In the beginning, there was no lead singer. Elvis played guitar, as did Buddy Holly. Jerry Lee Lewis played piano. The Beatles had no set lead singer. Even Ringo sang.
But a change was hinted when the Beach Boys broke in 1962. Mike Love stood out in front of the band and sang without really playing an instrument. Hmm… But Elvis played guitar, and Little Richard played piano.
And then this blues band out of Dartford, Kent, England, who were friendly with The Beatles and boasted a jazz drummer, burst onto the British rock scene with this swagger, cocky, oversexed wisp of a guy named Mick Jagger. Soon, you had The Yardbirds and Keith Relf, The Animals and Eric Burdon. By 1967, Jefferson Airplane boasted two lead vocalists – one male, one female.
This was new. It was radical.
Actually, it went back to the swing era, where the singer was a featured player separate from the orchestra. But for rock, rapidly evolving into power trio music, the lead singer was revolutionary. He (or she) generally did not play an instrument. He was often the court jester, the star, the preening peacock out in front of the stoic, leering guys on guitars, drums, or keyboards.
Yes, Mick Jagger plays guitar. So does Roger Daltrey (who was The Who’s original lead guitarist, actually). But the lead vocalist has to communicate with the audience. And unlike a band like, say, Rush or Pink Floyd, the singer can’t hide behind his or her instrument. They not only have to get out in front. They have to talk to the audience. They have to be the show. Consider the difference between Van Halen with David Lee Roth and with Sammy Hagar. Sammy is a good singer and can put on a show worthy of his bandmates, but David Lee Roth put it best. “Other bands want to throw the party. I am the party.”
Yet lead singers have to have enormous egos. They sometimes forget that it’s a band and not a singer with a backup group. Keith Richards often says Jagger suffers from “LSD” (lead singer disorder). Steven Tyler admits he has “lead vocalitis” to explain a lot of his outrageous behavior.
So who are these singers who, without an instrument in hand, have redefined rock?
The voice and face (and logo) of the Rolling Stones, Jagger took Elvis’s sexual power and gave it a menacing edge. And at 67, he hasn’t lost a step.
Originally the lead guitarist for The Who, he actually did not have Pete Townshend’s neuroses. In an odd reversal of roles, Daltrey, like Keith Richards, was the calm yin to Townshend’s manic yang. Usually, it’s the rest of the band that has to keep the vocalist grounded. But it’s a good thing Daltrey changed roles early in The Who’s career. His is the throat that roared before Plant, Ian Gillan, or Bonn Scott shrieked.
If Mick Jagger had been born a woman, she would have been Grace Slick. Actually, Grace would have swallowed Mick whole (and Mick probably would want her to try). In her prime, she was fire and energy unrestrained, and it didn’t stop when she left the stage, powering multiple versions of Jefferson Airplane/Starship.
Hammer of the Gods. At the forefront of Led Zeppelin, like Slick and Jagger, he was all sex and menace, but with a hint of the occult that Jagger could only tease at.
Rock as theater? Around that time, we had David Bowie pushing the envelope. However, Gabriel, with his smoky voice and dry rapport with the audience, did what many lead singers fail to do: Get out of the music’s way.
David Lee Roth
The clown prince of rock. “I am the party.” There’s a reason Van Halen hired Sammy Hagar to replace Roth. They needed a musician to fill that role because no lead singer could be David Lee Roth.
The best and the worst of what a lead singer is. His is the voice that defines Guns N Roses and broke the back of hair metal in the late 1980’s. Yet his was the ego that destroyed the one band that could have assumed the role of the Rolling Stones in the 1990’s.
But then Mick Jagger could have told him, “It’s a band, mate, not a solo act.” There’s a reason Axl and Slash are not the Glimmer Twins. But they should have been.