Roll With the Changes: Ranking Rock’s Top 10 Replacement Lead Singers

For most bands, losing a lead singer is catastrophic. But some have emerged more popular than ever.

For most bands, the prospect of losing a lead singer seems catastrophic. The role is referred to as “frontman” for a reason: the main vocalist is the very voice and face of the entire group, putting his (or her) own personality out on the furthest edge of the stage, directly engaging audiences with self-created words and movements.

With that in mind, just try to imagine the Rolling Stones without Mick Jagger, Led Zeppelin without Robert Plant, or the Who without Roger Daltrey. They would simply no longer be the Stones, Zep, or the Who. Other music outfits, however, have faced down the prospect of soldiering on after their lead singer departs. Some have actually emerged from the ashes bigger, bolder, and more popular than they’d been in their original incarnations. It’s a rare occurrence, but when it happens, rock history gets made.

Here now are our rankings of the Top 10 replacement lead singers in rock.

  1. Mike Patton – Faith No More

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    Replaced: Chuck Mosley

    “Epic” (1990)

    San Francisco’s genre-busting funk-metal/rap-rock/freak-punk combo Faith No More initially made rumbles in 1985 with their bass-thumping, chant-along cult hit, “We Care a Lot.”

    The group was fronted by the flashy, charismatic Chuck Moseley until, in a move that was reportedly indicative of ongoing issues, the singer actually fell asleep onstage while performing at FNM’s release party for their 1988 album, Introduce Yourself.

    The following year, FNM recruited Mike Patton, frontman of art-prank noisemakers Mr. Bungle to sing lead on their breakthrough release, The Real Thing. “Epic,” the album’s smash single, became an instant classic and a defining touchstone of its era, due in no small part to the avant-garde madness of Patton’s performance.

    As a result, Faith No More delivered underground music’s first big blow against the firmament of mainstream culture through which Nirvana, Jane’s Addiction, Pearl Jam, et. al would rush to invent the 1990s as the decade of alternative rock.

  2. Kevin Cronin – REO Speedwagon

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    Replaced: Terry Ruttrell, Mike Murphy

    “Roll With the Changes”

    The best-known member of REO Speedwagon, vocalist Kevin Cronin, is not only a replacement singer—he’s a replacement singer two times over.

    First, the Chicago area native stepped in for departing vocalist Terry Ruttrell on the group’s second release, R.E.O./T.W.O. (1972), after which he promptly took off. As a result, Mike Murphy sings lead on Ridin’ the Storm Out (1973). Cronin returned, then, in 1974 for Lost in a Dream, and he’s been the signature face and voice of REO onward to this day.

    More than just a singer, Cronin has written and conceived many of REO’s biggest and boldest triumphs. He guided the band through their ascent from arena rock success in the late ’70s and on to their stadium-packing blockbuster run that began with 1981’s Hi Infidelity and culminated with their biggest smash, the 1984 power ballad “Can’t Fight This Feeling.”

  3. Ian Gillan – Deep Purple

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    Replaced: Rod Evans

    “Smoke on the Water”

    British belter Ian Gillan made his first musical splash with the pop group Episode Six alongside bassist Roger Glover. After a number of flop releases, Gillan and Glover jumped ship to Ritchie Blackmore and Jon Lord’s ascendant hard-rock powerhouse, Deep Purple.

    From 1969’s In Rock to 1973’s Who Do We Think We Are, Ian Gillan fronted Deep Purple on the group’s best-known releases, including “Highway Star,” “My Woman From Tokyo,” and, yes indeed, “Smoke on the Water.” Along the way, Gillan also sang the title role on Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s original 1970 concept album, Jesus Christ Superstar.

    Purple replaced Gillan with future Whitesnake frontman David Coverdale in 1974. Coverdale sang on the hits Burn and Stormbringer before the band imploded and went their separate ways for nearly a decade.

    The classic line-up of Deep Purple reunited for 1984’s Perfect Strangers, with Ian Gillan on lead vocals, where’s he’s remained, on and off, ever since.

  4. Steve Perry – Journey

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    Replaced: Greg Rollie

    “Wheel in the Sky”

    As tough as it is to conceive of Journey without Steve Perry, it’s even weirder to know that these kings of ’80s FM-radio rock and the pioneers of the power ballad played together for four years and released three albums as a jazz-fusion supergroup with keyboardist Greg Rollie singing lead.

    Aiming for the arena-filling heights of their contemporaries Foreigner, Boston, Styx, and REO Speedwagon, Journey composed the smash-to-be “Wheel in the Sky,” then set out to find a frontman who could properly bring it to life. They discovered exactly who they were after in the form of the extraordinarily piped Steve Perry, a Bay Area vocalist who’d been bouncing around between a series of short-lived bands and who eagerly took the gig.

    Perry’s voice rocketed Journey’s 1977 release Infinity in the very direction of the album’s title, producing not just “Wheel in the Sky” but also “Lights” and setting the course the group would take to astronomical highs over the next ten years.

    After 1986’s Raised on Radio, Journey parted ways until 1995’s Trial by Fire. Following a 1997 tour, Steve Perry quit the band for good. Founding guitarist Neal Schon has kept Journey going ever since with a succession of replacement singers, the most properly celebrated of which is Filipino vocalist Arnel Pineda.

    Schon discovered Arnel’s uncanny Perry-sound-alike talents via YouTube in 2007 and emailed him an invitation to audition for Journey on the spot. Arnel got the gig, and rock-and-roll got one of its all-time most triumphant underdog-makes-good stories.

  5. Phil Collins – Genesis

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    Replaced: Peter Gabriel

    “Follow You, Follow Me”

    The pop-leaning Genesis that was fronted by drummer Phil Collins is vastly different from the avant-garde prog-rock Genesis that had been overseen by Peter Gabriel (occasionally while he was dressed up like a sunflower) through the group’s first decade.

    Gabriel left Genesis for a solo career following their 1975 masterwork The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Collins, whose backing vocals with Gabriel had created mesmerizing harmonies, took over vocal duties while continuing to drum. His first few albums out front continued Genesis on their established prog path until the commercial turnaround of 1978’s platinum-selling …And Then There Were Three.

    That record’s hit single “Follow You, Follow Me,” tapped into a massive radio audience for Genesis, and the group pursued them to monster success throughout the 1980s and even, remarkably, in the grunge-soaked early ’90s. At the same time, Phil Collins launched a parallel solo career that also made him one of the biggest stars of the era, until he largely retired from show business around 1998.

    Genesis has reunited for tours in various forms during the years since, although never with Peter Gabriel back out front. In 2014, though, Gabriel hinted that it might happen, stating: “I never say never. I think there’s a small chance, but I don’t think it’s very high.” As the music of Genesis has proven time and again: anything is possible.

  6. Phil Anselmo – Pantera

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    Replaced: Terry Glaze

    “Cowboys From Hell” (1990)

    Picturing Pantera without Phil Anselmo kicking ass up front seems impossible. Yet that’s exactly how these unholy Texas hellraisers ran, all the way from 1981 to 1986, when rhythm guitarist Terry Glaze sang for the group through their largely lamented “glam” years.

    To hear  Pantera’s first three, self-released records is to know that when the other band members were ready to change musical direction, Glaze just had to go.

    Enter, then, one Philip Hansen Anselmo, a human wrecking ball who led the charge on the Pantera’s first change-up effort, Power Metal (1988) and their ultimate breakthrough release, Cowboys From Hell (1990).

    With Phil Anselmo storming the stage first and foremost, Pantera truly became Pantera—the group that was nothing short of the most important heavy metal band of the 1990s.

  7. Ronnie James Dio – Black Sabbath

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    Replaced: Ozzy Osbourne

    “Neon Knights” (1980)

    As with Genesis, it must be noted that the Ronnie James Dio era of Black Sabbath is an entirely different beast from that the group’s first era, when the band effectively invented heavy metal with Ozzy Osbourne on lead vocals.

    That stated, Dio’s incandescent Sabbath run kicked off with two instant classic albums, Heaven and Hell (1980) and Mob Rules (1981), backed by a series of tours that remain legendary for their majestic sound and fury.

    A dust-up over the album Live Evil prompted Dio to bolt from Sabbath (whereupon he was replaced, for 1983’s Born Again, by Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan) although it was not an entirely hostile departure. In fact, the old friends reunited in 2006 under the band name Heaven and Hell, playing live to worshipful fans worldwide and releasing the 2009 album, The Devil You Know.

    As tragic as Ronnie James Dio’s 2010 death from cancer was, it was great for Heaven and Hell to carry him off to the next plane on such a creative and professional high note.

  8. Sammy Hagar – Van Halen

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    Replaced: David Lee Roth

    “Why Can’t This Be Love?” (1986)

    In hindsight, Val Halen’s 1984 (released in the year of its title) is so awesome and climactic an embodiment everything the band had ever done that it seems inevitable it would tear the group apart. That, of course, is exactly what happened.

    Hot off his smash 1985 solo EP Crazy From the Heat, David Lee Roth very publicly split from Van Halen, kicking off a the group’s high-profile search for a talent who could possibly attempt to fill Diamond Dave’s extremely huge fur-lined platform boots.

    Eddie Van Halen immediately reached out to Scandal front-woman Patty Smyth, but he quickly changed his tune upon running into ex-Montrose singer and solo star Sammy Hagar, whose “I Can’t Drive 55” dominated party playlists alongside all those Van Halen hits during the summer of 1984.

    Sammy hit it off with the other boys in the band, and the result was 1986’s 5150, Van Halen’s first official #1 album. From there, a decade of unprecedented pop success and mega-stardom followed.

    As happens, Hagar and the Van Halens eventually fell out, prompting one of the all-time great bungles in realm of replacement singers when Gary Cherone of Extreme fronted the group for 1998’s ill-remembered Van Halen III.

  9. Bruce Dickinson – Iron Maiden

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    Replaced: Paul Di’Anno

    “The Number of the Beast” (1982)

    Iron Maiden spearheaded the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM), a bracing musical movement that consisted of bands specializing in “heavy metal played with punk attitude. Brawny bruiser Paul Di’Anno’s street-touch vocals largely define the band’s self-titled 1980 debut album, as well as 1981’s classic Killers and the live EP Maiden Japan. Rock-and-roll being what it is, though, “personal issues” soon sidelined Di’Anno from performing at least one time too often, and Maiden decreed it would have to seek out a new singer.

    For their next frontman, Maiden raided another up-and-coming NWOBHM act, Samson. They acquired singer Bruce Dickinson (although at the time he performed under the moniker “Bruce Bruce”) and immediately laid down their 1982 worldwide breakthrough LP, The Number of the Beast.

    Despite taking a break from the band between 1993 and 1999, Bruce Dickinson sings on Maiden’s best-known albums and his sharp, English wit has long been a key factor in the group’s live shows. He’s also a globe-hopping pilot and he himself flies Iron Maiden on tour aboard the band’s private jet, Ed Force One (named, of course, after their zombie mascot, Eddie).

  10. Brian Johnson – AC/DC

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    Replaced: Bon Scott

    “Back in Black”

    AC/DC’s first frontman of note, Ronald Belford “Bon” Scott, exists alongside Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Freddie Mercury as one of rock’s most Dionysian singers: a soaring comet who ignited the mortal world fast and furiously, then flamed out in a blaze of tragic, yet seemingly inevitable, explosiveness.

    Ironically, Scott himself had replaced AC/DC’s original vocalist, Dave Evans, whereupon he proved  a perfect fit with brothers Angus and Malcolm Young and their bawdy band of Australian blues-metal outlaws.

    Alas, when Scott lethally succumbed on February 15, 1980 to what is listed on his death certificate as “acute alcohol poisoning” and “death by misadventure,” the group was hard pressed to envision who could take over Bon’s inimitable slot—but they knew he’d want them to find someone and keep on rocking.

    After mulling over candidates the included Slade’s Noddy Holder, AC/DC enlisted local rock hero Brian Johnson. Bon had seen Brian performing with his band Geordie and called him “a great rock-and-roll singer in the style of Little Richard.” Johnson hopped on board, the band quickly recorded Back in Black as a tribute to Bon Scott, and the album, to date, has sold more than 40 million copies.

    In the decades since, Brian Johnson and guitarist Angus Young have reigned as one of rock’s all-time great down-and-dirty duos, piloting the group to a unique icon status so mammoth that they once had their very own section in Wal-Mart.

    Mike “McBeardo” McPadden is the author of Heavy Metal Movies: Guitar Barbarians, Mutant Bimbos, and Cult Zombies Amok in the 666 Most Ear- and Eye-Ripping Big Scream Films Ever! (Bazillion Points).

Mike McPadden is the author of the book "HEAVY METAL MOVIES: Guitar Barbarians, Mutant Bimbos, and Cult Zombies Amok in the 666 Most Ear- and Eye-Ripping Big Scream Films Ever!" (Bazillion Points, 2014).