They’re right there, out in front, the unquestioned focal point of the band. They’re the rock and roll frontman (or, by all means, frontwoman – but frontperson just sounds too weird to use, so we’re going to go with frontman as accepted nomenclature from here forward). But who are the greatest ever, and critically, what makes a truly great one; what are the qualities that put someone at the front of the line of frontmen? It’s not simply the sum of their talents, is it? If I had to try to nail it in the fewest possible words, I’d say it’s “a presence beyond just performance.” As Steven Van Zandt described using slightly lengthier phrasing in his phenomenal new book Unrequited Infatuations, front men are “the receivers of the energy as well as the transmitters. The preacher, the medicine man, the mystic, the one possessed by the spirit.” I guess you could say that, like a lot of things, you know it when you see it.
So just what characteristics might endow someone with that rock star “it” factor? Probably above all, it’s simply attitude. But in addition to that there’s likely to be some intoxicating combination of charisma, magnetism, flamboyance, and yeah, sexiness. The best have an indescribable energy, an aura, the allure that can become enchanting. Quite often there’s an intrinsic sense of them being almost primal, fearless, even dangerous; that their very presence manifests the potential for chaos. And certainly, there must be some real strut, posture, a snarl, and an overall swagger (which so happens to rhyme with Jagger). Yup, with the possible exception of only a few notables (we’ll get to that later), it’s the person with the mic in their hands, the one with whom the audience is most engaged, preferably riveted by, the individual ultimately controlling the entire vibe of the performance and channeling the constituted ethos of the band. Mystery solved, it’s the singer (plus the occasional singer who also plays an instrument).
It must be noted, too, that the identity we’re exploring here is necessarily singular. If there’s any doubt as to who a band’s frontman is, then there isn’t a true frontman. The Beatles, by example, had no discernible one – neither McCartney nor Lennon could credibly be seen as eclipsing the other – hence the absence of such a lone leader is surely no slight on a given group but merely a fact of their own creation and chemistry. Accordingly, in addition to none of the Fab Four, our analysis will also not be giving consideration to any individual from, for instance, The Eagles, Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, ZZ Top, Grateful Dead, and The Band, nor Oasis, The Kinks, and Earth, Wind & Fire (though those last three are very tricky judgement calls, I wouldn’t want to be the one to tell Noel Gallagher, Dave Davies, or Philip Bailey that they did not merit relative co-leader status in their bands).
Quoting again from the sage Mr. Van Zandt, “Being a front man is complex. Singing is the easy part. But every singer is also an actor. Every lyric is a script, and every song is a movie, performed for the audience. Good singers make it seem like they’ve experienced what they are singing about, as if it’s true, whether it is or not.” In other words, they inhabit the song – and in so doing, configure the gestalt of the band.
Okay then, let’s see who inhabits our list, and start tracking to the 10 greatest frontmen in rock and roll history. We’ll start the countdown at #50 (readers familiar with prior So Much Great Music Top 10 lists such as The 10 Most Perfect Albums and The Top 10 American Bands know they’re never limited to anything like just 10 results). And by the way, expect to take a few detours.
Actually, let’s do that first, with an immediate diversion to a small set of some pretentious pretenders who the list will be delighted not to include: Jack White, Billy Corgan, Chris Martin, Jon Bon Jovi, Dan Auerbach, Sting, Win Butler, Wayne Coyne, Marilyn Manson, Billie Joe Armstrong, Simon Le Bon, and John Cougar-Mellencamp. All hat, no cattle. Happy trails, posers.
And while we’re at it, here’s another group that’s really more rock parody than rock star, caricatures who also won’t get a sniff of the list: Gene Simmons/Paul Stanley (whichever grease-painted fool might be considered the front), Vince Neil, Bret Michaels, Rob Zombie, Ozzy Osbourne, Eddie Money, Kid Rock, and Mike Love. And yes, you too, Prince (music scholars may be aware of SMGM’s feelings on the record as regards the purple paisley one). Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right…you may all exit the stage.
Wait, we’ll even start you off first with some of what were considered the other legit contenders, the next ten of adequate merit who couldn’t quite crack the top 50: Chris Cornell, Susanna Hoffs, Henry Rollins, Bryan Ferry, Johnny Rotten, Joey Ramone, Steve Perry, Robin Zander, Zack de la Rocha, and Lukas Nelson (among the top 5 of present-day practitioners).
(and even they had runner-ups. The ten just below those just preceding are Josh Homme, Ric Ocasek, Belinda Carlisle, Frank Zappa, Shirley Manson, George Clinton, Jim James, Eric Burdon, Paul Weller, Matt Bellamy, k.d. lang, Lou Gramm, Paul Rodgers, and Lemmy Kilmister. Okay, if you’re counting, yeah, that’s fourteen).
Alright, without additional rigmarole (why must ‘further ado’ always denote such lengthy preambles, and did you know ‘rigmarole’ was spelled like that because I sure didn’t and had to look it up), let’s get into the list, finally, with numbers 50 through 41 of the greatest frontmen ever.
50. Scott Weiland — Like rubbernecking a car wreck, tough to avert your eyes
49. David Byrne — And you may ask yourself, how did he get here?
48. Rod Stewart — Think “Rod the Mod” circa Faces not lame Great American Songbook Rod
47. Michael Hutchens — Beguiling gyration, but in moderation not INXS
46. Van Morrison — Jazz-rock minstrel who could kick up surprising dust with his Moondance-ing
45. Neil Young — Alternately somnambulant and foot-stomping in the free world
44. Alice Cooper — Snakes, and other advanced charmery
43. Levi Stubbs — The urgent tenor topping The Four Tops
42. Pat Benatar — Heartbreaker, dream maker, love taker, don’t you mess around with her
41. Bob Seger — He was workin’ on his Night Moves, workin’ and practicin’
A pause for a quick reminder: frontmen must have a sometimes indefinable something, but that thing surely isn’t over-sensitivity. So, say goodbye to any mention for these emo oddballs: Thom Yorke, Morrissey, Rivers Cuomo, and especially Robert Smith. Your mascara can run elsewhere.
Continuing, with numbers 40 through 31.
40. Kurt Cobain — A fascinating, tragic figure, hidden in plain sight
39. David Johansen — Proto-punk force that made drag look fierce long before RuPaul
38. Marvin Gaye — When you got that feeling, he had sexual healing
37. Dave Grohl — The people’s champion and current belt holder
36. Phil Lynott — Hell-raising hero of Dublin; if the boys wanna fight you better let ’em
35. Anthony Kiedis — Funk-rock phenom and top swinger of hair
34. Michael Stipe — A quiet, angsty storm
33. Deborah Harry — Hypnotic even while motionless
32. Sly Stone — Sitting/standing behind the keyboard he still commanded the stage
31. Chris Robinson — Bluesy, boozy, Jagger-lite
By the way, we had to make certain cut-offs for the general Rock & Roll/R&B genre of this entire analysis. So don’t expect to see what, to be fair, must be deemed non-rock luminaries such as Michael Jackson, Madonna, Beyonce, or Frank Sinatra, among many potential others.
Also, for no legitimate reason (other than that we’re already running pretty low for room on the list), three “Wilson” greats are randomly inserted here, a result of what was found to be the most common name among frontman stars: Jackie Wilson, Ann Wilson, and Wilson Pickett.
Back to the survey, as they say, with 30 through 21.
30. Peter Wolf — Woofa Goofa’s cyclone-like arm rotation move alone makes him worthy
29. Elvis Costello — His bespectacled glare suffered no fools
28. Chuck Berry — Duck walking his way to history
27. Sam Cooke — Elegant on records, a dynamo on stage
26. Joe Strummer — A raging 5’8” & 160, he could’ve kicked the ass of anyone on this list
25. Bono — Righteous rock & roll preacher
24. Axl Rose — Serpentine sways and still glowering in a kilt
23. Ronnie Van Zandt — See Joe Strummer above: except for this menacing southern bad-ass
22. Tina Turner — Legs churning like the paddlewheel of the Proud Mary
21. Ian Anderson — Bet you can picture his wide-eyed, one-legged flute stance looking like a deranged flamingo
It must be noted that some truly distinctive fronts have been left off the list, but whose idiosyncratic presences deserve its own grouping of “underrateds” here. They are: Samuel T. Herring (see Future Islands on Letterman, 3/3/14, trust me), Marc Bolan, Rhett Miller (leader of Old 97’s, and another in the top 5 of current players), Steve Marriott, and Fred Schneider (probably the least likely frontman in history).
Way up in the intro, we noted the possibility of some notable exceptions to the frontman as singer premise. And this small group is really tough. Take a look: Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Carlos Santana. All megastars, obviously, and all perfectly plausibly befitting the traits necessary to be considered the frontman of their respective bands or whatever operation with which they’ve ever been associated. Yet, it’s their guitar that brings you to the party, the undisputed center of attention. And something about being behind that instrument, having their magnificence and flamboyance flow from their hands rather than their faces, just seems, I don’t know, incompatible with the frontman aesthetic. And thus, albeit with some hesitation, I’ve provided these three legendary axe men their own deserved subset, but excluded them, regretfully, from among the official countdown. Oh, and Eric Clapton, too, but he’s pretty blah anyway.
We’re getting deep in the list now. Who’s left and who are you picking? Here comes 20 through 11.
20. Bob Marley — Dreadlock swinging Rasta prophet and One Love personification
19. Bon Scott — Strutting supernova, too soon onto the Highway to Hell
18. Otis Redding — A propulsive powder keg; be not fooled by ‘Dock of the Bay’
17. Eddie Vedder — Daredevil and game-changing force of ‘90’s nature
16. Steven Tyler — The demon of screamin’ made a collection of scarves cool
15. David Lee Roth — Might as well jump, like nobody else
14. Chrissie Hynde — A silky yet snarling presence, she’s special, so special
13. Elton John — Captain Fantastic for good reason
12. Iggy Pop — A feral mastermind
11. Little Richard — The originator
A quick aside: let’s note here the intentional omissions of Brian Johnson and Sammy Hagar – both viable but deemed ineligible as replacements to the AC/DC and Van Halen originals named in the foregoing 20-11 segment. One per customer, please.
And, hold on. At this point, you may be aware of a few outstanding candidates, other big names you’d probably expect to have made the list yet not to appear as high as all that now remains: only the top 10 rankings. These were difficult. But remember, we’re talking about magical frontman qualities, some variety of panache, not their otherwise musical worthiness (which are all beyond prodigious, but that’s obviously a whole other – not ‘nother’, that’s not a real word – list). In the end, I’m afraid these names are just too, what would it be…too laid back. The display of dynamism we’re in search of here is somehow just missing enough from each of the following: Tom Petty, John Fogerty, Derek Trucks, Bob Dylan, Steve Miller, Linda Ronstadt, Jeff Lynne, Gregg Allman, Mark Knopfler, Donald Fagen, Jackson Browne, and Lou Reed. Sorry, I still really like you all as friends.
Well, here we are, you’ve made it to, well, not the end but the front. Having arrived at our distinct and precise choices in the most thoroughly thoughtful way presently known – with a laptop and an opinion – here they are, the top 10 greatest rock frontmen of all time (brace yourself for just seeing these magnificent maestros all lined up together).
10. Freddie Mercury — A spectacle of showmanship; he will, he will, rock you
9. David Bowie — His changing personas could occupy multiple spots on the list
8. Janis Joplin — Frantic and ferocious yet still painfully fragile
7. Bruce Springsteen — The Boss of all of us
6. Jim Morrison — A lizard king in leather pants
5. Elvis Presley — One lip and two hips that changed the world
4. James Brown — The Godfather of Soul, and a whole lot else
3. Roger Daltrey — Brutish yet angelic, and he never didn’t catch the mic
2. Mick Jagger — No one, but no one, moves like Jagger (and it would be dangerous to even try)
1. Robert Plant — See below (and then below that)
Plant. He’s just the perfect specimen. The majestic look, the effortless moves, the howling voice, the arm half-cocked stance, the tiny shirts that might’ve actually been blouses, the transfixing mystique. All of it. He’s what Michelangelo would’ve carved out of marble for a statue entitled “The Frontman,” and what an “ideal frontman” algorithm would surely spit out. When I close my eyes and imagine the “Golden God” – as Russell Hammond almost famously screamed from the rooftop in Almost Famous – it’s Plant that’s conjured. Somehow, even among so many regal rock immortals, I’d name Plant the one who most mesmerized his audience, the truest of the rock gods. His inspiration and influence are incalculable. Yet he never let you see him sweat.
I know, plenty of you would’ve ended up with others atop your list, and there are obviously completely worthy candidates from among the top 10, and in fact throughout the entire lengthy analysis. Maybe even someone that wasn’t named (but, jeez, I doubt it, we’ve covered an awful lot).
Go ahead, send in your comments, your own picks, even some of your outrage, perhaps, for how we could’ve possibly come to differing conclusions. By all means, feel free. After all, this is all merely an amusing, even comically subjective exercise. But the issue, ultimately, boils down to this: for all the properties inherent in being a transcendent frontman, could one possibly be more ideal than Mr. Plant. As he sang in his masterpiece, ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ it really makes me wonder.
“Does anybody remember laughter?”