Encore, Encore: 4 Musicians Who Got Their Big Break Later in Life

Who said the music industry has to be a young person’s game?

Some of the most renowned artists working in pop music today didn’t achieve commercial success until well after their twenties had ended. Most of these artists put out musical works much earlier in life, but didn’t get their big break until much later.

We’ve rounded up a few of notable musicians who didn’t get their big break until at least their mid-30s.

1. Sharon Jones: Part of the reason Sharon Jones emerged as the new queen of soul in the 2000s is because she had tried and failed to be a soul singer two decades earlier. Jones grew up during the peak of soul music in the 50s and 60s, and knew she wanted to be a singer all her life, but the music industry didn’t want her at the time.

“No one was accepting me in my twenties because they was telling me I didn’t have the look – too dark-skinned, too short, too fat and too old, once I passed 25,” she said in one interview (video below). “From 25 on up until my late 30s, til I hit like 38, I did little jobs singing with bands, doing neighborhood bands… I said one day people are going to accept me for my voice, not the way I look, my size or anything like that, because I truly felt that God gave me a gift, and so I just stuck with it.”

She worked as a corrections officer at Rikers in the late 80s and as a security officer at Wells Fargo — about as far from the music industry as one could be, though she did sing to inmates. She also worked as a wedding singer and did some backup vocals for other artists in the 90s before meeting the group that would become her backing band — the Dap Kings — at the end of the decade. Jones and the Dap-Kings put out their first record in 2002 when she was in her late 40s.

While Jones had to wait a long time for her big break, she has admitted that she might not have been able to handle the fame in her youth. She also learned something from her time working in prison. “The only thing I learned from prison, from those guys, is not to show fear,” she told eMusic in 2010. “On the stage, too: no matter that fear or that nervousness you get, if you don’t control it, it’ll go right into that voice.”

2. Rodriguez: Sixto Rodriguez recorded two folk albums for a small label in the 70s, but neither caught on — at least not in the United States. As it turned out, his songs struck a chord in South Africa and became hugely popular in that country. Rumors circulated that Rodriguez had killed himself, but in reality, he was unaware of his cult status and working construction jobs in his hometown of Detroit.

In the late 1990s, a couple of his fans in South Africa discovered he was alive and managed to connect with Rodriguez, bringing him to perform in their country. That story was told in a new documentary, Searching for Sugar Man, which has helped bring Rodriguez a level of fame and critical acclaim that eluded him 40 years ago.

Rodriguez’s songs have been re-released on an album for the documentary and he has appeared on 60 Minutes and Late Night With David Letterman. Watching Rodriguez performing on national TV for the first time at the age of 70 is proof that it’s never too late for your big break.

3. James Murphy: As the brains behind LCD Soundsystem, James Murphy has certainly had his fair share of commercial and critical success in the music industry, but most of that didn’t come until his 30s. Murphy was active in bands while in high school, but didn’t get very far in his 20s.

“I just kind of frittered my years away doing nothing, being in dead-end relationships and dead-end bands,” Murphy said in one interview (video below). “Then when I was about 26, I just realized that wow, my life is not at all going the way I want it to go. This is not what I expected. I was always the youngest guy — when I was like 16, I was in a band where everyone else was in their 20s, and I was the songwriter and the singer, I played guitar. And I was always like the kid. And then suddenly, I was like 26 and I wasn’t doing anything. That just seemed a little too old to be doing nothing.”

He started going to therapy and realized that much of this boiled down to a fear of failure and “looking bad.” Once he accepted that, Murphy forced himself to engage more with the music industry DJ-ing and starting his own record label. He started releasing singles under the LCD Soundsystem moniker in 2002 and put out his first record in 2005 when he was 35.

4. Andrea Boccelli: The Italian singer has one of the most recognizable voices in the world, but Andrea Boccelli didn’t get signed to a record label until 1993 when he was in his mid-30s.

Boccelli was always interested in music and even won some competitions as a boy, but he ended up pursuing a degree in law. He worked as a lawyer for a year, but then decided to give music another go, performing in bars for money. His big break came in 1992, when he recorded a demo tape for Pavarotti, which greatly impressed the latter.

The clip below, taken from a BBC documentary on Boccelli, recounts his rise to fame:

Image courtesy of Flickr, Man Alive!.

One Response to “Encore, Encore: 4 Musicians Who Got Their Big Break Later in Life”
  1. stevenlebeau says:

    Reblogged this on Static Tenor and commented:
    Here’s a very inspiring little article focused on four artists who didn’t find commercial success until far later than is dictated by the music industry. Of course there are other examples (Marshall Crenshaw must have been in his super-late 20s when his first album came out, and Richard X. Heyman was probably about 33 when he released his first album). I don’t think this is an excuse for just anybody to keep pursuing their music professionally if they don’t have the talent to back it up, but it should also be a lesson that age isn’t everything.

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