Surprising as it may seem, many musicians, actors, comedians, entertainers and other variety artists, began their careers busking on a street corner, shopping mall, café strip or train station.
This seems hard to believe because in years gone by busking was considered to be nothing more than a glorified form of begging. Even today it is still classified as panhandling in some regions. This limited way of thinking has led most of us to believe that the rich and famous could ever ‘stoop to such levels’!
As society now opens its mind to the scope of ‘art’ and seeks new, different and sometimes ‘convenient’ forms of entertainment that will fit into busy lifestyles, thankfully attitudes towards the art of busking are changing.
Couple these modern day wants, together with the massive amount of information we find in the media or on the internet and voila… many more people are now appreciating the significance of street performance.
Society is now starting to understand that busking is an art that focuses on expression and entertainment and learning that busking has, in fact been the starting point for some of the worlds greatest entertainers.
Today most street performers simply want to reveal their art to a wider audience, in vibrant surroundings and touch on the lives of passers-by.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise then, that many famous people have progressed to successful careers in the entertainment industry after starting on the streets.
Buskers, including those who are now famous will tell you that street performance is one of the easiest ways to reach the people.
Celebrated musician, John Butler who still busks despite his fame, commented in a recent interview that his main musical aim was simply to get his music heard. He expressed that whether he played on stage in front of an audience of 50,000 or stood on a street corner made no difference. His aim was still being achieved.
The Busker World team have researched and are continuing to cover the topic of famous buskers. We have compiled an extensive (yet ever-increasing) list of celebrated artists who have experienced the joys (and occasionally the challenges) of busking.
As expected we found hundreds of famous people who started their careers on the streets. Comedians, actors, poets, musicians ranging from pop through to classical and even political leaders reminisce fondly about their busking experiences.
BuskerWorld.com members can enjoy the anecdotes, stories, tips and strategies from those who have had rags to riches success.
Busker World makes all attempts to provide accurate information, please contact us if you would like to add information or comment about our famous buskers articles.
BENJAMIN FRANKLIN was a busker of sorts. He composed songs and poetry about the political situation of his era and performed them in public. He would also sell printed copies of his work. His father discouraged busking by convincing him that the stigmas some people attach to busking were not worth it. This experience helped Benjamin Franklin form his belief in free speech and is documented in his journals.
Canadian pop rockers BARENAKED LADIES got their start in music on the street of Canada. The band busked on various street corners before eventually signing a major record deal and scoring big with hits like “If I Had A Million Dollars”.
BON JOVI is reported to be exceptionally proficient in his acoustic street corner set-up and will often busk for radio station appearances, small charity appearances and TV appearances. Among the most famous Bon Jovi busks were those at London’s Covent Garden and Moscow’s Red Square.
DAVID GILMOUR and ROGER ‘SID’ BARRETT from the band Pink Floyd, met as children in Cambridge, England. Later, whilst studying at the Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology, they began playing guitar together. In 1965, they spent a summer hitchhiking and busking around the South of France before Syd joined Roger Waters, Nick Mason and Rick Wright to form Pink Floyd, and David continued playing with his own band, Jokers Wild, subsequently touring Europe with Flowers, and later Bullitt. David was asked to augment the Pink Floyd lineup as the singer and guitarist in 1967, only for Syd to leave the group five gigs later, struggling with mental illness.
When Australian country music singer JAMES BLUNDELL went through a painful divorce after a fairy tale marriage, he harvested hay from hell. Blundell fled to Europe and commenced a two-year kombi van busking stint to road test a handful of songs he wrote to purge his pain. It was during this time he met Lydia and found solace in his new wife. James continued busking throughout Europe and the U.S. with his Belgrade born bride – the source of many of his new songs.
me, and some days there’d be a massive crowd that’d stop
and watch. It’s how I got experience of playing in front of people
without getting nervous. And I could make good money – 70 quid
an hour sometimes. And there would be crowds of teenage girls… I’d
get lads heckling because they were jealous!”
JOHN BUTLER, now a member of the John Butler Trio played guitar and sang on the streets of Australia before reaching the status of successful musician. He speaks of his first busking experience during a recent television interview. “Yes. Well the first time I busked, it was great. I borrowed a battery powered amp from my friend and I went out there and I attracted people and they liked what I did. They asked for tapes and they gave me money. It was amazing, man. I was like, you know, all your life you’re kind of struggling to either find your voice or your place in society, and then all of a sudden you stand next to a rubbish bin with your instrument and make faces that scare children, and people love it, you know. I was like, Damn, wow, okay, this is working. There’s a flow going on here, which is important. So I just kept on doing it. What I learnt from busking was about dynamics I guess, and how to hold an audience.”
MARY LOU LORD began busking at SXSW when she was on tour with Elliott Smith. Lord explains. “We were both new artists and we didn’t have showcases, so we decided to have our own little showcase right out there on Sixth Street. Busking is a completely independent form of getting your art to people without any middlemen. The best tippers are usually the folks that appreciate what I’m doing and were moved by it somehow or the ones who’ve had a drink before stumbling upon me busking,” she says.
THE POGUES tried busking but they didn’t do well. Jem Finer explains, “Shane and I thought we would try to get a license to play at Covent Garden, on the Piazza. We went down for an audition at about 11 o’clock one morning and the only person in the audience was this sixty year old Irish bloke, who kept asking us to play ‘Carrick Fergus.’ The guy, who gave the licenses, eventually got us in his office and gave us this really sanctimonious speech saying, ‘We have here what we like to call the ‘Covent Garden Seal of Quality’. I’ve asked myself and I’ve asked people from the shops on the Piazza what they think of you and I’m afraid to say you just haven’t got what it takes.
“By ’63 we got around to busking. We were squatting on a Thames Sailing Barge called the ‘Louise on the River Adur’ at Shoreham. Clive Palmer, who later joined The Incredible String Band, was also there. We’d all go into Brighton and busk under the Guinness clock. There were two or three good singers who got pennies, but Rod and I got half-crowns!” On Sunday January 5, 1964, after an evening on Eel Pie Island, Rod met Long John Baldry on Twickenham railway station. “I was sitting on a bench playing harmonica and singing Smokestack Lightning loudly,” recalled Rod some years later. “Baldry came along the platform and called out: Young man! You have a good voice, why don’t you join my band!” Baldry invited Rod to sit in with his band the All Stars at the Marquee a couple of nights later. Sadly, that night UK R&B founding father Cyril Davies collapsed and died. Baldry decided to carry on, renaming the band The Hoochie Coochie Men, with Rod as his vocal lieutenant.
Rod Stewart, in his turn plucked Glaswegian singer-songwriter AMY BELL for stardom after his manager spotted her busking in Ashton Lane and rang Rod straight away to tell him about this great new talent. As a result, she joined him days later for a duet on I Don’t Want To Talk About It in front of 5000 fans.
In the early 60s, SIMON & GARFUNKEL left the States, travelled to England and busked in London’s Leicester Square. Britain has always brought out something special in the pair. “I love this country,” said Garfunkel as they reminisced about their busking days.
French pioneer jazz violinist STÉPHANE GRAPPELLI (26 Jan 1908 – 01 Dec 1997), who founded the Quintette du Hot Club de France with Django Reinhardt which was one of the first (and arguably the most famous) of all-string jazz bands. Born in Paris, France to Italian parents, Grappelli was sent to an orphanage as a youth after his mother died when he was 4 and his father left to fight in World War I. He started his musical career busking with a violin on the streets of Paris and Montmartre.
In a ridiculously fortuitous break, TRACY CHAPMAN was spotted busking by a fellow student whose father ran the record label SBK. Tracy met the man, he called up Elektra and before she knew it, she had found herself with a record deal.
THE VIOLENT FEMMES were discovered while busking in Milwaukee by James Honeyman-Scott of the Pretenders. The band were then invited to open up for the Pretenders on their next tour.
THE WIGGLES built up their performance expertise and public exposure with occasional busking around Sydney, Australia.
WOODY GUTHRIE once expressed his frustrations about negative attitudes towards busking in his quote “Well you know my name, but ya still call me a guitar busker, a joint hanger, train hopper, tip canary or kittie-box man” He went on to express that even though he was seen as a lower class citizen or been labelled as such, he quotes “ I know the people I see on the skid and they have done a lot less for the world than me. With their hats pulled down over their eyes and faces you cant see. Now this don’t make me right, I ain’t no better than thee. It’s ours to pick and choose our ways of life, come free”.
BUSKING AFTER FAME
For some famous people, the fascination of busking was still alluring even after becoming well-known…
Mancunian troubadour BADLY DRAWN BOY caused a stir among London commuters by busking outside Waterloo Station for a day, which was secretly filmed as the video for his song All Possibilities. But he didn’t do too well – raising a paltry £1.60!
There have been some reports that PAUL MCCARTNEY and JOHN LENNON of The Beatles fame busked in Liverpool during their days as The Quarry Men. It has been rumoured that they also busked together under the name of The Nurk Twins, before they formed the fab four. But a Radio One (London) interview revealed a different story when Sir Paul was asked why he recently donned a disguise and went busking. He answered: “It was for a film thing (Give My Regards To Broad Street, 1984) and it was something I’d always wanted to do, so I scruffed myself up a bit, put on a false beard and shades, and went down to Leicester Square tube station. It was really cool. A couple of people came up and said, ‘Is it you?’ but I just said, Oh, no. I got a few shillings and I thought, “this doesn’t feel right, so I gave it to charity.”
It has also been reported that STING also donned a disguise, went out busking and made £40. He had a hat pulled down over his eyes, but one observant lady remarked “it’s Sting!” The man behind her said: ‘You silly cow, of course it’s not Sting, he’s a multi-millionaire.”
In January 2007, world-famous classical violinist JOSHUA BELL played as an incognito street busker at the Metro station, Washington DC as part of an experiment. 1097 people passed by. One person recognized him and only a couple more people were drawn to his music. Interestingly, every child who passed by attempted to stop and listen, before being hurried on by their parents. Joshua played for 45 minutes and collected $32.17 (not counting the $20 from a passerby who recognized him).
TRAVIS drew a crowd of hundreds of amazed shoppers when they did a spot of impromptu busking on Sauchiehall Street in 2004 to raise awareness of Shelter Scotland.