7 Legendary drummers who became lead singers

Jon O'Brien

BY Jon O'Brien

19th Jan 2023 Music

7 Legendary drummers who became lead singers

Some of music's greatest frontmen began their journey behind the drum kit. From Dave Grohl to Ringo Starr, these are the rockers who swapped sticks for the mic

After more than 30 years as the drummer for the recently-reformed Blur, drummer Dave Rowntree will finally make his voice heard this month when he makes his debut as a singer with solo album Radio Songs (January 23).

But the multi-talent—he's also a former Labour party councillor, ex-solicitor and occasional animator—isn't the only man who’s made the leap from behind the drum kit to the front of the stage.

From grunge icons to easy-listening legends, here’s a look at seven who made it look easy.

Dave Grohl

Where better way to start than the man often described as “the nicest man in rock”? Dave Grohl spent several years as a sticksman for hardcore punks Scream, before taking over from Chad Channing in the band that would revolutionise the early 90s music scene, Nirvana.

Grohl’s pummelling beats helped to guide Nevermind to blockbuster success but, following frontman Kurt Cobain’s tragic demise in 1994, the hirsute drummer decided it was time to take centre stage.

Thanks to anthems such as “Best of You,” “The Pretender” and “Times Like These,” his alt-rock outfit Foo Fighters have since become one of his generation’s defining guitar bands.

Phil Collins

Perhaps the most famous example of a drummer reinventing himself as a singer, Phil Collins provided the rhythms for the proggier incarnation of Genesis up until the mid-1970s.

Following the departure of lead singer Peter Gabriel, though, the former child actor pipped over 400 auditionees to the role of his replacement.

"Following the departure of lead singer Peter Gabriel, the former child actor pipped over 400 auditionees to the role of his replacement"

Collins helped steer the trio into more commercial territory, with all four of their 80s albums reaching the UK number one spot.

In 1981 with his first solo LP, Face Value, he launched an even more successful solo career, with a polished adult contemporary sound which saw him pick up eight Grammys, six Ivor Novellos and even an Oscar.

Levon Helm

Levon Helm first made his name when he returned to the fold of Bob Dylan’s unimaginatively titled session group The Band in the late 60s.

The drummer’s vocal abilities were largely restricted to backing harmonies for their own debut album, Music from Big Pink.

However, due to Richard Manuel’s various health issues, Helm eventually took over as main singer, his Southern-accented tones perfectly complementing their increasingly rootsier material.

The American continued to pull double duty until the outfit split following a legendary farewell performance dubbed The Last Waltz. But he wasted little time launching a solo career, with 1977 debut Levon Helm & The RCO All-Stars proving he could still multi-task.

Ringo Starr

Although his abilities were often called into question, Ringo Starr undoubtedly remains the most famous drummer in the world. After famously replacing Pete Best in 1962, the Liverpudlian both enjoyed and endured eight years of Beatlemania, creating a snare roll rhythm known as the Ringo Shuffle in the process.

As with the rest of the Fab Four, Starr achieved solo success in the wake of their 1970 split, scoring consecutive US number ones with “Photograph” and “You’re Sixteen.”

Of course, for a certain generation, his Scouse tones will always be more associated with kids’ favourite Thomas the Tank Engine.

Roger Taylor

From those stadium-friendly stomps of “We Will Rock You” to the slick synthesised beats of “Radio Ga Ga,” Roger Taylor created some of the most recognisable rhythms in pop history.

But he also bravely stood in for the ultimate showman, Freddie Mercury, on at least one occasion per Queen album.

"Roger Taylor bravely stood in for the ultimate showman, Freddie Mercury, on at least one occasion per Queen album"

Although the history-rewriting biopic Bohemian Rhapsody claimed otherwise, it was actually Taylor who ventured outside the band first—writing, producing and performing all of 1981’s Fun in Space.

Six years later he again took the spotlight as frontman of dance-rock outfit The Cross. But his biggest solo success came in 2021 when sixth LP Outsider reached No.3 in the UK chart.

Karen Carpenter

We all know Karen Carpenter was as gifted a drummer as she was a vocalist. She often displayed her dexterity behind the kit while simultaneously showing off the kind of beautifully melancholic voice that had you both marvelling and weeping at the same time.

But you might not be aware that she never had any ambitions to become a singer at all.

Before forming easy-listening duo the Carpenters, Karen joined brother Richard in the Dick Carpenter Trio where, according to the latter, her only role was to “speedily manoeuvre the sticks as if she had been born in a drum factory.”

Don Henley

Don Henley first displayed his musical talents as the drummer for Linda Ronstadt’s backing group, before they became a multi-million-selling country-rock act in their own right.

"Don Henley scored the most popular solo tune by a former Eagle, 'Boys of Summer'"

The Texan remained behind the kit throughout the Eagles’ 1970s imperial phase, but also co-wrote and performed on many of their biggest hits, including US chart-toppers “Best of My Love” and “Hotel California.”

In the wake of the band’s acrimonious 1981 split, Henley further showcased his distinctive raspy tones on solo debut I Can’t Stand Still, later scoring the most popular solo tune by a former Eagle, “Boys of Summer.”

Banner image credit: Andreas Lawen, Fotandi, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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