While in the Beatles, drummer Ringo Starr was often overshadowed by his more famous peers. But after the band officially announced its breakup, Starr went on to secure a noteworthy solo career. He returns this week with his 19th studio album, Give More Love. The work features notable guests, including his former bandmate Paul McCartney and Eagle Joe Walsh. Yet it also serves as a statement: While drummers provide the musical foundation for a band, you shouldn't overlook their skills as front men. Here, we look at five notable drummers known just as much for their singing as their rhythmic chops.
A master craftsman, and one who, five years after his death, continues to fascinate. How, simply, did Levon Helm manage to sound so smooth, so perfect, so soulful, and so thoughtful on every vocal note from behind a drum kit? As the rhythmic anchor of the Band, Helm always brought a steady, reassuring tone to one of rock's most versatile acts. Despite coming of age in the late 60s, the Band shied away from the more mystical traits of the era and instead possessed a rustic, earthy aura that easily shifted among many genres: blues, R&B, jazz, rock. On songs Helm voiced, his tenor could be stern albeit loaded with vulnerability (see the defeated ballad "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"). Helm could also be optimistically sturdy, as on the soul-inspired "The Weight."
In a band with an outsized personality such as Gene Simmons, who continues to find ways to say outrageous things that garner headlines, some fans will undoubtedly overlook the drummer. Don't. Criss deserves your attention, and not just because of his knockout cat-inspired makeup. As members of the Kiss Army are aware, rhythm-maker Criss possessed a powerful voice – one that graces some of the most durable songs in the Kiss catalog. Check "Black Diamond," where Criss arrives after a furious guitar solo, straining and stretching his voice to scratch his way through one of the group's darker songs. Then, of course, there's "Beth." Roll your eyes at the schmaltzy strings if you like, but the Top 10 hit – partly about a musician who puts his band first, partly about male camaraderie – is sold entirely by Criss, who dials it down to expose the weaknesses in his slight rasp.
Giants of the 80s hardcore movement, Hüsker Dü managed to be both mightily ferocious and heartily melodic. Laying the foundation for it all was Hart, who, along with Bob Mould, shared vocal duties. Hart died this week at the age of 56, reportedly due to cancer. Yet his image (the long-haired, barefoot drummer) and sound (Hart could craft an imposing wall of rhythms that molded without warning into something direct) live on as the cornerstones for much of grunge and alt-rock. Hüsker Dü often sounded downright apocalyptic, but then songs such as "Never Talking to You Again" showed off the act's pop smarts, dropping atom-bomb din for a cleverly melodic strummer. While there was no hard constant in Hüsker Dü, Hart's vocals graced the more tuneful of the trio's material. His legacy as an artist who brought a sense of songcraft to noise cannot be understated.
When Nirvana became rock gods in 1991, no one would likely have guessed Grohl, more than 25 years later, would still be one of music's most recognizable faces. While there's no denying his force in Nirvana – Grohl's controlled chaos represented heavy-hitting at its most exaggerated – he didn't flex his vocal muscles until forming his post-Nirvana band the Foo Fighters. The collective has proven to be rather durable, releasing its ninth album, Concrete and Gold, this week. As a singer, Grohl toys with many of the loud-soft dynamics favored by both his famous bands. When playing it straight, he possesses a relatively boyish charm. But he's also able to unleash a howl. His finest work remains Foo Fighters' self-titled 1995 debut, when Grohl was still rough around the edges and far from polished.
If you catch the touring revue that is the Eagles in 2017, Henley isn't likely going to be found behind the drum kit. These days, and after the relatively recent passing of Glenn Frey, Henley serves as the band's anchor. His tenor, with a warm scratchiness, remains unmistakable. There's almost a sourness to his vocals, especially when he sings melancholic tunes like "Hotel California." By and large, Henley's voice almost always sounds as if it's about to give out, owing a hoarseness that no doubt stems from singing over a drum kit. Yet with a sunset-like tone, Henly's vocals also prove rather adept at ballads. See the stressful disappointment of "Desperado" or rolling nostalgia of "The End of the Innocence." If not quite bluesy, Henley certainly channels sadness.
Photo credit: Brantley Gutierrez