Do you need a great singing voice to be a great rock’n’roll frontman?

David Lee Roth, Sammy Hagar:, Ozzy Osbourne, Ronnie James Dio
(Image credit: David Lee Roth: Icon and Image | Sammy Hagar: Paul Natkin | Ozzy Osbourne: GAB Archive | Ronnie James Dio: Fin Costello/Redferns)

As so often happens on Twitter, it was a fairly benign comment that kicked off the Twitterstorm. 

Responding to a fan who claimed that only Freddie Mercury was a better frontman than Ronnie James Dio, former Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider tweeted, "You are confusing singing with performing. There is a huge difference between a great frontman and a great singer. Ronnie was one of the greatest singers of all time, but as a frontman, he pretty much just stood on stage and sang. Freddie was an amazing singer and frontman."

Cut to next scene: a timeline full of furious fans, with Snider patiently trying to make his case: that frontman and performers were a different breed to singers, and while the twain would occasionally meet, there was nothing wrong with that. And you know what? He was right.  


Backstage at Hammersmith Odeon, some time in 1988. The small bar is full of the usual suspects, living large. There’s a brief commotion by the door, and suddenly, there he is… David Lee Roth, “coming atcha live, between your naked, steaming eyes and ears,” as he used to like to say. 

Roth was like lightning in a bottle that night, all wired and juiced from being on stage, where he’d surfed in over the stalls and run through all of his skits and his raps and his greatest hits. He’d worked one crowd into a cheering, swooning mob and now he was going to do it again with a much smaller one. A five- or six-minute flow of jokes, stories, winks, guffaws, mimes and impersonations had everyone slack-jawed and gooey. He was electric, a force of nature, sucking the air from the room, making it feel like the centre of the universe – which for him it was. 

Two crowds, one small, one large, both in thrall to this fizzing ball of kinetic energy. If you’d asked anyone present to list the qualities with which he’d entranced two crowds in one night, singing would have come some way down the list. Singing? He was DAVID LEE ROTH, baby! Singing had nothing to do with it. He probably thought a high C was something to be negotiated in a boat, but that didn’t matter. The man was an entertainer, born ready. He’d do 10 minutes when the fridge light came on. It was part of him. It wasn’t about the voice, it was about the man. 

Van Halen had just replaced Roth with Sammy Hagar, a different kind of singer, and now they were a terrific band too, taut and muscular, but entirely changed in character. Expressed as a percentage – if such a concept were possible – Roth’s voice was probably 50 per cent of his overall package. Hagar’s was 70 or 80.

If you asked the fans to define the difference between the pair, they might have called Roth a frontman and Hagar a singer. Going from frontman to singer radically altered the capacity of the band. 

Black Sabbath had crossed that Rubicon, too, Ozzy Osbourne to Ronnie James Dio. Neither had a particular regard for the other. “Ozzy couldn’t carry a tune in a suitcase,” sniffed Ronnie. “We call him Ronnie,” said Ozzy of the dwarf that had become a part of his stage show as a solo artist. 

Van Halen and Black Sabbath had made audacious choices and they’d worked. They’d worked because such radical surgery meant comparisons between what they were and what they had become were impossible, or at least abstract. Comparing Roth to Hagar or Ozzy to Dio was like comparing apples to oranges. Some liked one, some liked the other, most liked both. What you couldn’t say was: “This apple’s better than that one.” Probably, a frontman was not a singer, and vice versa. 

It was no magic formula, though. Mötley Crüe replaced Vince Neil with John Corabi in 1992. You could argue that it would be physically impossible to find a like-for-like swap for Vince, one of the best rock stars of the age but arguably its worst singer (and if you want to take issue, I enter into evidence Home Sweet Home and Time For Change). He had any number of wannabes trailing him up and down the Strip though, because Vince was a frontman, and he gave hope to all the guys who could never be a Perry or a Plant or a Dio but who felt destiny’s call tugging at their spandex. 

Corabi sounded much better than Vince – he was a singer – but Crüe had been dragged too far from their starting point. They were one of those bands that sounded better with a frontman than a singer. 

One more example: Marillion replaced Fish with Steve Hogarth, a change so unlikely that they briefly considered changing the name of the band. Hogarth singing Fish’s songs sounded good but odd: they were not just intensely personal, and idiosyncratic, they were built around an offbeat voice. Someone who could sing found them strangely unsingable.

Hagar, Dio and Hogarth differed stylistically, but their primary measure was their voice. They had more in common than the three frontmen that they replaced. Ozzy, Vince and Fish were, respectively, frontman as madman, frontman as rock star and frontman as “bleeding heart poet in a fragile capsule,” as Fish memorably put it. They proved how wide the frontman’s remit could be, how many different voices and approaches it could sustain and nourish. 

Fish sits at one end of the frontman scale; way over six feet tall, given to wearing make-up, laying bare all aspects of his life and even managing to make a wavering falsetto an integral part of his style. With him, you can bracket the ethereal Jon Anderson and a ghostly Nick Drake. 

At the other end are death-grunters like Barney Greenway, shredders like Dave Mustaine, growlers like Lemmy. There are few more thrilling moments in rock’n’roll than Lemmy’s opening gambit to Ace Of Spades: ‘If you like to gamble, I tell you I’m your man…’, but it sounds more like a rusty gate being opened than a man singing. 

Moving along the spectrum, you will encounter Dan McCafferty and Brian ‘Beano’ Johnson, men with throats like razorblades; Johnson’s predecessor in AC/DC, Bon Scott, who managed to sound like he was still actually shagging Rosie while he was singing about her; Rob Halford, who worked operatic theatrics into his technique; Udo Dirkschneider, Biff Byford… 

Then there are men who, like Marmite, divide opinion: Justin Hawkins, Roger Chapman, Tom Waits. There are men who have voices so singular that they are welded into the songs they sing. Only David Bowie could really do Life On Mars; only Lou Reed could do Perfect Day or Walk On The Wild Side; only Alice can do School’s Out; only Axl Rose can do Welcome To The Jungle.

It’s about force of personality rather than quality of voice, too. Johnny Rotten sounds better doing punk than other punks – why is that? Why does Morrissey’s voice come across like a wet Sunday morning? How does Bob Dylan talk his way through so many classic moments? These are questions that are hard to answer. It’s about the perfect coalition of man and material, about evocation of mood and circumstance. But we’re trying to define a difference here, and perhaps it’s this: lots of these vocalists/frontmen/rock stars do one thing excellently. Their qualities do not necessarily translate or expand, and they are dependent on persona. 

Some of rock's less heralded singers are some of the most charismatic, beautiful, mad, gloriously talented people to have stood in front of a microphone. People like Jimi Hendrix, Dee Snider, Geddy Lee, Kurt Cobain, Phil Lynott, Anthony Kiedis, Klaus Meine, Ian Anderson and Joe Strummer are not diminished by their exclusion from those "Best Singer" lists; in many ways it’s a badge of honour. They have taken a strange gift and used it uniquely well. 

"A frontman doesn't have to sing well but needs to be a guy who can engage the audience and entertain the people who stand there," said Snider, clarifying the comments that started the furore. "A frontman that can wow the crowd with their incredible voice, yeah, that's entertaining on a different level, but it's not the same as a full-scale performance."

Of course he's right. 

Do you need a great voice to be a great singer? Yes. 

Do you need one to be a great rock’n’roll frontman? Certainly not.

Jon Hotten

Jon Hotten is an English author and journalist. He is best known for the books Muscle: A Writer's Trip Through a Sport with No Boundaries and The Years of the Locust. In June 2015 he published a novel, My Life And The Beautiful Music (Cape), based on his time in LA in the late 80s reporting on the heavy metal scene. He was a contributor to Kerrang! magazine from 1987–92 and currently contributes to Classic Rock. Hotten is the author of the popular cricket blog, The Old Batsman, and since February 2013 is a frequent contributor to The Cordon cricket blog at Cricinfo. His most recent book, Bat, Ball & Field, was published in 2022. 

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