Pass the Mic: 15 Big Hits Not Sung by the Lead Singer
“Beth,” “Sister Christian” and more smashes performed by unlikely vocalists
While there are many bands without even one good vocalist, some groups are blessed with several. Think of the Cars, the Commodores or the Beatles, all of whom had multiple hit singles with different band members taking turns at the microphone. Sometimes, however, a band gives a member who isn’t the usual lead singer a chance in the vocal booth. Occasionally, it’s even the drummer, and now and then, the resulting track becomes a huge smash, maybe even big enough that it overshadows everything else the band has ever done. In our modern age of careful brand management by corporate A&R guys, we don’t see that sort of fluke hit very often, but consider these 15 examples of when a band’s hierarchy got upended and a popular single was sung by somebody other than the usual lead singer.
By Gavin Edwards
The Kinks, “Death of a Clown” (1967)
Guitarist Dave Davies wrote and sang some of the Kinks’ most affecting tunes, but lead vocals on singles almost always went to his brother Ray. This song was an exception: It appeared both on the Kinks album Something Else and as a solo Dave Davies single (which reached Number Three on the U.K. charts). Why didn’t he try to further his solo career? “I was really depressed then,” Davies said. “I remember writing minor chords, very reflective of my melancholic period. Sometimes I would have liked people to leave me alone, so that I could just sit down and not have to entertain people socially.”
Strawberry Alarm Clock, “Incense and Peppermints” (1967)
This pop-psychedelic L.A. band (including lead guitarist Ed King, later in Lynyrd Skynyrd) resented that their producer had commissioned lyrics from songwriter John Carter for one of their instrumental tracks. So neither of the group’s singers (Lee Freeman and Mark Weitz) put much effort into a song that was intended to be a B-sideÂ ”” and they didn’t object when Carter suggested the song be sung by Greg Munford, a teenage friend of the band who was hanging around the studio. Of course, “Incense and Peppermints” ended up being the group’s only track to top the charts.
The Rolling Stones, “Happy” (1972)
“It was no Rolling Stones record,” Keith Richards said. He wrote and recorded “Happy” in four hours during the Exile on Main St. sessions, waiting for the rest of the band to show up in the basement of the Villa Nellcote ”” he remembered Jimmy Miller on drums, Bobby Keys on baritone sax and that he overdubbed guitar and bass himself. Richards generally gets one song per Stones LP, and this is the one that became a hit: Number 22 in the U.S. and Number Five in France, its country of origin. “I wrote the verses of ‘Happy,’ but I don’t know where they came from,” Richards said.
Grand Funk Railroad, “We’re an American Band” (1973)
In a bar in Baton Rouge, Grand Funk Railroad got into a late-night argument with Humble Pie: Which was better, British rock or American rock? Grand Funk drummer Don Brewer touted Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Little Richard and Elvis Presley, then declared, “We’re an American band!” Once Brewer sobered up, he turned that nationalist sentiment into a song, and when the band went into the studio to record it with producer Todd Rundgren, Brewer ”” not the band’s usual singer, Mark Farner ”” did the vocals. The single hit Number One and became Grand Funk Railroad’s defining anthem.
The Eagles, “Take It to the Limit” (1975)
The only Eagles single to feature original bassist Randy Meisner on lead vocals, this lush country ballad (principally written by Meisner) reached Number Four and became one of the band’s biggest successes. “It was our first gold single, maybe our only gold single,” Glenn Frey said. “I just remember being very happy for Randy. We had tried, unsuccessfully, to get a piece of material for him ”” or from him ”” that might be a hit single … We finally succeeded with ‘Take It to the Limit.'” Two years later, Meisner and Frey got into a blowout fight backstage in Knoxville when an ailing Meisner wanted to opt out of performing the song and its high notes ”” Meisner ended up quitting the band.
Kiss, “Beth” (1976)
The biggest single Kiss ever had: a ballad with a string section and drummer Peter Criss on vocals. Criss said, “The day we recorded it, [producer] Bob Ezrin had everybody in tuxedos, the New York Philharmonic. When we went to the Record Plant to do the vocals, Gene [Simmons] and Paul [Stanley] were in the control room. I’ll never forget it, they were looking at me like it was one big fucking joke. And I couldn’t get into it and Bob knew it and threw them out. They left, I did it in five takes, and it was beautiful.”
The Miracles, “Love Machine Pt. 1” (1976)
The Miracles may seem to be synonymous with Smokey Robinson, but after the lead singer left the group, they recorded a concept album called City of Angels about a small-town couple who travel to L.A. to become stars. After the pair make it, “Love Machine” is how the boyfriend describes himself (over a supple disco beat). With Billy Griffin holding down lead vocals, the single hit Number One and spent 28 weeks on the Hot 100 ”” more than any other Miracles song.
Blue Oyster Cult, “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper” (1976)
“(Don’t Fear) the Reaper” became Blue Oyster Cult’s biggest hit, even though lyrics about the inevitability of death aren’t usually Top 40 fare. Although their lead singer was Eric Bloom, “Don’t Fear (the Reaper)” was written and sung by the band’s lead guitarist Buck Dharma (a.k.a. Donald Roeser, who, years later, also wrote and sang the band’s second-biggest hit, “Burnin’ for You.”) Recent research suggests, by the way, that the daily global death toll is close to 140,000 men and women, not 40,000.
The Sex Pistols, “No One Is Innocent” (1978)
By the time of their fifth single, the Sex Pistols had already broken up, with Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious leaving the band. But Steve Jones and Paul Cook went to Brazil and recorded this track with Ronnie Biggs, a Brit famous for his role in the Great Train Robbery of 1963 (he was living in Rio to avoid extradition). Biggs wasn’t much of a vocalist ”” he said he would have done better if he hadn’t been drunk ”” but the song was featured in The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle and, astonishingly, the single went Top 10 in the U.K.
Squeeze, “Tempted” (1980)
Penned by Squeeze’s songwriting team of Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook, “Tempted” was sung by journeyman keyboardist Paul Carrack, who would last only one album with the band. (He later had hits as a solo artist and with Mike and the Mechanics.) Tilbrook, the group’s usual lead singer, got a few lines in the second verse, as did an almost unrecognizable Elvis Costello (who produced the track). The song, Squeeze’s first to crack the American charts, ended up being the band’s iconic hit.
Toto, “Africa” (1983)
As a collection of top-notch studio pros, Toto didn’t put the singer front and center, but Bobby Kimball and Steve Lukather usually handled the vocals. On their only Number One single, however, cowriter David Paich took the microphone. He said the song threw the group for a loop: “Bobby tried it, then Lukather tried it, but it had what I call an ‘Elton John mouthful’ of words: lots of words to get in, in a very short amount of time. So I ended up singing it because I could spit out these words fast enough.”
Night Ranger, “Sister Christian” (1984)
Unless you are related to the band by blood or marriage, you probably don’t remember that Night Ranger had five 1980s Top 40 singles not titled “Sister Christian,” including “When You Close Your Eyes” and “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me.” Unfortunately for lead singer Jack Blades, the smash “Sister Christian” ”” a power ballad written by the drummer Kelly Keagy for his younger sister Christine ”” was sung by Keagy and is the only Night Ranger song anyone knows.
Heart, “These Dreams” (1986)
Sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson had a straightforward division of labor: Nancy played guitar and Ann handled the lead vocals. But in 1986, when they had gone a few years without a hit, they were offered two songs cowritten by Martin Page and Bernie Taupin. They picked “These Dreams” and had Nancy sing it, which she did while fighting off a cold. The raspy result was Heart’s first Number One single. (The song Heart didn’t choose: “We Built This City,” which became a teeth-grinding smash for Starship.)
The Georgia Satellites, “Battleship Chains” (1986)
While Dan Baird was singing lead for the Georgia Satellites (most famous for “Keep Your Hands to Yourself”) and writing most of the songs, he brought the band a catchy tune written by Terry Anderson for Baird’s previous band, the Woodpeckers (a.k.a. the Fabulous Knobs). “Battleship Chains” reached Number 76 on the U.S. charts (Number 44 in the U.K.) and was memorably covered by Warren Zevon and R.E.M. on the Hindu Love Gods album. But when the Satellites did it, lead vocals were handled by the band’s hirsute lead guitarist Rick Richards.
Oasis, “Don’t Look Back in Anger” (1996)
For the second Oasis album, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, songwriter Noel Gallagher presented his kid brother Liam (the band’s lead singer) with two songs, both potential hit singles. He told him to pick one to sing ”” he’d be keeping the other one for himself. Liam wisely opted for “Wonderwall,” leaving Noel with this power ballad, which hit Number One in the U.K. Noel grew accustomed to filling in on lead vocals at a moment’s notice when his brother felt unwell or sulky ”” most famously during the entirety of the band’s MTV Unplugged gig in 1996, where Liam sat in the balcony and heckled.