When the Last Note is Sung

For as long as rock and roll music has been pounding our eardrums, a kick-ass vocalist has almost always been an integral part of the group. Whether it was Bill Haley rocking around the clock, Bruce Dickinson powerfully telling you to die with your boots on, or Lady Gaga preaching to you to keep a poker face, the vocals have always been the back bone of a great song. But what happens when that voice suddenly goes away? Bands have handled the issue in a variety of ways. Let’s have a look at how a few of these bands handled (or mishandled) the issue.

When the vocalist leaves the band, quits the band or is tossed out on his or her ass, there is a choice to be made: carry on without the old singer, find a new one, or fold up shop and go home. There are a butt-load of factors to consider when deciding on which direction to go. After all, as a musician, your livelihood may well depend on making the right choice.

The first factor I would consider was how important, or central, to the music-making process was the vocalist. Was he or she the driving force, the beating heart of the band? Also factor in market presence and brand recognition. Let’s take for example, the Jimi Hendrix Experience. When Hendrix died in 1970, was it really even feasible to continue? Sometimes the decision is made for you. Although, kudos to Noel Redding for at least trying to carry on. He released several recordings before finally hanging up his bass. But the point is, Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell really lost the central figure in the band; there was no way to carry on as the Experience without Jimi Hendrix! The same situation happened for Nirvana. Kurt Cobain was the driving force of the band. The voice behind the angst! Once he left this life behind, Krist and Dave were forced to leave Nirvana behind.

In some cases, when the singer leaves the band, a replacement is found somewhat quickly. I’ll refer to these substitutes as ‘sound-alikes’. You know what I’m talking about, right? Remember when Rob Halford left Judas Priest and they picked up a sound-alike in Ripper Owens and carried on without so much as a stutter. In fact, Owens was part of the Judas Priesthood for about 8 years. And Priest released two albums with Owens doing the vocal duties! Eventually, Halford came to his senses and rejoined the band, but Owens did a great job while Halford was on his ego trip. Oh yeah, and how about Journey? Steve Perry had one of the most recognizable voices of his time and was a solid force behind every Journey song. Then he left. The group Journey, for all intents, was over. But ten years or so later, through the wonders of the internet, Journey found a sound-alike in Steve Augeri from a video posted on You Tube. Go figure! Journey was reborn and are still touring today.

Occasionally, the band will hire a sound-alike for sort-of a trial period before bringing him or her on full time. After Layne Staley died, the rest of Alice in Chains teetered on dissolution, but somehow kept the remainder of the group loosely intact. This period lasted about four years. Around 2006, AIC brought in William DuVall and recorded their fourth studio album and embarked on a massive tour. The album and the tour were a success and soon after, DuVall was officially announced as the lead singer of Alice in Chains. Interestingly, he was never ‘officially’ declared the lead singer while on tour. Merely a formality, I suppose. By the way, I saw AIC on this tour and it kicked ass!

Then there are those occasions where everything just works out fine, regardless of the number of people brought in to sing. The best example of this would be the most dysfunctional band in rock, Van Halen. VH were at the top of their game in 1985 when David Lee Roth decided the reason everyone was coming to see VH was to see him. Man, talk about a ginormous ego! VH and Roth had a well-publicized and acrimonious breakup. Not long after, Eddie and the boys brought on Sammy Hagar to take care of the vocals. ‘Van Hagar’, as it was affectionately known, released four chart-topping albums in the next dozen or so years and was as popular as it ever was with the original lineup. Another round of ‘Egos and Idiots’ and the VH carousel of personnel went round and round. Hagar left the band and this time Eddie and the boys snagged Gary Cherone. This was a short-lived and wildly unsuccessful incarnation of Van Halen. Fast forward to 2006 and the ‘new’ VH welcomed back Roth with open arms and empty wallets. They have been touring ever since. I caught these guys on the ‘Different Kind of Truth’ tour a few years back. Not a bad show, but time has not been kind to Dave’s vocal chords.

There are many bands that have suffered the loss of their vocalist, temporarily or permanently. How the remainder of the band choose to handle that loss is the real test. Other bands not mentioned include The Doors, Stone Temple Pilots, Guns ‘N Roses and Motley Crue. Some survived, some died and others thrived. Making music is a tough gig, but its great work of you can get it!

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