Beyoncé, Harry Styles and the High Risk of Going Solo

Leaving a successful group can make you iconic — unless it doesn’t.

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Photo: Instagram/Ashi Studio

Solitude, like silence, is golden, but in music it doesn’t always yield gold and platinum rewards. If you’re used to being part of a well-known group, and fans are accustomed to seeing you that way, too, going solo can be risky. Even if you manage to scrounge up a hit or four on your own, like The Doobie Brothers’ Michael McDonald, Chicago’s Peter Cetera and Journey’s Steve Perry did in the ’80s, chances are you’ll still end up crouching in the shadow of your former band, like McDonald, Cetera, and Perry.

On the other hand, life after a boy band or girl group could mean pulling a Michael Jackson or a Beyoncé and becoming arguably the biggest pop star on the planet, or, like former Supreme Diana Ross and ex-NSYNC-er Justin Timberlake, scoring a string of solo hits and an Oscar nomination (respectively, Best Actress for Lady Sings the Blues and Best Original Song for the Trolls track “Cant Stop the Feeling!”).

One Direction’s Harry Styles, whose critically acclaimed second solo album, Fine Line, became his second consecutive US chart-topper this year, is headed in the right direction. Four of the five former 1D members have enjoyed Top 20 solo hits in the US, but Styles is the only one for whom solo longevity seems practically preordained.

Typically, though, there’s commercial — and sometimes creative — safety in numbers. That might be why Chrissie Hynde took 34 years to release an album that wasn’t credited to The Pretenders, and why many acts play it safer by pursuing solo careers without leaving their groups. It’s probably why Bobby Brown, David Lee Roth, Donald Fagen, Lou Gramm, and Michael McDonald couldn’t stay away from their respective groups, New Edition, Van Halen, Steely Dan, Foreigner, and The Doobie Brothers forever and why Eagles regrouped in 1994 after 14 years apart.

Jennifer Warnes has never been a member of a top-selling group, but she’s better known for her duets with male partners — Joe Cocker (1982’s number-one Oscar winner “Up Where We Belong”), Bill Medley (1987’s number-one Oscar winner “[I’ve Had] the Time of My Life”), and Leonard Cohen (numerous albums, including 1984’s Various Positions) — than she is for her work as a swinging single (despite successful solo turns like the 1977 number-six hit “Right Time of the Night” and the 1979 Oscar-winning Norma Rae track “It Goes Like It Goes”).

Established solo superstars Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, and Dolly Parton sounded even better in near-perfect harmony together (on 1987’s Trio) than they did at the top of their games apart (on 1974’s Heart Like a Wheel, 1977’s Luxury Liner, and 1999’s The Grass Is Blue, respectively). Chemistry oozed from the pores of the Lindsey Buckingham-Stevie Nicks version of Fleetwood Mac, and like New Edition, they remain a bigger draw together (with or without Buckingham) than any past or present member. And don’t get me started on Duran Duran, whose four spin-offs acts — Arcadia, Power Station and one-Top 40 hit wonders John and Andy Taylor — were no match for the main attraction.

Steve Perry will go down in history as the voice behind Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” not his own “Oh Sherrie,” “Foolish Heart,” or “If Only for a Moment Girl,” one of his strongest ballads and track 2 on the 1985 We Are the World album. I adore Gwen Stefani and Fergie, but even at the height of their solo success, it was hard not to think of them in the context of No Doubt and the Black Eyed Peas, respectively.

Some singers become so synonymous with the group to which they belong, that it becomes nearly impossible to separate one from the other. A friend once spotted a celebrity lookalike in Bangkok and referred to him as Simply Red, unaware that he meant Mick Hucknall, Simply Red’s lead singer, who later took Rod Stewart’s place as the lead singer of the reunited Faces.

Oh, and since we’re on the subject of silky smooth ’80s Brit-soul acts that outlived that decade, Sade is the band, not just Sade Adu, its lead singer, who has never had a hit of her own.

She probably could, though, since everyone already thinks of her as a solo act. Eric Clapton, likewise, is mostly thought of as a party of one, despite his past as a member of legendary bands, including Cream, Derek and the Dominos, The Yardbirds, and Blind Faith, which featured fellow member of multiple massive bands-turned-solo superstar Steve Winwood. Unprecedentedly, Clapton was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo act and as a member of two bands (Cream and The Yardbirds).

Who besides rock critics, rock historians, baby boomers, and Mick Hucknall remembers Rod Stewart was in Faces before he launched into the pop and rock stratosphere on his own? Anyone familiar with LaBelle’s original version of “Lady Marmalade” know Patti LaBelle was the leader of the ’70s trio, but how many of them realize that before she was in LaBelle, she was in another hit-making girl group, Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles? Although both of her number ones on Billboard’s Hot 100 were collaborations (“Lady Marmalade” and “On My Own,” her 1986 duet with Michael McDonald), when most fans think of her, they probably think of her, well, on her own.

Perhaps it was easier for them to branch out from their group roots and prosper because Eric Clapton’s former bands were all so short-lived, Stewart launched his Faces’ and solo recording careers concurrently, and both of LaBelle’s former acts bore her name — Adam Ant/Adam and the Ants and Sade Adu/Sade style. In a sense, there was never any real shadow from which they had to emerge. Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever was a huge hit in 1989, but was it really much different from a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album, in sound and in credits? Nearly all of the Heartbreakers appeared on it.

All four former Beatles, The Commodores’ Lionel Richie, Genesis’s Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins, and The Police’s Sting enjoyed successful solo careers that in some cases (Collins and Richie), outshined their former supergroups commercially. With John Lennon and Paul McCartney, new classics were launched, while Sting’s 1987 Album of the Year Grammy nominee …Nothing Like the Sun remains the best thing he’s ever done, in and out of The Police.

But for every uber-successful Alison Moyet (Yazoo), Annie Lennox (Eurythmics), Belinda Carlisle (Go-Go’s), Björk (Sugarcubes), Ben E. King (The Drifters), Camila Cabello (Fifth Harmony), Curtis Mayfield (The Impressions), Don Henley and Glenn Frey (Eagles), George Michael (Wham!), Kenny Loggins (Loggins and Messina), Jeffrey Osborne (LTD), Kenny Rogers (The First Edition), Lauryn Hill (Fugees), Paul Simon, Smokey Robinson (The Miracles), Stevie Nicks (Fleetwood Mac), Teddy Pendergrass (Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes), Vince Gill (Pure Prairie League), Wynonna Judd, and Cher, there seems to be at least two group members-turned-solo acts who enjoyed only limited solo success and many more who didn’t.

That long list includes two former Temptations (David Ruffin and Dennis Edwards, both outshined on Billboard’s Hot 100 by Eddie Kendricks), two Bee Gees (Barry and Robin Gibb, despite sporadic attempts, never quite took off as solo acts), Andy Bell (Erasure), Billy Corgan (Smashing Pumpkins), Bonnie Pointer, Courtney Love (Hole), Daryl Hall, David Byrne (Talking Heads), Gladys Knight, James “J.T.” Taylor (Kool & the Gang), Jane Wiedlin (Go-Go’s), Jay Ferguson (Spirit and Jo Jo Gunne), Maria McKee (Lone Justice), Mick Jagger (The Rolling Stones), Pete Townshend (The Who), Peter Wolf (The J. Geils Band), Randy Meisner and Timothy B. Schmidt (Eagles), Roger Daltry (The Who), Susannah Hoffs (Bangles), Tommy Lee and Vince Neil (Mötley Crüe), and so many more, including any former member of Fleetwood Mac not named Stevie Nicks and any former member of New Edition not once married to Whitney Houston.

The Guess Who spawned two solo hitmakers (Burton Cummings and Randy Bachman, who went to number one with Bachman Turner Overdrive’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” in 1974), but neither made hits for long. Former Jackson 5 member Jermaine Jackson’s solo run might seem bigger than modest if we didn’t have Michael Jackson’s to compare it to. All five Spice Girls achieved similarly respectable solo success without ever escaping the long shadow cast by the legendary girl group.

Daniel Ash (Bauhaus, Tones on Tail, Love and Rockets), Richard Ashcroft (Verve), Róisín Murphy (Moloko), and Tracey Thorn (Everything But the Girl) didn’t have quite as iconic a start to live up to as the Jacksons and the Spice Girls. Disappointingly, they all achieved only a middling-to-modest level of success alone, despite releasing excellent solo efforts.

Meanwhile, Barry Gibb, The Cars’ Rick Ocasek, ELO’s Jeff Lynne, Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart, 4 Non Blondes’ Linda Perry, and Talking Heads’ Jerry Harrison found their solo success not as recording artists but behind the scenes, as producers and/or songwriters.

Robbie Williams was the only member of Take That to enjoy sustained solo success in the UK, but, as Bobby Brown previously had done, he later temporarily rejoined the boy band 10 years ago for a new studio album and tour. A Morrissey reunion with The Smiths is even more unlikely than a Justin Timberlake rematch with NSYNC, but as enduring as Morrissey’s solo career has been, his legend largely rests on his five years as a member of The Smiths.

Other rockers from the punk and post-punk eras on have done best after leaving one ensemble by forming another one: John Lydon of Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd, Mick Jones of The Clash and Big Audio Dynamite, Paul Weller of The Jam and Style Council, Bernard Sumner of Joy Division, New Order, and Electronic (the latter of which featured Johnny Marr, previously Morrissey’s cohort in The Smiths), Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club, Daniel Ash of Bauhaus, Tones on Tail, and Love and Rockets, Tanya Donnelly of Throwing Muses and Belly, Kim Deal of Pixies and Breeders, Chris Cornell of Soundgarden and Audioslave, Dave Grohl of Nirvana and Foo Fighters, Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz, Neil Finn of Split Enz, Crowded House, and, more recently, Fleetwood Mac, and on the poppier side, Vince Clarke of Depeche Mode, Yazoo, and Erasure, and Siobhan Fahey of Bananarama and Shakespears Sister.

And then there’s White Stripe Jack White, who, though never a member of another hit-making band, moonlighted with country queen Loretta Lynn and Alicia Keys on the Grammy-winning 2004 album Van Lear Rose and the 2008 Quantum of Solace James Bond theme “Another Way to Die,” respectively, before White Stripes split in 2011. Although he finally scored a number-one album and an Album of the Year Grammy nomination with 2012’s solo Blunderbuss, he’ll likely still forever be best known and most highly regarded for his work with Meg White in White Stripes.

Decades before Beyoncé pulled out of Destiny’s Child, Diana Ross became one of the few singers to score a number-one single and be nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award, both of which happened after she left The Supremes and before Cher and Lady Gaga did the same.

As much as I love me some solo Ross, and although her run of singles from 1980’s “Upside Down” to 1985’s “Chain Reaction” is as sturdy any other superstar’s during that same period, it’s her work with The Supremes for which she’s best remembered. It’s why she’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and if I were banished to a deserted island with only one Ross-associated CD for musical company, it would be one of The Supremes’ definitive collections.

Actually, it wouldn’t kill me to hang out on that deserted island with something solo by Robert Plant, who finally won the Album of the Year Grammy for Raising Sand, his 2007 collaboration with Allison Krauss. It’s an honor that eluded Led Zeppelin, his former band, which was never even nominated in the category, or any other besides 1970’s Best New Artist contest, which it lost to Crosby, Stills & Nash, a classic example of a band whose sum was greater than its solo parts.

Maybe it’s because I was too young to really appreciate Led Zeppelin until after the fact, but I’d rather listen to Plant’s solo output from 1982’s Pictures at Eleven to 1993’s Fate of Nations than any of his albums with Led Zeppelin, the sound of which he wisely never tried to reproduce on his own. But that’s just me. In the general scheme of things, how do you top Led Zeppelin?

Which brings us back to Destiny’s Child — and someday I hope Beyoncé ends up back there, too. Am I the only one who totally misses them? She’s had her solo moments (as has her former groupmate Kelly Rowland), but I still feel Destiny Child’s sum was just as great as its individual parts. As inspiring as all that talk about autonomy on “Independent Women” was around the turn of the century, we all could use another “Soldier” right about now.

Written by

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa”

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