Artists who left bands for successful solo careers
Your group is already successful: you have hit songs, platinum albums, and adoring fans. What more could you possibly ask for?
A lot, apparently. Not every spotlight was meant to be shared, and maybe out of artistic necessity (or band friction or simply a desire to cash more checks), some artists must break away from their day gigs and have a solo turn in front of the mic. In some cases, the split is acrimonious. In others? The solo career and the group continue in tandem. Yet for every Dee Dee King or Victoria Beckham bid for standalone stardom, certain artists have genuine front-and-center moments — moments that rival and sometimes eclipse the groups they emerged from. Who has made such daring leaps, you may ask? EW has a look for you right here.
Paul Simon (Simon & Garfunkel)
"What I would have done is take a rest from Paul, because he was getting on my nerves. The jokes had run dry," Art Garfunkel opined in a 2015 interview. While the creative partnership Garfunkel and Paul Simon may have run its course, Simon's solo career shouldn't have been a surprise: he dropped a small little solo set in 1965 shortly after the duo's debut. Following the mega-successful 1970 smash LP Bridge Over Troubled Water (an apt title in retrospect), the guys went their separate ways, with Garfunkel finding modest success with songwriter Jimmy Webb while Paul Simon, it turns out, hoarded so many of his best songs for himself, netting a series of hits on his own but peaking in with 1986's worldbeat smash Graceland. Simon is still going strong, putting out his 14th solo effort In the Blue Light in 2018.
Fergie (Wild Orchid)
Do you remember Wild Orchid? No? That's OK: Fergie's original group was a forgettable urban-pop mix that got lost in a radio landscape full of soundalike songs. Joining The Black Eyed Peas was just the move the then-purist hip-hop trio needed to move into more mainstream fare, and once they started the hits just kept coming, culminating in a performance at the 2011 Super Bowl halftime show. Yet Stacy Ann Ferguson's 2006 solo outing, The Dutchess, was a gigantic smash that outsold any single Black Eyed Peas full-length in the U.S. From "London Bridge" to "Big Girls Don't Cry" to "Glamorous", Fergie was an unstoppable force for a few years there, and even though her too-overdue followup failed to even have a fraction of the success, we all still remember that time when Fergie was genuinely inescapable.
B2K — the "Boys of the New Millenium" (...sure) — was a sizable force for a boy-band, netting a few smaller hits but scoring a genuine chart-topper with the P. Diddy-assisted "Bump, Bump, Bump" in 2002. The following year, the filming of the classic You Got Served soon led to the group breaking up and Omarion focusing on both acting as well as a solo career. He scored a few sizable hits all on his own (the alluring "Ice Box," "Post to Be" with Chris Brown and Jhené Aiko), and got regular work as an actor in television. Yet our favorite legacy he left us may have been his reputation for giving his solo records absolutely terrible names (Ollusion and Sex Playlist immediately come to mind).
Ms. Lauryn Hill (Fugees)
There were female rappers before Ms. Lauryn Hill and several after, but when the Fugees rose to prominence with their epic 1996 sophomore effort The Score, Hill was unquestionably the group's breakout star, singing "Killing Me Softly" one moment and dropping incredible bars the next. The plurality of her talents was unveiled further on her 1998 Grammy-winning blockbuster of a solo debut The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, a record whose influence is still being felt today, with the slinky track "Ex-Factor" being sampled in a pair of 2018 smashes: Drake's "Nice for What" and Cardi B's "Be Careful." It's just a shame that fame proved too much for Hill, disappearing from the public eye for long stretches of time while dropping only one other record (the confusing MTV Unplugged 2.0) and making a smattering of festival appearances.
John Fogerty (Creedence Clearwater Revival)
Creedence Clearwater Revival have one of the more unusual distinctions in pop music history: they never topped the charts with a song but have had more No. 2 smashes than any other artist (and these are legendary songs too: "Proud Mary," "Bad Moon Rising," "Lookin' Out My Back Door," etc.). Creative friction lead to the group's split in 1972, but all that did was unleash John Fogerty's creative juices, dropping his first solo record the following year and then watching his subsequent albums going platinum a few times over thanks to solo tracks like "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)," "Rockin' All Over the World," and his rock staple "The Old Man Down the Road." He dropped an autobiography in 2015 and is rumored to still be at work on even more music. His "Travelin' Band" shows no sign of slowing down.
Michael Jackson (The Jackson 5)
During the reign of The Jackson 5, members branching out to drop solo records wasn't uncommon: both Michael and Jermaine unleashed full-lengths of their own in 1972, but the Michael Jackson that conquered the '80s and the '90s wasn't really the Michael we knew until we heard 1979's disco-slick Off the Wall, an album that was created hot off the heels from his appearance in the sensational movie musical The Wiz one year prior. While MJ dominated the '80s and broke down musical and cultural barriers with a glitter-gloved zest, he still knew where he came from, writing and performing with his family as The Jacksons and even netting a top five hit in 1984 with the Mick Jagger duet "State of Shock." Running two successful career tracks at the same time? This is a feat reserved for only the rarest of superstars.
Gwen Stefani (No Doubt)
The music video for No Doubt's legendary single "Don't Speak" pointed out how for all intents and purposes, Gwen Stefani just was the band (No Doubt about it). A turn towards a solo career was nothing short of inevitable, especially following her star guest turns on Moby's "Southside" and Eve's immortal "Let Me Blow Ya Mind." Yet when the lead single for her debut record Love. Angel. Music. Baby. stalled in the top 20, record execs were no doubt worried, but it wasn't until the album's third single "Hollaback Girl" that Gwen got the chart-topper she so clearly was gunning for. Since then, we've been gifted with solo songs that were memorable ("The Sweet Escape"), horrible (the Sound of Music-sampling "Wind It Up"), a plum gig as one of the judges on The Voice, and we even got a No Doubt reunion record that everyone asked for but no one wanted.
Dr. Dre (N.W.A.)
Dr. Dre didn't only have an ear for a good beat: he had an ear for talent. While he will never be regarded as the world's most versatile MC, his production work with N.W.A. and countless acts since the group's disbandment helped redefine the entire sound of rap music. While "G-funk" will forever be associated with Dr. Dre, he may eventually go down as the man who helped identify rising talents and pushed them into the pop culture zeitgeist, sometimes through features on his legendary solo albums. Snoop Dogg? Eminem? Anderson .Paak? They owe their careers to the good Doctor. Manning the board's for both Tupac Shakur’s iconic "California Love" and 50 Cent's calling-card single "In da Club”? Irrefutable brilliance. While N.W.A. may be no more, Dre's legacy as a rapper and producer will outlive all of us, but no one forgot about Dre.
Annie Lennox (Eurythmics)
Annie Lennox decided to pursue a solo career for a very good reason: the sales of the Eurythmics just dried up, especially in America (because no matter what, they always moved units in the U.K.). While her partner-in-crime Dave Stewart would become an in-demand producer, Lennox's debut solo effort Diva appeared in 1992, and as it so happened, she ended up crossing over in a big way, with singles like "Walking on Broken Glass" becoming nearly as recognizable as her Eurythmics hits. Her solo albums came out at a much more casual pace (and still found time to reunite with Stewart one more time for 1999's Peace), but Lennox managed to beat the odds and carve out a distinct solo niche for herself. Sweet dreams really are made of this.
Darius Rucker (Hootie & the Blowfish)
In hindsight, it shouldn't be too much a surprise that Darius Rucker would eventually pivot to country music — the real shocker is just how successful he was at it. While Hootie & Blowfish's 1994 debut Cracked Rear View is remembered for strummy radio staples like "Hold My Hand" and "Only Wanna Be With You" (and is genuinely one of the best selling debut albums of all time), the album tracks feature violins, clavinets, mandolins, and other elements that give this pop record a distinctive roots-rock flair. So when Hootie stopped going diamond, Rucker made a run at the country charts as a solo artist a few times with increasing success, culminating with his take on the Bob Dylan/Old Crow Medicine Show classic "Wagon Wheel," which topped the country charts and went eight times platinum. The 2013 album it came from is called True Believers, and that's exactly what we are after watching Rucker storm at the gates of country and becoming a titan all on his own.
Harry Styles (One Direction)
For a group as recent and as social media-ready as One Direction was, it was of no surprise that all five members would eventually unleash solo records upon the world. The real shocker was how Zayn, the best vocalist in the group, jumped the gun first and topped the charts with his debut solo outing "Pillowtalk" — and then wasn't able to properly follow up that pop explosion with anything even remotely as interesting (or popular). Unofficial frontman Harry Styles whetted his appetite for film acting while waiting for his turn, but when he finally showed us the music he had inside him, the effect was immediate: he now has two chart-topping albums that continue to sell as the U.K. keeps embracing his singles, all of this while Harry has developed an androgynous fashion sense that's all his own. He may have been the tabloid figure during his run in 1D, but we're honestly a bit surprised that he's proven to be as talented a songwriter as he is, crafting a distinct sound that is all his own. Something tells us Harry's going to be around for a long, long time.
Steve Perry (Journey)
With apologies to Gregg Rolie, Steve Perry — in the eyes of many — will forever be the first name people associate with Journey. A strong vocalist who proved to be an adept songwriting foil for guitarist Neal Schon, Perry's tenure with Journey was admittedly more mainstream than what the band was doing with Rolie, but this didn't stop the group from bathing themselves in platinum plaques following such hits as "Who's Crying Now," "Open Arms," and a certain song which discourages you from stopping to believe. Although Perry would spend years dipping in and out of the spotlight, his 1984 solo debut Street Talk ended up being a success all on its own, goosed by the top 10 hit "Oh Sherrie." He dropped a couple other albums under his own name, but still kept coming back to Journey time and time again, officially leaving after 1996's reunion effort Trial By Fire.
Beyoncé (Destiny's Child)
Were the cards stacked in Beyoncé's favor? Of course they were: you tend to be front and center when you're in a successful R&B girl group and your manager just so happens to be your dad. Yet as successful as Destiny's Child was, a solo career for Beyoncé was nothing short of inevitable, and while her superstar romance with Jay-Z and numerous collaborations helped push her solo debut Dangerously in Love to multiplatinum success, Beyoncé never stood in one place for too long, trying her hand at acting and evolving her sound with each release, leaving scores of decade-defining singles in her wake. Yet once she started releasing "visual albums" with 2013's eponymous surprise-release and 2016's stunning masterwork Lemonade, it became clear that Queen Bey was operating on a level reserved only for the greatest performers in music history. Those rare times when she brings Destiny's Child back to support her during a Super Bowl or Coachella appearance? Just a keen acknowledgment that for all of the success and accolades, Beyoncé remembers where she's from.
Sting (The Police)
When The Police released their fifth and final album Synchronicity in 1983, they had effectively conquered the world: topping the U.S. charts for 17 weeks, selling out Shea Stadium, and even beating out "Billie Jean" for the Song of the Year trophy at the Grammys with "Every Breath You Take." The only problem? The band hated each other, even recording their parts for Synchronicity in separate rooms. While the group attempted to reconvene one last time, it was clear that each member had their own path to go on, with Sting experimenting with jazz and worldbeat sounds over a solo career that has shown surprising resilience. Then again, if you wrote songs as good as "If You Love Somebody Set Them Free," "Desert Rose," "Field of Gold," and "If I Ever Lose My Faith in You," you'd feel pretty good about leaving your band too.
Justin Timberlake (NSYNC)
No Strings Attached, NSYNC's mega-selling sophomore effort, is actually a declaration of independence, as the pop group had finally freed themselves from the constricting contracts of troubled pop svengali Lou Pearlman. Some fans were aware of this, but even fewer knew that this and 2001's followup Celebrity featured the group's effective lead singers JC Chasez and Justin Timberlake take a bigger hand in co-writing and even producing some of their own tracks. While both launched solo careers, Chasez ended up with minor chart entries while Timberlake went on to work with The Neptunes, Timbaland, and Max Martin to create a litany of chart-topping albums and singles. Nowadays he's a multi-hyphenate businessman, but can still be counted to drop a radio-conquering solo hit from time to time.
Belinda Carlisle (The Go-Go's)
The Go-Go's phenomenon was nothing short of a New Wave miracle, as the group's punkish charm melded with synths and pop melodies to create songs and albums that were immediate, hooky, and memorable as all get-out. While frontwoman Belinda Carlisle had initial success basically re-creating that vibe with her 1986 solo hit "Mad About You," things didn't really take off until she put out her 1987 classic "Heaven Is a Place on Earth," which leaned heavy into its huge chorus and anchored it all with pop-metal guitars. This ushered in a whole new era for Carlisle, lining the charts with hits ("I Get Weak," "Circle in the Sand," "Leave a Light On"), and selling almost as much on her own as she did with her original band. That still didn't mean she was out of the game for good: the original Go-Go's reunited for 2001's God Bless The Go-Go's, which featured songwriting contributions from those who The Go-Go's inspired like Susanna Hoffs, Jill Sobule, and Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong.
Michael McDonald (The Doobie Brothers)
Michael McDonald started out as a studio musician, so he knew the importance of hustling. Initially the go-to backing vocalist for Steely Dan, McDonald was brought on to replace The Doobie Brothers' Tom Johnston on tour following an illness, and McDonald's presence became so powerful that he began reshaping the band in his own image, pushing them towards a much poppier sound which in turn lead them to their second chart-topper, "What a Fool Believes." While the debate rages on about if the Johnston or the "McDoobies" era is better, McDonald eventually branched out on his own, giving us the oft-sampled, carefully crafted hit "I Keep Forgettin'" in 1982. McDonald netted a few other solo entries on his own (to say nothing of his abilities as a duet partner), but he found surprising late-era success with his run of Motown cover albums. He still records and performs to this day, so if you book him, he will “Yah Mo B There.”
Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel (Genesis)
No band chemistry is exactly the same, but whenever you change lead singers, a group's artistic being seems to shift right along with it. There are countless examples of this, but Genesis' move from theatrical prog-rockers to syrupy chart-toppers was as big a swing as we've ever seen, as transitioning from the art-rock weirdness of Peter Gabriel to the professional sheen of Phil Collins has certainly made Genesis a distinct entry in rock the rock canon. Both men went on to pursue solo careers, with Gabriel indulging in flights of fancy before turning into an MTV and radio titan with songs like "Solsbury Hill" and "In Your Eyes" while Collins went supernova with stadium anthems like "In the Air Tonight" and even "Sussudio". Sure, both men have netted Oscar nominations (and Collins went on to win), but their career paths are hardly comparable, save for the fact that they both started in a heralded band called Genesis.
Bobby Brown (New Edition)
For a soul-pop boy band like New Edition, it remains fascinating that this one group managed to spin off into two wildly successful standalone ventures: Bobby Brown's solo career and Bell Biv Devoe. While the latter created an all-time classic with the new jack swing-indebted Poison, it was the bad boy of R&B himself who ended up dominating the charts, as his 1988 sophomore solo outing Don't Be Cruel eventually went platinum seven times over, outperforming every album New Edition ever released. Buoyed by his superstar marriage to Whitney Houston, Brown remained a tabloid fixture, his antics and statements bringing him both fame and infamy in equal measure. While he never reached those commercial heights ever again, his legacy lives on, and we were just as surprised as anyone else when Britney Spears put out a cover of his signature song "My Prerogative" as the lead single to her 2004 greatest hits package.
Lou Reed (The Velvet Underground)
The Velvet Underground's last album was called Loaded, as frontman and songwriter Lou Reed obliged a request by the label to start writing more commercial songs, jokingly referring to the resulting pop album as being "loaded with hits." While the band's short and wildly experimental discography has been rightly fetishized, Reed's turn towards solo territory was certainly something that the rock crowd was expecting. Yet what was most astonishing about his turn to independence was just how well he did. Self-admitted Velvet acolyte David Bowie insisted on having a hand in Reed's career, and (along with Mick Ronson) helped produce 1972's Transformer, the Lou Reed album that gave us "Walk on the Wild Side," "Satellite of Love," and "Perfect Day." Reed would put out a litany of other records achieving everything from critical hosannas (1973's Berlin) to outright mockery (his train wreck of a 2011 collaboration with Metallica) to confusion followed by acceptance (the noise-and-feedback album Metal Machine Music). Did Reed ever care if he had a major hit? Probably not, but when you end up with a song on Friends Original TV Soundtrack, he's still the one laughing all the way to the bank.
RZA / GZA / Ghostface Killah / Method Man / Raekwon / Ol' Dirty Bastard (Wu-Tang Clan)
Nothing but respect for Inspectah Deck, U-God, Masta Killa, or perpetual "friend of the group" Cappadonna, but for almost every other member of the Wu-Tang Clan, being a part of this rap collective meant also having a thriving solo career of your own, and for RZA, GZA, Ghostface Killah, Method Man, Raekwon, and the late great Ol' Dirty Bastard, that meant dropping either major chart hits or intense critical favorites. While few things can take away from the iconic status of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), it's also essential to complete your Wu-Tang starter pack by adding Supreme Clientele, Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx..., Tical, Liquid Swords, Bobby Digital in Stereo, and Fishscale to your regular listening rotation. Maybe one day we'll add Once Upon a Time in Shaolin to this list, but that means we'd have to hear it first.
Stevie Nicks (Fleetwood Mac)
Fleetwood Mac is less of a band than it is a family, one where Mick Fleetwood and John McVie sometimes have an "empty nest" as members come and go and come back on a regular basis. Stevie Nicks, however, is the one who ended up having the most viable career outside of the band — but it also didn't hurt that her songs within the band were so distinctively her own. A pet project of producer and future label impresario Jimmy Iovine, Nicks' 1981 solo debut Bella Donna saw Iovine bringing in Tom Petty and a harder rock sound to embellish her pop instincts. The result? The launching pad for a career which would give us "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around," "Edge of Seventeen," and numerous other classics.
Paul McCartney (The Beatles)
When you're a part of the biggest, most influential rock band in recorded history, it's of no surprise that every single member finds at least some degree of success when branching out on their own. John, Paul, George, and Ringo each had their own share of big hits and wild misses in the decades that followed the Fab Four's legendary run, but extra credit goes to Paul McCartney who has managed to extend his reign of the charts both as a solo artist and with his then-new outfit Wings. While Ringo too continues to record following the passing of both John and George, his career is viewed more as a curiosity, as McCartney somehow managed to score a top five hit working with both Rihanna and Jay-Z and his acoustic guitar in 2015. He may not be the critical force he once was, but Sir Paul's legacy is more than secure as he shows no signs of slowing down.
Don Henley (The Eagles)
The Eagles will forever go down as one of the best-selling bands to ever exist, but that success didn't always metastasize into viable solo careers, as Glenn Frey's biggest hits on his own were songs he loaned out to the Miami Vice and Beverly Hills Cop soundtracks. Don Henley, meanwhile, managed to spin out quite a compact legacy of solo standouts, from the synth workout "Dirty Laundry" to "The End of the Innocence" to his enduring charmer "The Boys of Summer." He reunited with his old band a few times in the intervening years but continues releasing solo albums all the same, proving that he truly can't stand still.
Morrissey (The Smiths)
What The Smiths lacked in album sales they more than made up for in influence, spawning numerous soundalike bands during their brief reign in the U.K. (many of whom lead singer Morrissey would handpick to serve as concert openers). While Morrissey's collaborations with guitarist Johnny Marr veered between strummy guitar pop and sonically-innovative rock experiments, Morrissey's solo career was unabashedly commercial in approach, even as his lyrics — as always — oscillated between the poetic and the profane. While The Smiths continued to be lionized and dissected to this day, Morrissey's solo career — for those who are still around following the singer's never-ending run of controversial statements — has been defined by tracks like "Suedehead," "Everyday is Like Sunday," "The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get," and "Irish Blood, English Heart." He is no longer the commercial or critical force he once was, but he's still defiantly, indisputably Morrissey (and no, he will not be reuniting The Smiths anytime soon).
Robbie Williams (Take That)
If you live in North America, there is a very good chance you have never heard of the boyband Take That. Yet if you live anywhere even remotely close to Europe, you probably know everything about them. During their run in the '90s (and especially their reunion in the mid-2000s), they were a constant U.K. chart presence, with virtually every album and every song topping the charts in a near-unprecedented fashion. Robbie Williams, however, figured he could be a viable solo star in his own right, and while he never broke through in America (despite numerous attempts, including his 1999 compilation The Ego Has Landed being named one of EW's 25 Best Music Albums in 25 Years), his clever use of samples (nicking a James Bond song for "Millennium") and winking music videos (the disgusting/amazing "Rock DJ") endeared him to a worldwide audience, In fact, prior to his 2002 release Escapology, he signed a staggering $125 million deal with EMI, which ended up going down as one of the biggest in pop music history. Williams has two words for all of his naysayers: Take That.