20 rock stars who got their start as sidemen – AL.com

Before the spotlight found them, many famous musicians paid their dues early on.

And what better way to learn how to “make it” than working for someone who’s already made it?

Meaning, work as a hired gun in a more established artist’s band, particularly onstage for live performances.

Below is a list of musicians who did early stints as sidemen (and sidewomen) before becoming stars themselves.

First, a few quick parameters:

This isn’t a list of musicians who found stardom after leaving a band and going solo, like say Phil Collins or Joan Jett.

And no going-from-one-famous band’s-rhythm-section-to-another-famous-band’s-frontman stuff either, a la Dave Grohl.

This list isn’t about musicians doing notable studio work before breaking big with their own groups, such as Jimmy Page or Ritchie Blackmore.

This is all about playing live gigs, backing acts of note.

Now that’s out of the way, let’s rock.

Tony Iommi

It’s true. Before forging heavy-metal with Black Sabbath, power-chord lord Tony Iommi played shows with flute-rockers Jethro Tull, after Tull guitarist Mick Abrahams quit. One of those gigs was shelved 1968 TV special “The Rolling Stones Rock & Roll Circus,” finally released in 1996.

“That was for me like real strict work,” Iommi said in a clip on YouTube, of his Tull time,“ because it was nine o’clock in the morning rehearsals on the dot. I’d never experienced that. ‘Bloody hell, nine o’clock in the morning?’ But it really done me a lot of good. I stayed a month with them and it wasn’t for me. But when I came back and we changed the (band) name to Sabbath (from Earth), it gave me the insight that’s what we should be doing. We’ve got to start early in the morning and rehearse. And the material started changing from then on.”

Waylon Jennings. (File/Tim Schoon)

Waylon Jennings

Waylon Jennings is known for charismatic vocals, ’70s outlaw country hits like “I’m a Ramblin’ Man” and “The Dukes of Hazzard” TV theme. Jennings caught an early break when glasses-rocker Buddy Holly enlisted him to play bass on Holly’s 1959 tour.

In 1999, Jennings, who died in 2002, told CMT.com, “Buddy was the first guy who had confidence in me. Hell, I had as much star quality as an old shoe. But he really liked me and believed in me. I was working as a disc jockey in Lubbock (Texas). Buddy would come up and hang out with me when he was in town. One day Buddy brought this bass guitar in and pitched it in my lap and said, ‘You’ve got two weeks to learn to play it.’ “

Jennings was supposed to be on the airplane that crashed and killed Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. But Jennings gave up his seat to Richardson. The tragedy became known as “The Day the Music Died,” but at least Waylon didn’t died that day too, before he really even got started.

St. Vincent performs onstage the 2018 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival.Getty Images for Coachella

St. Vincent

Art-rocker Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, got her foot in the music-biz door as a member of commune-like combo Polyphonic Spree. Although she’s now a well-known musician with her own signature model guitar, in the early 2000s she was struggling to achieve liftoff. A friend recommend she try out for the Spree.

“Walked into the audition and I knew everything,” Clarke said in an interview on YouTube. “And I got the gig that day. The lead singer just said, ‘Do you have a passport? We’re going to Europe.’ I said, ‘Yes!’”

Luther Vandross

Luther Vandross ballads like “Here and Now” caused even more ’80s pregnancies than wine coolers did. During the ’90s and until his 2005 passing, he became go-to duet partner to a new generation of stars, like Mariah Carey and Beyoncé, he’d influenced.

Although he’d been doing backing studio vocals since the early ’70s for acts like Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, Vandross broke through onstage with rock chameleon David Bowie. After singing on Bowie’s 1974″Young Americans” LP and co-writing the track “Fascination,” Vandross was a backing singer on the Thin White Duke’s tour. Vandross was key in Bowie’s “plastic soul” era sound.

According to Craig Seymour’s biography “Luther,” Bowie was so jazzed the Vandross’ work on the “Young Americans” album and tour Bowie told Vandross, “You’re going to make it, next year is your year!” Sure enough, soon everyone from Bette Midler to J. Geils Band to Chic to Ringo Starr was calling on Vandross for backing vocals. That momentum built to a four-time Grammy-winning solo career.

Lowell George

With his ’70s band Little Feat, slide guitar ace Lowell George wrote and sang trippy truck-driver tunes such as “Dixie Chicken” and “Willin.’ ” Prior to that, he was a guitarist in Frank Zappa’s group Mothers of Invention during the late ’60s.

It’s said Zappa sacked George after George played him “Willin’,” a song which contained lyrics about weed. “The drug references, first and foremost, I think that put Frank off,” Little Feat keyboardist Bill Payne told rhino.com in 2014. “But Frank dug Lowell. I mean, he liked him, so he knew ‘Willin’ ‘ was a good song, and that Lowell really ought to be putting his talents elsewhere.”

Kip Winger

Before scoring pop-metal hits “Seventeen” and “Headed for a Heartbreak” with namesake band Winger, Kip Winger played bass for Alice Cooper. The foxy songsmith toured and recorded with the shock rock pioneer from around 1985 to 1987.

In a YouTube clip, Cooper says of Winger, “I always knew that he was going to go out on his own. It was no secret because he was so talented.” In that same YouTube clip, Winger says, “A lot of people have been in Alice’s bands, and he’s a great person to learn a lot of things from because he’s a genius.”

The 12th annual Dauphin County Cultural Fest celebrating cultural diversity and featuring national and local recording artists, ethnic foods, crafts and children’s corner was held at the Zembo Shrine, Harrisburg, August 2, 2019. Sheila E. tosses her drum stick to a young girl in the crowd. Vicki Vellios Briner | Special to PennLiveVicki Vellios Briner | Special to PennLive

Sheila E.

Before solo smashes “Glamorous Life” and “A Love Bizarre.” Before singing Prince’s dancefloor scorching B-side “Erotic City” and playing drums for the Purple One’s late ’80s tours, including essential concert film “Sign o’ the Times.”

Before any of that, Sheila E. toured as a percussionist on Marvin Gaye’s final tour. “It was pretty amazing,” she told talk-show host Steve Harvey in 2018. “You grow up listening to someone’s music and then all of a sudden you’re playing with that artist. That’s like a dream come true.”

In a Noisey interview, Sheila E. said of working with Gaye, “Just watching him sing and play piano by himself without us—it was a 24 piece orchestra—you sit there and you start listening and watching as a fan and a couple of times I got nudged because they thought I’d miss my cue. He was an amazing guy.”

Michael McDonald is slated to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame with the Doobie Brothers in November. A Doobies reunion will now take place during 2021. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)Getty Images

Michael McDonald

Velvet-voiced keyboardist Michael McDonald found fame with Doobie Brothers, singing lead on late ’70s hits like “Takin’ It To The Streets” and “What a Fool Believes.” In the ’80s, he found solo success with tunes such as “I Keep Forgettin’ “

Around 1974, McDonald entered the fold of Steely Dan. He toured and recorded as a hired gun with that jazz-tinged soft rock group. He can be heard on Dan LP’s such as “Aja” and singing harmony on the hit “Peg.”

“My anxieties of working with those guys was that I wasn’t going to be able to cut it,” McDonald said in a 2017 ABC Radio interview. “Their songs are always a kind of a study in irony and sarcasm, and I always thought that was the best part of their music.”

The “Red Hot Chili Peppers” bassist Flea performs on the final evening of Woodstock ’99 Sunday, July 25, 1999, in Rome, N.Y. (AP Photo/Stephen Chernin)AP

Flea

If you haven’t yet read “Acid For the Children,” Flea’s spectacularly titled memoir, do so soon. The Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist writes with a jazz-like language and street-rat storytelling. Peppers fan or not, it’s a wonderful book.

“Acid For the Children” isn’t the story of Flea achieving funk-rock fame. It’s about his life growing up in Los Angeles, building up to the first RHCP gig in 1983. The vibrant L.A. punk underground was an important factor in the bassist’s journey. At one point he joins one of the city’s iconic punk bands, Fear. There’s even some audio online of a Fear gig with Flea in the band.

During his time in Fear, Flea spent memorable times with singer Lee Ving, including some homecooked meals at Ving’s house. He learned about what he wanted to do with a band, and what not to do, too. Just read the book.

Blackie Lawless

With ’80s metal nutsos W.A.S.P. on the song “Animal (F— Like A Beast),” Blackie Lawless derived lyric inspiration from wildlife – a full decade before Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor got there. Prior to becoming a Sunset Strip frontman, Lawless played guitar on tour with commercially doomed glam-rock innovators New York Dolls.

“I only did a couple of shows with them,” Lawless told Classic Rock magazine. “I was 19 years old. And I was stunned because it was like five guys all trying to be like Jim Morrison and succeeding. Much more has been made out of my time with the Dolls than should have been. The big thing for me was it got me from the East Coast of the U.S. to the West Coast.” Still, Blackie’s brief Dolls stint is too fascinating to omit here.

FILE – In this Jan. 27, 2018 file photo, Barry Manilow performs onstage at the 2018 Pre-Grammy Gala And Salute To Industry Icons at the Sheraton New York Times Square Hotel in New York. Manilow gifted $100,000 worth of new band gear to a North Carolina high school in an area still recovering from Hurricane Florence. News outlets report the band at East Duplin High School couldn’t afford new instruments and uniforms, so they entered a national contest by the Manilow Music Project for help. In a video of the announcement at a Las Vegas show Wednesday, June 12, 2019, Manilow takes a pause from dancing and singing along to his tunes to crown East Duplin as the winner. (Photo by Michael Zorn/Invision/AP, File)Michael Zorn/Invision/AP

Barry Manilow

As a solo straight-up ’70s pop act, Barry Manilow made the sky rain platinum. The kind of hits young rockers think are lame, but later in life they realize the melodic brilliance of tunes like “I Write the Songs” and “Mandy.” Dude’s sold more than 90 million records worldwide.

Before becoming marquee on his own, Manilow was pianist for force-of-nature ginger Bette Midler. “She was f—ing brilliant,” Manilow said in a Vanity Fair interview. “I mean it. You never saw anything like it. It topped anything Lady Gaga is doing today. And she did it without any stage tricks or fancy effects. It was just Bette and me and a drummer.”

Billy Zoom

Beginning with 1980 debut album “Los Angeles,” guitarist Billy Zoom brought rockabilly slash and R&B touch to X’s influential art-punk sound. Prior to connecting with X singer Exene Cervenka, bassist John Doe and drummer D. J. Bonebrake, Zoom landed some sweet sideman gigs, including with soul singer Etta James and proto-rock frontman Gene Vincent.

“With Etta James,” Zoom told me in 2013, “I just did a two-week stint with her at a place called The Clubhouse, which was on Western and 110th in L.A., which is Watts. And Gene I played with a few months. We just went up and down the West Coast. We went up as far as Sacramento and then the (San Fernando) Valley and stuff.

“With Gene, I knew ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula,’ but had no idea he had recorded as much stuff as he had until after I played with him. But it was a real good experience. He was a nice guy. And Etta James was just amazing live. So I got a lot more into her once I heard her sing live. When I played with Etta James, I was maybe 22, 23 when I played with Gene, around 1970, 1971.”

Jimi Hendrix, Fillmore East, New York 1968. (Copyright Elliott Landy, LandyVision Inc.)©Elliott Landy, Landyvision, Inc.

Jimi Hendrix

It’s well known James Marshall Hendrix backed several artist during his time on the called Chitlin’ Circuit. A recording from this period, backing R&B howler Curtis Knight, was even sampled on 1992 Beastie Boys track “Jimmy James.” The most famous acts Jimi Hendrix played guitar for, before busting loose as a solo psychedelic star, were Isley Brothers and Little Richard.

Even Little Richard, rock’s all-time peacock, was upstaged by Hendrix. “On the stage he would actually take the show,” Richard said decades later. “People would scream and I thought they were screaming for me. I look over and they’re screaming for Jimi! So I had to darken the lights. He’d be playing the guitar with his teeth.”

Oak Ridge Boys

Many music fans – even country music fans – may not know Richard Sterban’s name. But anyone who listened to country radio in 1981 is very familiar with Sterban’s “oom-papa mow-mow,” as heard on the Oak Ridge Boys hit “Elvira.” Sterban’s deep vocals were integral component to that quintet’s radio rise. Crossover hits like “Bobbie Sue” and “American Made” followed.

Prior to joining Oak Ridge Boys – who, by the way, did backing vocals for Paul Simon mellow-rock classic “Slip Slidin’ Away – Sterban sang backing vocals on tour with Elvis Presley.

“And back then,” Sterban told the Arizona Republic, “Elvis was no question the biggest star in the world. His tour was the biggest tour in the music business. And to be a part of it was really, really exciting. I have some very fond memories of the times I spent with Elvis, and it was a very special time in my life.

In a 2019 Ironton Tribune interview, Sterban said, “Believe it or not, even though he was the king of rock and roll, and he certainly was, I really believe his favorite music was gospel music.” Presley’s gospel passion extended offstage, Sterban said: “Almost every day, he’d try to find a piano somewhere, and he’d get us together. We would all get around the piano and we would just start singing gospel quartet songs. If we couldn’t find a piano, he’d just start singing. And of course when Elvis starts singing, you join in. There are certain unwritten laws, and that’s one of those.”

Sheryl Crow. (Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP)Amy Harris/Invision/AP

Sheryl Crow

Sheryl Crow arrived as a solo artist in the mid ’90s with MTV-eating tunes like “All I Wanna Do,” “Leaving Las Vegas” and “If It Makes You Happy.” She was the new guitar-pop genius, a la Tom Petty.

Earlier, Crow worked her way up through a series of studio backing vocal gigs, for the likes of Don Henley, Belinda Carlisle and Stevie Wonder. As a live performer, she scored a prime sidewoman gig, as backing vocalist on the world tour for Michael Jackson’s 1987 album “Bad.” YouTube overfloweth with footage of Jackson and Crow’s steamy onstage duet of MJ ballad “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.”

“There’s no way to express how amazingly talented this person was,” Crow said in an interview with Access. “Because, not only had he been doing that quality of work his whole life, but he created dance moves that nobody had ever seen before, and to create something that no one has ever imagined is quite a gift.” After Jackson’s 2009 death, Crow told Time magazine her most beloved memory of touring with Jackson was watching him sing “Human Nature” each show. “There was something so genuinely vulnerable in his voice on that song.”

Lindsey Buckingham concert at the Lyric Theater in Birmingham. (Joe Songer | jsonger@al.com).al.com

Lindsey Buckingham

In 1973, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks – who in case you haven’t heard were romantically involved as well as musically – released an album called “Buckingham Nicks.” It was a pop-folk masterpiece. And it flopped. Buckingham and Nicks would eventually connect with veteran Brit blues combo Fleetwood Mac and help turn that band into stadium stars. Between Buckingham Nicks and Fleetwood Mac, Lindsey got a gig playing guitar on a tour by Don Everly, of the Everly Brothers.

“It was an honor,” Buckingham said in a Montreal Gazette interview. “The Everly Brothers were one of my idols, and Don, at the time had a solo album which was quite a departure from what people had come to expect from the Everly Brothers. We were playing very small clubs. He’d get up there and try to basically play all this stuff that was pretty alien to the audience – and they’d start yelling out for (Everly Brothers hit) ‘Bye Bye Love’! It happened in every place we went. He just got really discouraged. And he called off the tour. And it was a drag to watch that happen to someone I admired so much.”

2Pac

2Pac was the crown prince of mid ’90s West Coast rap, on jams such as “California Love,” “All Eyez On Me” and “Dear Mama.” Even his 1996 death couldn’t dim his star, thanks to a barrage of posthumous releases.

A teenage Tupac Shakur first got in the game with Digital Underground, a rap group with fun hits like “Doowutchyalike.” Yes before he was a serious street poet, 2Pac did “The Humpy Dance.” Shakur started out with DU as a roadie. Then made it up to background dancer. Eventually, Tupac got a turn at the mic on tracks like “Same Song” and “Wussup Wit the Luv.”

“He did five tours with us, including Japan,” Digital Underground’s Shock G told Rolling Stone. “Over those three or four years that he was around us, we did a lot of touring and a lot of living together on the tour bus and that’s how we know the man. He could freestyle. He sounded how he sounds when he writes. Pac was known as being one of the better, if not the best MCs of Digital Underground, without even having a feature in the show.”

But before contributing musical, how was 2Pac as a roadie? “Of all the roadies we’ve had over the years,” Shock G told RS, “they’d always wander off, get pulled into something by a chick, a party or getting high. Sometimes we’d get to the hotel and find, ‘Hey the turntables are still onstage at the Oakland Coliseum.’ Nothing got lost on Pac’s watch. Nothing. He always handled his business.”

The Band

They had some of best songs of the classic rock era, including “The Weight,” “Up on Cripple Creek ” and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” And the lamest band name. There’s no denying The Band’s Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm were a gifted, multi-instrumentalist collective.

The ensemble cut big-stage teeth backing Bob Dylan on The Bard’s infamous 1965-1966 tours, Dylan’s first trek featuring electric guitars. “It was a deep education on the magic of music and life,” Robertson said in a Guitar World interview. “You couldn’t have written a more amazing story, and that forged the Band. Hooking up with Bob Dylan was like entering ‘The Twilight Zone’ of music. You thought, ‘They’re going to wake me up tomorrow because all of this is impossible. He was a really close buddy of mine doing something nobody had done before. He wrote about different things in a different way – in a different language.” Pre-Dylan, Robertson and co. backed Canadian blues-rocker Ronnie Hawkins and were known as The Hawks.

FILE – In this Oct. 25, 2017 file photo, artist Don Henley performs at “All In For The Gambler: Kenny Rogers’ Farewell Concert Celebration” at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn. Henley is urging Congress to “Take It to the Limit” to protect artists against online pirating. He’s wading into a copyright fight pitting Hollywood and the recording industry against big tech platforms like Google’s YouTube. (Photo by Laura Roberts/Invision/AP, File)Laura Roberts/Invision/AP

Eagles

“The Dude” character from 1998 comedy film “The Big Lebowski” was a charismatic slacker. But he was totally wrong about the Eagles. Because the Eagles are awesome. The Los Angeles band turned country-rock harmonies and Hollywood darkness into classics “Take It Easy,” Desperado,” etc., which turned into 200 million records sold.

Prior to checking into “Hotel California,” eventual Eagles frontmen Glenn Frey and Don Henley played guitar and drums, respectively, in Linda Ronstadt’s band.

“In those days we didn’t have enough money to put people in separate rooms,” Ronstadt told Billboard. “So Glenn and Don were rooming together and they each discovered the other could sing and was a great songwriter. Glenn used to call Don his secret weapon. He said, ‘I’m gonna do a band with Don. We’re gonna do a band together.’ I said, ‘That’s a great idea.’

“They used to rehearse in my house, because we had a bigger living room than they did. And I remember coming home one day and they had rehearsed ‘Witchy Woman’ and they had all the harmonies worked out, four-part harmonies. It was fantastic. I knew it was gonna to be a hit. You could just tell.”

And finally, the Bluesbreakers factor

Where would British classic-rock be without John Mayall? The goateed musicologist’s backing band, The Bluesbreakers, was a musical microwave for Cream (guitarist Eric Clapton and bassist Jack Bruce), Fleetwood Mac (drummer Mick Fleetwood, bassist John McVie, guitarist Peter Green), Rolling Stones (guitarist Mick Taylor), David Bowie and Whitesnake (Aynsley Dunbar ).

As any vintage guitar dweeb will tell you, 1966 John Mayall LP “Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton” changed rock guitar sounds forever, thanks to Clapton’s cranked Marshall amp tone – not to mention expressive playing on a flametop Les Paul. While Clapton certainly was known from his previous stint with The Yardbirds, the rest of The Bluesbreakers’ fame-destined alumni were unfamous back then.

In an Ultimate Classic Rock interview, Mayall said, “Whenever you get a new musician it obviously affects the way that the music is played. It actually gives you a nice shot in the arm and its always very exciting to get a new twist on things.”

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