20 hit songs you may not know were written by music icons

When we listen to a song on the radio or in a soundtrack, we tend to assume the voice we’re hearing is the same person who brought the song into existence. In reality, many steps need to happen before the artist even makes it into the studio, from writing the lyrics to recording the instruments to fine-tuning the mix in post-production. More often than we realize, the singers we hear have nothing to do with a song’s original creation.

Even when a song is written with someone specific in mind, the desired singer doesn’t always provide the vocals for the final track. On the other hand, some songs are put up for grabs and singers must vie for the right to breathe life into them. It can also be the case that a songwriter has no choice but to put their songs on the market to fulfill a contract and pay their bills.

There are numerous cases across music history, especially in the 1960s and ’70s, where the legal rights to original songs and their subsequent rearrangements are confusing and ambiguous. This can result in artists not receiving royalties, regardless of how popular a song may be.

Sometimes artists are specifically known for staying out of the limelight with a pen in hand (looking at you, Calvin Harris), allowing others to feature as surprise writing credits on the album. Indeed, the fine print on who created a track is always available. But for many, unless awards enter the picture, writers (and producers) tend not to get their kudos until much later, if at all. To shine a light on songwriters, Stacker compiled 20 hit songs released between 1960 and today that were written by a famous artist other than the singer, sourcing from Rolling Stone, Billboard, American Songwriter, and other news outlets.

Beyonce performs onstage.
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‘Pretty Hurts’ by Beyonce, written by Sia

Beyoncé’s 2013 song “Pretty Hurts” resonated with fans for its hard-hitting themes of eating disorders and feminism. But not everyone knows the song was not only written by another artist but was also originally intended for someone else.

Australian singer-songwriter Sia wrote the ballad and shared that she originally had “California Gurls” singer Katy Perry in mind during the writing process. Sia sent an email offering Perry first dibs on the song, but when the singer missed the email, “Pretty Hurts” found itself in a custody battle between Rihanna and Beyoncé. When Rihanna’s team dragged their feet for eight months without paying to secure the track, Bey’s team swept in.

Rihanna performs live in France.
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‘We Found Love’ by Rihanna, written by Calvin Harris

Scottish songwriter, DJ, and producer Calvin Harris is known for cranking out popular pop and dance hits, especially in the 2000s and ’10s. “We Found Love,” sung by Rihanna, was one such banger, which took over the playlists of radio stations, department stores, and dance clubs alike.

While it’s common knowledge the recording artist produced “We Found Love,” it’s worth noting that Harris also penned the song. In a 2013 interview with Fuse, Harris explained that Rihanna first heard the tune while they were on tour together. The song was also offered to Leona Lewis and Nicole Scherzinger.

Beyonce performs at the 49th Grammy Awards .
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‘Irreplaceable’ by Beyonce, written by Ne-Yo

Beyoncé’s fierce persona perfectly matches the mood of her 2006 hit “Irreplaceable.” But it was singer-songwriter Ne-Yo who was the lyrical talent behind this catchy, confident track. Ne-Yo initially planned to sing the song himself but was worried, stating that “a man singing it comes across a little bit misogynistic, a little bit mean.” Furthermore, he figured listeners would find it “empowering” coming from a woman.

Whitney Houston performs on stage.
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‘I Will Always Love You’ by Whitney Houston, written by Dolly Parton

Before Whitney Houston recorded the now-universally recognizable ballad, “I Will Always Love You” was written and performed by country icon Dolly Parton, who wrote the song about her previous partner, Porter Wagoner.

Though excited about the possibility of Elvis Presley recording her song, Parton blocked The King from covering it because it would have meant sharing the publishing revenue. Ultimately, it was Houston’s “The Bodyguard” co-star Kevin Costner who was responsible for having Parton’s hit song in the movie and the rest was box-office and music history.

One Direction perform onstage during the 2012 MTV Video Music Awards.
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‘Little Things’ by One Direction, written by Ed Sheeran

Ed Sheeran has undoubtedly caught the attention of many a swooning fan with hits like “Shape of You” and “Thinking Out Loud.” But he’s also penned multiple memorable tunes for other performers, including the boy band One Direction.

“Little Things” was originally written about a woman named Fiona Bevan when Sheeran was 17. As they grew up, Bevan and Sheeran remained in touch, although the song Sheeran had written for her was temporarily misplaced. Fortunately, Bevan found the song and reminded the songwriter of it, just in time to shop it to the boys of One Direction.

Frank Sinatra performing at Madison Square Garden during the televised concert 'The Main Event - Live’.
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‘My Way’ by Frank Sinatra, written by Paul Anka

One of crooner Frank Sinatra’s biggest hits, “My Way,” was written by Paul Anka. But while Ol’ Blue Eyes didn’t write the classic tune, he inspired it. After Sinatra told Anka he wanted to retire during a dinner together in Vegas, Anka channeled what he felt into his typewriter that night, churning out the hit in just a few hours.

“The Rat Pack was over. He was tired. He was being hassled by the FBI and all that kind of stuff. And I was motivated at that moment to write a song for him,” Anka told AZ Central.

Pink performs at the Palms Casino Resort.
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‘Get the Party Started’ by Pink, written by Linda Perry (4 Non Blondes)

Pink’s blend of edgy and poppy music is well-characterized by one of her early hits, “Get the Party Started.” But the spiky-haired singer didn’t write this early 2000s song, nor was it originally meant for her.

Linda Perry of 4 Non Blondes penned the song with Madonna in mind, but Madge ultimately declined. Shortly after, Perry received a call from Pink, who idolized the former rock band leader. “She left me this really crazy message how she would come find me if I didn’t call her back,” Perry told Rolling Stone.

Because Perry had “Get the Party Started” on hand, she sent the tune over. The upbeat song helped push Pink up in the charts and onto everyone’s radar.

Kelly Clarkson performs during WomenRock!.
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‘Breakaway’ by Kelly Clarkson, written by Avril Lavigne

“Breakaway” is one of the best-known songs from “American Idol” darling Kelly Clarkson. But it turns out rock singer-songwriter Avril Lavigne is the talent behind the words of Clarkston’s hit single.

According to Lavigne, she’d written the song for her first album when she was young. “I was leaving my small town, went to the city, I took a chance, I took a leap of faith on my career,” Lavigne relayed to “The Kelly Clarkson Show.” “It was like, a very scary thing, leaving my world behind and taking a chance is what the song was written about.”

When “Breakaway” didn’t make it onto Lavigne’s album, the Canadian artist gave it to Clarkson to use on her second album of the same name, released in 2004.

Tevin Campbell performs during KMEL Summer Jam.
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‘Can We Talk’ by Tevin Campbell, written by Babyface

Anyone who is a fan of ’90s R&B is familiar with Tevin Campbell’s “Can We Talk.” The young performer’s distinctive voice made a perfect companion to singer-songwriter Babyface’s sympathetic lyrics about a shy guy looking to approach someone special.

Already at the height of his prowess with hits for Boyz II Men under his belt, Babyface provided Campbell with this signature song that still hits hard today. There were rumors that “Can We Talk” was almost given to singer Usher. But the legendary producer confirmed that the song was written specifically with the then-17-year-old Campbell in mind.

“It all depends on the voice,” Babyface said on The Breakfast Club when asked if he had reservations about giving the song to a young Campbell. “And if someone has that voice and gives it a good feeling … that’s ultimately what you want. You can give it to someone that’s seasoned, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll pull it off the same way.”

Smokey Robinson rehearses the song 'My Girl' with the Temptations in their dressing room at the Apollo Theater.
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‘My Girl’ by The Temptations, written by Smokey Robinson

An iconic Motown band, The Temptations are responsible for such memorable tunes as “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” But one of their best hits is probably “My Girl.” The song, still played in many weddings today, was the band’s first #1 Billboard Hot 100 hit. And it’s all thanks to songwriter and former member of The Miracles Smokey Robinson, with the help of fellow group member Ronald White.

Robinson originally wrote the song about his wife, Claudette Rogers Robinson, and made some adjustments to fit the voices and personalities of The Temptations. Since the song’s release in 1964, “My Girl” has been played worldwide and was introduced to the National Recording Registry in 2017.

Aretha Franklin performs onstage at Madison Square Garden.
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‘(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman’ by Aretha Franklin, written by Carole King

“American history wells up when Aretha sings,” former President Barack Obama told The New Yorker, and “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman” is a song inextricably linked with the iconic artist. Yet, this top 10 hit was written by then-songwriting couple Carole King and Gerry Goffin. According to King, she and her husband were walking down a New York street one day when a top music exec came up in a limo and asked them to write a hit for the R&B legend. That night, the couple got to work with music and lyrics.

Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton performing in New York City.
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‘Islands in the Stream’ by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, written by the Bee Gees

There are conflicting stories about who the Bee Gees originally wrote “Islands in the Stream” for. Some reports say Marvin Gaye was front of mind, though Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees told Billboard he wanted Diana Ross.

At any rate, the track named after an Ernest Hemingway novel went from an R&B track to a country song when Kenny Rogers caught wind of it. Rogers looped in Dolly Parton and the track was reworked to fit the duo. Despite the genre switch, the song did reach #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

Sinead O’Connor performing at the Lilith Fair Concert.
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‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ by Sinead O’Connor, written by Prince

Sinéad O’Conner’s version of “Nothing Compares 2 U” was originally written by Prince, who wrote it for The Family, a band he created and produced music for. According to Susan Rogers, Prince’s former sound engineer, the song was written in 1984 when the artist was on a “creative roll.”

Rogers told The Guardian that the lyrics were connected to Sandy Scipioni, Prince’s housekeeper, who left temporarily when her father had a heart attack and the artist’s growing feelings for someone in The Family. “One day, he went into a room with a notebook and, within an hour, emerged with the lyrics to ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’… The song came out like a sneeze,” Rogers said. The song was later given to O’Connor in 1990 and became one of her most popular tracks.

UB40 performing in concert at the Odeon.
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‘Red Red Wine’ by UB40, written by Neil Diamond

Although UB40 knew they were covering a song written by another artist, because of their reggae style, they had no idea “Red Red Wine” was penned by the legendary Neil Diamond. That’s why the British group actually miscredited the song’s origins during its 1983 release.

Reflecting on the blunder, Terence Wilson, aka Astro of UB40, told Billboard, “You could’ve knocked us out with a feather when we found out it was actually Neil Diamond.” The band had only ever known the song as performed by Jamaican singer Tony Tribe. Even when the band saw the “N. Diamond” writing credit, they thought it referred to a Jamaican artist, a Neville or Negus Diamond perhaps.

Diana Ross performs at the Academy Awards.
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‘Chain Reaction’ by Diana Ross written by the Bee Gees

After disco’s decline, the Bee Gees took a step back from performing and concentrated on writing music for other artists. One of their major projects was writing all the songs for Diana Ross’ “Eaten Alive” album, which included “Chain Reaction.”

The last song written for the album, “Chain Reaction” almost never made it to the release since it closely matched Ross’ earlier sound with the Supremes. Fortunately, the former Supreme had a change of heart and heard the makings of a hit.

The Bangles perform on American Bandstand.
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‘Manic Monday’ by the Bangles, written by Prince

“Manic Monday” perfectly captured that wish for another day in the weekend; a mundane sentiment that came, surprisingly, from none other than eccentric songwriter Prince. It seemed that the song came to the Bangles by kismet.

In 1984, after Prince and the Bangles were introduced and had the chance to play alongside each other, he let them know he wanted them to listen to a song he’d written for them. It was also around the time the Bangles were recording their second album. As the band hovered around a cassette player, each member was “smitten,” Susanna Hoffs, a member of the Bangles told NPR. The Bangles worked on the track a bit more and finally released the song in 1986, forever giving hardworking employees something to sing to when the weekend draws to a close.

Davy Jones, Mickey Dolenz, Peter Tork and Mike Nesmith on the set of the television show ‘The Monkees’.
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‘I’m a Believer’ by The Monkees written by Neil Diamond

Some of us may recognize “I’m a Believer” from the “Shrek” soundtrack. But it was originally performed by The Monkees in 1966. The lyrical credit goes to Neil Diamond, who originally thought country singer Eddy Arnold might take the song. However, in the hands of the Monkees, the pop tune topped the charts for seven weeks and became one of Rolling Stones’ 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Aretha Franklin performing.
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‘Respect’ by Aretha Franklin written by Otis Redding

Originally penned by Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin transformed “Respect” into an anthem for a woman demanding her due, with the help of her sister Carolyn’s backup vocals. Though it is now seen as Franklin’s song, the singer never received any monetary benefit from her hard work and popularity, with Redding’s estate continuing to receive royalties.

Patsy Cline poses for a portrait.
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‘Crazy’ by Patsy Cline, written by Willie Nelson

While most of us are familiar with Willie Nelson, the country music rebel, this wasn’t always the case. Like many artists, Nelson had humble beginnings. At one time, the singer-songwriter was working multiple jobs, vying for the attention of the right person in Nashville.

It was at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge where Nelson met Patsy Cline’s husband, Charlie Dick, who loved the song so much he brought Nelson home to play it for his wife at 1 a.m. Other accounts say Dick played the song for his wife over and over again.

No matter its origins, the song became a country hit in 1961 and went up to #9 on the Hot 100. It also became Cline’s signature song.

The Rolling Stones pose for a portrait.
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‘I Wanna Be Your Man’ by The Rolling Stones, written by The Beatles

When the Rolling Stones were still relatively new, and lacking a song to record, their manager asked John Lennon and Paul McCartney of the Beatles to support the new group by writing a single for them when the Stones suddenly lacked a song to record.

The two finished “I Wanna Be Your Man” for the Rolling Stones in a few minutes, supposedly inspiring Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to try their own hand at songwriting down the line. The Beatles-penned song ultimately climbed to #12 on the U.K. charts.

Story editing by Carren Jao. Copy editing by Meg Shields.

Provided by Stacker

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