Other Players

So…Who is the Greatest Frontman?


oh, gosh, i'm not even going to touch this until i have some more time to think. it's a much harder question that "best xxx band" because there are some simpler quantifiers for bands, but with front persons there are hugely disparate styles that don't easily lend themselves to evaluation. first of all, are we talking about someone who tours with/fronts a band (e.g. Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, Neil Young) or about anyone who sings in front of a band (Elvis, Otis Redding, Rod Stewart)?


Mercury, Presley, Iggy Pop, definitely.

Alice Cooper deserves a very honorable mention too.


you'll call me daft, but the first name that sprang to mind was Captain Beefheart.


I find it most odd that this thread can have as many posts so far without a mention of Jimi Hendrix! During his time in the limelight, particularly following his rendition of the national anthem at Woodstock, he was THE MAN!, no? His concert I attended in Toronto in the late '60's was fantastic!

Honorable mention to James Brown [and the Fabulous Flames] in my home town of Burlington at the old Brant Inn was electric! He was just a lightning bolt of energy the whole night, even performing slower numbers.


I love everything Freddie Mercury does in the studio. I don't appreciate him live. I don't think he sounds as good, for one thing.

And the Live Aid performance, I don't get it. If you had that catalog of anthemic songs to support you, and were capable of singing them...HOW could you get that performance wrong? That's not to derogate Freddie or the performance - and certainly he (and his piano) were crucial in making Queen seem MUCH bigger than "just a trio with a singer." But was it fronting skills - showmanship? - or just his own dramatic musicianship? That might be splitting hairs. I just didn't think showmanship added anything to the "performance" that wasn't already inherently there in the quality of the material, the strength of the band - and the presence of thousands of adoring fans who knew every word.

I'm with macphisto in noting that there's a bazillion styles of "front work," most of which are perfect for the performers who present them in their own contexts. Linda Ronstadt was famously cripplingly shy onstage - but her shrinking, self-embarrassed demeanor, in contrast with her flawless voice and perfect command of the material, is affectingly powerful in her performances with the Nelson Riddle big band material. She's little-girl-lost - at the very same time she's demolishing those songs. Makes me teary to think of it.

Frank Sinatra - utterly riveting just standing there singing, doing what comes naturally.

I'm fond of Jon Anderson as a "front man." But he mostly stands and smiles beatifically, raising his head to open his throat and sing angelically, looking like he's ready to levitate on the rich and enveloping music he still can't hardly believe he had a part in making and is privileged to present. He sways with a tambourine, often in some flowing robe that makes him look like a Pentecostal choir soloist. Not very dramatic - but still, somehow, the short hippie Napoleon centers all the power going on around him.

So to suggest one great band front-er over another isn't to deny the charisma, power, or effectiveness of any other. I think I give them ALL 100% credit. Short of falling down drunk or stoned and failing the band, I don't think any "front man's" lack of entertainment skills have ever damaged the performances or reputations of a band successful enough for us to be talking about them. I mean, by definition they were good enough - and if their onstage demeanor expressed something about who they were and the music they were trying to present, good enough. I don't have enough onstage charisma myself to keep my greatest fans interested. (Not that I have any.)

So when I suggest candidates for this fictitious award, I'm thinking of people whose onstage shenanigans either raised a band that should have disappeared in mediocrity to success, or won it attention and took it to heights of renown it otherwise couldn't have reached. (Or, similarly, someone whose showmanship either completely made up for a lack of talent otherwise, or greatly enhanced a small talent.)

Elvis and Michael and James were the whole package - the voices, the expression, the moves, the charisma. You couldn't look away. But with the voices, did they need the showmanship? I think the point with them was that it all came as a package, and wasn't (so far as I could tell) terribly calculated. It came naturally.

Piano players have it rough - they're stuck behind that damn piece of furniture. (Players of synth stacks have it worse.) But Little Richard, Jerry Lee, and Elton John found their different ways to stand out while standing there. In a different way, so did Keith Emerson - part chops, part athletics, part spectacle - all without ever singing.

On the other hand, when Lady Gaga sat down behind a piano and left Lady Gaga behind, just played and unleashed the pure power of Stefani Germanotta's voice, I was also mesmerized. I forgot all the costumes.

I suppose no one commands the whole stage like Mick Jagger, the prototype for swagger. But does he rivet your attention more than, say, Tom Jones in full voice? There's a performance of Tom and Janis Joplin together on a Dick Cavett (I think) show, and it'll tear your head off.

The first big concert I saw was Janis...and she certainly had my attention. From the multi-colored feather boas to the bottle of Jack to every nuance of whimper and wail...that was some fronting. But I was young and impressionable.

I saw Stephen Tyler with Aerosmith, very early on. He pranced like a Mick Jr. He won the front-man contest at that gig, though, where Aerosmith was unaccountably opening for King Crimson. By the time the crowd was Aeroed up, much of it was in no mood for Robert Fripp sitting behind a white mellotron, intensely hunched over a black Les Paul, doing that studious dark chamber music which has been his lifelong schtick. It's a schtick I appreciate, of course - and for the right crowd can be effective. This was not his crowd. His front-man trick that night was simply to stop playing when, during the quiet eyes of the noise hurricanes the band could unleash he could no longer hear himself over the noise of the audience. He stopped, the rest of the band stopped, and eventually the crowd realized nothing was going on. It fell silent. Robert said, "OK, now that we're all listening, we'll carry on" or something to that effect.

On the other hand, I saw King Crimson in a club several years later, and Robert was still seated and composed - but drummer Bill Bruford and wild gypsy percussionist Jamie Muir were all OVER the place, and no one was not entertained.

Some "front men" are completely absorbing just because they themselves are completely absorbed in playing music so technically and/or expressively well that you can't look away. I saw the David Lee Roth Band with Steve Vai. And I'm very much in the camp that would fully support DLR as a Top Front Man candidate - he's wildly entertaining, so much that you forgive him anything - but Vai was almost competitive. DLR came in on aerial wires...but Vai climbed the light rigging with one hand, playing impossible solos with the other - never looking at the guitar. You didn't know where to look.

Or Gentle Giant in a small club, playing impossible music, each of them switching off instruments during songs of such complex arrangement - but such utter fun - that in one part of your brain you were trying to imagine simply being creative enough to come up with such material, while with the other you were completely entertained because they were having a blast, and they couldn't play a wrong note or drop a beat, and it all rocked. There was no front man per se...it was a front band. The showmanship was musicianship.

Of guitarists, Steve Morse entertains me immensely. Nothing about his performance is contrived, and I get the sense all his "moves" are completely natural, just a guy into his playing. But it's the forward look, eyes always scanning out over the audience, seemingly trying to engage with people, and the grin. He's just having a blast. You want some of that energy - never mind the impossible chops so effortlessly employed in perfect support of the music of the moment.

And there to the left of him onstage (at least since the mid-90s) is Ian Gillan of Deep Purple...whose stage presence (in a modest loose white linen suit and barefoot) was at once natural and commanding, while always acknowledging the support of the incredible rhythm section and solo players around him. Much as I enjoyed Daltrey's mic-slinging acrobatics and Plant's preening presentation, I kinda enjoyed Gillan more. Maybe it was the age at which I saw him, the grace and humility he wore so naturally - the musical history behind him, and the effortless way his voice delivered those classic songs, in the moment, still fresh.

Where does Alice Cooper come in? Does anyone TRY harder to front a band? There's a surely a case where the showmanship carried the music much further than it would otherwise have gone.

Are the KISSers front men? Never a KISS fan, but hard to deny that flavor of showmanship.

Of guys I've seen, though, and can swear to personally...probably the most impressive were Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull and JD Wilkes of the Shack Shakers.

Anderson was all over the stage in his renaissance troubadour garb, something between a pied piper and court jester, almost every part of his continual dance rhythmically connected to - seeming to orchestrate and choreograph - something going on in the music. When the flute wasn't being fluted upon, it was sometimes a band major's baton and sometimes a slashing saber, then a shillelagh. His face and eyes were dramatically animated in helping tell the musical stories. His gestures were outsize and sometimes grotesque - but still somehow natural. He was a marionette dancing on the strings of the music itself. Durned extraordinary.

And JD Wilkes is impossible to describe. I suppose there's video, but I don't know if it could capture the energy, the simultaneous chaos and control of JD throwing himself and his bodily fluids through one of the Shakers' frenetic hymns to southern apocalypse. You don't even KNOW if he has a good voice. It doesn't even matter.


i'm not sure there's any better answer to this than James Brown.


just off the top of my head: David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, Iggy Pop/Stooge, obviously Michael Jackson (i stumbled across This Is It one evening on cable and couldn't look away, and that was when he was dying on his feet!), Prince, Grace Slick, John Lydon/Johnny Rotten. i dare you to look at footage of any of them and then try to look away.


Yes, David Bowie. I didn't mean to leave him out. If any ever nailed the right balance of drama and dignity, it's Bowie.

Then there are the real dramatists... Peter Gabriel in Genesis days, though the drama may have been over the top.

ARTHUR Brown, as in Crazy World. It's hard to beat lighting your head on fire.

Or Screamin' Jay coming out of his coffin.


No Frontman got the Crowd more into the music during a Show than Joe Strummer.


My feeling is that to really judge how good a frontman is, you need to observe him with no pyrotechnics, flames or other support. Brian Setzer at the end of some of his BigBand shows has been known to come back solo with no backup, and he`s every bit as capable with the audience as he is with the Cats or the Orchestra behind him. THAT is what I consider a good "frontman". Can he or she do it without all the support?

So, based solely on personal experience, and artists I have watched myself. I have two.

Kenny Rogers- Granted, he was playing to the faithful, and they likely would have cheered him reading the phone book, but his story-telling, off the cuff (sounding) ad libs and a few spontaneous reactions to the fans turned him from a pink-glasses wearing guy at the front of the First Edition to a guy who could truly hold his own on an arena-size stage with nothing more than a mike and a followspot. Second place-

Harry Belafonte. `nuff said.


Anderson was everywhere in his renaissance troubadour garb, something between a pied piper and court jester, almost every part of his continual dance rhythmically connected to - and seeming to direct - something going on in the music. Protus

I Gotta say, seeing Ian Anderson as a young man fronting J.Tull was a sight to behold. One of my first big concerts in 1972 was the Thick as a Brick tour. I have never seen a man control the show as well as that.


oh, yes, i should have thought of Peter Gabriel. i'm not a Genesis guy at all, but i saw him solo in 1986 and it was as amazing as anything i've ever seen. twig the video of his set at the 1985 Amnesty International concert at Giants Stadium that's on YouTube, where he performs without his usual staging and setting and absolutely kills it.


I will stick to people I have seen live.

As a college kid I saw INXS and thought Michael H. had a very magnetic stage presence. I also saw Tuck and Patti a couple of times and it was impossible not to be mesmerized.

Hard to have seen Anne Lennox lead the Euryrhmics and not be breathless.

Later I saw Rev Horton Heat lead a venue full of people through a sing along to a Nirvana song and to this day that sends a chill down my back.

Then I saw Wayne Handcock stay late and play every song anyone shouted out until the crowd ran out of steam and realized I would never see anyone love their fans more.

And recently I saw Father John Misty and very much felt like I saw the next incarnation of Jagger.

For reference I’ve also seen Neil Young and Tom Petty and REM, Ray Charles, Yes, Janes Addiction, The Cure, many others but alas, no Aerosmith or Van Halen or many of the other nominees.


Springsteen definitely deserves to be in this discussion.


yeah. he's not really my taste, but people sure do love him.


Chuck Prophet, the greatest R&R guy you probably never heard of, been around since 1985, and has never let up. He's hands down my favorite in the rock scene. Great songs, great guitar, what more 'ya want?Link You can thank me later.


You will hear better singers in the early rock n roll era, but in terms of commitment to total performance and having an enduring impact on major artists who were acutely conscious of the art of presentation- Vince Taylor.


I think it would be very difficult to knock Freddie Mercury from the catbird seat, which he surely shares with Prince.

Alex Harvey was somewhat special too. He combined his love of rock n roll and innate acerbic sharpness with comic-book gallantry and theatrical zest. In the early 70s, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band was a live act that commanded fearful respect.

What could be more thrillingly, terrifyingly surreal than the baroque visceral assault that is...Next?


Hendrix, SRV, Prince...

And Brian Setzer!

I've seen only two of them live.



Joe C. of the Barnburners.

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