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Stars who broke away from their original groups in search of success in their own right

Even pop stars that arrive fully formed, seemingly from nowhere, have a story to tell. For every star there is almost always a formative period, whether cutting their teeth as an unknown singer, making a living as a session musician, or performing in a band with friends from the same scene. But inevitably, there comes a time when that urge to break free from creative differences, royalty disagreements, relative obscurity, or myriad other reasons, takes over. The star-to-be says goodbye to the band, sometimes risking it all, and strikes off on their own.

A recent example is Zayn Malik who, in 2016, became the first One Direction member to put out a solo track, citing creative differences as a reason for the group’s split. Whether or not Malik will indeed reach the dizzy heights of solo success achieved by those on this list, it's too early to say. But his debut single 'Pillowtalk' was certainly a good start. With solid production and songwriting, and a pleasingly dark edge that starkly contrasts the sunny teen-pop of his old band, the R&B track helped him become the first British male to debut at number one in both the UK and US.

Others aren't so lucky. Despite chart success as a boy band, The Backstreet Boys' solo efforts failed to leave a lasting impression. The story was the same for Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams, who, despite Rowland’s successful duet with Nelly, were somewhat overshadowed by the blinding success of their Destiny's Child counterpart Beyoncé.

When it comes down to it, you have to have the charisma and creativity to hold your own. With no band mates to share the spotlight, all eyes are on you – and it really is sink or swim! For that reason, the artists on this list are all, unsurprisingly, renowned in their genres and respected by industry peers. Here's how they managed to go from band members to solo superstars...

Dusty Springfield
Son of A Preacher Man [1969]

Perhaps the greatest white soul singer of her time, Dusty Springfield's impeccable voice and adaptability ensured that her music transcended her image as a ‘60s fashionista in the decades that followed. Along with her brother, Springfield was in British folk trio The Springfields (from which she took her name) and enjoyed early success when the band became one of the UK’s best-selling.

Shortly after they cracked the US top ten, the singer quit to pursue a solo career, allegedly after seeing the power and soulfulness of the Motown acts. Her quintessential 1969 'blue-eyed soul' album Dusty in Memphis sealed her reputation as an all-time great and spawned this classic hit – a pop gem that showcases Springfield's sultry voice over sparse guitars, slinky basslines, pared back drums and horns that simmer in the mix. Its use by Quentin Tarantino in the ‘90s classic Pulp Fiction continued Springfield's legacy for a new generation.

Peter Gabriel
Solsbury Hill [1977]

The story goes that Peter Gabriel – eccentric frontman of progressive rock band Genesis – was sitting atop a hill minding his own business, when he was struck by an epiphany: quit the band, go solo, and name your debut single after that very hill.

"I was feeling part of the scenery," sings Gabriel, who used to dress as a tree as part of Genesis's increasingly experimental performances. "I fell right out of the machinery, my heart going boom boom boom." Opening with delicate acoustic guitars, panpipes and a gently thumping bass drum, the song builds and builds, morphing into an energized concoction of overdriven guitars, tribal rhythms and strange vocal noises; the sound of a free artist about to do great things with his newfound independence.

Rod Stewart
Do Ya Think I’m Sexy? [1978]

With a voice like that, Rod Stewart was always going to be a huge pop star. Even when performing in The Faces – which included Ronnie Wood (later of the Rolling Stones) – Stewart was releasing solo material simultaneously, often causing friction within the group. Playing sloppy-drunk rock and roll, the Faces were a rag-tag bunch of likely lads – an image that didn’t fit too well with Stewart’s ambitions to be a bigger star. They held things together until 1976, when they released their brilliant final album Ooh La La, after which Stewart concentrated on his solo efforts, embarking on a career that would turn him into one of the biggest pop stars of all time.

But gone were the days of his folk-influenced work like 1971’s ‘Maggie May’ – it was time for Disco Rod. ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?’ became a huge hit, throwing disco beats, saxophone and clean pop production into the mix. If you need to get the grandmas on the dance-floor, you can bet this track will do the job!

Michael Jackson
Billie Jean [1983]

One of pop’s most iconic stars was already famous by the time he broke away from The Jackson 5 (by then called The Jacksons) in pursuit of a solo career. But that didn’t stop him going on to achieve unprecedented levels of success. Certainly his hit-packed back catalogue was both critically acclaimed and commercially successful, but Jackson also broke down racial barriers, transformed the previously contrived music video format into an artform, and (let’s not forget) popularised the ‘moonwalk’.

You just know that when Billie Jean’s signature bass line drops and that groove kicks in, your dance-floor will fill; the King of Pop’s tale of parental denial is, according to keyboard player Greg Phillinganes, “hot on every level [...] It affects you physically, emotionally, even spiritually.”

Englishman In New York [1988]

The Police, one of pop’s ultimate power trios, were once pronounced ‘The Biggest Band in The World’ by the press, following their sold out Shea Stadium gigs at the height of their pop culture power in 1983. Sting, understandably, felt that they’d “reached their Everest,” as he put it. So, he stuck the band on hiatus, abandoned their sixth album, and decided to enjoy the musical freedom his fame had given him.

Sting’s first effort was a jazz-fusion project, but there was always a pop edge to his work and his second album, …Nothing But the Sun, found UK number one. ‘Englishman In New York’ soon became the musician’s best-known solo track, combining reggae rhythms, plucked strings, jazzy saxophone lines and quintessentially British lyrics (“I don’t drink coffee, I take tea, my dear”) to perfectly capture the sense of ‘foreigness’ felt by the song’s subject – the eccentric gay icon Quentin Crisp – when he first moved to New York. It’s a Sting classic, but just one of many – the singer has sold 350 million records worldwide.
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The full review can be found in Pro Mobile Issue 97, Pages 50-53.


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