Musicians and Singers Who Started Late But Still Made It Big

One of the biggest myths of the music industry is that you have to be young in order to “make it.” Well, here are some musicians and singers who started late — and still made it big.

The world is full of musicians and singers who started late, only to achieve massive success down the road.

Setting aside the fact that no one really has a clear understanding of what actually “making it” means in music — Is it getting signed? Going platinum? Selling out Madison Square Garden? Getting a top 40 hit? Making a million dollars? Making a living? Supporting a family? Sustaining a life-long career? — age really has nothing to do with it. Sure, if you want to be a teen idol, then there is definitely a small window to achieve this. But that’s about it.

Making it should be defined as making enough money off of your music to support the kind of lifestyle you’d like to live. But to our society’s standards, “making it” is equated with fame. But fame is a funny thing. Some people are famous in some circles, to some people, and not others. Is “making it” only when you’re on the cover of magazines? Because then Scarlett Johansson would be the most famous “musician” in the world. Even though everyone understands her music is not why she’s famous. My dad has never heard of Rihanna. So she’s not famous to my dad. But we can all agree she’s definitely “made it.”

For this piece, I’m defining “made it” as having reached a major career milestone or turning point.

Wayne Coyne – 32

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The Flaming Lips founder/frontman started the group when he was 22, but the band’s first hit didn’t come for another 10 years with “She Don’t Use Jelly” when Coyne was 32.

Sheryl Crow – 32

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After being a school teacher, jingle singer and backup vocalist (for Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder) throughout her 20s, she released her debut album at 31 and didn’t get a massive hit until a year later with “All I Wanna Do.”

Bill Withers – 32

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After serving in the US Navy for nine years and working on a factory assembly line, Withers released his debut album with the hit “Ain’t No Sunshine” at age 32.

Debbie Harry – 33

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Founder/singer of the punk band Blondie, Harry was 31 when the band released their debut album, but they didn’t see worldwide success until their third album a couple years later.

Rachel Platten – 34

Someone who just broke out this year in a major way (thanks in part to a Taylor Swift Instagram video of the ladies rocking out to Platten’s song backstage) with “Fight Song.” The song has been certified platinum in the US (and 2x Platinum in Australia) and has been sitting comfortably atop the charts for the past few months.

2 Chainz – 35

Who says a name change can’t be a good thing? After years of working under the name Tity Boi, he changed his name to 2 Chainz, released a well-received mixtape and then his debut album which debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 – a month before his 36th birthday.

John Ondrasik – 35

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Better known as Five For Fighting, Ondrasik didn’t release his chart topping album America Town with the hit “Superman (It’s Not Easy)” until he was 35.

Peaches – 35

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Canadian Electropunk performance artist, Merrill Beth Nisker released her debut album as Peaches when she was 32, but it wasn’t until her follow up record did she see international success at 35.

Matt Nathanson – 35

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Nathanson had been a road warrior for years and released 7 albums (even one with a major label) before he got a top 40 hit with “Come On Get Higher” at 35, released by indie label Vanguard Records.

Amanda Palmer – 36

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Cabaret indie rocker released her debut album with The Dresden Dolls at age 27, but it wasn’t until 2012 did she see mainstream success with her record breaking Kickstarter campaign, raising $1.2 million from nearly 25,000 fans.

Michael Fitzpatrick – 40

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The French Fitz and the Tantrums founder/singer had been working primarily as a recording engineer for years before forming the group. Fitzpatrick was 40 when they released their debut album with the hit “MoneyGrabber.”

Tuli Kupferberg – 40

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The Fugs singer founded the group at 40 and they went on to be one of the prominent protest/counterculture bands of the 60s.

James Murphy – 40

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Murphy formed LCD Soundsystem when he was 31, but it wasn’t until their third album, This Is Happening, did they see worldwide success.

Pharrell Williams – 40

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Ok, so sure, Pharrell had a very successful career as a producer (his production duo, The Neptunes, wrote and produced Britney Spears #1 hit “I’m A Slave 4 U” in 2001 when he was 28), and if he had died just a producer, his “made it” age would have been around 28, but we’re talking about the “Happy” singer (and songwriter/producer). One of the biggest songs of the decade. And “Happy” wasn’t released until he was 40. He looks good.

Andrea Bocelli – 41

One of the best selling singers of all-time, Bocelli was 34 when he released his debut album, but it wasn’t until his third did he reach worldwide success with Sogno which went cracked the top 10 in 10 countries.

Thelonius Monk – 46

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Sure, the jazz piano legend played with all the greats (Miles, Sonny Rolins, Coltrane, Art Blakey, Max Roach) over the course of his career, but Monk wasn’t recognized on a massive scale until his Columbia Records release, Monk’s Dream, in 1963. He was 46.

Leondard Cohen – 50

After a failed stint as a fiction writer, Cohen released his debut album at 33, but it wasn’t for another 17 years did he release “Hallelujah” which has been covered (and released) by over 200 artists in various languages. He’s definitely one of the musicians who started late — but it still celebrated today.

72 Responses

    • You Lie

      Straight up lie. He was 27 when their first major release came out. The guitarist was 22.

  1. Chuck Hughes

    I was hoping the profiled ages would go above 50- 😉

  2. Duder

    T-Model Ford released his first record in 1997 somewhere around the age of 77.

  3. ScourgeGainsbourg

    It might also be interesting to take a look at all the musicians who “made it” in their twenties and how many of them had lost it all by their thirtieth birthday. Or who never really had “it” to begin with and were being propped up by PR flash.

  4. Curtis Jenkins

    Ari, Jay Z and Pharrell, you serious with that? You know *nothing* about Black and urban music. Pharrell ‘made it’ with the Neptunes and Star Trak in his 20s and Jay-Z easily made it in his 20s also.

    • AndrewH

      Too bad you don’t read.

      Ok, so sure, Pharrell had a very successful career as a producer (his production duo, The Neptunes, wrote and produced Britney Spears #1 hit “I’m A Slave 4 U” in 2001 when he was 28), and if he had died just a producer, his “made it” age would have been around 28, but we’re talking about the “Happy” singer (and songwriter/producer). One of the biggest songs of the decade. And “Happy” wasn’t released until he was 40. He looks good.

      And Jay Z was a joke… if you’d read it you’d realize. Go back and take a look at it. Pretty hilarious.

      • Tone

        Pharrell’s was serious, though, and dead wrong. He made it a long time ago.

        • Curtis Jenkins

          Seriously, WHAT?

          Pharrell has been TOTALLY huge since the 90s, everyone has known his name for now three decades now. He was a total institution on both production **and performance** that any pop music fan much less urban fan has known since he was in his 20s.

          Jay-Z? I mean, HUH?? what is this some distortion reality BS from some bullshit relationship therapist or something? NO, he “Made It” on the 90’s. Beyonce is a celebrity relationship, Jay Z could have any girl since his 20’s! So is water now dry and penguins live in the desert and a dollar bill is orange colored now? I mean…. HUH?

          • Graymatter

            Pharrell released the first N*E*R*D album, In Search of.., in 2001. He would have been in his late 20s and the album went gold. I think a gold album means you’ve “made it” under anyone’s definition.

          • atwizzles

            These people also don’t realize that N*E*R*D* was already a huge name throughout the mid-atlantic before their first album had come out. I’d been going to their shows since 99′. Also, an excerpt from The Neptunes Wikipedia page: “Through working with [Teddy] Riley, Pharrell went on to write a verse for Wreckx-N-Effect’s 1992 #2 Billboard Hot 100 hit “Rump Shaker”. [Pharrell was 19 at the time]. In 1994, Hugo and Williams had established themselves formally as a production duo under the previously used name “The Neptunes”, and assistant-produced “Tonight’s The Night” from Teddy Riley’s group BLACKstreet’s self-titled debut. Over the next three years they continued to produce occasionally. Some of the production, such as for SWV (1996) and Total (1996), had little resemblance to what would become their distinctive sound, while other songs such as Mase’s 1998 No.8 Billboard Hot 100 hit “Lookin’ at Me” (from the Harlem World album, 1997) showed clear signs the Neptunes sound was developing.”

            All of this before Pharrell was 30. Yeah, he looks great, but I’d take him off this list for sure!

      • Belle

        Andrew H. I’m over here on Maui thinkin’ the same exact can someone so supposedly black and urban musically educated have missed that?? Ahhhh, the irony of it all.. ~Aloha

    • Anonymous

      Jay Z didn’t really make it until he was 38 because that is when he coupled with Beyonce…
      Only a misogynist would think that! And, no, I’m not a female.

  5. DavidB

    Ari has written some rubbish in the past, but this takes the prize. Thelonius Monk was ‘recognised on a massive scale’ from 1947 onwards, when he wrote and recorded ‘Round Midnight’, probably the most famous post-war jazz composition.

    • Thomas

      I mean, Leonard Cohen had some pretty standout songs/albums pre “Hallelujah.” The “made it” ages are pretty arbitrary here. However, I see where the author is coming from. I don’t have a problem with any of these. Great list!

  6. Ari Shagal ("the girl Ari")

    Christine McVie was 35 when the Rumours album came out, which was her breakthrough. Cyndi Lauper was 30 when she had her first solo album/hits.

  7. geezer

    Great article. I am ageist to myself, having just hit 40… I have a lot of music left in me that just needs to get out, yet I fall into the ageist trap. If I just ignore age completely I could just create and be happy, possibly making something of value that other geezers will want to listen to. Ageism is pure ignorance in its finest form. The joke is on the ageist people.

    I don’t think that anyone really cares, as long as the music is good. Musicians are our own enemies here. It would be reassuring for everyone, young and old, if there was more new quality music from every generation. Seasick Steve sets the example currently. He was one of the best acts I witnessed recently at a festival.

    • Deezelmama

      Have to agree with you Geezer- I think musicians are ageist to themselves, and get in their own way,particularly if they’ve been in the business for a long time. The commercial challenge of getting the music heard if you don’t have a wrinkle free face or a pedigree can be challenging. I’m looking after 2 artists releasing albums in who are in their 50’s, so 40 means your still a teenager!

  8. Anonymous

    There are a lot of problems in the music world these days, but being too old is most certainly not one of them.

    The world is desperate for quality. The artist that closed Lollapalooza’s opening night is 73 fucking years old.

  9. T. Cooke

    Some closet lab producer can’t get heard, s/he. Discovered after they are dead.

    • Tcooke

      It’s interesting to think about. An Emily Dickinson of music. 🙂

  10. DJ Carl

    Ari, I always like your posts. Today is my birthday and I am inspired – I’m going to be the next, DJ “Ruth Flowers” Ha!

  11. john

    fuck that stupid fight song track, my god that is some juvenile vapid shit.

    • rogal

      That’s right, how can you forget Rodriguez?

      And the leader of Monster Magnet, Dave Wyndorf, achieved commercial success with the album “Powertrip” when he was 42.

  12. Chris Daniels

    Depending upon what your definition of “made it” is — you left out the biggest one.

    Louis Armstrong — was genius, an instrumentalist who changed music and the “solo” as we know it, extended the range of the trumpet, a vocalist who changed singing as we know it, a film star and even a ambassador of good will for the US….

    But if you ONLY use chart position as “making it” … then Louie’s big hit is Hello Dolly – knocking the Beatles off the charts in 1964 on the Billboard Hot 100 and winning him the Grammy for Song of the Year when he was about (depending on what birthdate you use) 64 years old.

  13. Niklas J. Blixt

    Great stuff Ari!

    I totally agree that Pharell looks great. Had no idea that he was that old, he doesn’t look a day older than 20. I’m almost more interested in know how he does that, than how he writes such great songs. :))

  14. Bruins3

    Exactly! And kudos to you Ari. Im guessing from your pic you are mid to late 30’s?
    It takes guts to keep trying without having any ‘success yet’. I always see the older bands lugging their guitars up those stairs, playing to a small handful of people then and packing everything away, just in the hope that someone will listen! You have to really love music to keep going! Not just chasing chart success of being something momentarily fashionable
    I’m 23 but i’m in this for the long haul. I’ll be here when i’m Ari’s age and even older!

  15. rockohollica

    Charles Bradley at 64. Why limit at 50?

  16. john brott

    I must have started out with Photography and at 5 noticed all these people at the Beach and took pictures. Later on at around 10 I got a cool Brownie camera and did B&W. Then came the further until I was 17 and was presented with a Minolta for Christmas and I instantly became a Rock Photographer with just terrible self printed images from my ancient Darkroom. By 19 I had shifted into using nikon and doing it with High Speed Echtacrome. Then I snaked my way up to the front and became friends with the production house, Concerts West, who intern left me alone with Backstage passes for everything. I became friends with everyone and it was Albatross Productions who helped me with B.T.O. and I scored first out with a World Wide Number 1 Album “Not Fragile” by/produced by Randy Bachman. Number 1 in october of 74′ and that was just the beginning for me at 21. I’m out of retirement now to have fun and teach the profession to those who want to learn it. And in the process do it again. Anyone out there in need a cool Coach just contact me at the Facebook site or from I hold all the keys and will show you all the doors as a professional. Very Cool. john

  17. Lily's Back-Up

    Lily Mae of Two Bunny Morning… wait, was that people years or dog years?

  18. casebandotcom

    Age does not matter! It never did. At 70 you can look 30 with the right makeup, cosmetic surgery, information, and money. Furthurmore, your age, looks can be in the background until a hit is secured. Moreover, if you got the right sound people will listen. People will not condem great music because the artist is 70. If it is great music, someone will listen!

    • dulciana

      casebandotcom, thanks for this. I’m a 57-year-old organist (converted from piano) and I performed my first concerto four months ago. What you say is honestly just the shake-up I needed.

  19. Paul

    Thanks for making me feel young again Ari! Always enjoy your articles, thanks for keeping them coming. What’s even better is how long artists can sustain a career in music, great to see iconic acts still packing places in their 70’s and beyond. Hope to us all!

  20. MsGeorgiabrown

    Wow. All the hateful or drama filled reply. Smh if some if the info is inaccurate then go write your own article. Read the beginning of the article about what one may consider making it based on how one wants to live in an abundantvway. You can be on top of the charts and broke. Hell you can have a #1 hit and be broke . the writer was naming people based on the success level on all levels. Good article and inspiring

  21. telemachus

    All of you aspiring musicians no matter what age you are, go for it, never give up, make your own rules. Do not let anyone talk you out of what you love to do. The old paradigm is gone, you don’t have to be 23 years old to begin a career anymore. There is a demographic waiting for you if you will search for it. You have technology on your side.

  22. California Flight

    California Flight Project ole school music rules jpopsoul rocks

  23. YouWannaBeMe

    Had my first million selling hit at 2. Sang with Mick Jagger and Melanie at 5 with remake of TipToe Through The Tulips … Mick sang falsetto. By 8, I was a coke addict on tour with Genesis as their sax player and lead vocalist … Phil Collins is just lip-synching my voice. Pink Floyd asked me to join when I was 12 on lead oboe. Fell asleep during my oboe solo in The Great Gig In The Sky. When I woke up, I was 92 and working as a bookkeeper for my GrandMother who is still alive. I MADE IT! By my own word, I swear this is all true. Thanks for reading … putz.

  24. ColdDeadVeins

    Ronnie James Dio didn’t become really famous until he was 33 when he formed Rainbow with Ritchie Blackmore.
    Lemmy was 31/32 when he broke out with Motörhead.
    I think Jon Lord was 30 when Deep Purple had its first major worldwide hit with the MK II lineup.
    Even though Montrose was very influential, Sammy Hagar really went mainstream with Van Halen at 38.

    • Brian

      Shia already made it in early 2000’s.

      • Alexander

        Her first “big” hit was Titanium, she was 36 at that time. She’s 44 now and still amazing!:)

  25. anonymous

    Great title for an’s what we need more of …too bad the writer thinks 30 is late in life..he’s missing way too much

  26. Boomer Rocker

    This reminds me of that ol’ saying, “You don’t stop playing music because you get old. You get old because you stop playing music.”

  27. Don Totto Papadopopoulos

    Scatman John turned to europop in his 50’s (as far as I remember) after a long jazz career. Sure, here we know him as a one-hit wonder with “Scatman,” but he became a hit in Japan with other songs—including some in their language.

    And Susan Boyle… well, y’know the story.

    Reading this makes me feel a little bit better about my own musical and acting career…

  28. Nolee

    …how about successful people who don’t even decide to get into music at all or even pick up an instrument until they’re pushing 40? Do they even exist?

  29. Ben Neumann

    Carter Beauford (sp?) from DMB was thirty-four when Dave Matthews FORMED, like when they sucked (hey they said it themselves)…before any fame and touring and all that happened. Glad they didn’t quit let’s jsut say that!

  30. Jimbob

    I’m in my 60s and don’t know over half of these whip-snaps. Doing what you love is making it in any business, especially music and the E chord sustain!

  31. Al

    No chance for me then , I’m 58…thought I might have written a hit song !