MMM Top Ten: 10 Bands That Changed Lead Singers (For Better or Worse)

Changing the lead singer of a band can be devastating for the group, but it could also be the start of a new journey. Here are ten examples of vocalist replacements – some of them brilliant, some terrible, some surprising, some predictable, some historically significant, and some of them so seamless that nobody would have noticed had they not been informed.

#10. AC/DC – Brian Johnson with Axl Rose

Photo Credit: Ethan Miller & Frazer Harrison

It’s hard to write a list about bands who changed their lead singer without mentioning AC/DC. The international success of their 1979 release Highway to Hell was followed by the alcohol-related death of their incredibly charismatic lead singer Bon Scott. But despite Scott’s legacy – in the July 2004 issue of UK magazine Classic Rock, he was rated as number one in a list of the “100 Greatest Frontmen,” ahead of both Freddie Mercury and Robert Plant – AC/DC managed to find the perfect replacement in British glam rock band Geordie’s singer Brian Johnson. No other vocalist change has ever been as seamlessly brilliant and commercially fruitful as this. The group’s first album with Brian was released just one year later and gave the band their greatest commercial success ever, with more than 25 million records sold in America only.

But in this list, I have decided not to include replacements due to deaths, and so the Bon Scott – Brian Johnson change shouldn’t be included if I were to follow the rules properly. So, let’s instead talk about when Brian back in 2016 faced hearing issues and could no longer keep up with the band live. Lee Robinson of the cover band Thunderstruck auditioned, but the choice eventually fell on Guns n’ Roses frontman Axl Rose – a surprising choice. It would turn out to be a pretty decent choice, but as Brian Johnson returned it was clear that the chemistry between him, lead guitarist and co-founder Angus Young, and the rest of the band was impossible to touch. Not bad for an old replacement.

#9. Van Halen – David Lee Roth with Sammy Hagar

Photo Credit: SGranitz

Another band who managed to maintain sales figures and their legacy despite changing their lead singer is Van Halen. The Californian rock band, founded in 1972 by the Dutch-born guitarist Eddie Van Halen, faced internal fractions due to the success of their highly successful 1984, which led to singer David Lee Roth’s farewell. Patty Smyth from Scandal Roths and Daryl Hall from Hall & Oates both rejected their lead singer offers and the choice fell upon former Montrose singer Sammy Hagar. It turned out to be the right choice – the following album, 5150, would become Van Halen’s first number one on the Billboard 200. David Lee Roth would eventually reunite with the group on their 2012 album A Different Kind of Truth

#8. Black Sabbath – Ozzy Osbourne with Ronnie James Dio

Photo Credit: Kevin Winter & Paul Kane

It was actually Sharon Osbourne, at the time Sharon Arden, who suggested the former Rainbow vocalist as a replacement to the highly influential heavy metal group Black Sabbath’s Ozzy Osbourne. At the time, the band spent more time taking drugs than rehearsing, and continuing like that just wasn’t possible. Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Die! were both far inferior to the group’s legendary early ‘70s albums, and both record sales and critical praise were declining. Ronnie’s different vocal approach would infuse the group with something else than illegal substances, and his debut with the band, Heaven and Hell, would sell platinum and spawn a successful world tour. 1981’s Mob Rules was equally well-received by fans, but the success story was short as Ronnie would leave the band to approach a solo career in 1982. He was replaced by former Deep Purple singer Ian Gillan, but Black Sabbath would never release a heavy metal classic again.

#7. Deep Purple – Rod Evans with Ian Gillan

Photo Credit: Jorgen Angel & John Atashian

When talking about classic Deep Purple tracks, few would mention “Kentucky Woman” and “Hush” before “Smoke on the Water” and “Child in Time.” Deep Purple was a quite bluesy, progressive rock band until founding members Jon Lord, Ian Paice, and Ritchie Blackmore decided that lead singer Rod Evans wouldn’t fit into the heavier direction the band would be heading. Their replacement, the Elvis Presley-influenced Ian Gillan, would pretty much carve the template for heavy rock during the next few years with legendary albums such as 1970’s Deep Purple in Rock and 1972’s Machine Head. Apart from a short 1983 detour with Black Sabbath and a couple of solo excursions, Ian has been loyal to Deep Purple as their lead singer for seventeen albums. 

#6. Smile (Queen) – Tim Staffell with Freddie Mercury

Photo Credit: Paul Dubbelman & Hulton Archive

Brian May and Roger Taylor’s hard rock leaning wasn’t in lead singer Tim Staffell’s more R&B- and soul-oriented interests, and the English singer would eventually join Humpy Bong in 1970, co-founded by former Bee Gees drummer Colin Peterson. Ironically, both Tim and Colin had left bands that would go on to become much, much bigger than Humpy Bong. Tim’s replacement, Freddie Mercury, would rename Smile to Queen and they would go on to sell over 200 million records before his tragic death of AIDS. He was eventually replaced with Paul Rodgers, who in turn was replaced by Adam Lambert.

#5. Pink Floyd – Syd Barrett with David Gilmour and Roger Waters

Photo Credit: Getty Images

English progressive rockers Pink Floyd would build an entire career based on Syd Barrett’s drug-influenced departure from the group. “He was our friend, but most of the time we now wanted to strangle him,” said replacement David Gilmour, who would eventually share singing duties with founding member Roger Waters. Much of Pink Floyd’s future work, such as Wish You Were Here, and The Dark Side of the Moon would be inspired by Barrett’s psychological issues. Syd eventually died of pancreatic cancer in 2006, but solo works such as The Madcap Laughs and Barrett shouldn’t be ignored. 

#4. The Pogues – Shane MacGowan with Joe Strummer

Photo Credit: Brian Rasic

The Irish folk punk-rock band the Pogues was fronted by perhaps the wildest frontman of all time – Shane MacGowan. Raised in the Irish countryside by a family who thought drinking recklessly was okay as long as you would visit the church, Shane predictably handled fame quite poorly and as the group became increasingly popular, he became increasingly more unreliable – sometimes even failing to show up for their live shows. For some time, the Clash’s highly influential founding member Joe Strummer would handle singing duties, before Spider Stacy took over permanently and gave the group their biggest international single with “Tuesday Morning.” But not even a legend like Strummer could make the band quite as wildly exciting as it had been with Shane.

#3. The Velvet Underground – Lou Reed with Doug Yule

Photo Credit: Michael Ochs Archives

The Velvet Underground quite literally disbanded itself when both John Cale and Lou Reed left the band. Lou, their previous lead singer, was replaced by Doug Yule, but the attempts to take the early avant-garde and noise rock experimentalists into a more commercial direction failed massively, and the Squeeze album released in 1973 would become a big flop, met with terrible reviews. 

#2. Journey – Steve Perry with Arnel Pineda

Photo Credit: Elisa Fuentes & Frederick M Brown

Ranked by Rolling Stone Magazine as the 76th greatest singer of all time, replacing Steve Perry would never be an easy job. Still, Philippines-born singer Arnel Pineda, coming from a poor background of collecting empty glass bottles, newspapers, and scrap metal and selling them to recyclers, has been doing a great job of keeping the band alive since 2007. His first live performance for the band back in Chile in 2008 saw the previously completely unknown singer – who had been discovered by Journey’s Neal Schon through YouTube clips – facing a televised concert for 25 million people. “Is the guy a winner? Yeah, he’s a winner. He’s a clutch player,” said keyboardist/guitarist Jonathan Cain.

#1. The Temptations – David Ruffin with Dennis Edwards

Photo Credit: The Original Leads Of The Temptations Documentary (1992)

Although the Detroit R&B group the Temptations released their grooviest and most famous tunes with David Ruffin – I’m talking about “My Girl” here – the group continued to record hit records such as 1968’s Cloud Nine and the 1972 platinum-selling hit single “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” with Dennis Edwards, securing them a spot as one of the few male soul groups to survive way beyond the 1960s Motown era. 

Written by: Douglas Dahlström

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