The singing drummer is something of a rarity in popular music, and those who have topped the charts while doing so is even rarer. Here is a list of 9 singing drummers who topped the Billboard charts, and 5 more who almost made it.
Chart-Topping Singing Drummers
Compiling an all-inclusive list of singing drummers would be difficult and rather lengthy, so we thought it might be more objective to create a list of singing drummers who topped the U.S. singles or albums charts while performing both duties. The criteria is simple: The musician must have sang and played drums on the same track, and reached the top of the charts on that track’s album or single. That person must also act as their group’s primary drummer at the time of the song’s release, and not merely be a singer playing a one-off song behind the set.
Because there were so many notable singing drummers who just missed the top of the charts, we also included some of the notable runners-up below.
#9. Gerry Polci: The Four Seasons
The Four Seasons topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1976 with December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night) featuring drummer Gerry Polci carrying the lead vocals, with Franki Valli and Don Ciccone singing the bridge and refrain.
Admittedly, this late addition came at the suggestion of a Twitter user who pointed out our omission.
#8. Mickey Dolenz: The Monkees
The appearance of Mickey Dolenz may seem surprising, since The Monkees were a manufactured band which often used session players in its recordings. Although the band’s first two albums did feature studio musicians, The Monkees gained artistic control by their third album Headquarters. That album spent a week at #1 on the Billboard albums chart, followed by 11 more weeks at #2 – right behind The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The record produced no notable singles, but Dolenz contributed drums and vocals on several tracks. Later that year, the band topped the album charts again with Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., but Dolenz only contributed one drum track for the song Cuddly Toy, sang by Davy Jones. His biggest vocal moment on that album was Pleasant Valley Sunday, but the drums were handled by a session drummer.
#7. Don Brewer: Grand Funk
Grand Funk Railroad (aka Grand Funk) released a string of successful albums throughout the 1970’s, including We’re An American Band in 1973. That album reached #2 on the Billboard charts, and the title track – sung by drummer Don Brewer – reached #1 on the singles chart.
Prince played all of the drum parts on his first several of albums (along with every other instrument) and on occasional tracks throughout the rest of his career. Although not known as his group’s primary drummer in live performances, he was essentially the only studio drummer on at least 4 records, and contributed drum parts to many other albums, including the 1984 smash Purple Rain.
#5. Roger Taylor: Queen
Although Freddy Mercury will always be remembered as Queen’s legendary lead vocalist, other members of the band occasionally assumed role as lead vocalist, including drummer Roger Taylor. The Game (1980) was only the band’s only album to reach #1 in the U.S, and Taylor handled lead vocals on Rock It (Prime Jive) along with the chorus of Coming Soon.
Taylor contributed lead vocals on portions of tracks on most albums, often in the form of a chorus, verse, or even just a single line. Notable examples are Sheer Heart Attack, Fight From the Inside, and falsetto vocal part of Bohemian Rhapsody.
#4. Ringo Starr: The Beatles, Solo
Ringo contributed at least one track to most albums during his years with The Beatles, including the 1966 track “Yellow Submarine” which topped the charts all over the world – except the U.S. – where it “only” reached #2. As a solo artist, Ringo reached #1 twice in 1973 with singles Photograph and You’re Sixteen. Six other singles reached the Top 10, and several of those hit #1 in various countries.
#3. Dave Grohl: Nirvana, Foo Fighters
Dave Grohl rose to fame as the drummer of Nirvana, and actually recorded one track for the band in which he sang lead and played drums. Marigold was recorded at the end of the band’s 1993 In Utero sessions, and was released as a b-side to Heart Shaped Box. In Utero was a commercial success, topping the US albums chart that year.
With Foo Fighters, Grohl recorded all of the drum tracks for the band’s first album, and all (or most) for their second – neither of which topped the charts. The band’s second album, The Colour and the Shape did hit the Top 10 and featured three Top 10 hits: Everlong, Monkey Wrench, and My Hero.
On the band’s third album, There is Nothing to Lose, Grohl shared drumming duties with Taylor Hawkins, although individual drum tracks are not credited. To date, Foo Fighters have had one album place #1 on the charts, Wasting Light from 2011. Some fans have suggested that Grohl plays an uncredited drum track on each album, but that has not been confirmed.
Grohl has also amassed an impressive list of other appearances in groups such as Queens of the Stone Age, Them Crooked Vultures, Tenacious D, and Tony Iommi.
#2. Phil Collins: Genesis, Solo
Genesis never earned a #1 album in the U.S., and only produced one #1 single, Invisible Touch in 1986. As a solo artist, however, Collins had two #1 albums: No Jacket Required (1985) and …But Seriously (1989) along with seven #1 singles. Despite history sometimes remembering Collins for his string of pop ballads, Collins was an accomplished session drummer, with an impressive resume of appearances over several decades.
#1. Don Henley: Eagles, Solo
With Eagles and as a solo artist, Don Henley had a 15-year span of chart-topping success. His run began with the Eagles’ first #1 single Best of My Love in 1974 and ended with 1989’s solo track The End of Innocence. In 1975, Henley provided vocals for the title track of the album One of These Nights. Both the single and album reached #1 on the charts. Then, of course, he sang and played drums for the Grammy-winning Hotel California in 1977, which also achieved #1 status for its title track and album. Henley had three solo tracks which topped the charts in the 1980’s: Dirty Laundry in 1982, The Boys of Summer in 1984, and All She Wants to Do is Dance in 1985.
5 who almost made it
While the individuals above attained chart-topping success as singing drummers, there are several examples below in which singing drummers almost made it to the top.
#5. Kelly Keagy: Night Ranger
Night Ranger is best remembered for the 1984 power ballad Sister Christian, sang by drummer Kellly Keagy. The song made it to #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #2 on the Mainstream Rock Tracks chart. It did reach #1 in Canada.
#4. Sheila E
Singer/Drummer/Percussionist Sheila E had a Top 10 hit with the Prince-penned The Glamorous Life in 1984. The song also hit #1 on the U.S. Dance Chart and earned a Grammy nomination. Sheila E has performed the song in recent years with Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band.
#3. Peter Criss: Kiss
Although Kiss never produced a #1 album or song, drummer Peter Criss supplied the vocals to the band’s biggest hit, Beth, which cracked the Top 10 in 1976. Although there are no drums on that track, Criss also sang lead and played drums on the Top 20 track Hard Luck Woman along with another staple of live Kiss shows, Black Diamond.
#2. Levon Helm: The Band
Canadian-American rock group The Band never topped the charts on their own, although they had a string of modest hits throughout the late 1960’s and 1970’s, many of which were sung by drummer Levon Helm. Notable Helm tracks include The Weight and Up on Cripple Creek. As Bob Dylan’s backing band and collaborators, they did enjoy a #1 album with Planet Waves in 1974. Helm didn’t sing lead on that album, however.
#1. Karen Carpenter: The Carpenters
It may come as some surprise to casual music fans that Karen Carpenter actually possessed solid skills as a drummer. Although best known for her velvety soft-rock hits from the 1970’s, Carpenter was more than capable behind a drum kit. She didn’t, however, record the drums in the studio.
Accomplished studio drummer Hal Blaine recorded most of the band’s big hits in the studio, but Carpenter often played drums during live performances. Why didn’t Carpenter play on the albums? Blaine explained that back in the 1970’s, prior to the digital age of recording, studio experience was something of an art best suited to session players.
Had Karen played drums in the studio, she would certainly have been included in the list above.
Who else we considered
There are a number of other musicians who didn’t make the list for various reasons.
- James Brown. Drumming wasn’t his primary role during his career, although Brown did hit the Top 40 with Night Train in 1961 handling both drumming and vocal duties.
- Justin Bieber. The Biebs isn’t credited as having recorded any drum parts on his albums, but performed capable drum solos at most of his concerts. He probably had the skills to lay down some drum tracks on his recordings.
- Terence Trent D’Arby. As with Prince, D’Arby did play all of the instruments on his smash debut Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby, including drums. While Prince talked often about his skills as a drummer, it isn’t isn’t clear if D’Arby played drums because he was a truly a drummer, or because his highly-publicized ego wouldn’t forfeit the role to anyone else.
- Lenny Kravitz. Having never reached the coveted #1 album or single spots, but hitting #1 on some of the lesser charts, Kravitz is another all-instrument musician, handling all or most of the instruments on some of his recordings.
- Chris Cornell. One of the most notable voices of the 1990’s started as the band’s drummer/singer in the 1980’s, although he eventually gave up the throne to Matt Cameron before they started putting out albums.
The singing drummer is a rarity in music. The musicians listed above not only performed the feat, but found enormous success in doing so. Obviously our narrow criteria leaves some notable names out.
There are of course, a number of singing drummers who didn’t make this list, and we’ll let you help us fill in those we missed. Gil Moore, anyone?
Note: This has been updated after some reader feedback which pointed out a couple of glaring omissions. Hey, we can admit when we missed something! If you feel we left someone out, let us know.