Don Henley’s Eagles and Other Famous Musicians That Started as Backups

Who did Whitney Houston, Sheryl Crow, and The Band stand behind before hitting it big on their own?

December 7, 2015
Photo: PRPhotos

Not all music superstars break onto the scene as superstars. Unless you’re a YouTube sensation or Vine Star (and even sometimes then), the best artists have to cut their teeth in the doldrums of gigging before achieving any requisite level of celebrity or success. Any idea how many gigs the Beatles played in Liverpool and Germany before “Beatlemania” hit? It’s a lot.

An interesting pattern among some of the most successful artists is that many began as side men or backups for another artist. Getting out from under the shadows of a frontman is an impressive feat no matter who you are, but part of the wonder is that some of these artists were backup musicians to begin with! Tuesday’s guest Don Henley is a prime example and part of one of music’s most interesting origin stories.

Here are some of music’s most fascinating background players-made-good.

The Eagles

Backed up: Linda Ronstadt

In the early ’70s, Linda Ronstadt was one of the smoothest, silkiest lady voices to come out of the West Coast and was well on her way to a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-worthy career. Of course, Ronstadt needed a backing band, as she did not play any instruments herself. In early 1971, after meeting them at the legendary Troubadour, Ronstadt and manager John Boylan asked Don Henley and Glenn Frey, local musicians at the time, to play in her band. Soon, eventual Eagles Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner were invited in. Though the four men would only perform live together once (at a Ronstadt concert at Disneyland), they all appeared on the “Linda Ronstadt” LP. After receiving the blessing from Ronstadt, the group signed with David Geffen’s Asylum records and were set to soar out on their own (that’s an Eagles reference right there).

Sheryl Crow

Backed Up: Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Don Henley

International superstardom can be contagious – just look at Sheryl Crow. Prior to her mid-’90s breakthrough, Sheryl was logging touring and studio experience as a primo backup vocalist for some of music’s hottest acts, including Stevie Wonder, Don Henley, Kenny Loggins and oh, just some guy who sometimes goes by “the king of pop.” Yes, Sheryl Crow spent three years backing up Michael Jackson on his “Bad World Tour,” and even joined him to sing “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.”

The Band

Backed Up: Ronnie Hawkins, Bob Dylan

By the time of the Band’s final (full-member) performance together, famously documented in Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz,” they had been playing together for (give-or-take) 16 years. However, Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko and Levon Helm only officially became “The Band” in 1968, heralding the sea change in rock music to a roots-ier style after the overindulgent psychedelia orgy of 1967. Everything prior had been backing up rockabilly vet Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan after he went electric. Yes, the Band was on stage during Bob Dylan’s infamous “Judas” moment in 1966; that’s the Band he tells to, “play [‘Like a Rolling Stone’] f-cking loud.” The invaluable experience backing these two men provided the road-tested musicianship that became the Band’s calling card years later. Fittingly, both Hawkins and Dylan appeared in “The Last Waltz.” The Band remains the hardest band to Google (tied with Yes).

Luther Vandross

Backed Up: David Bowie, Roberta Flack, Barbra Streisand, others

Singer, songwriter, and producer Luther Vandross had an eclectic career prior to his solo breakthrough in the late ’70s. Before he was melting your love parts with his sultry lead vocals, Vandross appeared on dozens of popular records by other recording artists, most notably David Bowie (“Young Americans”), Ben E. King, Diana Ross, and Donna Summer. Vandross also appeared on “Sesame Street” in its first season and wrote “Everybody Rejoice” for “The Wiz.”

Whitney Houston

Backed Up: Chaka Khan, others

Before she became the first artist to chart seven consecutive No. 1 Billboard hits, Whitney Houston started as a backup singer…at age 14! Lou Rawls, Jermaine Jackson, and Michael Zager all benefitted from Whitney’s backup vocal prowess. Listen real close and you can especially hear her singing the hook on Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman,” which Whitney would later make her own on the “Bodyguard” soundtrack years later.

Jimmy Page

Backed Up: The Kinks, The Who, Them, everyone.

Led Zeppelin mastermind Jimmy Page could have quit music before the Zep formed and still had a Hall of Fame career. In the words of Robert Plant, Page did “a whole lotta [session work.]” Even before he joined the Yardbirds, Page appeared on and produced countless records for British bands and singers, including the Who’s “I Can’t Explain,” The Kinks debut album, Them’s “Here Comes the Night,” The Nashville Teens’ “Tobacco Road,” and pretty much every other song you heard on “Mad Men.” That’s also Jimmy’s guitar on Joe Cocker’s “Wonder Years”-commencing “With a Little Help From my Friends.” And speaking of the Zep…

John Paul Jones

Backed Up: The Rolling Stones, Jeff Beck, Dusty Springfield

One of the the reasons Led Zeppelin is hailed as a “supergroup” is due to the sheer experience their members had prior to the band’s formation. Bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones may not be the flashiest member of Zep, but between 1964 and 1968, he logged hundreds of recording sessions for artists such as Jeff Beck, Donovan, Rod Stewart, Dusty Springfield, and Tom Jones. Jones notably arranged the strings on the Rolling Stones’ psychedelic pop masterpiece “She’s A Rainbow.” This studio mastery would come in very handy with Zeppelin, with tracks like “No Quarter” owing themselves almost entirely to Jones’ prior experience.

Glen Campbell

Backed Up: The Beach Boys, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra

Despite his reputation as a smooth country superstar, the first five years of Glen Campbell’s music career consisted of mainly backing up other artists. As a pro session musician and part of the storied Wrecking Crew, Glen’s guitar colors tunes by Elvis Presley, Nancy Sinatra, the Monkees, Ricky Nelson, and Frank Sinatra. More than anything however, it’s Glen’s contribution to the Beach Boys that stands out. Between 1964-65, Glen replaced Brian Wilson in the Beach Boys touring band and even provided guitar (including 12-string) for the Beach Boys’ magnum opus, “Pet Sounds.”


Backed Up: The Ronettes, The Righteous Brothers, countless Phil Spector productions.

It’s hard to believe that Cher was in a recording studio or on stage and not the center of everyone’s attention, but according to music history, it happened. During the earlier, pre-“Sonny and” part of her career, Cher worked as a backup singer for producer Phil Spector, whom she was introduced to through Sonny Bono. As a result, she appeared on dozens of iconic ’60s pop hits before her name was ever printed on a record label, including the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin” and the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.” Not bad for a beginner.

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