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Six Music Prodigies That Made it Big

Published: April 17, 2014

Child Stars are nothing new. They say music is the universal language, and as long as music has been around, kids have understood its appeal as well as anyone.

Still, understanding is different from actually creating music. Some kids really were born to play. All of these stars were drawn to music at a young age–some as young as three-years-old. What makes these stars stand out is how they have adapted over the years, building legacies that lasted well beyond their young ambitions.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

A young Mozart, as painted by Pietro Antonio Lorenzoni

A young Mozart, as painted by Pietro Antonio Lorenzoni

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, born 1756, might be the most fantastic child prodigy who ever lived. When his older sister began music lessons in 1759, a three-year-old Wolfgang looked on and began to play music on the clavier when he had the chance. At four his father began teaching young Wolfgang basic pieces, and at five Wolfgang composed his first original piece of music.

He went on to spend almost all of his youth, from the ages of seven through seventeen, on tour as a musical prodigy. At the age of 14 he visited Rome, heard Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere twice, and transcribed the piece from memory. The piece was forbidden from being copied – the Vatican only allowed it to be played in the Sistine Chapel, and even then only twice a year – and the Pope summoned Mozart to Rome upon hearing the young musician had published the work. But instead of punishing him, the Pope personally congratulated young Mozart for his musical genius, and even released the piece for publication. Not bad for a teenager.

At 17, Mozart began work as a court musician in Salzberg. A few years later he moved to Vienna, where he had one of the most successful careers in the history of music, composing operas such as The Magic Flute and Don Giovanni, as well as hundreds of symphonies, chamber pieces and other works. He died in 1791, leaving his famous Requiem Mass unfinished.

Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder in 1963, as photographed by Vytas Valaitis

Stevie Wonder in 1963, as photographed by Vytas Valaitis

Stevie Wonder was already a multi-instrumentalist at 11 years old, when Ronnie White of the Miracles brought him him in to audition before Motown founder Berry Gordy. Gordy liked what he saw: ‘Little Stevie’ released his first two albums in 1962, and had his first major hit, the song “Fingertips”, in 1963.

The Post actually covered Stevie Wonder in October 1963, in an article on teen pop titled “The Dumb Sound” (Oops). When it comes to this ‘sound’, writer Alfred Aronowitz emphasizes uniqueness over straightforward, lyrical content:

The main gimmick on any pop record, in fact, is the sound. “That’s what the kids listen for,” says Dick Clark, who, as conductor of ABC-TV’s American Bandstand since 1957, has been in the business of helping to decide what the kids listen to. “The more different, the more original, the more unique the sound is, the more chance a record stands of becoming a hit.”

At the time, Stevie Wonder was riding high on the strength of “Fingertips”, which had reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 that summer. He wasn’t the only young star around — the article mentions a number of other teenage or preteen contemporaries. But most have these have since been forgotten. Stevie Wonder, on the other hand, went on to record over 30 U.S. top ten hits.

Part of what made Stevie Wonder such a long-term success was that he kept innovating. As he got older, he kept adding elements of genres such as funk and jazz, while playing with new technologies that included synthesizers, talk boxes and sampling. It also helped that he wrote most of his own songs, and that he was a talented enough songwriter to come up with so many classics.

Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder in the studio, 1974.

Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder in the studio, 1974. Source: www.afropunk.com

Michael Jackson remains one of the most well-known — and most complicated — child stars of our time. Like the others on our list, Michael Jackson got into music at an exceptionally early age. He joined his older brothers’ band as a backup musician at the age of six, and by the time he was eight he was sharing lead vocals with his brother Jermaine. The Jackson 5 had a string of number one hits in the 1960s, including classics such as “ABC” and “I Want You Back”.

Jackson actually learned a little from another name on this list: Stevie Wonder. Stevie Wonder describes meeting Michael Jackson when the singer was around ten years old:

He would always come into the studio curious about how I worked and what I did. “How do you do that? Why do you do that?” I think he understood clearly from seeing various people do the music scene that it definitely took work.

Michael Jackson continued his interest in Stevie Wonder’s recording techniques as both men developed as artists. When Stevie Wonder was making some of his greatest work in the 1970s, Jackson often sat in on his recording sessions:

I wanted to experience it all. So Stevie Wonder used to literally let me sit like a fly on the wall. I got to see Songs in the Key of Life get made, some of the most golden things.

Not too long after watching Wonder record Songs in the Key of Life, Michael Jackson released his solo breakthrough, Off the Wall. Like Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson began writing his own songs and integrating new elements of genres such as funk, disco, and modern pop into his music.

Justin Timberlake

Yes, those are cornrows

Yes, those are cornrows. Source: Virgin Media

Like many young performers at the time, Justin Timberlake first appeared on the TV show Star Search. Back then, the 11-year-old from Memphis played country music under the name Justin Randall.

Though he didn’t win Star Search, his appearance there helped Justin Timberlake land a spot on the childrens’ variety show Mickey Mouse Club in 1993. It was there that he first met Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, as well as JC Chasez, whom Timberlake recruited into the newly forming boy band N’Sync. The band released its self-titled debut album in 1998, which sold 11 million copies and made Timberlake a 17-year-old superstar.

N’Sync soon became one of the most successful pop acts of the 1990s, with over 50 million total albums sold. Since the group broke up in 2002, Justin Timberlake has released four solo albums, three of which topped the Billboard 200 list. He has also starred in a number of movies, including the critically acclaimed films The Social Network and Inside Llewyn Davis, which is currently in theaters. The 20/20 Experience, which Timberlake released last March, was the bestselling album of 2013.

Britney Spears

The Mickey Mouse Club of the early 90s. That's Ryan Gosling and Britney Spears in the front row, and Justin Timberlake in the back right.

The Mickey Mouse Club of the early 90s. That’s Ryan Gosling and Britney Spears in the front row, and Justin Timberlake in the back right. Source: Buena Vista Pictures

Born in 1981, Britney Spears started dance and voice lessons at the age of three and began performing publicly at the age of five. At 11, she joined the off-Broadway musical Ruthless as an understudy to the lead actress, who plays a child star. Like Justin Timberlake and many of her contemporaries, she auditioned for Star Search and joined the cast of The Mickey Mouse Club in 1992.

After the show ended in 1996, Britney returned to high school as a normal student–but only temporarily. In 1997 she joined the female pop group Innosense. Shortly after that, she recorded her first solo album, Baby One More Time, which sold more than ten million copies within a year. Since then she’s sold more than 100 million albums, making her one of the bestselling artists of all time.

Like some current pop stars, Britney Spears ran into some controversy as she got older–if, by controversy you mean the kind of events worth stopping the news for because they involve a celebrity doing something brash. The height of this might have been the moment Britney Spears showed up at a hair salon and shaved most of her hair off, which became a perfect example of media obsession.

Beyoncé Knowles

Beyonce's High School Yearbook Photo

Beyonce’s High School Yearbook Photo. Source: www.untitledflow.com

Beyoncé Knowles began taking dance lessons and singing back in elementary school. She won her school talent show at the age of seven, beating a number of teenagers in the process. Alongside childhood friends Kelly Rowland and LaTavia Roberson, she formed the girl group Girl’s Tyme at the age of eight and — big surprise — tried out for Star Search.

They didn’t win, but in 1996 they signed a deal with Columbia Records and changed the group’s name to — wait for it — Destiny’s Child. They began recording their debut album that year, when Beyoncé was 15. The group recorded several hits over the next few years, including the songs “Survivor” and “Say My Name”.

In recent years, Beyoncé has released a series of critically acclaimed solo albums, each more ambitious than the last. Last year she took the music world by complete surprise when she released her newest album, titled Beyoncé, without any prior announcement whatsoever. The album has sold three million copies so far.