23 Songs That Were Secretly Written By Huge Stars
You'll never believe what tune Shel Silverstein wrote.
It’s probably no surprise to you that many artists don’t write their own songs. After all, many of us know that Smokey Robinson penned The Temptations’ iconic “My Girl” and that Carole King was behind Aretha Franklin’s “You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman).” But there are some super well-known names that penned songs for other artists that may have evaded you. For example, did you know Shel Silverstein wrote a song for Johnny Cash? Or that Prince is behind the single that made Sinéad O’Connor famous? Get ready to learn which popular songs were secretly written by huge stars.
Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton’s “Islands in the Stream,” Written by The Bee Gees
When The Bee Gees first set out to craft this fan favorite, inspired by an Ernest Hemingway novel of the same name, they did so with the intention that it would be an R&B song performed by Marvin Gaye, according to an interview band members Robin and Barry Gibb gave to BBC Radio 2. It was only later, in 1983, that Kenny Rogers got ahold of the track and brought in Dolly Parton to help him belt out the Bee Gees-crafted tune that would inevitably give both Rogers and Parton their second No. 1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Rihanna’s “Diamonds,” Co-Written by Sia
The notoriously press-shy Sia is also an incredibly prolific songwriter, having penned a number of hit songs for artists like Beyoncé, Britney Spears, Kylie Minogue, and Rihanna. She co-wrote one of Rihanna’s biggest tracks, the 2012 hit “Diamonds.” In fact, in an interview with The New York Times, Sia opened up about how long this iconic song took her to write—just 14 minutes.
Sinéad O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” Written by Prince
In 1984, Prince first wrote and recorded this song with his backing band, the Family. But it never got much attention. The ballad was eventually handed over to up-and-comer Sinéad O’Connor in 1990, according to The Guardian. After Prince’s passing, the handlers of his estate released a plethora of his lesser-known music—and Prince’s original track was among them.
“Nothing Compares 2 U” was actually an homage to the artist’s housekeeper named Sandy Scipioni, who had to return home to her family when her father had a heart attack. “The line ‘all the flowers that you planted in my back yard went out and died’… it would have been Sandy who planted those flowers,” Prince’s former sound engineer told The Guardian.
David Bowie’s “Fame,” Co-Written by John Lennon
Though it is true that musical icon David Bowie penned most of his most popular hits, it turns out that he also had a bit of help crafting some tunes from his friends in the music industry. In the case of “Fame,” a 1975 single that eventually ended up in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll, Bowie’s friend John Lennon actually helped quite a bit in the songwriting process.
According to a radio interview that Bowie did with Timothy White, Lennon and Bowie met while living in New York City and “Fame” is the result of a one-day session at Electric Lady Studios in January of 1975. Lennon, it turns out, came up with the hook in the famous song.
Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself,” Co-Written by Ed Sheeran
Along with Benny Blanco and Justin Bieber himself, Ed Sheeran also contributed some of his songwriting prowess to this 2015 catchy tune that landed on singles charts in 15 countries around the world. Two years after the song was released, Sheeran actually disclosed in an interview with Carson Daly, as reported on by Billboard, that the song was originally intended for him.
“That was a song I had written for Divide. It just wouldn’t have made it. And then Justin took it and did his thing on it, and released it as a single and made it what it is,” Sheeran said. “So going from a song that would have never been released to the biggest song of last year…it just shows you that you shouldn’t always write stuff off.”
Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable,” Co-Written by Ne-Yo
While crafting her second solo studio album, 2006’s B-Day, Beyoncé enlisted the help of many established musicians, including Ne-Yo, who co-wrote the break-up anthem “Irreplaceable.” And, while Ne-Yo later admitted that he regretted handing over such a powerful and personal song, rather than keeping it for himself, the singer also told Choice FM that the hand-off made him realize bigger things about how men and women perceive break-ups. “I honestly wrote that song for myself,” he admitted. “But that song actually taught me a very interesting lesson—men and women don’t actually think that much differently on the grand scheme of things.”
Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue,” Written by Shel Silverstein
That’s right—one of Johnny Cash’s biggest hits was actually penned by poet and author Shel Silverstein, best known for his children’s literary work. What most people don’t know about Silverstein is that he was also a songwriter. As author Eugene B. Bergman points out in his book Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd, Silverstein was inspired to write this song after his close friend, Jean Shepherd, told him that he was often bullied in school because his name was feminine-sounding.
The song gained international fame after Cash performed a live version during his 1969 concert at California’s San Quentin State Prison.
Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the U.S.A.,” Co-Written by Jessie J
When Miley Cyrus wanted to move beyond her Disney Channel roots, she did so with the help of “Party in the U.S.A.,” co-written by British pop singer Jessie J. At first, Jessie J hoped to record it for herself, but after her version of the song was rejected, she handed it off to already-established Cyrus, who turned it into a chart-topping hit.
In an interview with Glamour U.K., Jessie J admitted that the song earned her quite a bit of money (it helped pay her rent for three years), which is why she inevitably began turning to songwriting to pay the bills. “You’ve got to write songs. That’s where the money is,” she said. “That’s where I get most of my money. I write songs. I’m a singer. I love endorsements and stuff, but that’s all added on.”
Kelly Clarkson’s “Miss Independent,” Co-Written by Christina Aguilera
Along with two other producers at the time, Christina Aguilera helped craft at least a part of “Miss Independent.” It was originally intended to appear on Aguilera’s fourth studio album, Stripped, but it became Kelly Clarkson’s first post-American Idol single in 2003. Clarkson actually finished writing the song, though neither artist knew initially that this switch took place.
“My label at the time didn’t tell me, but I guess the producers and writers started it with her, but then it wasn’t finished,” Clarkson explained during an episode of Watch What Happens Live! in 2018. “I ended up writing the rest and finishing it without even knowing she was on it or ever a part of it.”
Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful,” Written by Linda Perry
Since its release in 2002, Aguilera’s “Beautiful” has managed to win numerous awards for its message of self-empowerment and inner beauty—especially as it relates to the LGBTQIA+ community. This accomplishment makes even more sense when you consider the fact that Linda Perry, an openly gay member of 4 Non Blondes, penned the song and handed it off to Aguilera—despite the fact that it was originally intended for Pink.
“When Christina came over to my house to start working, she asked me to play some songs to break the ice,” Perry told the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). “I had a long conversation with my manager about it. We both decided to hear Christina sing it. … I was like, ‘Wow.’ That rough vocal is what is out there on the radio.” That’s right—the original demo is the one that ended up topping the charts for months.
Cee Lo Green’s “Forget You,” Co-Written by Bruno Mars
Bruno Mars’ songwriting prowess is no secret. His songs—like “Uptown Funk” and “24K Magic”—have been known to be serious ear worms. And, as it turns out, you can also thank the singer for helping to craft yet another incredibly catchy song: “Forget You,” originally performed by Cee Lo Green in 2010.
During an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Green admitted that he wanted to record the song as soon as Mars played it for him in the studio. “They were still a bit indecisive on whether or not it could work at all,” Green told EW. “I was like, ‘I like it. Let’s record it.'”
UB40’s “Red Red Wine,” Written by Neil Diamond
When the popular reggae song “Red Red Wine” was first released in 1983, the members of UB40 were not even aware that they were covering a song originally written by Neil Diamond. After all, the musician’s roster of material strayed pretty far from the reggae genre.
Astro (AKA Terence Wilson), a longtime member of UB40, told Billboard, he didn’t even connect the dots when he noticed that the song credit was marked as “N. Diamond.” “You could’ve knocked us out with a feather when we found out it was actually Neil Diamond,” he said.
Nelly’s “Hot in Herre,” Co-Written by Pharrell Williams
Pharrell Williams has helped penned hits for Gwen Stefani (“Hollaback Girl”), Britney Spears (“I’m a Slave 4 U”), and yes, even Nelly (“Hot in Herre”). As far as Nelly’s famous track goes, the rapper admitted to The Fader that Williams’ track barely made it onto his wildly popular 2002 album, Nellyville.
“I knew that we are missing something,” he told The Fader. “We missing something. We don’t have the fuse to the bomb. We called up Pharrell. Pharrell was a good friend of ours, and then he came with the Chuck Brown [beat]. Pharrell said something about, ‘You gotta have the girls add some ‘Getting so hot.'” Of course, Nelly complied. Decades later, the song still gets crowds dancing in all corners of the globe.
Britney Spears’ “Till The World Ends,” Co-Written by Kesha
In more recent years, Kesha has managed to show the world a more serious and grounded side of herself. And she’s also lent her talents to other musicians—like Britney Spears.
The “Tik Tok” singer helped pen Spears’ 2011 comeback hit, “Till The World Ends.” In an interview with MTV shortly after the song came out, Kesha divulged that she wrote this song with the specific intention of helping Spears find her footing in the music industry once again. “That song is me imagining her and any female musician touring the world,” she said. “You know, when you go out, and you’re having an amazing, magical night and you don’t want to go to sleep and you want it to last until the world ends.”
Whitney Houston’s “Exhale (Shoop Shoop),” Written by Babyface
Penned by Babyface in 1995, “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)” was featured on the soundtrack for the film Waiting to Exhale, starring Whitney Houston. Initially, according to Fred Bronson’s book The Billboard Book of Number 1 Hits, Houston was not even interested in singing on the soundtrack because she wanted to focus more on her acting. But Babyface was persistent in persuading her to change her mind.
“When Whitney first heard the song, she figured I’d lost it—I couldn’t come up with words anymore. And, actually, she’s right. I couldn’t think of anything for that particular part. It felt like it should groove there. But I knew it couldn’t groove without any vocals, so I started humming along with it and that’s what happened,” Babyface told Bronson. “The ‘shoops’ came. But they felt so good, I thought ‘Why not?’ It doesn’t have to mean anything.” Houston was sold and so were we.
One Direction’s “Little Things,” Co-Written by Ed Sheeran
From the moment that boy band One Direction gained international fame, fellow pop star Ed Sheeran was right by their side, helping to penn heartfelt ballads like “Little Things” and “Moments” that ultimately did big things for the burgeoning pop group. While speaking with Capital FM in 2012, Sheeran explained how his song ended up on One Direction’s second album, Take Me Home.
“The great thing about it is I wrote that song with a girl called Fiona Bevan when I was 17 and we lost the song. I’ve kept in touch with Fiona—we’ve done gigs and stuff—and about two months ago she sent me the tune and was like, ‘Oh, do you remember this?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I do remember that,'” he said. “I was in the studio with the One Direction boys at the time and I was playing it and they were like ‘We really like that.'”
Beyoncé’s “Halo,” Co-Written by Ryan Tedder
Aside from being one of the most beloved musicians of all time, Beyoncé has proven time and again that she knows how to assemble the perfect team to lead her to infinite success. Case in point: The star’s recruitment of OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder to co-write one of her biggest hits, 2008’s “Halo.”
“Evan Bogart and I were super close friends,” Tedder told Billboard in 2014. “He was having his explosion as a songwriter, and I texted him and said, ‘My wife’s gone for three hours, will you come over? Let’s write one song’…I had this idea for a patch of this weird choir of angels thing, started playing it and within three hours we had ‘Halo.'”
Diana Ross’ “Chain Reaction,” Written by The Bee Gees
From “Islands in the Stream” to Diana Ross’ “Chain Reaction,” The Bee Gees have lent their creative musical powers to some of the greatest artists of all time throughout the past few decades. Though the trio wasn’t so sure about how successful “Chain Reaction” would be when they first handed it over to Ross in 1985, it became a colossal hit for the singer, remaining on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for weeks. (Fun fact: The Bee Gees also provided background vocals for “Chain Reaction”).
Kelly Clarkson’s “Breakaway,” Co-Written by Avril Lavigne
It’s true. The icon of teen angst, Avril Lavigne, actually wrote one of America’s sweethearts, Kelly Clarkson’s, biggest hits to date—2004’s “Breakaway.” Though it was intended to be on Lavigne’s 2002 debut album, Let Go, it eventually went to Clarkson in the end, as co-writer Bridget Benenate explained in an interview with Songwriter Universe. “Avril talked about her life and what things were important to her—she was the inspiration for the song,” says Benenate. “I remember staying in bed for three days, writing 25 versions of the lyric.”
Rihanna’s “Disturbia,” Co-Written by Chris Brown
Chris Brown and Rihanna’s relationship ended in 2009 in a domestic dispute that resulted in Brown pleading guilty to felony assault charges. But before things took a turn for the worse, Brown, along with the help of a few other songwriters, wrote on of Rihanna’s biggest hits: “Disturbia.” He intended for it to appear on the re-release of his 2007 album, Exclusive. However, upon hearing the final version of the song, Brown decided that the track would sound better sung by a woman. He opted to hand the single over to his then-pal, Rihanna, for her Good Girl Gone Bad album—and she apparently loved it.
“It was the first time that Rihanna actually came to me and said, ‘Here’s the song I want to put out,'” L.A. Reid, the head of Rihanna’s record company, Def Jam, told MTV in 2009. “She played me the song. That was her taking control, even on her last album. She understands what hits are, and she knows what she wants to say. She’s at that place where she can do it.”
The Bangles’ “Manic Monday,” Written by Prince
Using the pseudonym “Christopher,” Prince originally crafted this pop tune for Apollonia 6, performing it as a duet with members of the group in 1984. He later decided to scrap it completely, but it inevitably found its way into the hands of The Bangles, according to Per Nilsen’s novel Dance Music Sex Romance: Prince: The First Decade.
Though it was rumored that Prince gave the song to The Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs in an effort to woo her, fellow member Debbi Peterson explained in an interview with MTV U.K. that he gave the song to the group because he liked their music. “He liked the song ‘Hero Takes a Fall,’ which is a great compliment because we liked his music. He contacted us, and said, ‘I’ve got a couple of songs for you. I’d like to know if you’re interested,’ and of course, we were,” Peterson said, as reported in Christopher Feldman’s Billboard Book of Number Two Singles. “One of the songs Prince brought to the group was ‘Manic Monday.'”
The Monkees’ “I’m a Believer,” Written by Neil Diamond
The original version of this song was written by Neil Diamond and performed by The Monkees in 1966—decades before Smash Mouth ever sang it for Shrek. The original song managed to remain at the No. 1 spot on the Billboard charts for an impressive seven weeks before inevitably becoming the biggest-selling record for all of 1967.
Fifth Harmony’s “Sledgehammer,” Co-Written by Meghan Trainor
This catchy song performed by girl group Fifth Harmony was actually co-written by Meghan Trainor. It was intended to appear on her 2014 solo debut album, Title, though it was eventually replaced by “All About That Bass,” Trainor disclosed in an interview with Official Charts Company. Since her label, Epic Records, decided against using that song in her debut album, Trainor made the decision to give the song to another group of artists in need of a statement single.
“As a songwriter, that was the sort of stuff I was writing. Imagine eight ‘Sledgehammer’ songs—that’s what I had—and when I told my parents ‘All About That Bass’ was the song the label wanted to go with, they were like, ‘Huh? Really? That song?” she said. And for more surprising music, here are 30 Actors You Never Knew Released Albums.
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