Everyone loves the drums. We love them in marching bands, we love them in the 1812 Overture, we love them in our language. We talk of beating the drums and drumming up business. We admire anything that’s tight as a drum. When we’re at the top of our game, we never miss a beat.

Other instruments have evolved from the drums: the xylophone, the harpsichord, the piano. Other art forms, too: tap dancing. My bets on the first technologies humans invented are: fire, singing, painting, how to julienne a mastodon, and drumming.

Drumming – good or bad – is hard work. What if you tried to drum and sing? Picture yourself behind your Ludwig Black Oyster Pearl drum kit. You and the band are playing “Louie, Louie.” You’re moving your left hand. You’re moving your right hand. You’re moving your left foot. You’re moving your right foot.

Algernon the junior scientist reporting on his procedure as he tries to electrocute Ringo in Help: I’m moving my left leg…I’m moving my right leg…

Can you imagine singing “Me gotta go now” while you simultaneously move your other body parts? As Ringo once sang while doing exactly that, “You know it don’t come easy.”

Which brings us to my list and the #1 drummer on it:

1. Ringo Starr
Not the greatest drummer or the greatest singer, but he doesn’t have to be. Ringo created the template for the modern singing drummer: A little of-kilter, a little bit of a loner, witty in an understated way. He also has the best nickname.

Ringo was such a force of nature that A Hard Day’s Night and Help were both about him. Ringo is the only singing drummer who is happy to spend the day with somebody else’s grandfather, who is too nice to betray a rich American widow or embarrass a sheila with his cool appraising stare, and who is always ready to sacrifice himself to save England from a racist-stereotype cult. Only Ringo could become a grandfather and a great-grandfather while still playing the drums, and only Ringo could create a band to give underemployed rock gods a paycheck, a band that’s so insanely popular, it’s been touring for 29 years.

He’s the best.

2. Karen Carpenter
Not the greatest drummer, but what a voice. She was Annie Lennox without the sex. If only I liked her music. Ten minutes of The Carpenters’ ultra-smooth, impenetrable sweetness makes me want to unplug my internal organs. If I go to a yard sale this summer and they try to give me We Only Just Began: The Complete Works of Karen and Richard Carpenter plus a corgi puppy, I will say no.

[Editor’s note: My wife just informed me that if I go to a yard sale this summer and they try to give me We Only Just Began plus a corgi puppy, I will say yes.]

In her short career, Karen Carpenter faced two challenges that most of the drummers on this list did not: the music industry’s hatred of women and the eating disorder that killed her. She was a pioneer and a role model. Easy pick for #2.

3. Maurice White
Maurice White seemed destined for a career as a solid jazz studio musician and a sought-after sideman. Most of us in the creative arts line would be happy with a description like that. But White had a vision, and that vision was not to see his name buried in the liner notes of other people’s records. He wanted to rule the world – the world of pop.

It took a few years, but his band, Earth, Wind & Fire, became one of the dominant bands of the 1970s. No other jazz musician has ever crossed over to pop and scored such a success. (I’m not counting jazz-fusion hybrids or novelty jazz hits such as Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” or Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate Upon the Winds.”)

Several people, including his guitarist and at least one of his co-writers, have claimed that White told them “Don’t let the lyrics get in the way of the groove.” The quote’s source might be a mystery, but not its truth. Just listen to Earth, Wind & Fire’s lyrics. They are not in the way of anything.

4. Roger Taylor
Roger Taylor of Queen could sing a falsetto that made The Four Seasons sound like obstructive lymphoid tissue. He made The Beach Boys and Jan & Dean sound like Darth Vader with a mouthful of socks. That’s his suborbital vocal on “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Only Jimmy Somerville (Bronksi Beat, The Communards) could puncture the same octaves. (Donna Summer and Minnie Riperton could do this in their sleep.) Taylor is a Hall of Fame hard-rock drummer as well as a prolific composer. He should probably lead this list, but, except for a couple of cuts from the Flash Gordon soundtrack, I dislike Queen.

5. Phil Collins
I dislike Queen but I hate Phil Collins. Su-su-sudio! For several years you couldn’t avoid him. He was bearable when he was playing the drums in Genesis behind Peter Gabriel. But then Gabriel left and Collins took over. He’s an excellent drummer and singer, but wow, I hate him.

When you have a population of just 14 singing drummers, you have to expect that some of them will bear an unfair weight of disapproval.

6. Buddy Miles
A good drummer and a sweet soul singer whose legend is forever entangled with Jimi Hendrix and the California Raisins. His bands: Electric Flag, The Buddy Miles Express, Band of Gypsys, and on and on. His nickname: Buddy, for Buddy Rich. His signature tunes: “Them Changes” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” His signature contribution: Injecting funk into the heart of rock. His Afro in 1970: Like a Russian ushanka on the head of Dr. Zhivago.

7. Sheila E.
Sheila Escovedo was Prince’s most talented apprentice. Her drumbeats are all over Sign ‘O’ the Times. She was a drummer from an early age as all of these folks were. When she grew up, she drummed while wearing high heels as none of these folks did. (That we know of.)

Her solo career is disappointing, though I like tracks from The Glamorous Life and (how can you not swoon over this) Sex Cymbal. The music on Sex Cymbal is not exactly immortal, but if Sheila E. and her band performed this set at your New Year’s Eve dinner and dance, you’d be ecstatic even if you weren’t taking Ecstasy. And guess who gave her a job when she needed one? Ringo Starr!

8. Levon Helm
He sang “The Weight” on The Band’s first album, Music From Big Pink, and for me that’s enough to land him on this list without considering the next 10 Band albums or all of his folk recordings that I’ll probably never listen to. If Helm had not been a musician, he would’ve recorded William Faulkner audio books. Another Ringo Starr employee.

9. Grant Hart
Hüsker Dü is one of my favorite punk bands. I don’t look to punk for technical excellence in drumming. But Hart’s ability to play at punk speeds and sing well with the speakers set to punk volumes was worth an invitation to join the X-Men.

10. Pete Rivera
The Rare Earth drummer and vocalist is the tallest drummer here at 8 feet even, a foot taller than Don Henley and 4 feet taller than Sheila E., Levon Helm, Ringo and myself. Similar to Buddy Miles, in that he was a good drummer and a soul shouter. He even has his own signature songs: “Get Ready” and “(I Know I’m) Losing You.”

11. Don Henley
A passable player. I wouldn’t hire him to play my birthday if I could get Sheila E., Roger Taylor, or, if everyone else canceled, Phil Collins. Henley played drums and sang with The Eagles, then played guitar and sang in his solo career. I prefer his solo music (“All She Wants to Do Is Dance” narrowly defeats “Hotel California”), which is why he’s ranked way down here.

12. Jimmy Marinos
Jimmy Marinos of The Romantics put muscle into his drumming. He did the same with his singing, which was a step short of shouting. Marinos is a sentimental pick, as we’ve danced to “What I Like About You” about a billion times.

The Romantics had fabulous hair.

13. Mickey Dolenz
Mickey Dolenz was an enthusiastic if unskillful drummer with a solid, likeable voice. He knew how to sell this stuff. I don’t think it’s an accident that almost all of the songs by The Monkees that are any good were sung by Dolenz:

“The Girl I Knew Somewhere”
“Goin’ Down”
“(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone”
“Last Train to Clarkesville”
“Pleasant Valley Sunday”
“Porpoise Song” (the theme from Head)

Davey Jones sang “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You.” The rest of their catalog is car seat stuffing.

My wife has fond memories of the young Mickey Dolenz in the title role of Circus Boy, where every week he saved the circus with the assistance of his avenging pet elephant, Bimbo.

14. Peter Criss
It’s a sad day when I am forced to write about Kiss, but I knew this job was dangerous when I took it.

If you didn’t love Kiss when you were a teenager, and I didn’t, you sure as hell are not going to love them as an adult, and I don’t. Gene Simmons, Ace Frehley, Paul Stanley, and Peter Criss were four of the biggest sexist pricks in rock, and that is a very high bar to clear. The critic Mike McGuirk put this better than I can: “You know damn well that if they didn’t have both eyes on maximum commerciality they’d call themselves Blow Job.”

Compared to Kiss, AC/DC is leading the #MeToo movement.

I’m not sure how good Criss is as a drummer, because he often plays the same thing and sometimes his drums are mixed way behind the rest of the music. A producer can do a lot to inflate or deflate a drummer’s reputation. But Criss has a booming rock voice, he anchored a super successful band of his fellow pricks, and he wrote a lot (including that horrible ballad/dues song “Beth,” which was at least a break from the full-on misogyny of Destroyer). I can’t ignore him, but I can stick him and his Love Gun behind The Monkees.

Thus ends my list, not with a bang but with the cymbals falling over. Alert readers will notice that everyone here is either a) old, or b) dead. Are there singing drummers in their 20s and 30s? Please send me a mix tape and an autographed cowbell.

 

Comments
  1. mikener says:

    That’s a lot of info about a lot of folks I didn’t know a lot about and after your assessments of these singing drummers I wouldn’t pay a lot for any of their music found in a lot of yard sales. Still, I feel smarter for having read a lot of this blog and a lot of what you have to say in general.

    Alas, poor DMSteve, I thought I knew him.
    I’m wondering what kind of sci-fi person is not open to a song initiating an invitation for an intergalactic landing party as Karen Carpenter petitions in “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft”?

    I must also make an unfortunate confession.
    Your claim, “If you didn’t love Kiss when you were a teenager, (and I didn’t, either) you sure as hell not going to love them as an adult (but, alas, I do).” As a kid I hated Kiss as talentless pompous posers stealing shtick from Alice Cooper, who could actually write hit songs. In recent years, for inexplicable reasons, I started loving “Rock and Roll All Nite.” I explored their catalog. “Strutter”, “Hotter than Hell”, “Love Gun”, “Beth”, “Christine Sixteen”, all horribly sexist to be sure, but 40 years later, also unintentionally campy. Can one separate style from content, content from behavior? I don’t know? The members of the band do seem like pricks and assholes. I wouldn’t go to one of their shows. I’d never want to share a beer with them and certainly don’t want to shake their hands. But in these later days of my life, I do enjoy slapping the steering wheel, trying to find the hidden drum line of Peter Criss as I drive my car. Does that put me on a highway to hell?

    • Run-DMSteve says:

      If you’re learning anything from this blog, you may be in trouble. Most of this stuff is fake news.

      The paragraph you wrote about Kiss and how they make your brain go round round baby right round makes me think, not for the first time, that you should be writing your own blog. You almost made me reconsider Kiss. (And Karen Carpenter).

      I don’t see any problem with adults who have skipped merrily past a certain age responsibly enjoying the music of Kiss. It’s your life, and you have the right to live it as you like. As Talk Talk sang, “It’s my life/don’t you forget.” I’m lying. You’re in big trouble. You have the right to remain silent. Go on slapping that steering wheel, pal, because we’re about to handcuff you to it!

  2. CornCobb says:

    Ginger Baker ain’t a bad drummer/singer

    • Run-DMSteve says:

      Ginger Baker is an incredible drummer. He may be the best drummer of the past 50 years. But he’s not a singing drummer. These days he can barely breathe.

      There was a joke I heard in the 80s or 90s that in any rock trivia contest, the answer to the first question is always Ginger Baker.

      Did you know that everyone in Cream hated each other, especially Baker and Jack Bruce? News to me!

  3. Nancy says:

    Keith Moon

    • Run-DMSteve says:

      A better drummer than almost everyone on this list, one of the best, period. But not a singer.

      • Wm Seabrook says:

        “Bell Boy”?

      • Run-DMSteve says:

        He sings two sentences! He’s not getting on this list for two sentences. If I did that, I’d have to include Dave Grohl for an occasional back-up growl or Ginger Baker for coughing.

      • Wm Seabrook says:

        Obviously my ‘Bell Boy’ comment was loaded with irony! Did you ever encounter his solo effort “Two Sides of the Moon”? All I can remember about that abomination was the album cover showing a very sophisticated KM with an equally elegantly well dress young woman seatted in the back of a chauffeur driven vintage car. However, as the inner sleeve was removed, another side of the artist was revealed.

        http://www.keithmoon.com/discography.html

      • Run-DMSteve says:

        Oh, I caught your irony!

        Everyone keeps trying to slip Keith Moon onto this list. Even I was tempted, because I always thought he sang “Boris the Spider” until I finally checked. Was I surprised!

        “Two Sides of the Moon” was the worst thing since the siege of Stalingrad.

  4. Wm Seabrook says:

    “Ringo isn’t the best drummer in the world. He isn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles” – Jasper Carrott 1983.

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