Our Top 10 Singing Drummers

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There have been a number of drummers who have done double-duty, both pounding out the time and lending a key vocal bit (or two) to more than a few huge hits. Granted, it’s hard to choose those who did it best, but here’s a shortlist of 10 great singing drummers.

Roger Taylor: Seated behind Queen, Roger Taylor’s mellifluous screams found their way into the rock opera hit, “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Although he would later relinquish major vocal duties to Freddie Mercury in 1980, Taylor traditionally sang the tracks that he wrote, those fiery pipes heard in concert through the punchy “I’m In Love With My Car.” Prolific in nature, Taylor proved the first band member to release a solo single, a tasty cover of The Parliaments “I Wanna Testify” (1977). It hardly bothered the charts, but gave Taylor a taste for singing by himself, culminating in his performance side project, The Cross.

Related: “Queen Meets the Ballet World”

Kevin Godley: Though he was the only member who didn’t sing a 10cc number one hit, Kevin Godley’s ghostly falsettos brought gravitas and power to their standout album ballads. Unenthused by 10cc’s foray into more conventional pop, Godley quit the band with guitarist Lol Creme to focus on the triple album Consequences.  Art students by trade, Godley and Creme sidestepped into the world of pop directing, steering The Police’s long-form Synchronicity Concert to a Grammy nomination. Video direction proved an income, music their creative outlet. The duo’s touching “Cry”(featuring Godley on lead) was heard in a popular Miami Vice episode.

Dave Grohl: These days, he’s best known as Foo Fighters bandleader and singer, but there was a time when he was Nirvana’s drummer. Completing the classic lineup in 1990, Dave Grohl brought virile energy to the band’s explosive Nevermind (1991). Kurt Cobain’s lyrics were reflective, Grohl’s drums were exhilarating, shooting the album into prime 1992 Billboard position. MTV Unplugged In New York showcased Grohl’s wistful backing voice, which later expanded to lead voice on the Foo Fighters’ striking debut. He’s largely remained a guitar-centered singer since, amassing twelve million US sales since 1995, but he returns to the drum kit intermittently in concert.

Sheila E: The thunderous vocals on “The Glamorous Life” were every bit as cavernous as the bass pedal she kicks. The song’s writer, Prince, recognized the power of her singing voice, which he used during the Purple Rain sessions. Yet it was as a percussionist that drew her to George Duke’s attention as he used her on the seminal Don’t Let Go when she was barely in her twenties. Her fourth work, Sex Cymbal, acknowledged how important drumming was to her imagery.

Don Henley: The only founding member still touring with Eagles, Don Henley’s otherworldly voice captures the specters so wholesomely in Hotel California. Credited on seven of the album’s songs, Henley had a writing style that matched his lyrical drum licks. Mindful of aging, Henley’s strongest solo single, The Boys Of Summer, won Video of The Year at 1985 MTV Video Music Awards, the black and white silhouettes capturing the themes of its song perfectly.

Karen Carpenter: It was her contralto vocal parts and clean-cut image that people remember, but Carpenter was also an impressive timekeeper. Her brother Richard thought so, commenting that in the group’s earliest incarnation Karen could “speedily maneuver the sticks as if she had been born in a drum factory.” The duo’s debut Ticket To Ride saw a more even division of vocal parts before Karen stood firmly as the group’s lead singer from Close To You (1970) onwards. Subsequently, many of the drum tracks were recorded by sessioneer Hal Blaine, though Karen would return to the drum kit, where often she would sing from. During her brother’s respite from the group, Karen turned to Phil Ramone to record a solo album, released posthumously in 1996.

Robert Wyatt: One of the foremost giants of The Canterbury Scene, Wyatt’s work with The Soft Machine proved integral to the spiritual growth of progressive rock. The band’s epochal Volume Two fused the jazz-rock permutations with Dadaist philosophies, Wyatt’s voice simmering through the speakers. Recording with follow-up band Modest Mole, Wyatt fell from a fourth-floor window, leaving him wheelchair-bound to this day. He’s focused his energies on his other great gift, singing, expressed in exquisite detail on the solemn “Rock Bottom,” produced by fellow sticksman Nick Mason.

Levon Helm: Their material lamented the America of their ancestors, yet the Arkansas-born Levon Helm was the only bona fide American singing in an otherwise Canadian group. As with many of the other members, Helm played a number of instruments proficiently, his mandolin work as important to the group’s trajectory as his percussive work was. His solo work was of a mixed affair in the eighties, though the doublet of millennial albums Dirt Farmer (2007) and Electric Dirt (2009) were met with unanimous acclaim.

Related: “The 10 Best The Band Songs You May Have Never Heard”

Ringo Starr: Arguably the most famous face on this list, Sir Richard Starkey who popularized the image of a singing drummer. Firmly stapled as a Beatle, Starr’s country-led vocals were heard on the band’s debut. Leaving The Beatles in 1970, Starr proved his commercial worth when glam-tinted rockers “It Don’t Come Easy” (1971) and “Back Off Booagloo” (1972) both hit the US Billboard top five. Starr explored acting before the lure of live performance brought Starr to lead the very first All Starr Band in 1989. It’s now onto its fourteenth lineup, with Starr still drumming and singing, always his first loves.

Phil Collins: Though he would ultimately top the charts with a series of louche lounge piano works, it was his capacity on rhythm that first introduced Phil Collins to the music world. Impressed with his stick work, Genesis vocalist Peter Gabriel invited Collins to join the band in 1971. His choirboy falsetto melded with Gabriel’s sultrier voice, making him the ideal candidate to replace the mercurial frontman in 1975. Taking a brief respite from Genesis, Collins explored the material effects of his marital breakup, converging in the macabre “In The Air Tonight.” His most famous solo work was also his most drum-heavy work, starting him on a lucrative solo career that he continues to this day.

-Eoghan Lyng

Photo: Phil Collins (Getty Images)

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13 comments on “Our Top 10 Singing Drummers

  1. Thom Harmand

    How can you omit the great Andy Sturmer of Jellyfish? 😲

    • Damz yo… i was just think Jellyfish drummer 😱. Spilt Milk was s great record! Hey

  2. Realizing you only had room for 10, there was bound to be some leave-outs, particularly when you factor in music acts with *lead* singers who were also drummers (some of your selections were drummers who mainly sang back-up &/or rarely sang lead):

    I wholeheartedly agree with your take on Robert Wyatt, but his inclusion suggests a considerable oversight. One of Wyatt’s mainstream successes was a cover of “I’m a Believer,” which was a mega-selling hit for The Monkees–sung by a singing drummer, Micky Dolenz. Moreover, Dolenz sang most of their hits and is still doing it today. Besides selling millions of records and setting a bar for multi-media in rock music, The Monkees inspired countless people to get into music (cited by artists such as REM, Cassandra Wilson, The Ramones, etc.). Granted, Dolenz is actually a guitarist who learned drums to play in a made-for-TV band, that detail is lost on the millions of people endeared by his (arguably trailblazing) image, singing and playing songs from behind a drum kit.

    Last, props should go to Rare Earth (signed by Motown), who had a string of Top 20 hits, all sung with excellence by their drummer, Pete Rivera. Rare Earth still pops up in soundtracks and in samples, and an incarnation of the band is on the road today.

    Thanks for writing this. JJB

  3. Bill White

    i am sorry but Ringo Starr? His drumming for The Beatles was perfect yes but his talents as a singer leave a lot to be desired.

  4. As a singing drummer myself, I absolutely gobbled up this fantastic article! Great stuff!!

  5. You mention Dave Grohl, but not Taylor Hawkins from Foo Fighters?

  6. Mark Hudson

    Collins auditioned for Genesis after they placed an ad – Gabriel did not “invite” him.

  7. Julio Garcia

    It would be interesting to explore rock drummers/singers/songwriters from elsewhere in the world, like Argentina’s Javier Martínez, one of the pioneers of Latin American rock en español with his group Manal.

  8. Yes you have a point Julio. The problem here in the USA is that we’re somewhat insular. Part of it is language barriers and part of it that the USA creates and exports so much music that we don’t catch the imports unless it’s really pushed and marketed. I’m hip to Argentine rock (like Charly Garcia) but I had to look for it. I stumbled across it because I was studying Piazzolla and neuvo tango. I had an Argentine roommate but he was more into Euro/British music and barely had anything to say about Argentine rock music.

    • Julio Garcia

      You’re right, Johnny. But my respects if you know about Piazzola and Charly García! Myself, I have a couple of CDs, I’m a singer songwriter living in Miami, but my songs are in Spanish, so only Hispanic people who haven’t succumbed to reggaeton would be interested. I used to write them in English, but always made mistakes, not being my mother tongue. So I remain largely unknown.

      • Johnny J. Blair

        I’ll look for your music amigo.

        • Julio Garcia

          Thank you Johnny. Look for Julio Garcia – Nunca mas – Album (5 tracks plus 2 bonus).

  9. Gil Moore of Triumph was truly the best singer and drummer of this bunch!

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