Our Ten Best- Episode 19: Classic Rock Vocalists

Jagger_live_Italy_2003The vocalist or frontman is usually the focal point of any classic rock ensemble and though there have been so many prominent and talented ones, a bunch stand out in terms of vocal ability, stage presence and charisma. Sit back and enjoy the top ten classic rock singers who ever graced a stage or sang in a recording studio:

1- Freddie Mercury (“Queen”) – This Zanzibar –born (real name-Freddie Bulsara), one of a kind, vocalist’s operatic range served him well in “Queen,” the ultimate classic pomp rock band. His dynamic stage presence and ability to belt out a rocker (“Tie Your Mother Down”) or sing a lilting ballad (“Love of My Life”) is unparalleled. His Live Aid performance with the band is legendary in rock and roll annals. He went through many stages as a frontman. There was the glam Mercury with one glove (pre-Michael Jackson) and nail polish on the other hand and the tough Mercury wearing a tank top and playing air guitar on his microphone. Mercury knew how to work a crowd with his vocal acrobatics and charisma. “Queen” was rocking, innovative and inventive, but would have never reached the heights it did without Mercury. Sadly, Mercury died of AIDS in 1991 at the age of 45.Though Queen carried on recently with Paul Rodgers (see below), who is a great vocalist, no one could do justice to Mercury’s unique voice and style. His contribution to “Queen” made them one of classic rock’s most iconic bands.

2-Paul Rodgers (“Free,” “Bad Company,” and  “The Firm”)
This Middlesbrough, England born frontman first hit the rock scene with “Free,” a highly influential band (look for my upcoming interview with “ Free” bassist Andy Fraser) with signature rock anthem “All Right Now” and lesser known nuggets like “Mr. Big,” “Fire and Water,”  “I’m a Mover” and  “Heavy Load.” He later formed “Bad Company” with “Free” drummer Simon Kirke, Mick Ralphs (ex-“Mott the Hoople”) and Boz Burell (ex-“King Crimson”) and rocked the music world with “Can’t Get Enough,” “Movin’ On,” “Wildfire Woman” and “Shooting Star” while soothing the masses with the ballads “Seagull,” “Silver, Blue and Gold” and “Simple Man.” His blues-tinged, earthy vocals make him one of the most sought after classic rock singers as evidenced by his later teaming up with Jimmy Page (“The Firm”) for two releases and most recently  with the remaining members of “Queen” (“Queen + Paul Rodgers”). Through it all Rodgers one of a kind aggressive, confident and self-assured persona has been a source of inspiration for every band he has been a member of, along with his unrivaled vocal ability.

3-Paul McCartney (“The Beatles,” “Wings” and solo career) – The “cute” Beatle could sing up tempo rockers – “All My Loving,” “Kansas City,” “Back in The U.S.S.R.,” “Get Back” and “Helter Skelter” or tender ballads like “Yesterday,” “And I Love Her,” “I Will” and  “The Long and Winding Road.” This versatility extended itself to his “Wings” and solo days (“Rock Show,” “My Love,” “Hi Hi Hi” and  “Maybe I’m Amazed”) His recent Citi Field appearances were a triumphant tour de force.  There, he still managed to sing most of his set list in the songs original key, quite impressive for a 67-year-old. “Macca’s” smooth vocals or Little Richard (he taught him to scream) delivery make him one of rock and roll’s treasures. Check out September 9 reissues of the Beatles catalogue, which will be released in  Stereo and Mono versions, to hear a once in a lifetime talent.

4- Robert Plant (“Led Zeppelin”) – This West Bromwich, England born vocalist earned the lead vocalist spot in the mighty Led Zeppelin after guitarist Jimmy Page witnessed his banshee-like, screaming vocals at a Birmingham gig with one of his early bands “Hobbstweedle.” Plants blues wailing served him well on early Zeppelin recordings like “How Many More Times,” “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” “You Shook Me,”  “Communication Breakdown” and “The Immigrant Song.” His raw vocal power and sexually charged stage presence (See “The Song Remains the Same” DVD) were an integral part of Led Zeppelin’s mega success. Plant could also sing in an understated fashion on tracks like, “Thank You,” “All of My Love” and “Down by The Seaside.” His call and response vocals with Jimmy Page’s guitar on live performances are legendary. To hear this vocalist who changed the role of a frontman in a hard rock band, check out the CD’s “Led Zeppelin BBC Sessions” and “How the West Was Won” and the “Led Zeppelin” live DVD release. He also sang on the most requested song on classic rock radio, the timeless masterpiece, “Stairway to Heaven.”

5- Roger Daltrey (“The Who”) –
Here is another frontman who was a dominant force on a concert stage and in the studio. Though guitarist Pete Townsend wrote most of the Who’s landmark recordings, he needed a vocalist whose talent and persona could carry it off. Who (no pun intended) else could sing about hoping to die before he gets old (“My Generation”) or carry off a rock opera on stage (“Tommy”) and album (“Quadrophenia”) except the charismatic and vocally powerful Daltrey? He was equally at home on gripping ballads like “They Are in Love” ( from the underrated “Who By Numbers” album) or sweeping epics like “Love, Reign O’er Me” from the brilliant aforementioned “Quadrophenia.” His god-like stage persona was reinforced by his long curly locks and athletic build that was shown off by wearing fringed vests. None of this would have mattered if Daltery’s raw vocal power and trademark throaty sound were not present in his stage presentation. Check out “The Kids Are Alright,” “The Who –Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970” and “Tommy” to see video evidence of this singer’s indelible mark on the classic rock world

6- Ian Gillan( “Deep Purple” and “Black Sabbath” and “Ian Gillan Band”) – The original voice of Jesus on the original 1970 album recording of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Gillan’s most notable accomplishment is being one of the lead vocalists for Deep Purple during its most musically proficient and commercial period. His screaming vocals on “Space Truckin,” “Lazy” and “Child in Time” should be placed in a classic rock time capsule so that an extra-terrestrial in a galaxy far, far, away can hear a bombastic, in your face rock vocalist.His having sung on rock anthem “Smoke on The Water” hasn’t hurt his legacy a bit. In a band like Deep Purple, that contained so many musical virtuosos, a singer had to stand out and Gillan certainly did. His no frills approach on stage and incredible range underscores how dominant his vocals were. Though Deep Purple employed other singers (Rod Evans and David Coverdale) Gillan remains the standard-bearer. Check out the live “Made in Japan,”  “Machine Head,” “In Rock” on CD and “History, Hits and Highlights” on DVD (also reviewed on this site) to hear and witness an iconic rock vocalist.

7-Mick Jagger ( The Rolling Stones)- Sir Michael Phillip Jagger is such a recognized cultural pop figure, that sometimes his vocal talent and mark on the rock and roll world is sometimes taken for granted. Jagger is a wonderfully gifted singer with great stage presence and personality. It is no accident that the Rolling Stones (in their 47th year) set the record for concert gate receipts on their last tour. Schooled on Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters, Jagger took his blues based wailing to another level with “The Rolling Stones” and he infused his style into Keith Richard’s blues hybrid music with blues pioneer Robert Johnson’s’ “Love in Vain” as a prime example.  In terms of original work “Satisfaction” is still as powerful as it was in 1965, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” rocks and “Wild Horses” and “Angie” are two of most beautifully sung ballads ever. In terms of concert performances, “Get Your Ya- Ya’s Out” might be the greatest live album ever. From the Chuck  Berry penned “Carol” and “Little Queenie” to Stone’s originals “Midnight Rambler,” “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Honky Tonk Women” Jagger shows why he was the frontman who redefined the “mythology” of the rock singer and had and still has such a strong effect on audiences the world over.

8- Steve Perry (“Journey”) –
This Sam Cooke influenced singer can send chills up a listener’s spine with his breathtakingly beautiful vocal styling. His range is second to no one and his vocal trills are vocal acrobatics at its best. Journey was a talented band with Greg Rolie at the lead vocal microphone for three albums, but the band reached multi-platinum success with Perry as a member. From the album, “Infinity” (“Lights” and “Patiently”) to “Escape” (“Don’t Stop Believing” and Who’s Crying Now”) his voice along with Neal Schon’s guitar work created hit after hit. Perry was particularly adept at pulling listeners’ heartstrings with emotional ballads like “Faithfully” and “Open Arms.”  After 1986’s “Raised on Radio,” Perry did not record with Journey until 1996’s Platinum selling “Trial by Fire” which featured “When You Love a Woman.” He subsequently quit the band after a hip injury in Hawaii led to a degenerative bone condition which forced him to have hip replacement surgery. Journey carried on without him, but Perry’s one of a kind voice is sorely missed.

9- Rod Stewart (“Jeff Beck Group” and “Faces”) This vocalist, who first hit the big time with guitarist Jeff Beck, might have the most distinctive voice on the list His raspy tenor voice has delivered rocking numbers like “Stay with Me,” “Hot Legs” and “Pool Hall Richard” and an emotional ballads like Danny Whitten’s “I Don’t Want To Talk About It,” “Reason to Believe” and “Mandolin Wind.” He also voiced two classic rock signature songs, “You Wear It Well” and “Maggie May.” His Hollywood image in the ‘70’s aside (He dated actress Britt Ekland), Stewart is one of the greatest song interpreters of our time which allows him to be equally at home covering The Temptations( “I’m Losing You”), Chuck Berry (“Sweet Little Rock and Roller”) and  Sam Cooke ( “Twistin’ The Night Away). His stage presence has always been a strong point, especially with “Faces”. In recent years, he has had newfound recording success covering classic American Standards.  The rumored “Faces” reunion has fallen apart, but Stewart will persevere and thrill us once again. Stewart could sing the Yellow Pages and make it sound fresh and innovative.

10- Steve Marriot( “Small Faces” and “Humble Pie”) This London born singer is the most underrated vocalist on this list. His contribution to classic rock history is undeniable. His unique voice made “The Small Faces” (1965-1969) an important band that had a tremendous influence on future rockers. Check out early concept album “Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake” (1968) and pop nugget “Itchycoo Park” (1967). If that is not impressive enough Marriot was a key member of “Humble Pie” (1969-1975 and 1980-1982)) with a young Peter Frampton playing guitar on a few albums. “Humble Pie” is another band that is critically acclaimed by fans and musicians alike. Listen to “Humble Pie,” “Rock On” for studio excellence and the live album“Performance Rockin’ the Fillmore” (1971). The live renditions of “I Don’t Need No Doctor” and “Stone Cold Fever” are concert performances that demonstrate Marriot’s vocal power, range and originality. Marriot tragically died in a fire at his home at the age of 44 in 1991. It is believed that Marriot fell asleep with a lit cigarette in his hand that started the blaze. He died from smoke inhalation. As band mate Humble Pie drummer Jerry Shirley states, “He (Marriot) was the most talented person I ever worked with. He should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because he was the greatest white soul singer that England ever produced.”

Honorable Mention- David Coverdale (“Deep Purple” and “Whitesnake”), Ronnie James Dio (“Elf,” “Rainbow” and “Black Sabbath”) James Dewar (“Robin Trower Band”), Steve Walsh (“Kansas”) and Brad Delp (“Boston”)

About Steve Janowsky 88 Articles
Steve Janowsky is a former co-host of the Rocktologists theme based classic rock show radio show on WKRB 90.3 fm, which was voted the best classic rock podcast in the country by Dave White of About.com. Some of the interview guests on the show were Simon Kirke ( Free and Bad Company), Carl Palmer (ELP), Vince Martell (Vanilla Fudge), Randy Jackson (Zebra) and Frank Marino of Mahogany Rush. Janowsky is also an English and Journalism instructor at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, NY and is an avid guitar player and songwriter.


  1. I think David Byron (of Uriha Heep) should be atleast be on the honor list!! His voice in unforgettably!!
    What about Elvis Presly??? Or A. Franklin?

  2. A great read, Steve. Entertaining, yet perplexing. Freddy Mercury at #1 ahead of Plant, Jagger, et. al? Outrageous – yet I love it !! Two Arena rock vocalists (Steve Walsh & Brad Delp) are Honorable Mentions, yet you put their peer Steve Perry in the Top 10? A headscratcher, for sure. In the interest of spirited debate, no Top 10 vocalist list is complete without David Lee Roth, Sammy Hagar and Steven Tyler.

  3. There is a bit of ball dropping on this list 1.Elvis 2.Mcartney 3.Daultrey 4.Plant 5…Rod stewart 6.Mercury 7…Jagger 8..steve Tyler 9.Ian Gillian 10.David Bowie 11 steve janowsky..i happen to know he can sing ..but everyones intitled to his/her opinion,,who’s Steve Marriot ,,please

  4. Steve,

    It seems you went for “lung capacity” on this list, but I have to agree – overall. As for sheer perfection – where’s Marty Balin? How about the 10 most perfect imperfect: 1) Dylan 2) Janis 3) Kristofferson 4) Lou Reed 5) Jerry 6) Gregg Allman 7) Petty 8) Lou Reed 9) Jeff Buckley 10) Tom Waits/Neil Young (tie). When it comes to range, vocal inflection and downright pathos – these 10(11) can’t be touched. Can’t wait for your Robin Trower review!!!

  5. Steve,
    Wow another wonderful list.
    For vocal ability hmmmm… well that means able to sing high and low. Create own unique sound and sound amazing.

    Steve Perry could sing beautifully to carefully perfected ballads of Journey

    Freddie Mercury was so brilliant expressing his vocals like a song bird sitting on a tree branch in the middle of a Hurricane. What range he had which came right through a cement wall. Very dramatic to listen to like an Opera showcase.

    Robert Plant could do certain justice to the heavy thunderous innovative song’s put together by Led Zeppelin. He could sing the blues like nobody else and mean it.
    Also Robert Plant had wonderful range from his early years up until his vocal surgery in 1974. Still never losing his ability to sing a song with passion

    Over powering vocals would be David Coverdale like a rocket shooting straight into the sky.

    For charisma and stage presence out of all these vocals you so carefully chose I would say between Freddie Mercury, Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart and Robert Plant.

    I would also like to mention David Bowie and Iggy Pop.
    David Coverdale is my all time favorite vocalist.


  6. Actually I’m a big fan of Mick Jagger and Rod Stewart. my favorite song by Mick Jagger is ” Paint It Black”. Great song. I really love Rod Stewart’s songs ” Moonglow” and ” It Had To Be You”. Actually my cousin Jamieson Ernest is good friends with Mick Jagger. My cousin knows him through the music business. lol. I actually enjoy your writing. Mr. Janowsky. Of course who doesn’t remember the song ”Satisfaction”. It’s a number one song for me. You are a very creative writer. I like the way you express your self about each artist.

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