Ten hit songs that were first rejected by other artists

Subscribe to Mixdown Magazine


Ten hit songs that were first rejected by other artists

Words by Christie Eliezer

What do Kylie Minogue, CeeLo Green, TLC, and Janet Jackson have in common?

They all goofed up turning down songs that became career-boosting mega-hits for others. While we know there are other factors at play and the songs will not have been the same, hindsight is a wonderful thing.

That’s exactly what we’re using to bring you 10 of the biggest mega hits that were initially turned down by other artists.

Read all the latest features, columns and more here.

Happy’ – Pharrell Williams (2014)

A #1 hit in 24 countries including Australia where it hit 11x platinum for 770,000 sales, world sales of 14 million, and a Grammy-winning bang-up video with one billion views in its first four years.

Pharrell wrote it for CeeLo Green but CeeLo’s label wanted him to continue working on a Christmas album (which, oh dear, stiffed).

Williams maintains, “CeeLo’s version burned mine.” CeeLo disagrees. “I won’t say that. That’s him being modest. I respect that.”

‘Umbrella’ – Rihanna (2007)

Terius “The-Dream” Nash and Tricky Stewart wrote the words in 15 minutes.

“The-Dream” figured a song about needing a helping hand should go to Britney Spears, for whom he helped write ‘Me Against The Music’ and was going through a hellish time in her life.

A demo sent to her management was rejected because the album she was working on, Blackout, was full. Spears never heard the song.

It was then pitched to Mary J. Blige and Rihanna, both lauded it was written for them. Things came to a head at the year’s Grammys.

Blige was hot for the song (“that’s a smash. I love this song”) but being super-busy with the Grammys, thought she’d accept it after.

But Rihanna, peeved the song had been hawked around, literally took things into her own hands.

Spotting “The-Dream” at the Grammys she told him, “’Umbrella’ is mine.’ He giggled. She grabbed his face, “No you’re not hearing me, ‘Umbrella’ is my record.”

It was #1 globally selling 350,000 units (5x platinum) in Australia.

‘Happy Together’ – The Turtles (1967)

A #1 in its day, ‘Happy Together’ continues to be used at weddings (although it’s actually about an imaginary love), on ads (Big W in Oz, Tiffany, Nintendo), and covers by Simple Plan, Filter, Weezer, Mark Ronson, Leningrad Cowboys, and My Chemical Romance members.

It was first nixed in the ‘60s by 12 bands… more because the demo by writers Garry Bonner and Alan Gordon was badly sung and was a scratchy recording.

But The Turtles just had five flops in a row, and were even thinking of breaking up. After getting a good response to ‘Happy Together’ at their shows, they went into the studio with it.

‘Happy Together’ was published in the key of E minor but The Turtles’ recording is in F♯ minor during the verses and F♯ major on the chorus.

‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ – Kylie Minogue (2001)

UK singer-songwriter Cathy Dennis and English songwriter Rob Davis were brought together by Universal Publishing to work on new music.

‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ came in three and a half hours, beginning with Davis generating a 125 bpm drum loop using the Cubase program.

The song was first unsuccessfully offered to S Club 7 for their Sunshine album.

Minogue’s A&R executive Jamie Nelson liked it and passed it on to Minogue.

Twenty seconds into hearing the demo, she wanted it for her Fever album. It sold five million copies worldwide by 2018, hit #1 in 21 countries, and was most played on UK radio that decade.

Folklore has it Sophie Ellis-Bextor also turned it down but she refutes it, insisting the first time she heard the song was Kylie’s version on radio.

“It was always meant to be Kylie’s song, she was perfect for it, she sang it like she owned it.”

Years later Dennis told her they wrote the song with her (Ellis-Bextor) in mind.

‘Toxic’ – Britney Spears (2004)

‘Toxic’ was penned by a consortium including UK singer Cathy Dennis, with Janet Jackson in mind.

Dennis offered it to Kylie Minogue first. She flatlined it, after which Spears cut it in Stockholm and Los Angeles, saying, “It’s really different, that’s why I like it so much.”

‘For Your Love’ – The Yardbirds (1965)

In 1964, future 10cc co-founder Graham Gouldman was an 18-year old working by day in a Manchester men’s clothes store.

He dug how The Animals’ take on ‘The House of the Rising Sun’ inverted the common chord sequence of C, A minor, F and G.

“It starts on a minor and goes to the relative major instead of the other way around, and I really responded to that, it resonated with me,” Gouldman told Songfacts.

“I became so enamoured with the sequence I used it on the first two chords of ‘For Your Love.'”

It was an interesting song but its unorthodox structure saw Gouldman’s band The Mockingbirds’ label dead it as a single. The Animals and Herman’s Hermits also said no.

The Yardbirds, desperate for a hit, re-did Gouldman’s arrangement, added a harpsichord and watched it go to #1 through Europe.

Its success lost them blues purist Eric Clapton who further hated having to play the harpsichord lines live with a 12-string.

Gouldman wrote two other Yardbirds hits ‘Heart Full of Soul’ and ‘Evil Hearted You’, as well as ‘Bus Stop’ and ‘Look Through Any Window’ for The Hollies; ‘No Milk Today’,  ‘East West’, and ‘Listen People’ for Herman’s Hermits; and ‘I’m Not In Love’, ‘Dreadlock Holiday’, ‘I’m Mandy Fly Me’, and ‘Art For Art’s Sake’ for 10cc.

‘SOS’ – Rihanna (2006)

‘SOS’ by Rihanna went to #1 in various countries including Australia and the US.

But it was written for singer-actress Christina Milian for her third studio album, So Amazin’ (2006). She Mutomboed the song and Rihanna’s peeps busted a move getting it instead.

Milian also turned down ‘Baby’, on the 2010 album by Justin Bieber and Paula DeAnda’s ‘Walk Away’ and lost her deal with Def Jam because her records weren’t big hits.

‘…Baby One More Time’ – Britney Spears (1999)

Swedish hitmaker Max Martin had a strange understanding of American pop slang.

He thought “hit me” meant “call me” so when he pitched it to American R&B trio TLC with the title ‘Hit Me Baby’, the response was decidedly cold.

T-Boz explained on MTV News: “I was like, I like the song, but do I think it’s a hit? Do I think it’s TLC? … Was I going to say, ‘Hit me baby one more time’? Hell no!”

The song was despatched to Swedish pop singer Robyn but she thought it too “teen”.

Which was perfect for an unknown teenager called Britney Spears who was looking for a hit.

‘How Will I Know’ – Whitney Houston (1985)

George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam were a Seattle duo signed to A&M Records as Boy Meets Girl.

The label asked them to write a song for Janet Jackson, which they did in a join-the-dots way.

But by the time it got to Jackson’s management, she was in the middle of the heavy Control album. ‘How Will I Know’ was bombed out as lightweight compared to its other songs.

While they got depressed, their publisher sent it to A&R exec Gerry Griffith who was gathering material for an unknown Whitney Houston.

He sent it to the legendary Clive Davis who had signed her to Arista and been looking for 18 months for the right songs for her debut album.

“We must have it!” Davis said. Merrill and Rubicam went: “Clive who? Whitney who?”

It became Houston’s first American #1 and sold 2 million, and reached #2 in Australia.

Merrill & Rubicam also wrote Whitney’s hit ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)’.

Janet kebbed ‘I’m a Slave 4 U’ which was a hit for Britney.

Spears unplugged ‘Telephone’ which Lady Gaga wrote for her.  So Gaga did it with Beyoncé, turning it into a smash. Britney’s version was mysteriously leaked online.

‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’ – Simple Minds (1985)

When English songwriter/producer Keith Forsey did the soundtrack for US teen rites-of-passage flick The Breakfast Club, he had Simple Minds in mind when he wrote  ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’.

But the Scottish band said no, saying they wrote their own songs.

Forsey also asked Bryan Ferry, Cy Curnin of the Fixx , Billy Idol, and Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders who incidentally was married at the time to Simple Minds singer Jim Kerr.

All turned him down. He kept trying the Minds.

“We turned him down six times,” Kerr told this writer. “Finally we felt so sorry for him we thought we’d go through the motions of recording it figuring the record company would hate it and we’d be off the hook.”

Alas for Simple Minds, their label loved it, US radio played them for the first time and the band were thrust into a stadium-playing pop stardom.

It went to #1 in America and top 10 in Australia, The single was a top 10 hit in the UK, Germany, Ireland, Italy, and New Zealand.

Kerr told the Guardian, “I added the big ‘la, la-la-la-la’ ending because I didn’t have any lyrics. I said I’d write some, but Keith said: ‘Over my dead body. We’re keeping that’.”

Head here for more on songwriting.