“He got onstage and preached rock’n’roll, which was very much the inspiration for what I did”: 30 musicians on the singers who changed their life

Queen’s Freddie Mercury, Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, AC/DC’s Bon Scott and Little Richard onstage
Queen’s Freddie Mercury, Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, AC/DC’s Bon Scott and Little Richard (Image credit: Steve Jennings/WireImage/Michael Putland/ Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

What makes a great singer? The ability to hit every note perfectly? Volume? Charisma? Or some intangible ‘x factor’? It depends who you ask. And Classic Rock has done just that, quizzing some of rock’s biggest names and brightest new talents about the vocalists who changed their life forever. This is what they had to say.

Metal Hammer line break

Joe Elliott (Def Leppard)

Paul Rodgers nails it every time. I knew when I was 17 that I was never going to be Paul Rodgers, but I might be able to pull off something akin to what Alice Cooper and Ian Hunter did. They’re not great singers but they portray a song brilliantly. I love those character singers – Alice, Ian, John Lydon, Gary Holton from the Heavy Metal Kids. Their limitations became their strength. Mick Jagger was another, and on Street Fighting Man he delivered one of the best rock vocal performances of all time.

Lars Ulrich (Metallica)

Bon Scott was the coolest singer ever – the vocal delivery, the tongue-in-cheek double entendres and the magnetic personality. Those early AC/DC records – Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, Let There Be Rock, Powerage, Highway To Hell – are just fucking timeless.

Paul Stanley (Kiss)

Steve Marriott was absolutely phenomenal. He got on stage and preached rock’n’roll, which was very much the inspiration for what I did. In the rock genre, Steve Marriott and Robert Plant were phenomenal singers. And in soul music, there was Sam Cooke, David Ruffin and so many others.

Biff Byford (Saxon)

My favourite singers are the ones that have a great tone, or they take it somewhere that nobody else has been. There are so many great singers – Eric Burdon, Ian Gillan, David Byron from Uriah Heep. I loved the way Jack Bruce used to sing in Cream, and we all loved Kate Bush. She was a real rule breaker.

Glenn Hughes

I’m in awe of Stevie Wonder. We met him while making Stormbringer with Deep Purple, and we’re friends to this day. He’s repaid the compliment, told magazines that he likes my singing. I was blown away that he would say that.

Geddy Lee (Rush)

Jon Anderson had such a clear, beautiful voice that could be rock when it needed to be and soulful when it needed to be. As a young aspiring musician, I wanted to sing like that.

Eric Bloom (Blue Oyster Cult)

Maybe he wasn’t the purest of vocalists, but for an overall rock’n’roll singer it can only be John Lennon. Some had better voices and others a superior style, but for me he could sing a rock song like nobody else.

Steven Van Zandt

“It alternates between Sam Cooke and [The Temptations’] David Ruffin. I happened to catch Little Richard do a sound-check once, and he sang like I’ve never heard him do on record. He was one of the most amazing singers that ever lived.”

Lzzy Hale (Halestorm)

Ann Wilson from Heart. When I was first starting to get into music, it was a lot of dude-fronted music from the seventies and eighties. So my mom was like: “If you’re gonna get into this whole rock thing, you have to understand that girls can do that too.” The first time I heard Heart it was on this live CD called The Road Home, and there was this semi-a-capella version of Crazy On You. It absolutely blew my mind. 

Justin Hawkins (The Darkness)

When you’re into Queen you never have a time in your life when you’re not aware that Freddie Mercury was the greatest of all time. I’ve been obsessed with Bon Scott and Steven Tyler, but all that was against a backdrop of an abiding love for Freddie. 

Charlie Starr (Blackberry Smoke)

My favourite singer of all time is Little Richard. My mother loved rock’n’roll: Little Richard, the Stones, The Beatles. I think the first song of his I heard was Lucille, and I just wanted to hear it again and again! He was the first one who was really full of fire and brimstone, who really let loose on the microphone.

Perry Farrell (Jane’s Addiction)

I was really inspired by Sly Stone. My sister loved soul and funk, so she had Sly And The Family Stone’s greatest hits. I would DJ Sly And The Family Stone, and I just noticed it had the best vibe. I have Sly And The Family Stone to thank for the girls wanting to come to my house to party all the time.

Rick Wakeman

“Freddie Mercury I like because of his operatics, and Bruce Dickinson has got a lot of class. I like voices that are instantly recognisable. Roger Daltrey is another one, and Robert Plant. If you take Robert out of Led Zeppelin you haven’t got Led Zeppelin any more.”

Jay Buchanan (Rival Sons)

For the sweet and the sugar, Ray Charles. But probably the greatest rock vocalist of all time would be Little Richard. There’s just nobody who even comes close for me; his voice is terrifying. It sounds like bones breaking. It sounds like someone screaming for their life, or screaming out of desire.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd

I have to go back to Muddy Waters. I always wanted to sound like him. He had such character in his vocal delivery. It’s like he’s having a conversation with you as he’s singing a song, which makes the music sound more personal, and as a listener it brings you more into the music.

Danko Jones

It has to be Phil Lynott. It’s the emotion his voice can trigger. He has such a commanding voice, and he can go from sounding really tough to really soft and vulnerable. At the tail end of high school, a family friend gave me a VHS of Lizzy videos. Jailbreak was the one – what the fuck, y’know? I think we appreciate Halford and Dio because they’re so on-point and perfect. But if Phil had been a tutored singer it would have schooled all the rawness and realness out of his voice.

Jaz Coleman (Killing Joke)

Alex Harvey. He had great character to his voice – you can hear a man who’s lived. Bon Scott’s got the same sort of thing. There’s a sincerity in their voices. They’re hard guys. Hard, powerful people. Alex lived hard.

Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist (The Hives)

I was maybe nine, and there was a New Year’s show on Swedish TV, late at night, where they showed sixties clips of James Brown and The Who. I realised later that I’m still doing the same shit I saw on TV that night. A lot of my moves were taken from them. I think singer and frontman are two different skills. I wouldn’t consider myself a great singer, but I’m a good frontman. But as far as singers go, my favourites are Dion DiMucci, Glenn Danzig and Little Richard.

Myles Kennedy (Alter Bridge)

“Just for the sound of her beautiful, incredible voice, k.d. lang.”

Michael Åkerfeldt (Opeth)

Scott Walker. He’s one of my favourite singers of all time, and also one of my favourite composers. Scott 4 is often considered to be his masterpiece, but I always tend to go to for Scott 3. I also have a personal relationship with it, because that was a time in my life when there was a death in the family. I can’t even begin to explain it, but I was in a vulnerable state when I immersed myself in that album. So it has some personal meaning to me – more than any other album, I think.

Huey Lewis

Paul Rodgers, Van Morrison, Frankie Miller and any number of old black R&B singers. I think Johnny Taylor might be my favourite singer of all time. What I look for in a great singer is commitment.

Benji Webbe (Skindred)

For nothing more than the silkiness of his voice it’s Nat King Cole. Don’t get me wrong, I love Brian Johnson, I love Bon Scott, but Nat King Cole is in front of all of them. 

Brent Smith (Shinedown)

Otis Redding. I was heavily influenced by punk when I was around thirteen or fourteen – GG Allin, The Exploited, the Sex Pistols, The Dwarves, stuff like that. I remember my dad coming into my room – I think I’m blaring The Cramps or something – and he hands me a tape. It was an Otis Redding anthology. A couple of days later I played Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay, and it was one of those moments where the universe kind of shot me, right in my bell. Cos I’d never heard that kind of power out of a vocal.  

Jake Smith (The White Buffalo)

“There’s two kinds of singers: talented people who can hit extreme notes and can hit you with acrobatics, then there’s attitude people. But there’s a few people that are both. People like Paul McCartney, who’s an amazing singer and can also hit you with this crazy attitude, Ray Charles, Joe Cocker, people that can emote. I like a little grit, a little gravel and a little range.”

Floor Jansen (Nightwish)

She falls completely out of the spectrum of rock and metal, but if there’s one singer that endlessly amazes me with her sound it’s Celine Dion. I find her music absolutely cheese-bombs, but that’s too bad, because I love her voice. You can feel what she’s singing.  

Gary Stringer (Reef)

Pound for pound, my favourite singer is probably Toots Hibbert from Toots And The Maytals. Everything he does, it’s just so live, so in-the-room. Check out the Funky Kingston album. His voice is beautiful. It’s raw, not over-polished. It makes you smile. It’s gonna make your life so much better. 

Josh Todd (Buckcherry)

My favourite singer of all-time is Prince. I saw him at the Universal Amphitheatre and it was unreal. He came out with a five-piece band and levelled the place. His range, his falsetto, his low voice. It was insane, the screams that he did. Not one person was sitting down at that show. 

Erik Grönwall (Skid Row)

John Fogerty is the most underrated rock singer there is. I love his voice on those old Creedence Clearwater Revival songs. And to mention a few others: Little Richard, Steven Tyler, Freddie Mercury…

Jason Isbell

I grew up in Muscle Shoals, and a lot of great R&B music was made down there in the late sixtiess and seventies. Otis Redding is probably the flagship of the male singers, and Aretha for the ladies. I think the recording that has affected me most would be [Otis Redding song] These Arms Of Mine. That’s probably about as good as singing ever got, in my opinion. 

Fantastic Negrito

My favourite singer is probably Prince, because of the range. He could rock, he could funk, he could ballad, he could do it all. I think he stole everything he knew from Sly Stone. Then we’ve got to throw Freddie Mercury in. I can’t choose one!

William Shatner

“BB King has such a guttural, heartfelt, soulful voice. And I loved his ability to be an entertainer for so long. When I was making The Blues, I actually called his daughter to see if there was any information she could give me about him. I wanted to make a documentary on this search for the right blues songs to cover. His daughter said: “You’re a gift from God!” It was very meaningful.”

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