10 Musicians Who Got Their Start Playing In The Streets
If you’re low on cash and believe yourself to be an aural visionary, strap up your gunnysack, hop the next plane or 18-wheeler, and get thee to a highly trafficked street corner. If you’re a kid from the suburbs that’s hellbent on proving that you have a marketable excess of soul because you took six months of guitar lessons once when you were 14, this goes double for you. Your tortured genius can be discovered: just become a street performer. Busking, as the gerund goes, is the act of performing on the streets for money, and lots of acts and actors have forged careers from these beginnings. Take a few lessons from these ten musicians who got their start playing in the streets, and you’ll be playing your way to fame via abject poverty in no time flat.
A 4-foot-8 French musical giant, Edith Piaf is the Muhammad Ali of the soulful ballad. The child of a street performer, France’s “little sparrow” was discovered in her teens while singing in the alley outside of a nightclub. She went on to become the most celebrated songbird in all of France. Brought to the minds of a new generation through the biopic La Vie En Rose, for which Marion Cotillard won an Oscar for Best Actress, true fans of the classics have always loved Piaf’s voice. She embodies the soul of Paris, and is unrivaled in her abilities to communicate complex emotions through her timelessly palatable tunes.
Be Sure To Check Out: Piaf’s entire canon of work. Right now. Or, if you’re super lame and only into dramatic retellings stocked with Hollywood’s finest, La Vie En Rose is a pretty good movie. Watch Piaf sing “Milord” below.
The Blue Man Group got their start performing in body paint on the streets and parks of New York City. Inventors of the drumbone and other eccentric instruments, this group of performance artists now supports a production staff of 50, was nominated for a Grammy, and performs to fans and freaks worldwide.
Be Sure To Check Out: The Brazilian band Uakti, precursors to The Blue Man Group, and this wacky video, below.
What is it about the blues that lends itself to street performance? This distinctly American, primitive genre might indeed be best performed by those who have taken to the streets. Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Leadbelly, Blind Lemon Jefferson, B. B. King — many of the greatest (and lesser) blues musicians have gotten their start via busking.
Be Sure To Check Out: Martin Scorsese’s The Blues for PBS is a good introduction, if you’re not already familiar with the genre. For lifelong fans, watch Seasick Steve’s performance on Top Gear for an injection of some new life into your blues repertoire.
For every frat guy with a guitar that has swayed with his friends to “Margaritaville”, you should know that with the magic art of busking (and being friends with Jerry Jeff Walker), you really could be the next Jimmy Buffett. Although he’s now the prophet of the laid-back lifestyle and a frequent wearer of Hawaiian shirts, Buffet got his start performing in the streets of New Orleans in the late ’60s and early ’70s, while working as a journalist and musician in Nashville. Walker famously took Buffett to Key West for a busking expidition in 1971, and the rest is history. Writing autobiographic and poetic mammoths such as “Changes in Latitude, Changes in Attitude” and “Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw,” Buffett parlayed his street performing into a career of music and entrepreneurship.
Be Sure To Check Out: The last 45 minutes of any frat party. You’ll hear ’em all.
Former James Bond and Remington Steele, the crooning Mamma Mia! star got his start playing in the streets — with fire. Legend has it that a fire-eater teaching topless women the art caught Brosnan’s eye, and he signed up to be one as well (a fire-eater, not a topless woman). After street performing for awhile, he was discovered by a circus agent, and from there found his calling as an actor.
Be Sure To Check Out: This video clip of Pierce Brosnan awfully and comically lip-syncing to his own voice.
American folk music and its underrepresented formative place in future genres, politics, and social trends is absolutely grandfathered by the great Woody Guthrie. One of the only good things to ever come out of Oklahoma, Guthrie began his legendary and prolific fascist-hatin’ career by busking there for meals or small change. Father of Arlo, mentor of Bob Dylan, and a fantastic musician in his own right, Guthrie’s philosophy punctuated his un-derivative tunes.
Be Sure To Check Out: Mermaid Avenue, Volumes 1 and 2. British musician, activist, and former busker Billy Bragg and the hip, transcendent Chicago band Wilco cranked out these two albums using found lyrics of Guthrie’s and original melodies of their own.
Do you have a thinly veiled alt-grunge self-indulgent masterpiece just waiting in the wings? If so, you should try your hand at street performing. In the early days of this Wisconsin-based band, the Violent Femmes could often be found playing coffee houses and street corners, and were indeed discovered while busking in 1981 by a member of The Pretenders.
Be Sure To Check Out: The Violent Femmes covering Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy”.
Everyone knows Eminem’s from the streets. A child of Detroit’s trailer park 8 Mile and star of the movie of the same name, Eminem launched one of the most controversial and successful music careers of all time by rap battling after hours near a Detroit junior high school.
Be Sure To Check Out: 8 Mile, if you haven’t seen it.
9. Janis Joplin
The hippies with the most street cred all started out in the streets. Gritty and full of hurt, Joplin’s persona carved out her place in the turbulent times of the ’60s and early ’70s, while her pipes firmly cemented her as one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll/blues/folk singers in history.
Be Sure To Check Out: Festival Express. This incredible documentary has a smattering of great moments from buskers-turned-rockstars, like Janis Joplin and The Grateful Dead.
10. Steve Martin
Not entirely famous for his music, funnyman Steve Martin performed comedy and played banjo on the streets before his big break. Abandoning busking to enjoy a lifetime of success in television and film, long-time lover of bluegrass music has recently set up the Steve Martin Bluegrass Prize for excellence in banjo.
Be Sure To Check Out: Steve Martin narrating a cross-media celebration called The Banjo Project.