21 Of The Greatest And Most Famous Lead Singers Of All Time

Written by Dan Farrant

The importance of lead singers in the band cannot be emphasized enough. They are the voice and the face of their band. And more often than not, they have a huge contribution to making their band known. They are the torchbearers, so to speak.

Throughout the years, we have been blessed with lead singers that brought us timeless classics. Whether it’s their vocal chops, style, or originality, these individuals have left their mark on music history.

Without further ado, we present you our compilation of 21 of the greatest and most famous lead singers. Read on!

1. John Lennon

When you think about the greatest lead singer, John Lennon, no doubt comes to mind. Though his aunt raised him from age five, his mother strongly influenced his musical career. She taught him piano and bought him his first guitar at 15.

Soon after starting to play guitar, Lennon started a band called The Quarrymen. Here he met Paul McCartney and formed The Beatles a few years later. While with the band, Lennon played rhythm guitar, was a co-lead vocalist and wrote songs.

He and McCartney began a songwriting relationship that was considered the most successful. Unfortunately, Lennon’s life and career were cut short when he was shot and killed in New York in 1980.

2. Freddie Mercury

To his family, he was Farrokh Bulsara. To the world, he was Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of the British rock band Queen. He made a reputation for having one of the most famous vocal ranges in music history. He attributed it to the four extra teeth he was born with.

Mercury’s love for music began when he started taking piano lessons as a child. He had great musical talent early on, as he was able to recreate songs he heard on the radio on the piano.

After graduating college, Mercury jumped around between bands that never found success. Finally, in 1970, he formed the band Smile, which would later become Queen.

Mercury saw six number-one hits with Queen before his early death due to AIDS in 1991. He was also behind some of the band’s very famous songs, including “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “We are the Champions.”

3. Kurt Cobain

Hailing from Washington, Kurt Cobain would gain fame as the lead singer of Nirvana. He was one of the forefathers of grunge and heavily influenced alternative rock bands worldwide.

Coming from a family of musicians no doubt influenced Cobain to be musically inclined from an early age. He sang and played the piano long before he began school. But it wasn’t until he was 14 that his career in music began when his uncle offered to buy him a bike or a used guitar for his birthday—Cobain chose the guitar.

After dropping out of high school, Cobain formed Nirvana. The band gained popularity after releasing “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which he wrote. The massive success led to some calling him the voice of his generation. But Cobain was not comfortable with the title.

Aside from fronting Nirvana, Cobain was also the primary songwriter. He penned “Come As You Are” and “Lithium,” among others.

4. David Bowie

Better known for his solo work, many are surprised to learn that David Bowie was the lead singer for several bands, including Tin Machine, the Manish Boys, and the Riot Squad.

Bowie showed an interest in music from a young age. He formed his first band, the Konrads, at 15, which played mostly rock and roll. Before achieving success, he had gone through disappointments with several songs that flopped.

What catapulted Bowie to stardom was launching his Ziggy Stardust persona. He rocked a striking costume plus reddish-brown hair during a stage show with the Spiders from Mars. His album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, made him a pioneer of glam rock.

To say Bowie had a significant impact on the music industry would be putting it lightly. He remained an admired rock icon up until his death in 2016.

5. Eddie Vedder

Did you know that Eddie Vedder was voted the seventh-best lead singer of all time by Rolling Stone? Though, of course, he became popular after being the frontman of Pearl Jam.

Like many other lead singers, Vedder showed interest in music at a young age. His mother gifted him a guitar for his 12th birthday. He found comfort in music.

Before Pearl Jam, Vedder briefly belonged to several bands in the San Diego area. During this transitional period, Vedder recorded demo tapes and gained attention in the music industry. Subsequently, he was recruited to join Pearl Jam in 1990.

Vedder was known for his baritone vocals that resembled Jim Morrison’s. That also made him one of the most copied lead singers. Aside from singing, Vedder was also a songwriter, often talking about personal, social, and political issues.

6. Axl Rose

Born William Bruce Rose Jr., Axl Rose is the lead singer of Guns N’ Roses. He was raised in a strict religious household but gained notoriety as a delinquent in his hometown of Lafayette, Indiana.

This bad boy image stuck with him after moving to LA in the early ’80s. He formed Guns N’ Roses with his former bandmate, Tracii Guns, hence the band’s name.

Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction became the best-selling debut album in American history. Initially, the album wasn’t a success. But the band’s touring and the success of Axl Rose’s song “Sweet Child O’ Mine” pushed the album to the top position.

Rose was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012. He did not attend the ceremony, believing that it wasn’t where he was wanted or respected.

7. Ozzy Osbourne

Famously dubbed the “Prince of Darkness,” Ozzy Osbourne was the founder and lead singer of Black Sabbath.

Osbourne has an impressive vocal range and a powerful voice. Since Black Sabbath is often referred to as the pioneer of heavy metal, Osbourne’s voice has become a staple for heavy metal music. In fact, metal vocalists worldwide attempted to evoke an Osbourne-esque sound.

Osbourne has also enjoyed success in his solo career with such hits as “Crazy Train” and “Mr. Crowley.” And he still releases as a solo artist, with his latest album, Patient Number 9, released in 2022.

8. Stevie Nicks

The first female lead singer on our list is Stevie Nicks. She has enjoyed success in both her solo career and her position as a co-lead singer of the band Fleetwood Mac. In fact, Rolling Stones dubbed her the “Reigning Queen of Rock and Roll.”

Nicks had an early introduction to singing, as her grandfather taught her to sing duets with him when she was four. In high school, Nicks had a relationship with Lindsey Buckingham, who would also be the reason Fleetwood Mac recruited her.

With Fleetwood Mac, Nicks saw nine top ten hits on the Billboard Hot 100 and eight more as a solo artist. She was also one of the 100 Greatest Songwriters of all Time. Another one of her accolades was being the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice.

Many female singers have cited Nicks as their inspiration, including Beyonce, Taylor Swift, and Sheryl Crow.

9. Jim Morrison

American singer-songwriter Jim Morrison was best known as the lead singer of The Doors. He is famous for his potent baritone voice, which gave most of the band’s songs a spoken-word vibe.

Morrison grew up an avid reader and was considered a genius, as he had an IQ of 149. These intellectual qualities can be seen in his lyrics, as he wrote deep, often philosophical songs. One such example is the 1971 hit single “Riders On The Storm.”

The Doors were set to have a successful run. They have two singles topping the Billboard Hot 100 chart and another peaking at #3 within a year. However, Morrison suffered from a substance abuse disorder and died from an overdose in 1971.

10. Steven Tyler

The lead singer for Aerosmith is Steven Tyler, born Steven Victor Tallarico. He’s also a highly collaborative vocalist, teaming up with big names like Alice Cooper, Eminem, and Santana.

Known as the “Demon of Screamin’,” Tyler has a wide vocal range. He can reach notes so high that his voice is sometimes mistaken as a high-pitched guitar note.

Tyler is also a brilliant lyricist, writing some of Aerosmith’s biggest hits, such as “Dream On” and “Sweet Emotion.”

He still tours with Aerosmith, and the band holds many record-breaking achievements. They have the most multi-platinum albums by an American group (tied with Van Halen).

11. Mick Jagger

Not only is Mick Jagger famous for his role as lead singer for the Rolling Stones. He’s also known more for his energetic and wild live performances than his voice.

In grade school, Jagger met his lifelong friend and future bandmate, Keith Richards. Jagger and Richards often had a love-hate relationship. However, their collaborative songwriting has earned them a foothold in rock and roll history.

With the Rolling Stones, Jagger has had eight #1 hits and 23 top ten hits on the Billboard Hot 100. For his contributions to the music industry, Jagger was knighted in 2003—a testament to his musical abilities.

12. Janis Joplin

Most know Janis Joplin for her solo career, but she actually became famous as the lead singer for Big Brother and the Holding Company.

After hitting it big with the band in the late ’60s, Joplin split from the group. She began her solo career with the Kozmic Blues Band as her backing band. This stint would be short-lived as well, as the band dissolved less than a year after forming.

Joplin is known as the “First Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” She earned the title through her distinct voice and charismatic on-stage presence.

13. Bono

The British rock band U2 was fronted by Bono, born Paul David Hewson. In his teen years, he joined a street gang where members had nicknames. He had many nicknames, finally settling on Bono. It came from Bono vox, inspired by a hearing aid shop named Bonavox. This name came from a Latin phrase meaning “good voice.”

Aside from being the lead singer, Bono also exclusively wrote most of the band’s music. Their songs typically focused on social and political issues.

While Bono doesn’t have the wide range that many vocalists on this list do, he has a great command of his voice and delivers his lyrics passionately.

U2 had two #1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 and numerous #1 albums. Apart from U2, Bono is also highly collaborative. He created music with industry giants such as Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Bob Dylan.

14. Jon Bon Jovi

Like many lead singers, John Francis Bongiovi Jr. began his music career early in life. At 13, he was already playing piano with his first-ever band, Raze.

In 1983, Bongiovi and four other members founded the band Bon Jovi, and he adopted the name Jon Bon Jovi. Their fame came after their third album, Slippery When Wet. It included the famous songs “You Give Love a Bad Name” and “Livin’ on a Prayer.”

Bon Jovi has released 15 albums with his band, six of which charted at #1 on the Billboard 200, and two solo albums. He also has a place in the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Bon Jovi has come under criticism for his “shockingly poor” voice during recent performances. It could be due to medical issues or age. Whatever it is, fans still love Bon Jovi’s commitment to performing and passion for music.

15. James Hetfield

Another band that made a huge dent in the music industry is Metallica. James Hetfield is the lead singer, but he’s better known for his guitar-playing skills. He has been featured on various lists of the greatest guitar players of all time, including a list by Rolling Stone magazine.

That said, Hetfield has also been referred to as one of the greatest heavy metal vocalists with his powerful baritone voice. This was a far cry from a shy James, who took a while before he found his voice. “Music was the voice I didn’t have,” he said in this interview.

Metallica was founded after drummer Lars Ulrich put up a newspaper ad looking for musicians. Hetfield responded, and Metallica was born on October 28, 1981.

With Hetfield as lead singer, Metallica won nine Grammys and had six #1 albums on the Billboard 200.

16. Phil Collins

Our next lead singer on our list is Phillip David Charles Collins, better known as Phil Collins. He got his start in the industry as Genesis‘ lead singer and drummer.

Rarely is a band’s drummer also its lead singer, but with his distinct and amazing voice, it was a clear choice he was to be the lead singer of Genesis. The band was formed in 1967 and made a name as one of the pioneers of progressive rock.

With Genesis, Collins enjoyed a few charting hits and records. However, he fared far better in his solo career. He had seven #1 hits on Billboard Hot 100 and 14 top ten hits on the same list.

17. Roger Daltrey

The English rock band The Who is one of the 1960s bands that shaped modern rock music. The band was fronted by lead singer Roger Daltrey.

Looking back on the band’s early days, Daltrey was known for throwing his fists when his temper flared up. He was also the prime decision-maker, choosing The Who to be the band’s name after they found out that another band was using their first name, The Detours.

The band got their footing in the music industry with their single “I Can’t Explain” in 1965. By this time, their guitarist Pete Townshend began writing songs. This diminished Daltrey’s influence among the members. He was fired by the band due to violent behavior, though he was quickly accepted back.

Daltrey became known for his signature move of swinging his mic by its cord. He also cemented himself as the face and voice of The Who with each accomplishment they made.

18. Steven Morrissey

The English singer-songwriter Steven Morrissey, known simply as Morrissey, was the lead singer for The Smiths. After the band’s dissolution, Morrissey continued his music career as a solo artist.

Once you’ve heard Morrissey, you’d agree that his voice is unmistakable. What’s more unmistakable is his delivery, which is both strange and beautiful.

The Smiths had a few songs that charted in the US, but they were more successful in the UK. The same can be said for Morrissey, as although he charted in the US, his music is much more popular in the UK. Nevertheless, Rolling Stone named him one of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time.

19. Chris Cornell

Up next is a prominent figure in the 1990s grunge movement. Chris Cornell served as the lead singer for several popular bands, including Soundgarden, Audioslave, and Temple of the Dog.

Cornell had a robust set of lungs and could belt out notes better than most classically trained vocalists. That is, despite not having formal training. His voice was classified as a baritone, and his vocal range was almost four octaves. This enabled him to sing high in the tenor range as well as in the low register.

Cornell sold 30 million records worldwide and received three Grammy awards. He also appeared on numerous lists of the greatest vocal artists. Specifically, he was ninth on the Best Lead Singers of All Time by Rolling Stones.

20. Robert Plant

There’s a reason why Rolling Stones voted Robert Plant as the greatest of all lead singers in 2011. With him as the frontman of Led Zeppelin, the band enjoyed great success for many years.

The call of rock and roll and singing began at an early age. Plant said he wanted to be like Elvis Presley. He answered the call when he was 16, leaving home and learning more about music.

It was thanks to guitarist Jimmy Page for recruiting Plant to be Led Zeppelin’s lead singer. He became a star in the music scene and contributed to the “Rock God” archetype with his charismatic stage presence. Many famous singers, including Freddie Mercury and Axl Rose, have cited him as their inspiration.

After Led Zeppelin split up in 1980, Plant considered quitting music to become a teacher. However, urged by Phil Collins, Plant continued his career with several solo and joint ventures.

21. Jack White

Last but not least, we have Jack White, lead singer of the duo the White Stripes. Born John Anthony White, he was set for stardom, becoming a key figure in the garage rock revival.

White is a tenor with a unique and versatile singing style. He’s recognized chiefly for his falsetto style in songs like “Little Ghost” and “My Doorbell.” But he’s equally great at singing in a more powerful voice, as heard in “Seven Nation Army.”

During his career, White has been nominated for 33 Grammys, winning 12. He released a combined 12 albums with the White Stripes, the Raconteurs, and the Dead Weather, as well as five albums in his solo career.

Summing Up Our List Of The Greatest And Most Famous Lead Singers

There you have it, our list of great individuals who made a name for themselves in music history. As our list would show you, it isn’t easy leading a band to greatness.

Behind the success were the hours of work, blood, and tears that these people devoted to their bands. The competition is fierce, and you know these people did something different to be able to become famous.

In exchange, they enjoyed fame, recognition, and monetary rewards. But above all, they have the power to influence their listeners, particularly those who look up to them and want to follow in their footsteps.

Photo of author

Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.