YOUNG PEOPLE HAVE BEEN RECORDING hit songs since before thirteen-year-old Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers hit it big with 1956’s “Why Do Fools Fall in Love.” The list of teenage recording stars includes Chubby Checker, Herman’s Hermits, The Jackson 5, Debbie Gibson, LeAnn Rimes, Kriss Kross, Britney Spears, Monica, Mario, and dozens more.
Writing hit songs before turning twenty, that’s a whole different ballgame. Teenagers composed (at least partially) all of the following:
1. “Hound Dog.” Written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. 1952
Leiber and Stoller were both nineteen with they wrote this rocker for Big Mama Thornton. Four years later, Elvis Presley made the tune a monster pop hit, but the writers preferred the Thornton’s R&B version. “Elvis played with the song, Big Mama nailed it,” Leiber said in 2009’s Hound Dog: The Leiber and Stoller Autobiography.
2. “That’ll Be The Day.” Written by Buddy Holly and Jerry Allison. 1956
Holly was nineteen and Allison sixteen when they first recorded “That’ll Be The Day” in 1956. Holly and the Crickets re-recorded it and had a number-one hit one year later. Linda Ronstadt took her version of the song to number eleven on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1976.
3. “Summertime Blues.” Written by Eddie Cochran and Jerry Capehart. 1958
At nineteen, Cochran co-wrote and recorded one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most enduring singles, although the original “Summertime Blues” only went to number eight on the singles charts. The song has also been covered by The Who, Blue Cheer, Alan Jackson, and Olivia Newton-John.
4. “Royals.” Written by Lorde and Joel Little. 2012
The New Zealander, fifteen, needed just a half hour to write “Royals” in July of 2012. The song spent nine weeks at number one in 2013. She was the youngest artist to have a number-one U.S hit since, Tiffany, who didn’t write her 1987 hit, “I Think We’re Alone Now.”
5. “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” Written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin. 1960
King, eighteen, composed the melody and Goffin the lyrics for this song, a number-one 1961 hit for The Shirelles. King and Goffin worked other jobs until selling “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” to song publisher Don Kirshner, who gave them both a $10,000 advance for the slightly risqué tune (it’s about post-coital regret).
6. “Green Onions.” Written by Booker T. Jones and three others. 1962
This bluesy instrumental began as a “little ditty I’d been playing on piano, except I switched to Hammond M3 organ,” Booker T. Jones told The Plain Dealer of Cleveland in 2012. Jones was just seventeen when he created the infectious organ line to “Green Onions.” Originally a B-side song, the tune went to number-one on the R&B charts and peaked at number three on the Billboard singles chart. “It just happened,” said Booker T., who had six more top-40 hits with the MGs, but none as big as “Green Onions.”
7. “Walk Away Renée.” Written by Michael Brown and two others. 1966
Left Banke keyboardist Michael Brown, seventeen, wrote this song about Renée Fladen, the girlfriend of band-member Tom Finn. Rolling Stone ranked the Left Banke tune number 220 in its 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list.
8. “By The Time I Get to Phoenix.” Written by Jimmy Webb. 1965
Webb has said he was seventeen when he wrote “Up, Up and Away,” a hit for the Fifth Dimension, seventeen or eighteen when he wrote “By The Time I Get to Phoenix,” and nineteen when he wrote “MacArthur Park,” a number-two hit for actor-singer Richard Harris in 1968 and a three-week chart-topper when covered by Donna Summer in 1978. “By The Time I Get to Phoenix,” recorded by Glen Campbell, and “Up, Up and Away” combined for eight Grammy awards in 1968.
9. “Uptight (Everything’s Alright).” Written by Stevie Wonder and others. 1965
This was Wonder’s first self-penned (with others) hit. Written when he was fifteen, “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” reached number three on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1966. At seventeen, Wonder co-wrote “I Was Made to Love Her,” a number-two hit in 1967, and “My Cherie Amour,” which wasn’t released until 1969 and went to number four on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
10. “Wedding Bell Blues.” Written by Laura Nyro. 1966
It took three years for a pair of Nyro songs to climb the charts for other artists. Written at eighteen, “Wedding Bell Blues” was a smash for The 5th Dimension in 1969, spending three weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart. She also wrote “And When I Die” at eighteen, with Blood, Sweat & Tears taking the tune to number two in 1969. Nyro penned “Stoned Cold Picnic,” a number-three hit for The 5th Dimension in 1968, and “Eli’s Coming,” which peaked at number 10 for Three Dog Night in 1969.
11. “Complicated.” Written by Avril Lavigne and others. 2002
“I write my own songs, and when I’m in front of a camera, I don’t try to act like something or someone I’m not,” Lavigne told USA Today in 2002, voicing the message expressed in her first hit single, “Complicated.” Written when she was seventeen, the song is about frustration with someone showing a false face to the world. The song went to number two on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
12. “Gloria.” Written by Van Morrison. 1963
Morrison, eighteen, wrote “Gloria” in the sumemr of 1963 and recorded the song with his band, Them, in late 1964. A garage-band classic, the tune is distinguished by its “G-L-O-R-I-A” chorus.
13. “Stay.” Written by Maurice Williams. 1953
“Stay” didn’t stay on the turntable very long; at one minute and thirty-seven seconds, it is the briefest number-one single in Billboard history. Williams was fifteen when he wrote the song in 1953. Seven years later, it was a chart-topper for Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs.
14. “Poor Little Fool.” Written by Sharon Sheeley. 1955
Sheeley made history in 1958 as the youngest woman at the time to write a number-one hit song. Composed three years earlier, “Poor Little Fool” became the first chart-topper for Ricky Nelson.
15. “At the Hop.” Written by Dave White and two others. 1958
The Danny & the Juniors do-wop group featured a sixteen-year-old lead singer named Danny Rapp, but it was eighteen-year-old Dave White who did much of the writing on “At the Hop,” the number-one Billboard single of 1958.
16. “Eve of Destruction.” Written by P.F. Sloan. 1964
Barry McGuire’s gravelly vocals took “Eve of Destruction,” a protest song, to number one in 1965. Sloan was just eighteen when he wrote the tune, which refers to human rights violations in China, violence in Selma, Alabama, and the Kennedy assassination.