5 Songwriters Who Have Successfully Transitioned to Solo Careers

Some music fans look at the seemingly meteoric rise of certain artists and think they reached those heights effortlessly. What the onlookers may not realize is that the artists invested countless hours honing their skills and working their way through the intricate music business. Below we delve into the careers of five globally acclaimed artists who achieved their breakthroughs after mastering songwriting.

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1. Billy Joel

The Piano Man entered the music industry in the 1960s as a songwriter for different music publishers and record labels, most notably April Blackwood Music publisher.

In the mid-1960s, while working as a songwriter, Joel and his friend Jon Small decided to form a rock band called The Hassles. Joel was the lead vocalist and keyboardist for the five-piece band. The Hassles gave Joel stage experience and enhanced his songwriting. The band released two albums, The Hassles (1967) and Hour of the Wolf (1969), which gave Joel recording experience. 

By the early 1970s, the bandmates were in conflict over musical direction. Joel left the band to explore his musical visions, including genres beyond rock. In 1971, Joel released his first solo album, Cold Spring Harbor, which included the single “She’s Got a Way.” His second album, Piano Man, released in 1973, established him as a solo artist with a loyal fan base.

2. John Denver

John Denver began his music career in the early 1960s, first as a folk singer in Los Angeles and then as a member of the Chad Mitchell Trio. He also worked for several music publishers, including Cherry Lane Music, where he wrote the song “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” He released the song on his 1966 debut solo album, John Denver Sings, but it failed to chart. The folk group Peter, Paul and Mary recorded a version of the song in 1967, and it became a massive hit, hitting No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

Denver’s later albums, including Poems, Prayers & Promises (1971), included the songs “Take Me Home Country Roads” and “Sunshine on My Shoulders,” which launched his solo career. Subsequent albums, including Rocky Mountain High (1972) and Back Home Again (1974), included the popular single “Annie’s Song,” which reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, and “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” a live version of which also hit No. 1 in 1975.

3. Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift began writing songs when she was 12 years old. At age 14, she convinced her parents to move to Nashville so she could pursue a music career. That same year, she signed a publishing deal with Sony/ATV that aligned her with other songwriters to develop her skills further.

Some of the songs she wrote for other artists include the 2008 song “Best Days of Your Life” for Kellie Pickler and the 2009 song “You’ll Always Find Your Way Back Home” for Hannah Montana (Miley Cyrus).

Swift gained some buzz as a solo performer in 2006 when she released her self-titled debut album, including the song “Tim McGraw.” Her solo career continually gained momentum with the release of subsequent albums, yet it was her 1989 album that moved her sound from country to pop and made her a superstar. The 2014 album included the single “Shake It Off,” which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and remained at the top spot for several weeks. The song was Swift’s second No. 1 hit on the Hot 100. Her first was “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” from her 2012 album Red.

“Shake It Off” debuted at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the United States. It marked Taylor Swift’s second No. 1 hit on the Hot 100, following “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” The song spent multiple weeks at the top spot.

4. Smokey Robinson

When Berry Gordy Jr. founded Motown Records in January 1959, he recruited Smokey Robinson as a principal songwriter. Robinson’s band, The Miracles, initially called the Matadors, was one of the first signed to Motown. Robinson was a teenager in 1955 when he formed a band with childhood friends. The group played shows and talent contests throughout the Detroit area, eventually catching the attention of Gordy.

In 1960, the Robinson-penned song, “Shop Around,” was the Miracle’s first million-selling recording. Some of Robinson’s most famous songs from the early 1960s include “My Guy, recorded by Mary Wells, “The Way You Do the Things You Do” and “My Girl,” both recorded by The Temptations, and “Don’t Mess With Bill,” recorded by The Marvelettes.

Although Robinson maintained his connection with the Miracles, he began a solo career in the early 1970s. His 1973 album, Smokey, included the hit “Baby Come Close” and launched his career as a solo artist. Other top solo songs from Robinson include “Cruisin'” (1979), the Grammy Award-winning “Just to See Her” (1987), and “Ebony Eyes” (1976), a duet with Rick James.

5. Carole King

Carole King began writing songs in the 1950s when she was still in high school. She often wrote with her childhood friend Paul Simon. In the 1960s, King began writing with her then-husband, Gerry Goffin. Together they wrote many songs, including “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” for the Shirelles and “Take Good Care of My Baby” for Bobby Vee. 

In 1970, King shifted to becoming a singer/songwriter and released her first album, Writer, during 1970. Her next album, Tapestry, released in 1971, contained songs, including “It’s Too Late” and “You’ve Got a Friend.” The Grammy Award-winning album became a cultural phenomenon and one of the best, highest-selling albums ever. It spent 15 consecutive weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart. Other chart-topping singles from the album include “I Feel the Earth Move,” “So Far Away,” and the James Taylor performed “You’ve Got a Friend.” King went on to more award-winning solo performer and songwriting success.

Correction: We incorrectly stated that Billy Joel wrote the song “Hey Girl” in 1963. The song was written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin. We have removed the information from the original article.

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  1. Billy Joel did not write “Hey Girl” as stated in this article. It was written by Goffin and King. American Songwriter, how did you not know this? Fact check and proof read before going to press.

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Tyler Childers

2023 Americana Honors & Awards Winners