Ever since The Beatles turned me on to rock and roll at the age of 5, I’ve been singing along to the radio, trying to recreate the style and power of the great rock voices that inspired me.
Some signature performances, like Roy Orbison’s operatic masterpiece “It’s Over” and Freddie Mercury’s incredible “Bohemian Rhapsody”, challenged my limits as a singer. On my best day, I couldn’t reach those soaring heights of vocal power — but trying to sing along with Roy and Freddie made me a better singer.
I’ve been singing in rock and roll bands since high school, and there’s nothing like trying to cover a classic song to make you appreciate the artist who sang that song on the record. Just listen to teenage Stevie Winwood sing “Gimme Some Lovin’” by the Spencer Davis Group — or Bob Seeger tearing through “Get Out Of Denver”. Those performances literally leave you breathless.
Over the years, I’ve become a connoisseur of fine rock and roll vocals. So, just to start one of my favorite arguments, I’ve come up with a list of the Top Ten Rock & Roll Singers of All Time. This is not a list of my favorite singers. Indeed, many of my favorite singers – Van Morrison, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, and Paul Rogers to name a few – did not make the list.
This is a list of the ten best rock and roll vocalists who ever picked up a microphone.
1. Elvis Presley
Elvis is King. Period. And I don’t want to hear from a bunch of folks who can’t get that bloated, drug addled Elvis out of their minds. Elvis put rock and roll on the map because his voice was magic. There is a quality to Elvis Presley’s voice that thrills the listener – in the same way the sound of Paul McCartney and John Lennon singing harmony gives you goose bumps. Every rock and roll singer after Elvis has been singing in his shadow. That’s why Elvis was the first inductee into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. (The Hall of Fame website calls him “the undisputed King of Rock and Roll”.) Listen to Elvis sing “Trying To Get To You” – and bow down to The King.
2. Ray Charles
There’s nothing Ray Charles couldn’t sing. The blues, country, rock and roll, soul, and rhythm and blues – Ray knocked them all out of the park. But as versatile as he was, no matter what style of song he sang, he made that tune inimitably his own. If Ray Charles had put a rock and roll band together in the 1950’s, he would have owned the rock and roll top 10. And though he recorded everything from gospel to standards – Ray Charles rocked hard enough to be in the first class inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. Check out Ray rocking “Baby, What’d I Say?”
3. James Brown
Another member of that first class of Rock & Roll Hall of Famers, James Brown is one of those singers that you just don’t even try to cover. Not even in your most drunken moment in a karaoke bar. Even if James Brown didn’t have the most out-a-sight dance moves ever invented, even if he didn’t have the most fabulous pompadour that ever adorned a rocker’s head – he would still have the most dynamic voice in rock and roll history. Like Ray Charles, James Brown didn’t make a lot records that would be considered straight up rock and roll: he was far too funky to play it in 1-4-5. But all you have do is listen to James belt out “(I Got You) I Feel Good” to know why he’s in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
4. Little Richard
Along with Elvis, Little Richard wrote the other half of the rock and roll singer’s lexicon in the 1950’s. Without him, The Beatles don’t wag their heads and sing, “Oooooh!” I can’t imagine what rock and roll singing would be like without the example of Little Richard: the freedom, the abandon, the soaring screams and “wooohs” – the joyous, anarchic, frenetic, rhythm-pounding pulse of his performances have influenced every rock and roller who followed. That’s why, he’s another guy they put in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. Imagine what conservative Middle American parents thought when they heard Little Richard sing “Long Tall Sally”. Dangerous, man. Wild and dangerous.
5. Paul McCartney
The best singer in the best rock and roll band of all time, Paul McCartney earns a spot on this list even if his only vocal performance in consideration was a song he released after The Beatles broke up. No singer dares to cover Paul’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” – one of the most spectacular rock vocals of all time. And Paul can still sing this song today at the age of 69. I heard him sing it at Staples Center in Los Angeles a few years back and it was still powerful. Paul McCartney is a force of nature. Here’s he is, decades before his Knighthood, singing “Maybe I’m Amazed” with his other band, Wings.
6. Janis Joplin
Janis Joplin is not just one of the best female rock and roll singers ever – she’s one of the greatest rock and roll vocalists period. There’s never been another woman who fronted a rock band with such a fearless, soulful, and savage style. Like the great blues singers, Janis understood the sexual subtext of rock and roll – but she didn’t sell sex on the stage – she sold the power of the music. She was magnetic and magnificent. All I ask is that other, inevitably lesser singers stop trying to cover Janis’ classic, “Piece Of My Heart”. It just can’t be done.
7. Burton Cummings
Perhaps the least recognizable name on this list – and probably the only Canadian – Burton Cummings is hands-down one of the very best rock and roll singers that came out of the 1960’s. Lead singer for The Guess Who, Cummings sang classics like “No Sugar Tonight”, “American Woman” and “Share The Land”. But if you want to know why I think he’s one of the best rock vocalists of all time, all you need to do is listen to him sing “These Eyes.” Toward the end, when he does a soaring riff on, “These eyes are crying” – it’s one of those vocal moments that try as I might, I’ve never been able to replicate in the shower or in my car. Burton Cummings is a master class in rich, powerful, and exhilarating rock and roll singing.
8. Roger Daltrey
Roger Daltrey is the best rock and roll screamer of all time. I personally owe him a lot. (Back in college, Fat Dave Silberger compared me to Daltrey, and I still haven’t gotten over his undeserved but much appreciated flattery.) Fronting a magnificent trio – Daltrey’s voice was the fourth instrument in one of the most powerful live rock bands to ever take the stage. Pete Townshend is one of the great rock and roll songwriters of all time – and Roger’s incredible voice made Pete’s ambitious, operatic songs possible. Case in point: “Love, Reign O’er Me”
9. Robert Plant
I was never a huge Led Zeppelin fan back in the day, but in retrospect, maybe it was because I was afraid to cover their songs. Why? Because of freaking Robert Plant! Led Zeppelin was extremely popular inn the early 70’s when I was in my first high school band, but trying to belt my way through Zeppelin’s “Rock & Roll” or attempt “Stairway to Heaven” was to invite comparison with Robert Plant and, thus, failure. Still, trying to sing along with Plant made me a better singer. I saw him a few years ago at The Greek Theatre in Los Angeles during his tour with Alison Krauss. Dude’s still got it.
10. John Fogerty
I love John Fogerty. My father was born in New Orleans, Louisiana – but Berkeley, California native Fogerty had even more bayou in his soul than my dad did. When I was an 11-year old kid, the songs of Creedence Clearwater Revival jumped off the radio and connected with me more than anything other than The Beatles. It was that crunchy, snarling guitar groove – and John Fogerty’s voice: a rolling, driving, inescapable growl – like an unrelenting, passionate Little Richard with more politics than sex on his mind. I devoted myself to screaming through Creedence songs like Fogerty, pushing myself to my vocal limits. But I’ve never approached the master’s performance on “Fortunate Son.” Listen – and, once again, bow down…
34 responses to “The Top 10 Rock & Roll Singers of All Time.”
I really enjoyed that post, thanks!
I mean, I’m just sittin’ here and I’m all like, Freddie Mercury?
I did shout out to Freddie early in my post — and he would make my top 15 or 20. Interestingly, so would Paul Rogers who replaced Freddie in Queen.
But, like, listen bro–what I’m sayin’ is Freddie deserves a spot above Robert Plant 10 times outta ten.
And to prove my point, I’m gonna fight you. Get at me.
Yeah you got that Right Where’s Freddie?
I remember when I compared you to Daltrey, that was when you made your amazing entrance as the Rolling Gnome and just rocked the joint. If you got the last Who album(Endless Wire) they included a bonus DVD of some live performances, and I don’t know if it was just a bad night, or the ravages of age, but Roger was in terrible voice, couldn’t hit any high notes in tune, and in general was a sad spectacle. Having seen you fairly recently belting it out, I would have to say at this point in time, Paul(Robert DeNiro) Barrosse is a better rocker then Roger(Grandpa) Daltrey. Deal with it man
What a fabulous list — though leaving John Lennon off must have hurt a little, yeah? I’d rather listen to Lennon, any Lennon, than Daltrey, any Daltrey — but, I understand the Favorite vs Best idear… I’ve been spinning a lot of James Brown recently, and woo — Good God, huh! Ow!
Do you have the long version of “Sex Machine”? ‘I may be a Donald Duck, good God!, but I ain’t no Mickey Mouse! Take it to the bridge!”
Van the man? I guess he’s a blues singer? You need another list then.
Burton Cummings is still performing and still belting it out. The “voice” (as many experts call him) has changed a bit and in my opinion has only gotten richer and more mature. Please check out videos of current concert performances on YouTube.
He’s #1 on my list!
P.S. Kudos on not listing only men.
What fun! I woulda put Fogerty higher, and I woulda left off one or two not due to talent, but how others ring in my heart. All deserve attention. Also- rans in my book are. . . Alice Cooper from his first few albums. . . as Brad mentioned, John Lennon (Mother). . . Bob Segar from ’65 to ’75. . . Bruce Spingsteen ain’t that bad when he wants to rock. . . okay I am gonna quit at the B’s
Hmm. The best rock & roll singer of all time…. To qualify this grand assessment, I’ll take the liberty of setting three ground rules: the singer has to 1) show capability and 2) prove influential. 3) In the wide world of rock, I assume we’re including rhythm & blues and the blues.
I’ll say right out that I have never been an Elvis Presley fan. Perhaps I’m too young, and though he has a beautiful sound, it never did much for me. You’ll probably stop reading right now when I say that Frank Sinatra is not near the top of my list either. Part of it is their personas get in the way. Elvis was certainly capable in that he had a pleasant voice and certainly influential in that he inspired so many. But popularity alone doesn’t signify greatness. For me, his is an empty crown.
My biggest beef against the beefy king is that he wasn’t a song writer and mostly sang songs well-recorded by others. The fact that racism allowed Elvis to be the catalyst to bring great R&R to the masses shouldn’t necessarily count in his favor. I venture to say that the recordings of Little Richard Penniman and Carl Perkins and Big Mama Thorton were the touchstones that set off the revolution. For the #1 spot I would have to choose Ray Charles. Mixing gospel and the blues as early as 1952 to my ear is the most exciting thing that has ever happened in pop music. Also, when Ray Charles records a song, it is the last word. No one can sing a song more distinctively or more definitively. I don’t think the same can be said of Elvis. And, to boot, Willie Nelson said, “With his recording of ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You,’ Ray Charles did more for country music than any other artist.”
The other man that needs to be at the top of the list, and who I think supplants James Brown (whom I love), is Muddy Waters. His influence on the British Blues invasion of the ’60s — Stones, Creem — was huge. If you have any doubt, look at the best performance in “The Last Waltz.”
Mr. Barrosse (whose opinions and talent I esteem, by the way) puts Paul McCartney at #5. I would have to put him and Mr. Lennon together at #2. Their influence can’t be overstated having carried rock through a revolution and its complete evolution in some eight years. By sheer talent alone, McCartney, standing on the shoulders of Penniman and Presley, can do it all, and with more versatility than either of his idols. However, Lennon, though not as naturally or conventionally as talented as McCartney, was more creative and left a more explosive impact. He’s my favorite classic rock singer, but together, as song writers and harmonists, they are unbeatable.
Now Pauly is a fan of the macho rock voice; me not as much. I would leave Burton Cummings on the side of the road, and perhaps even Robert Daltrey, while letting John Fogerty hitch to near the top of the heap. Not hugely versatile, but a great songwriter, and for that whisky-drenched voice, he and Janis stand right together. “Tombstone Shadow”!
Missing from the list, of course, is Aretha Franklin, the female equivalent of Ray Charles. Irreplacable. Though I was never a huge Zepplin fan, Robert Plant would have to be there.
But for sheer rock&roll passion, it’s hard to beat Joe Fuckin’ Stummer.
Thanks, Paul, for the inspired compilation.
I jumped on here eager to see if there were some sparks flying, but I’d have to say that this is a pretty respectable list coming from a guy with some pretty respectable pipes himself. I understand (and forgive, if not condone)the love affair with Paul McCartney (some of us are still scarred from having “screaming meemies” for older sisters) but concur with F. Dave that Fogerty would have ranked higher on my list, and I would have definitely included Orbison in my top ten. I am suprised by the Fat One’s comparison of you to Daltrey as I would have opted for Fogerty for a match by far. I don’t know if he qualifies as a pure “rocker” but Tom Waits has an unmistakable vocal quality that is a tremendous asset to anything he writes; as far as John Lennon goes, I much prefer Marianne Faithful’s cover of “Working Class Hero,” though there is not much else to recommend her and her covers of Kurt Weill, which should have been a match made in heaven, were terribly disappointing. Speaking solely of the Fab Four’s top twosome makes me think Mr. Harrison gets an undeservedly short shrift in this conversation. On other fronts, I share Darroch’s raised eyebrow over the absence of Aretha Franklin and enthusiastically “third” the inclusion of Janis Joplin. A personal nod to Eric Clapton (“Layla”), Warren Zevon (“Werewolves of London”), Paul Williams and David Edwards (“War”), Otis Redding (“Sittin’ by the Dock of the Bay”), Lou Reed (“Walk on theWild Side”), and Tom Petty (“Chasin’ down a Dream”) for runners up. If this be treason, make the most of it!
I gotta add Ruth Brown, (‘Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean’)… but great list….And, Little Esther? Joe Cocker and Eric Clapton…eek! So many greats
I love Ruth Brown and have several versions of “Mama.” The best version is on a compliation I highly recommend: “Night Train to Nashville – Music City Rhythm & Blues 1945-1970.” While we all know of the thriving black music scene in Memphis; who knew there was a strong scene in whiter Nashville? This double CD has a live version of Etta James doing “What’d I Say,” Arthur Alexander doing “Anna,” Bobby Hebb doing “Sunny,” and a commercial for a hair product by a pumped up Little Richard. It also has recordings of “Baby Let’s Play House,” “You Can Make It If You Try,” and…..”She Shot a Hole in My Soul”!
Ruth Brown, yes, Etta James, yes yes yes.
Ruth Brown and Etta James, yes, even if we have to bump Janis. Makes me also want to nod to K.D. Lang (my favorite concert performer), and the joint vocals of B-52s Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson, and then Annie Lennox, Chrissie Hynde, and Grace Slick…seems we need a separate list here for the wimmin’, not to discriminate but to make sure we are inclusive…these top 10 lists can be so constraining.
I wouldn’t have said so until I saw him live at the House of Blues in Chicago a couple years ago, but for sheer vocal ability (also versatility, longevity, and flat out coolness), Elvis Costello impressed the shit out of me.
Well — Yeah! On his “All This Useless Beauty” tour in Los Angeles, he came out to the edge of the stage at the end of several of those sad quiet songs and was singing a cappella and going into falsetto. You could have heard a pin drop. On the same tour I saw him at the Beacon in NY, but every time it got quiet the drunk audience started yelling — I was very disappointed in the NYers. Not only is he a great singer, but he can cover any genre.
OMG…Tina Turner! TINA TURNER! Her version of “Rollin’ On the River” links her to John Fogerty.
freddie mercury should be #1!
Where is Axl rose he should at #1..
Very solid list, love that Elvis, Little Richard and Paul made it; these top tens really need to be a top 20 due to the volume of such phenomenal singers we’ve had. I imagine it was tough leaving off Lennon, Jeff Buckley, Freddie etc.
But in my eyes, the only person missing that’s a tragedy is Steve Marriott. At least in my eyes, that man was the epitome of rock n roll singing.
Were is David Bowie.
Well, yeah! I’ll you have to do is listen to “Golden Years.”
I esteem Bowie as a great songwriter and vocal stylist — but he’s not a Top 10 rock vocalist. He’s good. Very, very good. But it wasn’t his voice that made him a star. It was his evolving look, his brilliant songs, his many characters — and his groundbreaking androgynous persona. To be sure, Bowie was a revolutionary figure in rock and roll.
Though I’m a big Bowie fan, I agree with Paul here. I think he’s a good and versatile singer, but what kept me coming back for a good decade was the quality of his songs and his excellent choice in guitar players.
So, Paul: when are you going to do the great guitar solos of all time?
though a decent list, i think theres a few singers that deserve honorable mention. paul stanley from kiss, bob seager, meat loaf, steven perry of journey, and billy joel, are all names that could/should have made the list. roy orbinson definately should have made the list. eric clapton would be a fair choice as well. so many great names, but the question at hand was the top 10 vocalists, not so much their accomplishments.. personally i dont think john fogarty could carry a tune in a bucket, but his voice is unique and deserves the mention.
Hard to argue with your list but I would have squeezed Roy Orbison in somehow! Probably at the expense of Burton Cummins or Little Richard….no disrespect intended!
Listening to Burton Cummings imitating Roy Orbison on an old TV special, I can see why Burton’s on the list. Two for the “price” of one. Although many more than two, if you listen to all the other spot-on imitations and covers done by Burton Cummings. I’d list him as number one because he can sound like just about anyone. What a voice. And what an ear. Great to see him on the list.
Where Oaul Rodgers?
Wow..Ive been saying all my life how great a vocalist Burton Cummings is. The Real Guess Who was my fav band.