There will always be a debate on what lead singer was better for which band. There will always be high expectations for anybody replacing someone’s voice who helped shape a group’s sound. Let’s take a look at legendary vocalists for the same band. Some successful, some not so much.
Like I mentioned in a previous article. New York thrashers, Anthrax, had two lead singers in their storied career. Joey Belladonna in the 80’s and John Bush in the 90’s and early 2000’s. So which one do you prefer?
Joey Belladonna: Belladonna sported a more traditional metal sound with a piercing scream. He is the most recognizable to Anthrax fans and he sang on classics such as “Madhouse”, “I Am The Law”, and “Belly of the Beast”. There was a time where I preferred Bush because of his more modern sound but my love for 80’s metal cannot be denied. I saw Anthrax for the first time last year in their (and mine) hometown of New York City for the first time and Belladonna killed it onstage.
John Bush: Bush had a more modern metal voice with no deafening screams, just straight a rugged, deep voice. The new voice of the heavy metal rockers ushered in a generation of fans. Anthrax really only released one great album with him (“Sound of White Noise”) and a few forgettable ones thereafter. I like Bush but preferred Belladonna’s screams and New Wave of British Heavy Metal influenced voice. Not taking anything away from the Armored Saint rocker but have you heard “The Greater of Two Evils”? It’s an album Anthrax released in 2004 that contained classic songs from the Belladonna era re-recorded with Bush’s vocals. It was pretty awful for the most part.
David Lee Roth – Van Halen (named after the last names of the lead guitarist and drummer respectively) hit their stride with their 1984 record appropriately titled ”1984” which included such megahits as “Jump” and “Panama” but also due to the theatrics and stage presence of lead singer, David Lee Roth. Tensions within the band heightened over the direction of their sound which caused Roth to depart the group in the mid 80’s. Fortunately for VH fans, Roth reunited with the iconic band in 1996 but his tenure was short lived as he left once again just weeks later. After a decade of rumors, Roth returned to the band full-time in 2007 and Van Halen have been in beast mode ever since. Now what do I personally think of David Lee Roth? Well, he had a ton of charisma and embodied everything a frontman for a band should be. I used to prefer Hagar but upon listening to the group’s pre 1984 library, they really had something special and unique with Roth. Just listen to their debut eponymous release.
Sammy Hagar – At the height of their fame, the group then recruited Sammy Hagar to carry the vocal flag of Van Halen. The band then enjoyed another round of success in the early 90’s with the album “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge” (get it? think about it for a second) and its lead single “Right Now” (which was also used in ads for the short lived soft drink, Crystal Pepsi.). Hagar would leave the band in 1996 following the recording of the song “Humans Being” for the soundtrack to the movie “Twister” but would briefly return to VH for a worldwide tour in 2004, which garnered mixed reviews, before he left again after disagreements with the Van Halen brothers. Now I don’t hate Van Hagar. In fact, I really like a lot of the stuff Sammy Hagar did with Van Halen, especially on 5150 (“Dreams” is one of my favorite Van Halen songs), but it was far more tame than what Roth accomplished with the band earlier on. The overabundance of synthesizers also gets annoying after awhile. Roth himself was quoted as saying
Gary Cherone – In the late 90’s, after auditioning a variety of singers, Van Halen decided to go in a different direction with Extreme singer, Gary Cherone. Their 1998 self-titled (boasted by the single, “Without You”) release with Cherone on the mic was a commercial failure for the band and he was rightfully booted out a year later. What can I write about Gary Cherone? The less I write the better. Poor guy, seemed like a decent kid.
Bon Scott – Lots of newer AC/DC remember the era that started with “Back In Black” but not everyone realizes that the mighty rock legends had a completely different voice before the release of their best selling album. Bon Scott started with the group at its inception in 1973 and recorded “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” and “Highway To Hell” but Scott’s life was prematurely taken in 1980 leaving AC/DC at a crossroads. Bon Scott had a more raw, dirty rocker sound which complimented the band’s earlier discography and image. His voice was pretty much what embodied “dirty rock n roll” and that’s why I love and miss Scott. Whenever “Sin City” or “Big Balls” comes on at a bar, it’s impossible for me not to sing along
Brian Johnson – Thinking they had nothing left in the tank after Scott’s death, AC/DC eventually took a chance on Brian Johnson, a singer who Scott knew and thought was talented. Their first effort with Johnson was an album dubbed “Back In Black” which became a smash hit for the band selling tens of millions of copies worldwide. Fueled by songs such as the title track and “You Shook Me All Night Long”, audiences took a liking to the new vocalist and the band knew they made the right decision to trek on without Bon. I have nothing bad to say about Brian but he brought a more arena-ish rock sound to the group. Satisfying as hell but more tame and radio friendly in a way. With that said, “Thunderstruck” is one of my favorite AC/DC songs.
Bradley Nowell – Sublime’s fusion of punk, reggae, and ska was something rarely heard in mainstream music. Their unique capped off by the voice of Bradley Nowell but when a drug overdose in 1996 took his life, Sublime’s stock skyrocketed and their music stayed popular among young listeners for over a decade before the group’s two remaining members decided to get in the habit of performing for their fans once again. Nowell’s voice added a feel-good zest to the otherwise heavy subject matter of their songs. Tracks like “Date Rape” and “April 29, 1992” make you groove to the beat until the very end and make you forget what they’re really about. Nowell’s fun-loving, sarcastic nature made Sublime stand out from other bands at the time.
Rome Ramirez – After performing a couple of one-off shows with then 20-year-old singer, Rome Ramirez, Sublime officially reunited in 2009. After a very a highly publicized court battle with Nowell’s estate, the trio eventually decided to dub themselves Sublime with Rome to avoid any legal complications. I’m not crazy about Rome and feel even less crazy about trying to continue the band’s legacy without their key member. After his tragic death, Nowell became a staple of the band, so why try to recreate that with someone who isn’t nearly as talented? If Bud and Eric wanted to perform together again then more power to them, but don’t yourself Sublime. Bud realized himself too and left the band earlier this year stating that it wasn’t right to be singing Bradley’s songs without him and calling it Sublime.
Ozzy Osbourne – The innovators of heavy metal, Black Sabbath, formed in the late 60’s when two friends, guitarist Tony Iommi and singer Ozzy Osbourne, met while working at the same factory. After such classics as “Paranoid” and “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath”, Ozzy was abruptly fired for substance abuse problems in 1979. Ozzy would rejoin in the late 90’s performing every year at the popular “Ozzfest” music festival before finally recording new material which resulted in their latest record, “13” released this year. Ozzy has proven to be a complete dolt over the years due to his personal life being exploited in media but the man does take his music very seriously and he was the perfect frontman for Black Sabbath. His scary vocals (exemplified on the song “Black Sabbath”) and slurred lyrical speech made him a staple in heavy metal music more than 40 years later. I’m glad Sabbath is recording again…with the Ozzman.
Ronnie James Dio – After Ozzy’s untimely departure, a very short statured singer named Ronnie James Dio, was then known as the singer for Rainbow and Elf, joined the line-up in 1979 and proved to be a worthy replacement with the release of “Heaven & Hell” in 1980. Sabbath fans soon realized there was life after Ozzy. Dio would bolt in ‘82 but briefly returned in the early 90’s only to leave again shortly thereafter. In 2007, Dio joined up with Tony Iommi and Bill Ward to form “Heaven & Hell”, a band performing Sabbath tunes from Dio’s time with the group. I love, LOVE Dio but I feel that outside of Heaven & Hell, he just didn’t leave as great of an impact on Sabbath as he would have thought. Dio to me shined with his solo career and his brief time in Rainbow. There were actually several other lead singers in Black Sabbath before Ozzy rejoined in 1997 but we don’t need to talk about that. Really, we don’t.
Paul Di’Anno – Not enough could be said about the mighty Iron Maiden. What you probably don’t know is that its legendary singer, Bruce Dickinson, wasn’t always at the microphone for the group. The band’s first two albums, 1980’s self titled and 1981’s Killers, were recorded with original singer, Paul Di’Anno. Paul’s work showed off a more punk influence of the band which was heard on songs such as “Running Free” and “Wrathchild”. Right as Maiden was gaining steam within the heavy metal scene, Di’Anno was booted due to his drug addiction but it may have been the best move the band could have done. I actually really love the first two Maiden albums and am really curious how songs like “Aces High” and “The Prisoner” would sound with Di’Anno on vocals. It’s a shame that years of medical problems plagued him because he really could have been something very special in the metal world.
Bruce Dickinson – Dickinson was soon brought into the band and recorded their most well known record, “The Number of the Beast” followed by “Piece of Mind” and Powerslave” all throughout the 80’s. After a hiatus in the 90’s, Dickinson returned to his home in 2000 and hasn’t moved since. Dickinson to me is not just a great heavy metal vocalist, he’s a great singer as well. One of the greatest ever, in fact. I remember the first Maiden song I ever heard (“The Prisoner”), I was scrambling to find out who this guy with the crazy voice was. Then I heard Aces High. Then 2 Minutes to Minute. Then The Number of the Beast and OH MY GOD, I was blown away and instantly became a huge fan and am still one to this day, 10 years and two live concerts attended later.
Blaze Bayley – Another fact a lot of newer Maiden fans don’t know and a lot of older fans would like to forget, Dickinson actually quit the band in the early 90’s to try his hand at a solo career. Enter Blaze Bayley, a young man from the English metal band, Wolfsbane. Bayley recorded two albums with the metal gods, 1995’s “The X Factor” and 1998’s “Virtual XI”. Reactions to the new singer were generally not positive and Dickinson returned to the band soon after where he has remained ever since, capping off the classic Maiden line-up. I actually never listened to any Bayley stuff up until a few years ago and wasn’t crazy about it. I guess he was the best they could have come up with but after having two superb vocalists, there was a lot to live up to and me and a lot of others was left disappointed.
Rob Halford – Halford had been the voice behind Priest for over 20 years using his vocal chops to dominate such classics as “Breaking The Law”, “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’”, “Freewheel Burning”, and “Painkiller”. When the popular metal quintet entered the 90’s, grunge started to take-over and Halford wanted to explore other musical genres so he departed on good terms in 1992. Without a singer, the remaining members were left with few options for themselves….until a fan from Ohio turned their world upside down. While not as good a singer as someone like Bruce Dickinson, Halford’s screams and growls were a trademark of the band which made me fan from the get go. Also, like Bruce, Halford could sing a nice ballad but also turn his voice up to 11 and sing some heavy metal rough cuts such as “Dissident Aggressor” and “Painkiller”. Halford had a consistent traditional heavy metal sound and stands in my top 5 heavy metal vocalists.
Tim Owens – The Ripper was a huge Priest fan and even had his own tribute band, British Steel, to commemorate his heroes. One fateful day, his phone rang and his favorite group’s surviving members called to ask him to fill the very big shoes left by Halford (thus inspiring the 2001 Mark Wahlberg film, “Rock Star”). Judas Priest released 1997’s Jugulator and 2001’s “Demolition” with Owenson vox. Although fans recognized the Ripper’s talents, they still yearned for Halford to return and they got their wish in 2003. Owens went on to join another popular metal band, Iced Earth. I agree with the fans, I think Owens has a great voice but I don’t think it belonged with Judas Priest.
Alice In Chains
Layne Staley – Alice In Chains blew up in the early 90’s riding the wave of the Seattle grunge movement. Much of their success was due to the vocal ability of lead singer, Layne Staley. Aided by his distinct voice, AIC released their most popular album, “Dirt” in 1992. After a hiatus in the late 90’s, Staley died of an overdose in 2002 and the status of the band was uncertain. Layne’s haunting voice was something really special and would influence a number of musicians in the metal world for years to come. Nutshell still bring a tear to me eye each time I listen to it to this very day.
William DuVall – After putting on a concert to benefit the victims of the horrible Tsunami in 2004 (with a wide range of vocalists filling in for Layne) to rave reviews, the remaining members of the group (Jerry Cantrell, Mike Inez, and Sean Kinney) started touring again with another singer, William DuVall, who has remained with the group ever since. In 2008, AIC released their first full length album in 14 years, “Black Gives Way To Blue” followed by this year’s “The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here” breathing new life into the legendary grunge act. I don’t hate DuVall and think he’s a fine singer and musician but similar to what I said about Sublime earlier, I really wish Jerry, Mike, and Sean would have retired the Alice In Chains name and just started a new group. Imagine if the Foo Fighters were referred to as Nirvana to this very day?