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In popular music, the lead vocalist or lead singer is the member of a band who sings the main solo vocal portions of a song, in front of the accompanying musicians who commonly play the rhythm and music and contribute harmony and backing vocals. In vocal group performances, notably in soul and gospel music, and early rock and roll, the lead vocalist takes the main solo vocal part, with a chorus provided by other group members as backing vocalists.
Especially in rock music, the lead vocalist or solo singer is the frontman (or frontwoman), who may also play one or more instruments and is often seen as the leader or spokesman of the group by the public. As an example in rock music, Robert Plant is the lead singer of Led Zeppelin. Similarly in soul music, Smokey Robinson was the lead singer of The Miracles.
The practice of using a lead singer in vocal groups has been traced to the work songs and spirituals sung by African-American slaves in the form known as "call and response". Songs of the late nineteenth century frequently used a leading solo voice (or "call"), followed by a choral response by other singers. As the style developed through early commercial recordings and performances in the early twentieth century, the role of the lead vocalist became more established, although popular groups of the 1930s and 1940s such as the Ink Spots and the Mills Brothers generally used different lead singers on different songs rather than keeping the same lead singer throughout. By the 1950s, singers such as Sam Cooke (with the Soul Stirrers) and Clyde McPhatter (with the Drifters) took on more clearly defined roles as lead singers, and by the end of the decade credited group names often changed to reflect the leading roles of the main vocalists, with examples such as Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers and Dion & the Belmonts.
Academic David Horn has written:
The influence of US rhythm and blues recordings may well be a crucial one in the assimilation of the format of lead singer plus backing group into the guitar-based British 'beat' groups of the 1960s, and in US groups such as the Beach Boys. From these various points - including Motown - it went on to become a standard device in much rock and pop music. In some groups - most famously, the Beatles - the role of lead singer alternated (in this case, principally between two performers), while in others - for example, Herman's Hermits - one lead singer dominated.
Characteristics and exceptions in rock and pop music
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There are as many types and styles of lead singer as there are styles and genres of music. However, the lead singer of a group or band is usually the main focus of audiences' attention. The lead vocalist of a band is sometimes called the "frontman" or "frontwoman", as the most visible performer in a group.
Some pop and rock groups, such as The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, Eagles, Pink Floyd, ABBA, Crosby, Stills & Nash, KISS, The Libertines, Hollywood Undead, They Might Be Giants, and Barenaked Ladies have or had more than one featured vocalist, rather than a single "lead singer". Other bands, such as Queen, Rush, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Clash, The Doors, Oasis, Depeche Mode, Guns N' Roses, System of a Down, Avenged Sevenfold, The Who, The Rolling Stones, Deep Purple, Wings, The Cars, Styx, Status Quo, and Animal Collective, had, in addition to the designated "lead singer", one or more members who provided significant lead vocals in the course of the group's career. An example of a band with two lead vocalists is The Libertines, whose members Pete Doherty and Carl Barat sing lead vocals on an equal number of songs on an album; these two singers are also considered frontmen for the band. Pink Floyd also can be considered a band with two frontmen, as both the guitarist David Gilmour and the bassist Roger Waters sang and wrote most of the songs. In the beginning of the band's career, however, Pink Floyd's frontman and guitarist was Syd Barrett, who left the band in 1968.
While the lead vocalist often defines the group's image and personality to the general public, several bands, such as AC/DC, Iron Maiden (Paul Di'anno or Bruce Dickinson), Alice in Chains, INXS, Boston, Three Days Grace, Helloween and DragonForce have changed lead singers and maintained the original band name and, to some extent, identity. Other bands such as Fleetwood Mac, Escape the Fate, Underoath, Journey, Judas Priest, Genesis, Anthrax, Van Halen, Rainbow, Rage Against the Machine, Misfits and Black Sabbath have gone in an almost completely different musical direction with the arrival of a new vocalist. Particularly before the 1970s, many bands were named for the band leader or founder, rather than the lead singer; examples include the Dave Clark Five (whose lead singer was usually Mike Smith) and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes (whose lead singer on many recordings was Teddy Pendergrass).
In modern rock music, the lead singer is often, but not always, also the band's leader and spokesperson. While lead vocalists or spokespersons for any musical ensembles can be called a frontman, the term is used very widely in rock music. Since the position commonly has an expanded role from simple lead vocalists, there have been cases in which the frontman for a band is someone other than the lead vocalist. For example, while the lead vocalist for the band Fall Out Boy is guitarist Patrick Stump, the bassist and lyrics writer, Pete Wentz, is generally called the frontman, both in the media and by the band members themselves, since he represents the band in most interviews and contributes most to the band's image in the popular media. Another example is Angus Young of AC/DC, who is the band's lead guitarist, and co-leader with his brother Malcolm Young; while lead singer Brian Johnson (and before him Bon Scott) is the band's frontman, Angus Young can be thought to share the frontman position with Johnson, due to his on-stage antics and his role as the band's mascot, frequently featuring on album covers and promotional materials.
In many bands, such as The Who, Led Zeppelin, Queen and Oasis, the lead guitarist may share spokesman responsibilities with the lead singer. Usually, this is derived from that guitarist's specific role as a co-songwriter, co-founder and/or co-vocalist. Also in some cases, there are two frontmen, such as Underoath, with singers Spencer Chamberlain and Aaron Gillespie (drummer) sharing vocal duties. Another example is Blink-182, in which vocal duties are split between bassist Mark Hoppus and guitarist Tom DeLonge. Hoppus usually carries out most media either by himself or together with DeLonge, while the band's other member, drummer Travis Barker usually remains quiet. Linkin Park has two vocalists as well, Chester Bennington and Mike Shinoda, both considered as frontmen. Another example is the thrash metal band Metallica, in which James Hetfield (lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist) and Lars Ulrich (drummer) share the spokesperson duties for being both founders and the only members who have never left the band.
- David Horn, '"Lead Singer", in Continuum Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World: Volume II: Performance and Production, A&C Black, 2003, pp.103-104
- "Role of the Lead Vocalist", Vocalist.org.uk. Accessed 2 May 2015
- CARAMANICA, JON (December 12, 2008), "The Frontman in the Background". The New York Times. (accessed 2009-01-19)