It’s hard to separate iconic songs from the artists who made them famous. For example, can you imagine anyone other than Celine Dion belting out "My Heart Will Go On" for the Titanic soundtrack? Or picture a world in which Donna Summer was not the hitmaker behind "Last Dance"? Certain songs just feel like they were made for certain people. Yet so many of the big hits we know today were originally written for other musicians.
In some cases, the intended artist rejected the song outright; in others, the creative vision for the track evolved through the writing and producing process. Whatever the reason, these popular songs ended up with different performers than the songwriters initially imagined — but we wouldn't have it any other way.
The Pointer Sisters’ “Fire” Was for Elvis Presley
The Boss wrote for the King? Bruce Springsteen was so inspired after watching Elvis Presley perform that he wrote “Fire” specifically for him. “I sent [Elvis] a demo of it, but he died before it arrived,” Springsteen said. The "Born to Run" singer then recorded the track himself for his 1978 album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, but it didn’t make the cut. Instead, the Pointer Sisters took the song and turned it into a Billboard chart-topper for 14 weeks in 1979.
The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” Was for Diana Ross
The Jackson 5 often collaborated with a Motown Records production group called the Corporation. The group had written a song titled “I Wanna be Free,” with Motown artists Diana Ross or Gladys Knight & the Pips in mind. But when Motown Records founder Berry Gordy heard it, he had other ideas. He told producers to change up the song for the Jackson sibling group, thus giving birth to 1969’s “I Want You Back.”
Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” Was Intended for a Female Singer
Diane Warren is the powerhouse songwriter behind many infectious hits, including Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time” and Celine Dion’s “Because You Loved Me.” So it should come as no surprise that when she was asked to pen a song for the 1998 film Armageddon, Warren envisioned a power ballad sung by a female. “Never in a million years [would I have] thought Aerosmith would do it,” she told Rolling Stone. “It’s so much more powerful with Steven Tyler — him being that vulnerable in the song really worked. I remember the first time hearing it and just being literally knocked off my chair with how great that was.
Patti Smith’s “Because the Night” Was for Bruce Springsteen
In 1977, music producer Jimmy Iovine was simultaneously working on Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town and Patti Smith’s Easter, and he decided to ask Springsteen for a track for Smith’s album. “He drove me out towards Coney Island, somewhere, and he asked if he could send the E Street Band’s recording of the unfinished ‘Because the Night’ to Patti Smith,” Springsteen said on SiriusXM’s E Street Radio. “Now Jimmy had, has always had, and still has some very sly ears. Now me, I had a nice hook and a melody on a song that I could not finish the lyrics for.”
Smith took the draft and transformed it into a love song for her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith. “It wouldn’t have been a hit if I had finished it and released it,” Springsteen added. “It needed a woman’s voice, it needed Patti’s voice and her vision. She turned it into something that I alone could never have created.”
Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know” Was for Janet Jackson
In the 1980s, George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam, a divorced couple who were once in a Seattle band called Boy Meets Girl, were asked by their publishing company to write a song for Janet Jackson. “We just wrote for what we knew of Janet’s voice and style,” Rubicam told BBC. “But she took such a different musical direction on that record, which became her Control album, that they turned down our song.”
Luckily for them, however, record producer Clive Davis heard the song and thought it would be perfect for his recent protégé, Whitney Houston. “There was a buzz,” Merrill said. “People who had heard her and seen her were excited. But we were concerned it wouldn't work out as well as it might have with Janet Jackson.”
Then one day, the phone rang with a recording of Houston’s voice. “Even down the telephone, I'd never heard anyone sing like that,” Rubicam said. “Whitney added her power punch to it … I'd put a few ad-libs in on the guide vocal track, but she embellished them and made them her own. She sang the hell out of it.” The song was included on Houston’s self-titled 1985 album and became her second No. 1 single.
Madonna’s “Holiday” Was for Mary Wilson
Curtis Hudson and Lisa Stevens-Crowder wrote “Holiday” for their group, Pure Energy, but their label passed on it. Their friend DJ John “Jellybean” Benitez, who was dating Madonna at the time, said he would help find a good home for the song. “I originally played it for Mary Wilson from the Supremes,” Benitez told The New York Post. “She liked it, but she wasn’t in love with it.”
Around that time, Madonna still needed more tracks for her 1983 debut album, so Benitez played it for her. The Material Girl loved the song and released it as the album’s third single, and the tune stayed on the Billboard Hot 100 for 21 weeks.
Britney Spears’ “...Baby One More Time” Was for TLC
A 16-year-old Britney Spears changed pop music history when her 1998 debut single “...Baby One More Time” hit the airwaves. Along with its schoolgirl music video, the song immediately turned the previously innocent Mousekeeter into MTV royalty. But the track wasn’t originally intended as a solo endeavor. Songwriters Max Martin and Rami Yacoub wrote it for TLC, who were best known for their “Baby-Baby-Baby” song at the time.
But the group was not into the lyrics. “It's good for her. But was I going to say, ‘Hit me baby one more time?’ Hell no!” Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins told MTV in 2013. And it was never anything personal — it simply wasn’t the right match. “Every song isn't good for each artist, and when you're a real artist, you know what you believe in and what you really want to sing,” she added. “I'm clear that it was a hit, but I'm also clear that it wasn't for TLC."
Mariah Carey’s “Hero” Was for Gloria Estefan
When Mariah Carey and songwriter Walter Afanasieff wrote “Hero” in 1992, it was for the Dustin Hoffman film Hero, with the intention of it being sung by Gloria Estefan. “During a studio break, I was tinkering at the piano, playing the notes that would become the piano intro to ‘Hero,’” Afansieff told Songwriter Universe. “Mariah liked what she heard, and we started writing the song, with the Hero theme in mind. She sang, ‘Then a hero comes along.’ She was truly inspired; the words just flowed out.”
When Sony Music’s president Tommy Mottola came to the studio and heard the song, he said it had to be saved for Carey’s next album. In the end, Luther Vandross wrote and performed the movie’s theme song and Carey turned “Hero” into an anthem.
Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” Was for P!nk
For a standard-issue pop song, “Since U Been Gone” has quite a bit of rock to it, which is why it required just the right artist. Songwriters Max Martin and Dr. Luke thought P!nk would be just the right fit, but she wasn’t into it.
Their next choice was Hilary Duff, but her team wasn’t sure she had the range to hit the higher notes. That’s when Clive Davis came along and paired it with American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson. The 2004 song went on to win Best Female Pop Performance at the 48th Grammy Awards
Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” Was for Rihanna
When Ed Sheeran and co-writers Steve Mac and Johnny McDaid penned “Shape of You,” they didn’t intend for Sheeran to voice the track — the musicians envisioned a different kind of voice entirely. “I was like, ‘This would really work for Rihanna,’” Sheeran told BBC Radio 1's Breakfast Show. “And then I started singing lyrics like ‘Putting Van the Man on the jukebox’ and I was like, 'Well, she’s not really going to sing that, is she?'” It all happened late in the process of recording Sheeran's album, so it didn’t even occur to him that he could keep it for himself. “I just didn’t put two and two together that it was even going to be on the album at all,” he added, admitting that he kept the song from his label at first. The song was one of two lead singles from his third studio album, 2017’s ÷, and became his first single to hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100.
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