The Kids Are Alright: 5 Musical Prodigies

To celebrate Mozart's birthday today, we're taking a look at his early musical genius and some fellow prodigies who toddled their way into music history.
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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Painting by Barbara Krafft/Wikimedia Commons)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Painting by Barbara Krafft/Wikimedia Commons)

Born on January 27, 1756, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart raised the bar for all child prodigies to follow. He began to learn the harpsichord at age 3, and by 5 was already beginning to write complex pieces of music. When Mozart was 6, his father took him on a four-year tour, during which the young genius displayed his extraordinary talents for royalty throughout Europe, performing on both the piano and violin. While touring, he also continued to write, and by the tender age of 15 had composed an astonishing number of symphonies, operas, and concertos for a wide array of instruments. 

But as Mozart matured and his novelty as a child star faded, he found he could no longer draw the same crowds. Nevertheless, for the remainder of his teens and 20s, he continued to compose, working as a freelance musician to support himself. Unfortunately, as his compositional skills reached their peak, so did his debts, and when he died of fever in 1791 at the young age of 35, he was essentially penniless. However, the wealth of Mozart’s body of work, which includes 41 symphonies, more than 30 concertos, and as many sonatas, as well as such masterpieces as The Magic Flute and The Marriage of Figaro, makes him one of the most prolific and important composers in the history of music. In honor of his birthday, here are five more early birds from around the music world.

Buddy Rich

Buddy Rich Photo

Buddy Rich (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Born on September 30, 1917, Bernard “Buddy” Rich began playing the drums in his parent’s vaudeville show when he was just 18 months old. A multitalented lad, he was performing tap on Broadway at age 4 and was touring the world by age 6, and at one point in his early career was among the highest-paid child performers in the world. But drums were Buddy’s true love, and at age 11 he was flashing his skills as the leader of his own band. 

By the time he was in his 20s, Rich had discovered jazz too, and once he did, he never looked back, going on to perform and record countless albums of his own, as well as with legends such as Artie Shaw, Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. He was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1981, and is considered to be one of the greatest drummers of all time. 

Stevie Wonder

Born in Detroit, six weeks premature, on May 13, 1950, and becoming permanently blind shortly thereafter, things did not start out easy for Stevland Hardaway Morris. But early in his youth, he began to display a startling aptitude for a number of musical instruments and developed a unique and expressive singing voice. When he was 11, Stevland’s mother took him to an audition for the legendary R&B label Motown Records, where he was promptly signed and bestowed with the name Stevie Wonder

His debut album was released a year later, kicking off a long and successful career during which he explored a diverse range of musical styles and composed such classic songs as “My Cherie Amour,” “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” “I Just Called to Say I Love You” and “From the Bottom of My Heart.” He has sold more than 100 million records, recorded more than 30 Top 10 hits, won more than 25 Grammy Awards and been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 

Yo-Yo Ma

Yo-Yo Ma performs at a private dinner for Crown Prince Akihito and Crown Princess Michiko of Japan, hosted by President Ronald Reagan, at the White House. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/White House Photo Office)

Yo-Yo Ma performs at a private dinner for Crown Prince Akihito and Crown Princess Michiko of Japan, hosted by President Ronald Reagan, at the White House. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/White House Photo Office)

Born to Chinese parents (both musicians) in Paris, France, on October 7, 1955, Yo-Yo Ma received musical instruction early on, and by the age of 4 was already an accomplished cellist. He gave his first recital at the age of 5, and continued to perform regularly. Among his most famous audience members during this time were presidents Kennedy and Eisenhower

Ma went on to play with classical orchestras throughout his youth and attended both Julliard and Harvard as well. He has recorded more than 70 albums and performed on the soundtracks for such television shows as American Horror Story and Sex and the City as well as films such as Mission Impossible and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. He was won 25 Grammy Awards. 


Björk (Photo: Zach Klein/Wikimedia Commons)

Björk (Photo: Zach Klein/Wikimedia Commons)

Born in Reykjavik, Iceland, on November 21, 1965, Björk Guðmundsdóttir (try saying that three times fast, or once…) grew up in a hippie commune with her mother and stepfather and began studying classical music at age 6. At the age of 12, she was signed to a contract after a label executive heard a recording of her singing at a school recital, and her self-titled debut album was released the following year, launching a musical career that has lasted more than 40 years. 

After recording and performing with various bands during high school, in 1986 she formed the alternative group The Sugarcubes, which achieved modest success in both the United States and United Kingdom, before embarking on a solo career in 1993. Her first album, Debut, went platinum, and its popularity soon led to collaborations with the likes of Madonna, Tricky and Thom Yorke. In 1999 her music was featured in the Lars von Trier film Dancer in the Dark, in which she also played the lead role. She has received 14 Grammy Awards and has won two Oscars for best song.

LeAnn Rimes

LeAnn Rimes Photo

LeAnn Rimes (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

I know, I know . . . lumping LeAnn Rimes into the same group as Mozart is probably as unjust as the fact that he died poor, but we’re not necessarily talking “greatest” here so much as “youngest.” Say what you will, LeAnn Rimes, born August 28, 1982, was singing and dancing in talent shows at 5 (the same age at which Mozart started performing . . . ahem). 

After finding success on the TV show Star Search she set off in pursuit of a career in country music, developing a powerful singing voice that eventually caught the ear of disc jockey Bill Mack, who gave Rimes a song he had written titled “Blue.” The single and album of the same name were a massive, multiplatinum success, eventually selling more than 8 million copies and winning Rimes two Grammys, making her, at age 14, the youngest person in history to ever win the award. She has gone on to record 10 more albums and has sold more than 30 million records. 

(Sorry, Wolfgang . . . Happy Birthday . . .)