MMM Top Ten: 10 Rejected Musicians Who Became Successful

Like everyone else living on this planet, successful artists also know what it’s like to be rejected – some better than others. Here are ten musicians rejected by record labels, the Army, classmates, and audition juries.

#10. Tori Kelly

Photo Credit: Elizabeth Miranda

The Californian singer auditioned on season nine of American Idol back in 2010, but got a no from Simon Cowell, who described her voice as “downright annoying.” She was eventually eliminated from the competition before the final Top 24 but recovered after independently releasing her self-produced EP, Handmade Songs, in 2012. In 2013, she signed with Capital Records, and her debut album, 2015’s Unbreakable Smile, peaked at number two on the Billboard 200 chart.

#9. The Supremes

Photo Credit: James Kriegsmann/Michael Ochs Archives

The legendary girl group who could challenge even the Beatles in terms of popularity during the mid-‘60s won the Windsor-Detroit International Freedom Festival in 1960, under the name “The Primettes.” After getting Miracles’ lead singer Smokey Robinson to arrange an audition for Motown executive Berry Gordy, which eventually only lead them to lose their guitarist Marvin Tarplin, who joined the Miracles. Robinson and Gordy liked the girls too but felt that they were too young and inexperienced to land a record contract. Gordy asked them to come back after finishing school – understandably since the group’s leader, Diana Ross, was only 16 years old at the time – but the girl group went on to record a successful single for Lu Pine Records, and in 1961 Gordy finally relented and agreed to sign the girls.

#8. Missy Elliott

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Once rejected as a singer early in her career for being “too fat” according to a record executive, the legendary Virginia rapper, songwriter, and record producer would go on the become one of the most influential people in 21st-century hip-hop music and albums such as Miss E… So Addictive (2001) and Under Construction (2002) eventually earned her a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

#7. Viagra Boys

Photo Credit: Dani Hansen

The Swedish punk rock band recently released their widely acclaimed third album Cave World and has been touring the world for years. Eventually, their R-rated band name caused problems early on in their career. The name was originally chosen as a pun for mans’ failed role in society, but according to singer Sebastian Murphy, the name caused their emails to appear in the dumpster whenever they tried to email someone. Despite this, the group kept its name, and today, they are one of the most prominent names on the post-punk revival scene.

#6. Janis Joplin

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Ex-Dallas Cowboys football coach Jimmy Johnson bullied 1960’s hippie icon, Janis Joplin, while they were students at the same Texas high school during the late-‘50s. Suffering from being overweight and having acne left her with deep scars that required dermabrasion and her classmates gave her nicknames like “pig,” “freak,” and “beats weeds,” referring to her pubic hair. It’s hard to imagine the suffering Janis must have gone through. According to Johnson, she usually just laughed it off, as if she knew that fame was waiting for her. It was, indeed. With songs like “Mercedes-Benz” and “Piece of My Heart,” Joplin would establish herself as one of the most gifted singers of all time.

#5. Stephen Stills

Photo Credit: Steve Morley / Redferns

If his name doesn’t ring any bells, his work surely does. Best known for his work with Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Stills has sold over 35 million albums and became the first person to be inducted twice with his groups on the same night into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But in fact, a missing tooth nearly robbed him of a career in music. While auditioning for the popular boy band the Monkees in 1966, the promoters – more interested in good-looking young men than talented musicians – rejected him because of his scare of going to the dentist.

#4. Bon Scott

Photo Credit: FG / Bauer-Griffin

AC/DC’s wild-spirited, hard-living original singer who tragically died in 1980, shortly after releasing the classic album Highway to Hell, spent some time behind bars in 1963 relating to charges of giving a false name and address to the police and stealing 12 imperial gallons of petrol. When trying to get back on his feet by joining the Australian Army, he was rejected and deemed “socially maladjusted.” 

#3. Nick Drake

Photo Credit: Keith Morris / PR image

The English singer-songwriter was rejected by record labels, critics, radio stations, and the public – all at various stages of his career – and unfortunately, redemption didn’t come until after his death at 26 years old when artists such as Robert Smith of the Cure and Peter Buck of R.E.M. recognized him as a major source of influence. NME criticized his debut, 1969’s Five Leaves Left, for being not varied enough, and the follow-up, 1971’s Bryter Layter, was described by Melody Maker as “an awkward mix of folk and cocktail jazz.” His record label, Island Records, neither expected nor wanted a third album, but he would eventually deliver the tapes of Pink Moon – his tragic masterpiece and final record – to Chris Blackwell at Island Records in 1972 before committing suicide in November 1974. Neither of his albums sold more than 5,000 copies on initial release. Today, the title track from Pink Moon has over 140 million Spotify streams.

#2. Madonna

Photo Credit: Deborah Feingold / Corbis

Another famous rejection story is that of Madonna – the Queen of pop. In 1978, Madonna dropped out of college and moved to New York City. “I came here with $35 in my pocket,” Madonna said, describing it as “the bravest thing I’d ever done.” However, her new life in a new city was off to a tough start. She was working at Dunkin’ Donuts and took dance classes while trying to make it as a singer. Jimmy Lerner of Millenium Records turned down her early demo tape, criticizing the record for “lacking material.” Ironically, one of the demos was “Material Girl,” a song that would eventually top the U.S. Billboard Hot Dance Music chart and catapult a career that would sell her 300 million albums worldwide. Dammit, Jimmy.

#1. Nina Simone

Photo Credit: David Redfern / Redferns

Everybody knows the classic story of how Nina Simone was rejected for studying at Juilliard’s Music School, according to the artist herself attributed to racism, only to become one of the most celebrated protest singers of the ‘60s on her own with songs such as “Mississippi Goddamn” and “My Baby Just Cares for Me.” Just days before her death in 2003, she was awarded an honorary degree at the institute.

Written by: Douglas Dahlström

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