B singer who was the first to record Leiber & Stoller’s song “Hound Dog”, which topped the R&B charts in 1953. She wrote “Ball & Chain”, which Janis Joplin covered and popularised in the 60s.
What’s really interesting about “Hound Dog” is that while the most popular version was Elvis Presley’s, the true meaning of the song can be heard more in Big Mama Thornton’s version, about a woman kicking a selfish man out of her house and her life. It’s considered a black female power anthem for that reason. Jerry Leiber at first was confused by Elvis’s version because the song isn’t about a dog.
Before the fame: She moved to Houston in 1948 to pursue a music career. In 1951, she got signed to Peacock Records. She performed at the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem in 1952.
Bill Haley (30): Best known for “Rock Around The Clock”, that single was released when he was about 30 and reached #1 on the Billboard and Cashbox charts in 1955. This song was a cover of a 12-bar blues song written by Max Freedman and James Myers. It wasn’t the first version to be recorded, that was Sonny Dae and His Knights.
The significance of “Rock Around The Clock” to rock and roll history is that it’s an anthem of the youth of the 50s, a very recognisable and iconic song of the time period, and made rock and roll mainstream. It was the first record to sell over a million copies in the UK. Bill Haley & His Comets were the first rock & roll act to perform on the Ed Sullivan Show. The song had an influence on the future generations of rock.
Before the fame: Bill Haley was born in Michigan to a father from Kentucky and a mother from Lancashire, England. He was blind in his left eye due to the surgeon accidentally severed his optic nerve during an operation. He was raised in Bethel, Pennsylvania because the Great Depression had a big effect on Detroit.
While “Rock Around the Clock” is considered a classic today, it wasn’t an overnight success at the time. Originally, it was a B-side to “Thirteen Women (and Only One Man in Town)”. The song was released in 1954, but didn’t gain popularity until the following year when it was used in the opening credits of “Blackboard Jungle”. The song was chosen from Peter Ford’s (the son of star Glenn Ford) record collection for the opening credits because they wanted to pick a song that would appeal to the youth.
Bill Withers (33): Best known for 70s hits “Ain’t No Sunshine”, “Lean On Me”, and “Lovely Day”. He was still working his day job as late as 1971, when “Ain’t No Sunshine” came out. At first, he refused to quit because he felt the music industry was fickle.
His follow-up single, “Grandma’s Hands” was a minor hit, reaching #42 on the Billboard charts. The following year, he won a Grammy for “Ain’t No Sunshine”. He wasn’t a one-hit wonder, “Lean On Me” from sophomore album Still Bill was a chart topper in 1972. Also from Still Bill, “Use Me” was a hit, reaching #2 on the Billboard Charts.
Before the fame: Born in West Virginia on Independence Day 1938, he enlisted in the Navy when he was 18, serving for 9 years. While serving in the Navy, he wrote songs and started singing, getting over the stutter he was born with. He moved to LA in 1967 to get into music. Before making the big time he was working a factory job while recording demo tapes.
Bo Diddley (27): Rock and roll pioneer who influenced rock stars from all generations. In 1955, he topped the R&B charts with his song, “Bo Diddley” b/w “I’m A Man”. The self-titled song prominently features his signature beat that mixes African rhythms with rock and roll. He appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show that year, performing his self-titled song and “Sixteen Tons”. He also wrote the Mickey & Sylvia song “Love is Strange”.
In 1963, he, the Everly Brothers, and Little Richard toured the UK with The Rolling Stones (then an up and coming band) opening for them.
Before the fame: He was born in Mississippi and raised in Chicago. He was inspired by music he heard at church and John Lee Hooker. Before making it big as a musician, he worked as a carpenter and mechanic and busking in his free time.
Bob Marley (late 20s/early 30s): When you think of reggae, he’s pretty much for sure the first name you think of. You likely know the songs “Stir it Up”, “Get Up Stand Up”, “No Woman No Cry” (his first UK top 10), “One Love”, “Three Little Birds”, and “Buffalo Soldier”.
Before the fame: While he was recording music in the 60s, he wasn’t commercially successful until the 70s. The Wailers released their first album, The Wailing Wailers, in 1965. This album is more ska and the production quality isn’t as high because it wasn’t as commercial.
They didn’t release anything until 5 years later. In the meantime, Bob Marley got married to Rita Anderson and moved to the US and worked as a Dupont lab assistant and at a Chrysler plant.
Things started to take off in 1972, when Bob Marley was signed to CBS Records in London and toured with Johnny Nash. While in London, he was introduced to Chris Blackwell of Island Records. Jimmy Cliff, who was Island’s biggest star, had just left, and Blackwell was looking for a replacement. Catch a Fire was his first album released through Island Records. The album has a unique Zippo lighter like lift top design. The album wasn’t a success – initially selling only 14,000 copies , but its follow up Burnin’ did better because Eric Clapton covered the song “I Shot The Sheriff”, which did better than the original, which only reached #67 in the UK.
Bon Scott (30): Frontman of AC/DC. In 1976, the band started taking off and gaining international success with the international release of High Voltage (which was released in 1975 only in Australia) and Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap. But the first big single came in 1979, “Highway to Hell”. AC/DC were about to take over the world with Bon Scott as frontman, but he died in 1980 after a night out in London. Brian Johnson took over as frontman and you can read more about him below.
I guess it really is a “Long Way to the Top If You Wanna Rock and Roll”. Interesting fact: When Malcom & Angus’s older brother, George heard that Bon Scott was in a pipe band and said that it would be a good idea to incorporate bagpipes in the song. However, he didn’t play bagpipes and he was only a drummer. Being a good sport, he played bagpipes in the song.
Before the fame: For the first year or so of AC/DC, they were big in Australia, but didn’t have a worldwide deal yet.
Bon Scott was born in Scotland and moved to Australia when he was 6. He was in a few bands before AC/DC like The Spektors, The Valentines, and Fraternity, but none were close to as successful as AC/DC.
Brian Johnson (25, 32 if you count AC/DC as when he made it): Frontman of Geordie and AC/DC. He had minor success in glam rock band Geordie, who opened for Slade, toured Australia, and got a few hits in the UK like “Don’t Do That”, “All Because of You”, “Can You Do It”, and “Electric Lady”. I definitely recommend you listen to Geordie, especially if you like hard rock and glam rock.
Brian Johnson’s career really took off in the early 80s with AC/DC. AC/DC were considering Terry Slesser of Back Street Crawler and Noddy Holder of Slade as replacements, but they turned it down. Angus Young remembered first hearing about Brian Johnson from Bon Scott – who said that he was a great rock and roll singer in the style of Little Richard (one of Bon Scott’s idols).
Before the fame: He was born in Tyne and Wear and he is half Italian, his mum is from Frascati. He played in a few bands as a young adult like Gobi Desert Canoe Club and Jasper Hart Band.
Bruce Springsteen (26): His first big hit was “Born to Run”, in 1975. It reached #23 in the US and #17 in Sweden. He released two albums before Born to Run, Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ and The Wild, The Innocent& The E Street Shuffle. Both albums were critically acclaimed, but didn’t make him a household name.
Born to Run was the breakthrough album, with multiple songs on it being popular on the radio: “Thunder Road”, “Jungleland”, and “She’s the One”. It’s considered one of the best albums of all time and something I think you should listen to understand the history of classic rock.
Before the fame: He was inspired when he saw The Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show and bought a guitar. As a teenager he played at Cafe Wha? in Greenwich Village. He got signed to Columbia Records in 1972.
“Blinded by the Light” was his debut single, but his version failed to chart. Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, however, had better luck with his earlier singles, with their versions of “Blinded by the Light” and “Spirit in the Night” being chart hits. The former was his only song to top the charts as a songwriter. As a solo performer, he never topped the charts.
Buddy Guy (30-something): Blues guitarist best known for the song “Stone Crazy” and for being a big part of the Chicago blues scene and influential to guitar greats like Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Jeff Beck. Before his solo career, he played with Muddy Waters as a house guitarist at Chess Records. While he played as a session guitarist, he backed Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Koko Taylor.
In 1969, he famously played the Supershow in Staines, which had an incredible lineup: Led Zeppelin, Jack Bruce, Buddy Miles, Eric Clapton, Colosseum, Roland Kirk, and Stephen Stills.
Before the fame: He was born in Louisiana in 1936 and in the early 50s he worked as a custodian at LSU and performed with bands in Baton Rouge. He moved to Chicago in 1957. His recordings with Chess Records didn’t do him justice because they didn’t want to record him playing the way he did in his live shows. Leonard Chess didn’t believe in him and thought that his style was very noisy. He only released one album through Chess, I Left My Blues in San Francisco.
Chuck Berry (29): Rock and roll pioneer and one of the most influential rock stars of the 50s. His first big hit was “Maybellene” – an adaptation of “Ida Red”, which reached #5 on the pop charts and #1 on the R&B charts in 1955. It was considered one of the first rock and roll songs. The lyrics are about a hot rod race and heartbreak, two very common things that rock songs are about: cars and women. It’s very ahead of its time. Black and white Americans both loved the song.
From there, he got other hits like “Roll Over Beethoven”, “Too Much Monkey Business”, “Rock and Roll Music”, “Sweet Little Sixteen”, and “Johnny B. Goode”.
Before the fame: He was born in St Louis to a family of 6 children. His parents encouraged him to pursue music from a young age. He got arrested for armed robbery in 1944. He was in a reformatory for young men until his 21st birthday. While there, he formed a singing quartet.
At the age of 22, he got married and worked various jobs, working in factories and as a janitor. In the early 50s, he was performing at clubs in St Louis to make some extra money. In 1955, he moved to Chicago and met Muddy Waters, who told him to contact Leonard Chess of Chess Records.
Clem Curtis (27), Eric Allandale (30), and Mike Elliott (38): Lead vocalist, trombonist, and saxophonist of The Foundations, respectively. The Foundations were one of Britain’s first multiracial rock bands with band members from the Caribbean, Sri Lanka, and the UK. Not only were they ethnically diverse, the band members were diverse in age, with the youngest members being 18 and 19.
The band got their first big hit with the song “Baby Now That I’ve Found You”, which reached #1 in the UK and Canada and #11 in the US. This made them the first multiracial band to get a #1 in the UK.
Their biggest hit in the US was “Build Me Up Buttercup”, which reached #3 in the US in 1968.
Before the fame: Clem Curtis was born in Trinidad in 1940 and moved to England when he was 15. He joined the Ramong Sound as a backup singer even though he had little singing experience. The lead singer left, and he filled the place of the lead singer in 1967.
Eric Allandale was born in Dominica in 1936 and he moved to the UK in 1954. He was a council surveyor and played in the Hammersmith Borough Brass Band, playing trumpet. He later switched to trombone.
Mike Elliott was the oldest member of the band. He was born in Jamaica in 1929 and played on early ska recordings in the 60s, before joining The Foundations in 1967. He previously was in Rico’s Combo, led by Rico Rodriguez. Ska musician Jackie Edwards (who wrote “Keep on Running”) was in the same band. He was also in the Cabin Boys, led by Tommy Steele’s brother, Colin Hicks.
David Byrne (25), Chris Frantz (26), Tina Weymouth (27), and Jerry Harrison (28): Lead singer, drummer, bassist, and guitarist of the Talking Heads, respectively. They got their first hit with “Psycho Killer” in 1977. It reached the top 20 in Belgium and the Netherlands, but didn’t do as well in their native US, barely making the top 100. Still, it paved the way for future successes like “Take Me to the River”, their first top 30 hit in the US; “Burning Down the House”, their biggest hit – reached #9 in the US; and “Once in a Lifetime” – a top 20 hit in the UK.
The Talking Heads have a unique sound that mixes new wave, post punk, reggae, funk, disco, psychedelia, and Afrobeat. They collaborated with Brian Eno on the albums More Songs about Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, and Remain in Light. Brian Eno got the band into Fela Kuti’s music, which had an influence on the sound of Remain in Light.
Before the fame: David Byrne was born in Scotland in 1952 and moved to Canada and then the US with his family. His family left Scotland because his parents were considered a mixed marriage, with his father being Catholic and his mother being Presbyterian. He had an interest in music from a young age and believed that he had borderline Aspergers.
Chris Frantz was born in Fort Campbell, Kentucky in 1951 and went to Shady Side Academy in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He married Tina Weymouth in 1977.
Tina Weymouth was born in California in 1950 and is half French on her mother’s side and her father was a Vice Admiral in the Navy. She has 7 siblings. Her bass playing style is reggae and funk influenced.
Jerry Harrison was born in Milwaukee in 1949 and studied architecture at Harvard. While he was at Harvard, he met Jonathan Richman and joined the Modern Lovers. They both loved The Velvet Underground.
David Byrne studied at Rhode Island School of Design and Maryland Institute College of Art. Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth also went to RISD. While at RISD, David Byrne and Chris Frantz were in a band called The Artistics. Tina Weymouth originally drove the band around, but after they failed to find a bassist Chris Frantz encouraged her to play bass by giving her some Suzi Quatro albums. Jerry Harrison joined the band in 1977. Before he was in the Talking Heads, he was in The Modern Lovers.
In 1975, they played their first gig as the Talking Heads opening for The Ramones at CBGB.
David Fenton (26/27?): Frontman of The Vapors, a one-hit wonder punk band known for the novelty song “Turning Japanese”, which reached #3 in the UK and #36 in the US. It topped the charts in Australia and reached the top 10 in Ireland, Canada, and New Zealand. The song had some success in Japan too. Contrary to popular belief, the song is not about masturbation. And no, it’s not about weeaboos. It’s actually about teen angst and heartbreak and turning into something completely different.
Todd in the Shadows has an episode of One Hit Wonderland about this song and I recommend watching it if you’re really into the punk/mod revival scene of the late 70s and early 80s.
Before the fame: He studied law and was about to start a law career, but decided to take a sabbatical to pursue a music career. The Vapors formed in Guildford, Surrey – 27 miles away from London. While they were playing at a pub, Bruce Foxton, the bassist of The Jam discovered them and got John Weller, Paul Weller’s father, to manage them. It’s not a surprise because The Vapors sound very similar to The Jam. Funny enough, The Vapors got more success in America than the Jam because they at least had one hit there. The Jam couldn’t make it in America because they were too British for American audiences and had The Clash to compete with.
David Hungate (30), Bobby Kimball (31): Bassist and frontman of Toto, respectively. The band’s first single, “Hold The Line”, was a huge success and catapulted the band into stardom. The single reached #5 in the US, #14 in the UK, #8 in Australia, and #11 in New Zealand.
The band’s most successful period though was in the early 80s with songs like “Rosanna”, “Africa”, and “I Won’t Hold You Back”.
Before the fame: David Hungate was born in Missouri and studied music at North Texas State University. He played bass in their jazz ensemble, The One O’Clock Lab Band. His father was a Congressman and later a Federal District Judge.
Bobby Kimball (nicknamed Robert Toteaux) was born in Orange, Texas, but raised in Vinton, Louisiana. He grew up listening to R&B, Old Tyme music of the 1800s, Swamp pop, and Cajun folk. He left Louisana for Los Angeles in 1974.
Before joining Toto, he formed a band with some members of Three Dog Night called S.S. Fools. They released one album, but it was a failure. David Paich and Jeff Porcaro asked him to join a band they were forming with some session musicians. He wrote the song “You Are The Flower” for his audition and the band were impressed with his voice.
David Knopfler (26), John Illsley (29), Mark Knopfler (29), Pick Withers (30): Members of Dire Straits. Their 1978 debut single, “Sultans of Swing” put the band on the map. It reached the top 10 in the UK, Australia, Canada, and the US in 1979. The musical inspiration behind the song was Bob Dylan. The song wasn’t a success until it was re-released. From there, the band got multiple top 10 hits: “Romeo and Juliet”, “Private Investigations”, “Money For Nothing”, and “Walk of Life”.
Before the fame: In the 70s, brothers Mark and David Knopfler were in a pub rock band called Brewers Droop with Pick Withers. Before fame, Mark Knopfler worked as a junior reporter for the Yorkshire Evening Post and studied English at the University of Leeds. He worked as a teacher at an art college. David Knopfler introduced his older brother to his roommate, John Illsley. So that’s how the bandmates got to know each other. Pick Withers had a lot of experience in the music industry, but not much commercial success.
The band’s name might have come from the fact that they were not in a good financial situation, but David Knopfler said that they all had day jobs until they got the big bucks.
Dee Dee and Joey Ramone (25), Tommy Ramone (27), and Johnny Ramone (28): The four original members of the Ramones, considered one of the first punk bands. Dee Dee was the bassist, Joey was the lead vocalist, Tommy was the drummer, and Johnny was the guitarist.
The Ramones released their first album in 1976. The album was recorded on a budget of $6,400 and recorded in one week.
At the time, the album was not a big success on the charts, reaching only #111 on the albums charts in the US and #48 in Sweden, but it was critically acclaimed and starting in 1976 they were starting to tour internationally. Marc Bolan was at their show at the Roundhouse in London, second on the bill after the Flamin’ Groovies. While in London, they met The Clash and The Sex Pistols. The Flamin’ Groovies and The Ramones also played The Roxy in LA together and helped fuel the punk scene there.
Their first single, “Blitzkrieg Bop” didn’t chart and it didn’t go gold until recently. However, that song was influential and years later was in the soundtrack of National Lampoon’s Vacation.
In 1978, their sound became less punk and more commercial and radio friendly. Their most commercially successful album was End of the Century, released in 1980.
Before the fame: Dee Dee moved around a lot as a kid because his father was in the military. He worked at the Bureau of Advertising as a printer’s helper before forming The Ramones in 1974.
Joey was born to a Jewish family in New York City and went to Forest Hills High School, which is where he met his bandmates. His idol was Pete Townshend. Before forming The Ramones, he was in a glam punk band called Sniper and they played Max’s Kansas City.
Tommy was born in Hungary to a Jewish parents who were Holocaust survivors and they came to the US when he was 8. Before forming The Ramones, He worked as an assistant engineer at Record Plant, where he worked on the production of Jimi Hendrix’s album Band of Gypsys. He was originally supposed to be the manager of the band, but he was chosen to be the drummer because Joey’s drumming wasn’t fast enough and no one else wanted to play the drums.
Johnny played in the Tangerine Puppets with Tommy. He worked as a plumber, went to military school, and briefly went to university in Florida before forming The Ramones. He met Dee Dee when he was doing odd jobs and they both loved The Stooges and MC5 and they became friends.
Ed Cassidy (45): Drummer of Spirit and stepfather of guitarist and songwriter Randy California (the youngest member of the band – their debut album came out the month before he turned 17). He was known for his trademark shaved head, which gave him the nickname Mr Skin. The band, Spirit, was formed in 1967. They got signed to Lou Adler’s Ode Records in August 1967 and released their self-titled debut album in 1968 and it reached #31 on the albums charts. The album sounds jazzy and psychedelic.
They got their biggest hit in 1968, “I Got a Line On You”, which reached #25.
One of the songs they are best known for is “Taurus”, which many people think that Led Zeppelin ripped off in “Stairway to Heaven” because of the similar chord progression. In fact, Led Zeppelin opened for them at the Denver Auditorium in December 1968. Jimmy Page got the idea to use a theremin from seeing Randy California use one.
Before the fame: Ed Cassidy was born in a rural area outside of Chicago in 1923. When he was 8, his family moved to Bakersfield, California. He served in the Navy in WWII. After being discharged, he played in show bands, Dixieland, and country and western bands. He formed the Rising Sons in 1964, which launched the careers of Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder. He formed the Red Roosters with Randy California, Jay Ferguson, and Mark Andes. When John Locke joined the band, they changed their name to Spirit.
Eric Bell (25), Scott Gorham (25): Thin Lizzy guitarists, although in different periods of the band. Eric Bell was part of the “Whiskey in the Jar” (#6 UK) lineup and Scott Gorham was half of the twin lead guitar attack on “The Boys Are Back in Town” (#8 UK, #12 US). These two songs were the band’s biggest hits.
The latter is the one with more of a legacy and international recognition, since it was part of their signature hard rock sound and used in movies and TV shows.
Before the fame: Eric Bell was born in Belfast in 1947 and joined Thin Lizzy in 1969 after being tired of showbands. He came up with the band’s name from a robot character named Tin Lizzie in a comic called The Dandy. The band’s first albums, the self titled debut, Shades of a Blue Orphanage, and Vagabonds of the Western World weren’t commercially successful and were different, more folk sounding.
Scott Gorham was born in Glendale, California in 1951 and joined Thin Lizzy in 1974. As a teenager, he played bass guitar and switched to guitar after a friend/bandmate passed away. This moved shocked everyone because he was very good at bass.
He moved to London in 1973 because his friend Bob Siebenberg and his sister Vickie were living there. Siebenberg was drumming for Supertramp and wanted Scott to join the band, but they didn’t need him. Through a friend, he found out that Phil Lynott was looking for a guitarist and he got the job.
Honourable Mention: Charles Bradley was not a classic rock musician, but his story is very interesting and I thought he’d be a good addition to this list as he started recording professionally in his 60s.
Charles Bradley (62): Singer often compared to Otis Redding and important in the Daptone revivalist approach to R&B and soul. He released his debut album, No Time for Dreaming, in 2011 on Daptone Records. The album generally got positive reviews and was ranked #40 in Mojo‘s Top 50 albums of 2011 list. He released two other albums: Victim of Love in 2013 and Changes in 2016. Black Velvet was released posthumously, in 2018.
Before the fame: Charles Bradley was born in Gainesville, Florida in 1948. When he was 8, he and his mum moved to Brooklyn. In 1962, he saw James Brown perform at the Apollo and this inspired him and it was an important moment for him growing up. He would mimic James Brown and dress like him. As a teenager, he ran away from home and he was living on the streets for two years.
He enlisted in Job Corps, a programme that offers vocational training to young people, training as a chef. His coworkers told him he looked like James Brown and asked him if he could sing like him. Due to shyness, he didn’t admit it at first. He performed a few times on stage, but not for long because his bandmates were drafted in the Vietnam War.
He moved around the country, working odd jobs and playing small shows for a while, going by stage names like the Screaming Eagle of Soul, Black Velvet, and James Brown Jr. One day, he got the attention of Bosco Mann, the co-founder of Daptone Records. Some singles were released in the early 2000s.
Want to find out about more musicians who made it a little later in life? Read Part 2!
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