5 Artists You Didn’t Know Were Buskers Before Stardom

Whether it’s from finding fame on TikTok or by taking to the streets, a music career has to start somewhere.

Videos by American Songwriter

Busking, or performing on sidewalks for passing ears, has long been a musical tradition. For generations, hopeful artists seeking recognition or acts just looking to make a buck have busked, sharing their music with those who may or may not have wanted to hear it. However, for these five artists, busking seems to have paid off.

1. Jewel

Jewel had an unconventional journey to fame, one that began with sporadic performances in coffee houses, but mostly with peddling her music on street corners. In her 2015 memoir, Never Broken: Songs Are Only Half the Story, she describes traversing the country, playing her songs for anyone who would listen.

“I found busy street corners and yodeled and sang ‘Who Will Save Your Soul’ and newer songs like ‘Money’ until I earned bus fare to go on,” she wrote in the book.

2. Ed Sheeran

Ed Sheeran began pursuing music from a very young age, releasing music independently as early as 13. While it was YouTube that opened doors for the budding vocalist, he did his fair share of time on the brick. In his music video for “Photograph,” home footage shows a young Sheeran strumming his guitar on a sidewalk amid a throng of passersby.

3. Tracy Chapman

Tracy Chapman’s busking career began with a hankering for Chinese food during college. “Nobody had any money and we really wanted to go and get some Chinese food,” the “Fast Car” artist told The Independent. “We walked past some people who were playing on the street, and somebody suggested that I could probably make some money doing the same thing.

“From that point on, I started playing at weekends when the stores closed and made pretty good money. People would give me jewelry, cheques, and often five-dollar bills, which was a big deal then. That first time I made about $60 – plenty to go out and buy some Chinese food.”

4. B.B. King

The great B.B. King didn’t become a blues legend overnight. When he first moved from Mississippi to Memphis, he began playing his guitar on streets around the city. It wouldn’t be long before he was making a name for himself and trading sidewalks for stages, something he told NPR always gave him a rush of nerves no matter how many performances he had under his belt.

“I developed in my head that I’m never any better than my last concert or the last time I played, so it’s like an audition each time,” he explained. “You get nervous just before going onstage. I still have that, but I think it’s more like concern. You’re concerned about the people — like meeting your in-laws for the first time.”

5. Rod Stewart

In the early 1960s, before his stint in Faces, before his time in The Jeff Beck Group, before his illustrious solo career, Rod Stewart took up street performing with his harmonica in hand. It was how his music career began.

Accompanying folk singer Wizz Jones, the two took their act from London’s hotspots to Europe, according to Stafford Hildred and Tim Ewbank’s 1991 tell-all Rod Stewart: The New Biography. Watch below as the acclaimed artist revisits his roots, performing alongside a fellow busker for an unsuspecting crowd.

(Photo by Denise Truscello)

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