Eight Popular Songs with Surprising Guest Musicians

And the stories behind the recordings

Photo by Jiroe on Unsplash

We all have our own favorite musicians. By and large, we base them on the songs they perform, and the recordings that they produce. But rarely can those musicians claim sole credit for their recordings. Even the most famous and talented musical artists usually enter the recording studio with other musicians, each skilled at their own instrument(s). Together, they collaborate to produce the final recordings.

Sometimes those other musicians are the artist’s regular backup band. Other times, the role is handled by session players — musicians who make a living traveling to recording studios to lay down tracks on other musicians’ albums.

But once in awhile, we discover that the person who played an instrument on a famous musician’s song was themselves an equally (or more) famous artist. I’ve always found it thrilling to make such discoveries, particularly when it’s a collaboration between two artists that I otherwise would not have predicted.

So I put together a list of some of the more interesting such collaborations that I’ve come across. Much of my list comes from 80’s popular music, but I’ve included some more recent examples as well. Also, note that I’ve stuck with those that have played an instrument — rather than supplying vocals — on another famous artist’s track.

Don’t Mean Nothing

With a steady stream of hits spanning the 80s and 90s, plus a number of songwriting and producer credits to his name, Richard Marx ranks as one of the most successful musicians in the pop/rock genre. Yet he was mostly unknown prior to the release of his 1987 debut album.

Marx started his career primarily as a songwriter, writing music for other musicians. During this period, he saved what he considered his strongest songs for himself, eventually landing a deal with Manhattan Records to produce his own album.

One of the songs he’d saved for himself was Don’t Mean Nothing, which was ultimately released as the album’s first single. As Marx describes, an early recording of the song made its way to Joe Walsh of the The Eagles. Walsh apparently liked what he heard, and wanted to play on the final track. He made a trip to the studio where Marx was recording the album, and laid down some guitar parts, including the slide guitar solo.

Apparently, some of Walsh’s bandmates also caught wind of the song and were similarly impressed. Two other Eagles — Randy Meisner and Timothy B. Schmit — are credited with backing vocals on the track.

Beat It

(If you’ve heard of only one collaboration in this article, this is the one you’ll have heard of. In fact, I debated whether to include it. But ultimately, in light of the fact that the world recently lost this particular guest musician, I thought that this story was worth (re-)telling here.)

In 1982, Michael Jackson released his sixth album, the best-selling, award-winning Thriller. With Thriller, Jackson wanted to take his music in a new direction. Particularly, he began exploring pop, funk, and in particular rock — a genre that up until then he had hardly experimented with.

It was this focus on rock that produced his #1 hit Beat It. Beat It was the result of Jackson attempting to write, in his words, “the type of song that I would buy if I were to buy a rock song.” To this end, Jackson and Quincy Jones — the album’s producer — wanted an electric guitar solo.

So Jones approached legendary guitarist Eddie Van Halen to record a solo. The guitarist initially thought he’d been crank-called, but ultimately realized that, in fact, it was Quincy Jones who was calling him.

Still a bit reluctant, Van Halen agreed to listen to the song, and see what he could do with it. Jackson wasn’t in the room when Van Halen arrived the next day, but Jones essentially gave him carte blanche with the solo. So Van Halen asked the sound engineer to do some remixing, and then recorded two solos. Reportedly, Jackson returned to the studio and loved both the solo, and the fact that Van Halen took the time to improve the song overall.

Impressively, Van Halen recorded the solo free of charge, as a favor. Even more interestingly, his own band’s subsequent album (i.e. Van Halen’s 1984) never made it past the #1 spot in the Billboard LP charts. It stalled at #2, kept out of the top spot by Thriller. Thriller was a landmark album, for sure, but surely Eddie’s contribution deserves some credit for its popularity. So this favor may have inadvertently kept Van Halen from a #1 album.

Fall Out Boy’s cover

In 2008, Fall Out Boy recorded their own cover version of Beat It. The band members were huge fans of the song, and they organically began playing the sound — first during sound checks; later, live in concert. At that point, they decided it was fitting to record and release a version. In the same vein as Jackson and Van Halen, they decided to invite a contemporary guitarist to perform the solo. Ultimately they asked John Mayer, who accepted and contributed a rocking solo to the recording.

You Oughta Know

While Alanis Morissette had already released two albums, she was still relatively unknown by the time she began recording her much-lauded Jagged Little Pill. As with Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Morissette decided to move towards a more rock-oriented sound with this album.

The album’s first single, You Oughta Know, was perhaps the best example. It was an intense, angry song. Much of that angst came from Morissette’s bitter, snarling delivery of the lyrics, which depicted a jilted lover who refuses to leave her ex alone. But the instrumentation — particularly the driving bass and the heavily distorted guitar — also contributed much to the song’s feeling.

To help achieve this sound, the album’s producer reached out to Flea and Dave Navarro, then respectively the bassist and guitarist of The Red Hot Chili Peppers, to perform on the song. A recording of the song had already been made, complete with the bass and guitar part, but something wasn’t quite working. As Flea reportedly put it at the time, “That’s some weak shit!” However, the two worked with Morissette and her vocal line, ultimately generating a sound that the three were happy with.

The result was a single that garnered rave reviews and catapulted Morissette to stardom. You Oughta Know remains one of her signature songs, and a great example of a frighteningly angst-ridden rock single.

Private Dancer

While the 80s might have been Tina Turner’s heyday, she had already had an accomplished — if challenging —musical career. Yet her 1984 album Private Dancer shot her into stardom like she hadn’t seen prior. As with Thriller and Jagged Little Pill, Private Dancer saw Turner branching out from her comfort zone (in this case, R&B) and exploring genres such as pop and rock.

The title track was the fifth single to be released from the album. Private Dancer was written by Mark Knopfler and originally recorded by his band Dire Straights (of Sultans of Swing and Money for Nothing fame). Ultimately, Knopfler himself decided that the lyrics (which effectively were sung from the point of view of a call girl) weren’t suitable for a male singer, and the song was omitted from its intended album, Love Over Gold.

It turns out that Turner’s and Knopfler’s managers knew each other. So when production of the yet-unnamed album began, Ed Bicknell, Knopfler’s manager, suggested the song for Turner to include in her upcoming album. Turner loved the original recording, and decided to record her own, more soulful, version. Some of the members of Dire Straits were hired to re-record the music.

Knopfler himself, however, wasn’t available. So the song’s guitar solo was performed by another legendary guitarist, Jeff Beck. That wasn’t the end of Knopfler’s involvement, however. In an interview years later, he decried that Beck ruined the song by performing “the world’s second ugliest guitar solo”.

To this day, there is no word on what Knopfler considers to be the single ugliest solo.

And then there’s Better Be Good to Me

Private Dancer wasn’t the only song on the album to feature an otherwise well-known musician. The Fixx was a prolific band in the 80s, producing a number of hits including Saved By Zero and One Thing Leads to Another. Key to their success was guitarist Jamie West-Oram, whose bright, chimey Stratocaster tone helped to define the Fixx’s sound. As a guest musician, he brought that tone to another of Private Dancer’s tracks, Better Be Good to Me. Also on that track, providing background vocals, was The Fixx’s lead singer, Cy Curnin.

Brand New Day

Sting (born Gordon Sumner) was the frontman of The Police, one of the most popular rock bands this side of The Beatles. The Police disbanded after five albums, but Sting continued on as a solo artist. In the subsequent years, he cemented himself as a musical idol.

But even idols have their own idols. And Sting found the opportunity to work with one of his own as he was recording his sixth album, 1999’s Brand New Day. He wrote the title track — which was also the album’s first single — as an optimistic look at the coming century. According to Sting, the song’s shuffle rhythm made him think of Stevie Wonder, and he thought, “God, it would be great if Stevie would play on this.”

Stevie Wonder is perhaps best known for his songwriting, vocals, and piano/keyboard skills. He’s also a virtuosic harmonica player, being one of the few musicians to play a chromatic harmonica which (unlike the far more common diatonic harmonica) can play the full twelve-note Western scale. Sting nervously phoned up his musical hero to ask if he’d contribute to the song. Wonder agreed, and traveled to New York to record the harmonica part that can be heard on the track today.

This wasn’t the first time Wonder contributed harmonica to a fellow musician’s recording, of course. You can also hear his harp skills on songs such as Elton John’s I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues, Chaka Kahn’s I Feel For You, and Eurythmics’ There Must Be an Angel. And of course, many of his own hits (notably Isn’t She Lovely) feature his harmonica work.

What Would You Say

Of course, Stevie Wonder is not popular music’s only virtuosic harmonicist. Blues Traveler emerged on the scene in the early 1990s, with the release of their self-titled album. The band was fronted by vocalist and John Popper who not only provided lead vocals, but also played dazzling, dizzying harmonica solos in many of the band’s songs.

The Dave Matthews Band followed Blues Traveler into popularity a few years later. Both bands developed reputations as jam bands, and it was only natural for their paths to cross. And so they did, repeatedly — starting with Popper’s performing the harmonica solo on What Would You Say, the lead single off of Under the Table and Dreaming, the Dave Matthews Band’s debut album.

Since then, Popper and the Dave Matthews Band have collaborated numerous times. Popper has performed live with the band numerous times, for example. In return, members of DMB contributed to Popper’s 1999 solo album.

Running With the Night

Michael Jackson’s Thriller (discussed earlier in the Beat It section) was an album that was jam-packed full of hits. Hot on its heels was Lionel Richie’s Can’t Slow Down, and album which — while not quite as ground-breaking as Thriller — had its own share of hits as well.

Thriller had shown what can be achieved by blending genres such as Motown and R&B with hard rock. In that vein, Richie wanted his own “Eddie Van Halen” to contribute lead guitar work on Running With the Night, the album’s rocker. So he contacted Steve Lukather, guitarist of Toto (and who, coincidentally, had performed rhythm guitar and bass lines on Michael Jackson’s Beat It).

Those who don’t know much about Lukather might be thinking, “oh, the guy who played guitar on that Africa song?” And sure, that’s true. But recall that Toto had other hits; Hold the Line might be a better example of Lukather’s chops. More to the point, Lukather is widely renowned as a guitar virtuoso who — in addition to playing with Toto — had a much-lauded solo career.

Lukather showed up to Richie’s recording studio, plugged in his guitar, and cranked his amp up as loud as it would go. According to Lukather, Richie played him the existing recording of Running With the Night, and Lukather “just started noodling through the whole thing.”

When the song ended, Lukather said he was ready to record the solo. “You just did,” replied Richie. The “noodling” had been recorded, and ultimately became the guitar solo that we hear on the track today.

Stand Back

Stevie Nicks’ Stand Back, the first single from her 1983 Wild Heart album, is notable for its lush, driving keyboard chords and bass line. Yet those keyboard parts — and the song itself — would not have existed had it not been for Prince.

Nicks has recounted how she and Kim Anderson, whom she had just married, were driving on a Santa Barbara freeway when Prince’s Little Red Corvette came on the radio. She soon found herself singing along “Stand Back! Stand Back!” Rather than continuing with their honeymoon, Nicks and Anderson headed into a nearby town to buy a tape recorder. They ultimately spent the night fleshing out what would become Stand Back: Nicks’ lyrics and melody atop Little Red Corvette’s chord progression.

About a week later, Nicks was in the recording studio working on the final version of the song. Out of a sense of obligation, Nicks phoned Prince to him about the song. She also invited him to the studio to hear it, not actually expecting him to take her up on it. To Nicks’ surprise, he agreed, and showed up in the studio about twenty minutes later.

After hearing a run-through of the song, Nicks says, Prince walked over to the synthesizers and “was absolutely brilliant for about 25 minutes.” After laying down a few keyboard tracks, he got up and left the studio. Although Prince remains uncredited on the track, he and Nicks agreed the split the single’s royalties.

After hearing that story, I’d wondered what part was actually Prince’s contribution. Recently, I found this remix of the song, which highlights Prince’s contributions. Listening to that, it’s clear that while Nicks’ incomparable voice is what gives the song its character, Prince really gave the song its underlying drive and energy.


Software architect, engineering leader, musician, husband, dad

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