Singing Rock Drummers: From the Skins to the Mike

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Karen Carpenter, in an uncredited photo via the duo’s Facebook page

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 didn’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.

Karen Carpenter (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.

Russell Hall

23 Comments so far

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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!

    Reply this comment
  2. Billy K.
    #2 Billy K. 14 March, 2018, 06:13

    Dennis Wilson. ….sang the lead on the cover of “Do You Wanna Dance?”……and also contributed lead vocals on a number of tracks on the late 60s and 70s Beach Boys albums.

    Reply this comment
    • Ray
      Ray 5 February, 2020, 08:17

      Excellent point! Dennis also co-wrote and sang lead on ‘Forever’ and ‘Baby Blue” and his 1977 solo album, ‘Pacific Ocean Blue’, was a very underrated gem.

      Reply this comment
    • Jeff
      Jeff 5 February, 2023, 00:57

      Dennis also saying on in the back of my mind and a few other songs but he definitely belongs in the group of drummers who work great composers. He was indeed a talent

      Reply this comment
  3. The Csar
    #3 The Csar 12 June, 2018, 08:25

    Dave Clark of the DC5 and Country Dick Montana of the Beat Farmers are 2 great Drummer Singers.

    Reply this comment
    • Jeff Tamarkin
      Jeff Tamarkin 12 June, 2018, 11:58

      Dave Clark was not the singer in the DC5. That was Mike Smith.

      Reply this comment
      • Crash Gordon
        Crash Gordon 5 February, 2024, 09:05

        Jim Gordon, great studio and live drummer, did most of the Carpenters studio drumming. Dave Clark, DC5, didn’t do his studio drumming either. Dennis Elliott did. He was the British version of American Hal Blaine.
        Young baby boomers, on the West Coast, wrote and sang the songs. The music was left
        up to the “Wrecking Crew”. The real “Pros”.

        Reply this comment
    • Steve b
      Steve b 27 July, 2019, 02:23

      i didnt know dave sang lead on any DC 5 songs.Mike Smith was the main voice and Dave sang some background vocals .They rocked though Love the song “BECAUSE”

      Reply this comment
  4. Rick
    #4 Rick 19 September, 2018, 08:15

    Uh, Gary Lewis?

    Other than Collins and Carpenter I suspect his vocals double-tracked around Leon Russell’s arrangements tallied Top 10, 40, and 100 more than anyone else on your list.

    Reply this comment
  5. Michael Jefferson
    #5 Michael Jefferson 27 July, 2019, 09:19

    Buddy Miles. Great singer. No Jim Gordon on drums, but he could hold a beat and he was good enough to play with Hendrix.

    Reply this comment
  6. WslterLoydLilly
    #6 WslterLoydLilly 27 July, 2020, 03:45

    …Don Ciccone, best-known for the late-period Four Seasons – singing lead on a #1# – also in the Critters.
    For R&B group] drummers who became leaf dimhers, I’ll mention Teddy Pendergrass and Jeffery Osbourne

    Reply this comment
  7. Tom
    #7 Tom 27 July, 2020, 10:54

    About the singing drummers…Graeme Edge of the Moody Blues who not only sang backup vocals but also wrote a few of the songs on early albums and voiced some of the spoken words and poetry on those albums.

    Reply this comment
    • John Rose
      John Rose 3 March, 2021, 19:18

      Graeme recited some of the poems on stage in later years, but on record most of them were voiced by Mike Pinder. And Graeme is always singing while playing but if you look closely they don’t have a microphone anywhere near him. lol I suspect that actual singing is not his strong suit.

      Reply this comment
  8. Batchman
    #8 Batchman 2 March, 2021, 18:58

    Don’t forget Robert Wyatt, with Soft Machine and Matching Mole. His story is unique, in that after becoming paralyzed in a self-induced accident, he began a lengthy non-drumming solo career, contributing his distinctive vocals to a wide range of music and musicians.

    Reply this comment
  9. Beatmaker
    #9 Beatmaker 3 March, 2021, 03:28

    Please don’t forget Nigel Olsson, great singer/drummer for Elton John.
    He released 6 solo albums and scoring Top 20 hit “Dancin’ Shoes”, and top 40 hit “A Little Bit of Soap”
    Also, Nigel sung lead vocal on few songs for the band Plastic Penny in his early years.

    Reply this comment
    • Batchman
      Batchman 4 March, 2021, 19:46

      One of Nigel Olsson’s first solo albums was called “Drummers Can Sing Too!” That should have been the title of this whole article.

      Reply this comment
  10. Harry
    #10 Harry 22 March, 2021, 09:52

    Honourable mention, not that they were primarily known as a vocal band per se, to Yukihiro Takahashi of Yellow Magic Orchestra.

    Reply this comment
  11. Philly Bob
    #11 Philly Bob 27 July, 2021, 06:53

    Frankie “Choo-Choo” Funaro of the Del Lords sang “I Play the Drums”

    Reply this comment
  12. phil
    #12 phil 6 May, 2022, 18:36

    Call his singing, call it not, but .. Ginger Baker!

    Reply this comment
  13. Tim
    #13 Tim 4 February, 2023, 13:21

    How about Kevin Godley of 10cc. One of the best voices in rock, let alone he’s a drummer.

    Reply this comment
  14. Frody
    #14 Frody 5 February, 2023, 11:38

    I’d like to add Gil Moore from Triumph. He shared at least half the singing duties with Rik Emmett. I’m surprised too, as you just posted an on their documentary video last month.
    But I give credit to all those drummers who can play and sing. It was difficult for me to try it while playing bass let alone swinging all 4 appendages. CHEERS!

    Reply this comment
  15. Ric
    #15 Ric 5 February, 2023, 14:19

    Carmine Appice of Vanilla Fudge. And still going strong today!

    Reply this comment
  16. Litsii
    #16 Litsii 5 February, 2024, 14:34

    I think you should scratch Micky Dolenz from this list. I love his vocals, but I don’t believe he ever played the drums other than faking it for the camera. He played a little guitar if I recall, but not the drums.

    Reply this comment

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