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Whitney Houston and Eight Other Pop Stars Who Got Their Start in the Church Choir

Where would music be today if it wasn’t for Whitney Houston? The singer and actress changed the game when she shared her one-of-a-kind voice with the world. Even years after her passing, the story of Houston lives on and is now being brought to the big screen in a new biopic, I Wanna Dance With Somebody.

Houston got her first singing gig in her church choir. Her mother was a gospel singer who brought a young Whitney into the group, and history was forever changed. Other icons like Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner also famously started out singing church music before making the transition to pop, and that road has continued to be well-traveled even up to today. Here are just a few veterans of church music who went on to much bigger (and better? Well, that’s in the eye of the beholder) things.

Ed Sheeran

Sheeran grew up in Suffolk, England, and started singing in the church choir when he was just four years old, playing guitar by the time he was 11. Apparently, whatever he had was pretty obvious, even from those tender years. His classmates voted him “Most Likely to be Famous” when he was 13 years old, a prediction which turned out to be pretty on the nose.

Usher

Usher is a Texan by birth, but he spent most of his childhood in Chattanooga, Tennessee, singing for the church choir that was directed by his mother. Once again, his abilities on stage merited enough attention that the family moved to Atlanta, where he’d be able to rub shoulders with more music industry types. It paid off.

Avril Lavigne

The story goes that Lavigne’s mother first realized her daughter’s vocals abilities when she overheard young Avril singing “Jesus Loves Me” in the back of the car. Sadly, no recordings of this rendition survive, but that led to more collaboration between Avril and her father, who played bass for their local church worship band. Soon, she started learning to play guitar too. Can we make it any more obvious?

Justin Timberlake

JT’s the son of a Baptist church choir director and, thus, has got church music in his blood. Pretty much everyone knows the story of how this Memphis kid sailed through the Mickey Mouse Club to fame, alongside fellow stars Ryan Gosling, Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears, but it all started on the church stage. Hey, speaking of Britney…

Britney Spears

Before #FreeBritney, before Kevin Federline, before she knew she was toxic, got lost in this game or even confessed her loneliness was killing her, Britney Spears was a Louisiana girl who accompanied her parents to their Southern Baptist Church, where she sang on stage. Her first ever solo performance was for her kindergarten graduation, where she did a take on “What Child Is This?”

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Katy Perry

One of the most niche pieces of CCM trivia out there is that Katy Perry’s musical career actually began as Katy Hudson, the daughter of Pentecostal preachers whose sharp songwriting instincts and vocal abilities caught the attention of CCM’s Jennifer Knapp. Hudson released a self-titled Christian rock album and toured as the opening act for Phil Joel. She dated Relient K’s Matt Thiessen and the two even co-wrote a few songs before Hudson rebranded herself as Katy Perry, finding a candy-coated niche in the secular music her parents had forbidden her from listening to when she was a kid. The rest is a teenage dream.

Snoop Dogg

Long Beach’s own Calvin Cordozar Broadus Jr.’s first brush with music was playing piano at Golgotha Trinity Baptist Church, where he would also join the choir. Rap came later, as did the nickname and, eventually, the friendship with Dr. Dre that would make Snoop a star. His career since then wasn’t regularly confused for the gospel music he grew up with, but in 2018 he returned to his roots for Bible of Love, a 32-song collection of the type of music he grew up singing in church.

J.K. Simmons

OK, not exactly a pop star, but still worth noting. Jonathan Kimble Simmons grew up in a very musical household, first in Detroit and then suburban Ohio. His father is a retired music professor who directed the church choir and for a good chunk of his professional life, Simmons was interested in musical theater and said his “first plan was to be Leonard Bernstein when I grew up.” That didn’t pan out, but he did give us Whiplash.

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