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Music Historicity

Music Historicity | Best rock singers, who's the top rock and roll vocalist?

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Is it Robert Plant? Is it Jim Morrison? How about Freddie Mercury or Paul McCartney?

Just as the appreciation of music is in the ear of the beholder, so is the opinion about who is the best singer or lead vocalist in rock and roll.

Many singers, now deceased, made their mark in the earliest days of what is known as rock. And many, alive and well today, are, arguably, just as good.

Rock music likely began around 1954, when a 19-year-old Elvis Presley plunked down a few dollars to make a recording for his mother at Sun Records in Memphis.

Producer Sam Phillips had been searching for a white singer whose voice sounded like a bluesy African-American.

Not only was Elvis a ground-breaker in playing revved-up versions of country blues songs, but he also happened to be an outstanding choir-trained singer.

In addition to having excellent vocal quality, Elvis also had a great image and unbridled showmanship —both of which are necessities for good rock singers. He also could play guitar.

Just two years later, Presley began his movie career with a role in the film titled after his first million-selling No. 1 single, "Love Me Tender."

Elvis still holds the record for most songs charting in Billboard's Top 40 (115) and in their Top 100 (152). He also had 18 No. 1 hits, second only to the Beatles' 20.

Also worth mentioning is early rock and roller Chuck Berry, an excellent guitarist, composer and showman. His quality as a vocalist, however, was debatable.

Another early rocker, Richard Wayne Penniman, also known as Little Richard, had an amazing and strong voice as a lead singer. His 1955 song "Tutti Frutti" and 1956 No. 1 hit "Long Tall Sally" were characterized by his powerful delivery and equally adept piano playing.

Jumping forward 1964, a British band known as The Who emerged with 20-year-old singer Roger Daltrey. The frontman became known for swinging his microphone around crazily at live concerts and doing some incredibe vocal work on hits like My Generation, Pinball Wizard and Baba O'Riley.

Daltrey undoubtedly is known for the word "yeah" that he screams near the end of the song Won't Get Fooled Again.

If screaming is part of what exemplifies a good rock vocalist, look no further than Axl Rose (of Guns N' Roses), Bon Scott (original lead singer of AC/DC) or Rob Halford, nicknamed 'the Metal God,' of Judas Priest.

Another lead vocalist of note is Jon Anderson of the progressive rock band Yes. The amazing singer is capable of reaching extremely high notes with his voice, which he does not by using the falsetto technique but by way of his range being that of an alto tenor.

Without using falsetto, Anderson is famous for hitting a F#5 note on a particular song. That note, one octave plus six half-steps above middle C, is extremely high for a male vocalist.

A couple other rock vocalists most definitely worth mentioning are Steve Perry, the original singer of Journey, Paul Rodgers, of Bad Company and Chris Cornell, the singer of Soundgarden and Audioslave.

Easily some of the best singers in rock are three of the four Beatles: Paul McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison.

Drummer Ringo Starr sang a few songs, but he was not blessed with the vocal chops of his bandmates.

After an amazing run with the Beatles, McCartney, Lennon and Harrison all had productive careers as solo artists. Their singing abilities were some of the best of all time.

Returning to some bygone artists, The Doors' Jim Morrison had a deep, brooding voice that was rich in emotion. Morrisson also is famous for his controversial stage performances, some of which were captured on film.

David Bowie was one of the most innovative musicians in rock music, changing his approach with nearly each of his 26 albums. His voice cannot be mistaken on many top hits such as Fame, Heroes, Let's Dance and Rebel Rebel.

A few other under-appreciated rock vocalists include the legendary Roy Orbison, Steve Winwood and Deep Purple lead singer Ian Gillan.

You may have noticed that no female rock vocalists have so far been cited.

Here's to Ann and Nancy Wilson (Heart), Pat Benatar, Debbie Harry (Blondie), Stevie Nicks (Fleetwood Mac), the inimitable Janis Joplin and Joan Jett and Lita Ford (both of the all-female band The Runaways).

The final three rock singers to make the list are indeed heavyweights.

Freddie Mercury, legendary singer of Queen, had an incredible vocal range, was an excellent keyboardist and was a born showman.

Robert Plant, of Led Zeppelin, screamed rock vocals through the band's eight studio albums and is still going strong as a solo artist.

Mick Jagger, enduring lead vocalist of the Rolling Stones, has been writing songs and singing with the so-called 'Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World' since its 1962 inception. Jagger is well known for his expression, on-stage antics and singing ability.

All things considered, with his many hit songs, film career, showmanship and multiple award accolades, Elvis Presley —to me— ranks as the No. 1 rock and roll vocalist. What's your opinion?

Gary Gibula is an SIU alum, musician, writer, editor and author of the Music Historicity columns. He can be reached at


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