Singing Rock Drummers: From the Skins to the Mike

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The classic rock notion of serving double-duty as guitarist and lead singer was established as a norm decades ago. Similarly, few people bat an eye when a bass player assumes the guise of main vocalist. For drummers, however, the idea of handling lead vocals seems incongruous, a fact borne out by the slim number of musicians who’ve occupied both those roles.

Below, we profile 11 artists who indeed have sung lead vocals while pounding the skins. A special note: for the purpose of this list, we elected not to include drummers who stepped out from behind the kit to become frontmen (i.e., Dave Grohl). Similarly, we opted to exclude drummers whose lead vocal turns were primarily presented as a novelty (Keith Moon, for example). So, without further ado, and in no particular order, here are our top picks.

Don Henley (Eagles)
Eagles classics such as “Witchy Woman,” “Hotel California” and “The Long Run” would exude an altogether different vibe were it not for Don Henley’s distinctive voice. In the wake of the Eagles’ breakup in 1980, the veteran drummer forged the most successful solo career of any member of the band, scoring such colossal hits as “Dirty Laundry,” “Sunset Grill” and “The Boys of Summer.” “He has an amazing voice that’s a mystery to us all,” songwriter J.D. Souther once said of Henley. “I would call him one of the great blues singers of our generation.”

Roger Taylor (Queen)
Even casual fans recognize Roger Taylor’s status as one of classic rock’s greatest drummers, but less well-known are the Queen co-founder’s skills as a singer. A trove of great Queen songs—including “Lover in the End” from Queen II, “Tenement Funster” from Sheer Heart Attack and “I’m in Love with My Car” from A Night at the Opera—feature Taylor on lead vocals. Few singers could ever match Freddie Mercury’s operatic wail, but Taylor’s four-octave vocal range was a key component of Queen’s musical arsenal.

Don Brewer (Grand Funk Railroad)
Mark Farner is rightly regarded as Grand Funk’s primary frontman, but drummer Don Brewer sang more of the band’s material than most people realize. Particularly with the 1973 album We’re an American Band, Brewer gained notice as an excellent songwriter and an exceptional lead vocalist. And even prior to writing and singing that album’s classic title track, Brewer took the lead microphone on such early recordings as “Are You Ready” and the band’s cover of “Gimme Shelter.” Later songs such “Shinin’ On” and “Walk Like a Man” featured Brewer as main singer as well.

Sheila E.
MTV viewers were dazzled by Sheila E.’s talents when she burst onto the scene in the mid-’80s. Beginning with her breakthrough hit, “The Glamorous Life,” the Prince protégé carved out a niche as a charismatic performer and a singer-percussionist possessed of immense gifts. From that launch, Sheila E. has since gone on to combine a successful solo career with an abundance of peripheral activities, including three stints as a member of Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band.

Levon Helm (The Band)
Viewers of The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese’s film documentary about the Band’s 1976 farewell concert, invariably come away dazzled by the power of Levon Helm’s performances. A multi-instrumentalist, the late musician manned the drums for the most of the Band’s material, and his soulful, southern voice—evident on classics such as “Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”—was integral to the group’s style. Helm’s beloved Midnight Rambles, staged at his home in Woodstock in later years, added a wonderful capstone to his legacy.

Micky Dolenz (The Monkees)
Former Monkee Mike Nesmith doesn’t often dole out compliments; nonetheless, Nesmith once asserted that it was drummer Micky Dolenz’s voice that made the Monkees’ sound distinctive. Even when tensions in the band were high, Nesmith and fellow Monkee Peter Tork readily turned to Dolenz as the band member best-suited to sing their compositions. Hits such as “I’m a Believer” and “Last Train to Clarksville” showed Dolenz to be an impeccably gifted pop stylist.

Related: And let’s not forget this one.

Karen Carpenter (The Carpenters)
Karen Carpenter’s saccharine image, along with the Carpenters’ sprightly pop, sometimes obscured the late singer-drummer’s immense talents. But troves of musicians were effusive in their praise. Elton John called Carpenter “one of the greatest voices of our lifetime,” and drumming legends Buddy Rich and Hal Blaine lauded her intricate technique as a timekeeper. Carpenters hits such as “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “Rainy Days and Mondays” remain emblematic of a certain brand of ’70s pop. Carpenter’s tragic death—at 32, she succumbed to heart disease brought on by struggles with an eating disorder—leaves us to wonder how much she would have added to her legacy.

Phil Collins (Genesis)
Facing the departure of original frontman Peter Gabriel in 1974, Genesis auditioned hundreds of replacement singers, all with unsatisfying results. Little did the group know that a suitable successor was already there among them, lurking behind the drum kit. When touring, Genesis sometimes employed a second drummer, the better to accommodate Phil Collins’ new role as vocalist. Later, as his tenure in Genesis wound down, Collins staked out a career as one of adult contemporary music’s most successful pop artists.

Peter Criss (KISS)
Funnily enough, it wasn’t his drumming but rather his “Wilson Pickett-style” voice that gained Peter Criss entry into KISS as a founding member. Indeed, on such songs as “Black Diamond,” “Hard Luck Woman” and, of course, the classic-rock ballad “Beth,” Criss stakes out vocal terrain that’s as exemplary as his skills at the drum kit. In recent years Criss has been musically inactive, but his last solo album, 2007’s One for All, showcased all aspects of his multi-faceted talent.

Related: Keith Moon, rock’s greatest drummer?

Peter Rivera (Rare Earth)
Rare Earth has the distinction of being the first all-white hit-making band signed to Motown. During the group’s successful early ’70s run, many fans were likely surprised to discover that the singer of those hits—“Born to Wander,” “Get Ready” and “I Just Want to Celebrate,” to name just three—occupied a seat behind the drum kit. Peter Rivera remains active today, and as recently as 2014 he released a solo album. “I used to think I’m a drummer who sings,” he said, at the time of the album’s release. “Now I think I’m a singer who plays drums.”

Ringo Starr (The Beatles)
Lennon and McCartney were more polished singers (George Harrison, too, for that matter), but few vocalists can imbue a song with as much charm as Ringo can. “Yellow Submarine,” “With a Little Help from My Friends” and similar tunes saw the jovial drummer give a lovable, off-key tilt to Lennon and McCartney’s impeccable melodies. Post-Beatles, Ringo came roaring out of the chute with two Top 10 solo hits—in the form of “It Don’t Come Easy” and “Back Off Boogaloo”—and his 1973 solo album Ringo remains a classic. Today, Starr remains rock’s premier “singing drummer,” releasing new albums every few years and touring with his beloved All-Starr Band.

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Russell Hall

Russell Hall

Russell Hall spent 18 years as a computer programmer before plotting his escape from the corporate world in order to write about music full-time. Since 1993, the lifelong southerner has maintained a steady freelance course—writing for Performing Songwriter, Goldmine, No Depression, M Music & Musicians, and countless other publications whose names are a distant memory. Because of his Deep South roots, editors have generally pegged him as southern-rock enthusiast, but in truth his tastes have always run more toward David Bowie, Lou Reed, Roxy Music, the Clash, Talking Heads, and the like—as well as, of course, classic rock. At the time of this writing he’s on a serious early 10cc and Sparks binge. His work motto? Never try to impress the artist with whom you’re conducting an interview.
Russell Hall
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  1. Michael
    #1 Michael 24 November, 2017, 11:01

    Surprised that you didn’t include Kelly Keagy of Night Ranger in this list. He sang several of the band’s hits and is a great drummer. Former Journey/Bad English drummer Deen Castronovo deserves a nod as well. Phenomenal drummer and vocalist who could’ve assumed the lead vocalist slot in Journey with ease. Killer article though!

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