It’s never too late to make a mark in music.
Videos by American Songwriter
Videos by American Songwriter
Leonard Cohen was writing books of poetry before he ever imagined releasing an album of music. Sharon Jones was a corrections officer at one of the most historic, and infamous, incarceration centers in the United States before linking up with the Dap-Kings, while Chris Stapleton was just writing songs for everyone but himself for more than 10 years before releasing a collection of his own ground-breaking country hits.
Everyone has their story, and some journeys in music took longer than others.
Here’s a look at seven artists who broke through later in their life.
1. Chris Stapleton (37)
A behind-the-scenes songwriter in Nashville for more than a decade, Chris Stapleton, born April 15, 1978, moved to Nashville in 2001 and was writing songs for everyone from Kenny Chesney (“Never Wanted Nothing More”), Blake Shelton (“Draggin’ the River”), and Luke Bryan (“Drink a Beer”), among many others throughout the early 2000s and 2010s.
After playing in southern rock (The Jompson Brothers) and bluegrass bands (The Steeldrivers), the Kentucky native released his very first single “What Are You Listening To?” in 2013, which didn’t hit as hard as he had expected. In 2015, Stapleton finally released his chart-topping debut, Traveller.
Stapleton was 37 when he released Traveller, which won two Grammys for Best Country Album and Best Country Solo Performance. He also picked up an ACM for Album of the Year and three CMA awards for Album of the Year, New Artist of the Year, and Male Vocalist of the Year. In just five years’ time, and through his fourth album, Starting Over, which was released in 2020, Stapleton has earned eight Grammys, 15 CMAs, and 10 ACM awards.
2. Bonnie Raitt (40)
Bonnie Raitt was born into a musical family on November 8, 1949, in Burbank, California. Her father was Broadway actor John Raitt, and her mother was the pianist and singer Marge Goddard. By the time she was 8, Raitt was playing guitar and absorbing all the 1950s folk revival before transitioning into the Delta blues of Muddy Waters and Son House.
Raitt released her self-titled debut in 1971 and continued producing new albums nearly every year thereafter, but it wasn’t until she was 40 that she had a breakthrough with her tenth album, Nick of Time, in 1989. Nick of Time, reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and earned Raitt three Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year.
In 2023, Raitt picked up her 11th, 12th, and 13th Grammy Awards for Record of the Year and Best American Roots Song for “Just Like That,” the title track off her 18th album, and Best Americana Performance for Just Like That… track, “Made Up Mind.”
Read our 2022 interview with Bonnie Raitt on her Grammy-winning album Just Like That… HERE.
3. Willie Nelson (40)
Struggling for years as a singer and songwriter, Willie Nelson (b. April 29, 1933) went to Nashville and then returned back to his home state of Texas early on in his career. He found some success as a songwriter throughout the 1960s, penning Claude Gray’s 1960 country hit “Family Bible,” Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” — which went to No. 2 and was recorded by Nelson a year later — and Roy Orbison’s take on his ballad “Pretty Paper” in 1966.
By 1973, Nelson, who was 40, helped pioneer the Outlaw Country movement with his 16th album, Shotgun Willie, which pushed him higher up into the country charts.
His catalog of music reflects a nearly 70-year career and 25 No. 1 hits, including “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” “Nothing I Can Do Now,” “Forgiving You Was Easy” his Hoagy Carmichael cover of “Georgia on My Mind,” “On the Road Again,” and 1982 hit “Always on My Mind,” which previously became a hit for Elvis a decade earlier, and went to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for Nelson.
Releasing music since the 1950s, Nelson has never stopped. Nelson has released 72 albums through his 2022 release, A Beautiful Time.
4. Sharon Jones (46)
After spending years working as a corrections officer at Rikers Island in New York City and an armored car guard for Wells Fargo, Sharon Jones (b. May 4, 1956) released a handful of singles and had some collaborations with the likes of Lee Fields and Norma Jean Bell in the ’90s.
It wasn’t until her 2002 debut, Dap Dippin’ with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, that she had her breakthrough in music. The album was released on Daptone Records when Jones was 46 years old.
In 2014, Jones was nominated for her first Grammy for Best R&B Album, for Give the People What They Want, her fifth album with the Dap-Kings. She would release seven more albums with the Dap-Kings through her final, Soul of a Woman, released in 2017.
Jones died on November 18, 2016, at the age of 60.
5. Leonard Cohen (50)
A born poet, and storyteller, it still took some time before Leonard Cohen, born Sept. 21, 1934, would release his first album of music. After releasing several books of poetry and dabbling in fiction from the mid-1950s through the ’60s, Cohen released his debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, at the age of 33 in 1967. Told in his own idiosyncratic ways, Cohen transferred all his stories of loves, losses, and some of the darker facets of humanity into song. Suffering severe stage fright in his earlier days and barely able to perform, Cohen powered through and by the time his seventh album, Various Positions, in 1984 was released he was a sensation with his solemn classic “Hallelujah.”
Cohen released his 14th album, You Want It Darker, 17 days before his death at 82 on election day, November 7, 2016.
Read our 2022 interview with longtime Cohen collaborator Sharon Robinson, journalist Larry “Ratso” Sloman, who interviewed him many times over the years, and Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller directors of the 2021 documentary, Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song, HERE.
6. Charles Bradley (63)
Born Nov. 5, 1948, soul singer Charles Bradley spent most of his career as a James Brown impersonator. Struck by the soul legend after seeing him perform at the Apollo Theater in 1962, Bradley immediately began mimicking Brown and would later perform as him under the names Black Velvet, James Brown Jr., and Screaming Eagle of Soul. A vagabond, Bradley moved from state to state and worked wherever he could throughout most of his life to escape poverty. He suffered through more tragedies after returning back to his hometown of Brooklyn, New York in the 1990s when his brother was murdered and he nearly died after an allergic reaction to penicillin. Later discovered during one of his Brown performances by Bosco Mann, co-founder of Daptone Records, Bradley went to work on his very first album with producer Thomas Brenneck of Menahan Street Band.
At the age of 63, Bradley released his debut album, and breakthrough, No Time for Dreaming in 2011. The album was followed by Victim of Love and his final album Changes — the title track, a soulful cover of Black Sabbath‘s 1972 song — before his death at the age of 68 in 2016.
7. Louis Armstrong (64)
Born Aug. 4, 1901, in New Orleans, Louis Daniel Armstrong performed as a trumpeter for several decades from the 1920s onward in a number of jazz bands and orchestras before releasing his best-selling album, Hello, Dolly!, in 1965.
Released when Armstrong was 64 years old, Hello, Dolly! earned him two Grammy Awards for Best Male Vocal Performance and Song of the Year.
Armstrong’s version of the title track—first performed by Carol Channing in the Broadway musical of the same name in 1964—reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2001.
Throughout his career, Armstrong was known for his 1967 classic “What a Wonderful World” as well as hit covers of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose,” the Christian hymn “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” among many others.
Armstrong died on July 6, 1971.
Photo Leonard Cohen: Ebet Roberts/Redferns