6 Female Vocal Legends Who Got Their Start as Backup Singers

For years, skilled backing vocalists have wowed listeners with their power and prowess. With the ability to turn a mere tune into a massive hit, these singers have added a distinct style and presence to songs that would not be the same without their voices.

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Long before some of today’s greatest vocalists became legends, they were paying their dues on the outskirts of the spotlight. Below, we highlight six female vocal legends who got their start as backup singers.

Whitney Houston

By way of her mother, Cissy, vocal icon Whitney Houston was exposed to music early on. Cissy was a part of the girl group, the Sweet Inspirations, who had lent their vocals to the background of songs by Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, Wilson Pickett, and many more. In her teens, Whitney followed in those footsteps, singing backup for her mother. By the age of 15, she was providing vocals for the likes of Chaka Khan and Lou Rawls.

Sheryl Crow

Sheryl Crow was an elementary school music teacher before she pursued a full-fledged career in music. According to a 60 Minutes profile, she was featured in a handful of commercial jingles when she decided to take the next step as a vocalist. Crow made the move to Los Angeles and was soon enlisted to sing backup for Michael Jackson on his Bad Tour from 1987 to 1989. Her early career also saw her contribute vocals to artists like Stevie Wonder, Belinda Carlisle, Jimmy Buffett, Don Henley and more.


The illustrious Cher got her start as a backup singer. She shared her vocal prowess on many of Phil Spector’s productions. She contributed to songs like “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes’ and the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” until Spector produced her first solo single “Ringo, I Love You,” under the pseudonym Bonnie Jo Mason.

Mary J. Blige

It was an impromptu demo in which she recorded a cover of Anita Baker’s “Caught Up in the Rapture” that kickstarted Mary J. Blige’s career.

By way of her stepfather, the recording found its way to Uptown Records’ president and CEO, Andre Harrell. Blige was soon signed to the label as a backup singer. Then aged 18, she became the label’s youngest and first female signee.

“I always wanted to sing,” Blige said of her journey in a 1995 interview with Ebony, “but I never thought in a million years that I would be right where I am, right now. I swear I didn’t.”

Katy Perry

Prior to her breakthrough success, Katy Perry had a brief stint as a backing vocalist, providing harmonies for a Christian metal band, called P.O.D. In 2004, she also lent her voice to a Mick Jagger song “Old Habits Die Hard.”

Mariah Carey

While in cosmetology school and working various part-time jobs to get by, Mariah Carey landed a role as singing backup for singer Brenda K. Starr.

It was with Starr that Carey found her big break. “Most singers would have said, ‘Stay in the background and don’t sing too loud,’” Carey once told People. However, Starr actually helped her underling secure a recording contract.

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