The image of a rock band on stage working the crowd generally does not include lead vocals coming from the man (or woman) anchored behind a drum kit.
Levon Helm was the voice for the majority of classic hits by The Band ( formerly known as The Hawks, before becoming Bob Dylan’s backing band in the ’60s), such as ‘The Weight’ and ‘Up on Cripple Creek’. His vocal style defined the group’s signature sound as much as the songwriting of guitarist Robbie Robertson.
The response to Helm’s passing has included much praise and tributes to the man and his music. Singing many of The Band’s best known songs, he was also their main drummer.
Helm was not unique in filling both the roles of lead singer and drummer in a hugely successful rock act, but other examples are fairly rare.
Another iconic American voice in popular music is Don Henley of The Eagles. The Eagles were formed in 1971, and released their debut album in 1972. They went on to be the best selling American band in history. Henley, a founding member, sang lead on the hits, ‘Desperado’, ‘One of These Nights’, ‘Life in the Fast Lane’, and ‘Hotel California’, among others. Along with his semi-raspy vocals, Henley’s drumming contributed to the group’s country/rock California sound.
The Eagles disbanded in 1980. In 1982 Henley embarked on a solo career that has produced his own string of hits in the last 30 years. ‘Sunset Grill’, ‘The Heart of The Matter’, and ‘The Boys of Summer’, are a few.
The Eagles reunited in 1994 and Henley continued to sing hits for the band such as ‘Get Over It’.
In the 1980s the voice of Phil Collins was seemingly everywhere. Collins joined Peter Gabriel’s band Genesis in 1970 as drummer and also provided backing vocals. He was given the oppurtunity to sing lead on a few cuts on the group’s early LPs.
In 1975 when Gabriel left Genesis, Collins took over lead singing duties. Their first album with Collins’ lead vocals was, The Trick of The Tale. In 1980 The album Duke, put the band in the top selling rock stars category.
Collins’ released his first solo record, Face Value in 1981. It included the single ‘In the Air Tonight’. During the rest of the ’80s a series of tremendously successful releases by both Phil Collins solo artist, and Genesis featured Collins’ lead voice and drumming.
Phil Collins and Don Henley, both songwriters as well as performers, have employed other drummers during their concerts as solo artists, leaving them free to front their shows either as standup lead singers or while playing guitar or piano. Levon Helm also played mandolin as a member of The Band while pianist/vocalist, the late Richard Manuel took over the drum kit.
Helm, Henley and Collins are the best examples of highly successful singing drummers, but there have been others.
Drummer Jimmy Marinos of The Romantics sang their biggest hit, 1980’s New Wave dance tune, ‘What I Like About You’.
The power ballad ‘Sister Christian’ from 1984, the biggest hit for the band Night Ranger, was written and sung by drummer Kelly Keagy.
The Four Seasons’ 1975 hit ‘December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)’ has drummer Gerry Polci (a Passaic NJ native) handling the lead vocals, while Newark legend Frankie Valli sings the bridge and provides backing vocals.
The best known female singing drummer was the late Karen Carpenter. The earliest records by the brother and sister pop duo The Carpenters, featured Karen playing drums as well as her distinctive vocals.
As mentioned, it is difficult for a drummer to effectively front a band in performance while sitting behind a traditional drum set. Andy Sturmer, drummer/singer/songwriter for the power pop band Jellyfish, addressed the situation by playing what is sometimes known as a ‘cocktail’ drum kit, which features a tall cylindrical kick drum, or bass with a reverse pedal that allows the drummer to play standing up and command the front of the stage.
Dave Grohl, drummer for legendary grunge band Nirvana, switched over to guitar before forming Foo Fighters, where he reinvented himself as a lead singing front man.
The fraternity of singing drummers (plus Ms. Carpenter) while small, has had a large impact on the best selling popular music of the last 40 plus years.