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Before We Cared: 10 Bit Players Who Became Superstars

"Whole Lotta Love" it wasn't.
"Whole Lotta Love" it wasn't.

On this day in 1965, British songstress Petula Clark reached number one on the charts with "Downtown," a pop classic with an unforgettable hook that has become a mainstay of oldies radio, film soundtracks and TV advertisements in the years since. The song even served as a plot point in an episode of Seinfeld. What a lot of people don't know, of course, is that a young session guitarist named Jimmy Page played on the recording. "Downtown" was just one of a string of hits featuring Page's studio talents before he rose to fame with Led Zeppelin.

It's not a unique story. Behind the success of every superstar, you'll often find a talented group of bandmates, collaborators and sidemen happy simply to play their roles and cash their checks. Not all of these semi-anonymous musicians are content to remain in the background, however -- some are able to parlay their skills, connections and desperation into stardom. In honor of Page's early session work, Rocks Off has assembled this list of ten performers who stepped out of the shadows and into the spotlight.

And the wind cries, "Whoooooo!"
And the wind cries, "Whoooooo!"

Jimi Hendrix

Most rock 'n roll history books record that Jimi had to go to England to get his music heard, but that doesn't mean he couldn't get gigs in the States. In 1964, Hendrix won a job with the Isley Brothers, with whom he toured and recorded the singles "Testify" and "Move Over And Let Me Dance" for the band's label, T-Neck. Jimi also went on tour backing Little Richard in '64 and '65, recording "I Don't Know What You Got, But It's Got Me" with the king of rock and rhythm. Hendrix continued to bounce around from group to group until he made it to London and formed the Experience in 1966.

Glen Campbell

Glen Campbell, the multi-platinum singer/songwriter best known for hits like "Wichita Lineman" and "Galveston," got his start in the biz as an L.A. session player. One early hit he played on was "Tequila," Pee-Wee Herman's favorite instrumental by the Champs. He was also part of the famed "Wrecking Crew," a group of studio musicians featured on Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound" recordings in the early '60s. Later, Campbell became a touring member of the Beach Boys, filling in for Brian Wilson in 1964 and '65. He even played guitar on Pet Sounds before hitting it big as a solo artist.

Tupac Shakur

All eyez weren't always on 2pac. Before he became a world-famous Thug Life icon, Shakur got his start as a backup dancer, roadie and MC for Digital Underground, the hip-hop collective best known for the immortal "Humpty Dance." 'Pac made his recording debut on the group's "Same Song" from the Nothing But Trouble soundtrack in 1991. That track was later featured on DU's aptly titled This is an EP Release. Tupac went on to appear on the group's Sons of the P album before releasing his solo debut, 2Pacalyspe Now.

Billy Preston

Before finding solo fame with hits like "Nothing From Nothing," native Houstonian Billy Preston was one of the world's top session players, laying down organ for stars including Ray Charles and Sam Cooke. While touring as part of Little Richard's band, Preston met the Beatles. The relationship blossomed, and eventually Preston became one of the better-known blokes to be called "The Fifth Beatle" after recording on the classic albums Abbey Road and Let it Be.

Sheryl Crow

After beginning her recording career singing jingles for McDonald's and Toyota, among others, Sheryl Crow landed a plum gig singing backup to Michael Jackson on the King of Pop's Bad World Tour from 1987-1989. On stage, she often dueted with MJ on "I Just Can't Stop Loving You." Crow would go on to record background vocals for established artists such as Stevie Wonder, Belinda Carlisle and Don Henley before her first solo hit in 1993.

 

Dave Grohl

Kind of hard to believe now, but Dave Grohl was once better known as that stringy-haired guy behind the drum kit that Kurt Cobain jumped into. The Melvins' King Buzzo put a young Grohl in touch with Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic after the drummer's D.C.-area group, Scream, disbanded in 1990. Grohl got the gig with Nirvana, which was shopping a new demo to major labels at the time. The resulting album, Nevermind, was somewhat well-received upon its release. During the band's ensuing adventure into superstardom, Grohl mostly contented himself to man the skins, contributing little to Nirvana's songwriting. After Cobain's suicide, Grohl played a few gigs on drums with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers before stepping into the spotlight with Foo Fighters.

Gary Moore

Before embarking on a successful solo career, blues-rock guitar hero Gary Moore served several short stints as the six-stringer for Thin Lizzy. In the early '60s, a teenaged Moore came up playing with local Irish artists including Phil Lynott and Brian Downey. This experience made him Thin Lizzy's first choice to replace guitarist Eric Bell when he suddenly left the band after a New Year's Eve gig in 1973. That initial stretch only lasted a few months, but Moore would intermittently man the ax for the legendary Irish rockers through the rest of the decade before leaving Lizzy in the middle of an American tour in '79 and beginning his solo career in earnest.

Charlie Parker & Miles.
Charlie Parker & Miles.

Miles Davis

Years prior to the birth of the cool, Miles Davis first garnered a reputation for groundbreaking music as a sideman to Charlie Parker. Davis took Dizzy Gillespie's place as the horn blower in the legendary Charlie Parker Quintet around 1945. The combo recorded some stone-cold bebop classics together before complications arising from Parker's drug addiction persuaded Davis to leave. He would go on to have one of the most celebrated careers as solo artist and bandleader in jazz history.

Michael Schenker

Guitar god Michael Schenker has enjoyed a long and successful solo career dating back to 1979, but when he started out, he was just somebody's little brother. Schenker's older brother Rudolph formed the Scorpions in 1965, but the group didn't take off until vocalist Klaus Meine and a 17-year-old Michael joined up four years later. After recording the Scorps' debut album in '72, Mike bolted for the lead-guitar gig with UFO in spite of the fact that he spoke no English. Schenker toured and recorded five albums with UFO before forming his own group at the end of the decade.

Uncle Kracker

Uncle Kracker has scored a couple of top-ten hits with "Follow Me" and "Drift Away" since his solo debut in 2001, but at one time he was simply the nameless, faceless DJ scratching up records behind Kid Rock. Born Matthew Shafer, Kracker befriended the Kid way back in 1987 when both were aspiring Michigan rappers. Rock asked Shaffer to man the wheels of steel for him in 1994, a duty he performed faithfully until the Kid broke big with Devil Without A Cause in '98. The album's monster success gave Uncle Kracker the opportunity to record and release his solo debut, Double Wide. That album peaked at #7, kickstarting a new kareer career.


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