Bright-eyed young pop-stars such as Justin Bieber and the annoyingly successful 13 year old Willow Smith appear to dominate the music world. However, only time will tell if their sales will be significant over the course of their careers, or if their success is limited to their teenage years.
Although it may be hard to imagine a teenage McCartney or Lennon, The Beatles was originally a group of teenagers. The best-selling musical phenomenon to date, The Beatles was originally formed by 16 year old Lennon and 15 year old McCartney, later joined by 14 year old Harrison. Indeed they only missed out on their spot on this list as Ringo Starr did not join until he was 22.
However, Hollywood is littered with young stars struggling to find their place once they reach adulthood. The transition from starlet to star is fraught with difficulties and many go to extreme measures to shake off their innocent image. Over the past couple of years Miley Cyrus has shocked many as she rebels against her Hannah Montana image, using a variety of props (including a wrecking ball and a foam finger…) and parading revealing outfits to redefine her brand through her sexuality. More worryingly, others who have risen to fame during their formative years end up in rehab or jail, unable to understand their place in ‘the real world’.
On the other hand, as with the Beatles, many successful musicians of the 20th and 21st century demonstrated their talents at an early age and built a sustainable, successful career into adulthood. The artists on this list displayed an ambition for success beyond their years. Although not all of them have escaped the trappings of fame, by placing the focus on making music (as opposed to headlines) each one of our top ten has built a successful career, reflected in hefty record sales.
10. Johnny Hallyday (23.7 million units sold)
French singer Jean-Philippe Smet (stage name Johnny Hallyday) began his career young, releasing his first album in 1960 at the age of 17. Influenced by Elvis, Hallyday became famous for his Francophone rock and roll. His cover of ‘Let’s Twist Again’ sold over 1 million copies (topping many European charts). Although he announced that he was to retire in 2009, he performed in 2012 in LA, Quebec City and New York (proving that rock and roll is a hard bug to shake). Because he remains largely unknown in English-speaking countries, he has earned the nickname “the biggest rock star you’ve never heard of”.
9. Aretha Franklin (24.5 million units sold)
Franklin’s hits, including ‘Think’ and ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’, garnered her the title ‘The Queen of Soul’. She began her career as a child in the gospel choir of New Bethel Baptist church, and at the age of 14 began performing in various churches (managed by her father) and released her first album ‘Songs of Faith’ with J.V.B. Records. Once she turned 18 Franklin decided to follow in the footsteps of Sam Cooke and record pop music and within a few short years Aretha had built a strong reputation within the music industry. In 1967 Franklin achieved her first US # 1 with ‘Respect’.
8. Stevie Wonder (33.5 million units sold)
Stevie Wonder has been described by many as a child prodigy, signed to MoTown’s Tamla label aged only 11. Stevie was placed under the care of Clarence Paul, who worked with him for a year on his first two albums (‘Tribute to Uncle Ray’ and ‘The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie’). By 1963 (aged 13) he earned his first number 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 with ‘Fingertips’, making him the youngest artist ever to top the chart. After facing the difficulties of his changing voice through adolescence, Wonder re-emerged in the 70s with hits including ‘Superstition’, ‘You are the Sunshine of My Life’ and ‘Isn’t She Lovely’. Still performing at the age of 63, Wonder is one of the best known and best loved Jazz performers of the 20th century.
7. Janet Jackson (50.8 million units sold)
Janet began young, performing in Las Vegas at the MGM Casino at the age of 7. After spending a few years pursuing acting (in the variety show ‘The Jacksons’ and the sitcom ‘Good Times’) she recorded her first song, a duet with her brother Randy, age 12. Seeing the success of her brothers (in The Jackson 5) aged 16 Janet arranged a contract with A&M Records, with whom she would release two albums of pop music before terminating her business affairs with her family. Janet would become known for her socially and sexually provocative records and has become an icon of pop culture.
6. Britney Spears (76.2 million units sold)
Spears began her career in show-business early, auditioning for the Mickey Mouse Club at the age of eight. Although she was initially rejected by Disney for being too young, she won a part on the show two years later (where she was among other rising stars, including her teenage boyfriend Justin Timberlake). When she was 17 Spears released her first single which shot to #1 ‘…Baby One More Time’, with a video controversially filled with young girls in provocative school uniforms. Despite a few high-profile personal hiccups along the way, Britney has sustained a career spanning over 20 years, and will continue her residency show in Las Vegas until the end of 2015.
5. Taylor Swift (76.3 million units sold)
At the age of 14 Swift moved to Nashville to build a career in country music and by 2006 (aged 16) she had released her debut album. Before her 18th birthday she was praised by The New York Times for her “small masterpiece of pop-minded country” and her first album would go on to mark the longest stay on the Billboard 200 for any album released in the decade. Perhaps because of her unflinchingly truthful attitude to song writing, using her ex-boyfriends as inspiration, Swift has remained popular. The 24 year old was estimated to have earned a whopping $55 million last year.
4. Rihanna (114.8 million units sold)
Aged 15 Rihanna started her immensely successful pop career when she met Evan Rogers and demonstrated her vocal talents in his hotel room, she was soon signed by his production company ‘Syndicated Rhythm Productions’. From late 2004 her demo tape would circulate record labels around the world and in 2005, still only aged 17, she flew to New York where she auditioned for Jay-Z and L.A. Reid, signing a six-album record deal on the same day. Almost ten years later, Rihanna is now a global superstar known for her ever-changing music, and hair, style. She has released seven albums and has accumulated 13 number one singles on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart (and she’s only 26!)
3. Celine Dion (121.3 million units sold)
When music manager René Angélil was sent a tape of 12 year old Quebekker Dion singing with her mother and brother he was brought to tears by her voice and mortgaged his home to fund the costs of her first record (a gamble which paid-off when her first record ‘La voix du bon Dieu'(“The Voice of the Good God”) become a local number-one.
By the next year Dion had won awards at the Yamaha World Popular Song Festival, and throughout the 80s her popularity swept Europe (even winning the Eurovision song contest in 1988 for Switzerland). It would not be until the 90s that Dion would venture into the Anglophone market but she soon repeated her Canadian and European success in America. She is now perhaps best known for her romantic ballad ‘My Heart Will Go On’ used by the blockbuster Titanic which won the 1997 Oscar for best original song and has now sold over 15 million copies worldwide.
2. Michael Jackson (170.3 million units sold)
The youngest starter on our list, ‘The King of Pop’, started sharing lead vocals at the tender age of 8 with his older brother Jermaine as part of ‘The Jackson Five’. He would later go it alone and achieved his first solo number one at the age of 13 with ‘Got to Be There’ which peaked at #14 on the US pop chart. Although incredibly successful (with a net worth of over $1 billion) his career was not without its controversies, most shockingly marked by child sex abuse allegations. Jackson is perhaps a cautionary tale of the psychological impact of fame at a young age. He retained a child-like demeanour into adulthood and eventually built the infamous ‘Neverland Ranch’ (which included Ferris wheels and a menagerie).
1. Elvis Presley (207.3 million units sold)
In the top spot ‘The King’ himself, although he was 19 when he first made the charts (with his number 1 self-titled album ‘Elvis’) Presley started his work as a rock star at the tender age of 13 when he moved to Memphis to work with Sam Phillips at Sun Records. His distinctive voice, energetic performances and sexually charged hip rotations made him a heartthrob, as well as a rock and roll icon. He would go on to have hugely successful career filled with number one albums and singles, including 4 after the millennium – long after his tragic death in 1977.