Let’s face it, the average music fan isn’t coming to the show to see the bass player or the drummer. They are here for the lead singer, sometimes referred to as the frontman (or woman). The lead singer is the face of the band. They are who sells the band to the audience.
The bombastic charisma of Ozzy Osbourne or David Lee Roth. The soaring operatic vocals of Pat Benatar, Bruce Dickenson, Ian Gillan or Rob Halford. The boyish charm of Roger Daltry. The charisma of Elvis or Robert Plant. The perfect showmanship of David Bowie, Michael Jackson or Prince. The down-home friendliness of Tom Petty. The in the face aggression of Joan Jett or Sheryl Crowe. The deep soulful emotiveness of Aretha Franklin or Etta James. These are the personalities that keep audiences coming back.
The lead singer is who the audience remembers and with whom the average listener most identifies. All the best bands have had an outstanding front person. Sometimes, the most audacious, outrageous, and extroverted (on stage at least). Sometimes, simply the most likeable, relatable, or enviable.
What makes a good lead singer? Is it the voice and singing ability? I doubt anyone would argue that Axel Rose, David Lee Roth, or Ozzy were the best singers they’ve ever heard, but could they ever put on a show and interpret lyrics like no one else. So, what makes a good front-man/front-woman? Good question and one that is hard to answer and of course, very subjective. Here are my thoughts on the subject.
As the face of the band, they must leave it all out there. This is no job for shrinking violets – shyness is not an option. Self-assuredness and self-confidence are crucial. Your fans are going to your show or listening to your recoding to, as Billy Joel sang, “forget about life for a while.” They want a show. They want larger than life. They want something different from the ordinary and want to be able to live out their Walter Mitty fantasies for a couple of hours.
The triple threat: a central character who can sing, dance, and act. Along with presence, showmanship is the essential trait of a lead singer. Obviously, not every front-man can claim each of those traits, but they do know how to draw in an audience and entertain them. Justin Timberlake, Jennifer Lopez, and Britney Spears are perfect examples of singers with stellar showmanship, as were Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, and James Brown. These people know (knew) how to put on a show. Razzle dazzle will draw them in and keep them coming back.
They are they lead singer so the ability to sing is a prerequisite, but as I alluded to in a previous chapter, not all of the best frontmen have/had the best voice.
Good singing goes well beyond just having a good voice though. Timing, phrasing, storytelling ability, and the ability to emote are a few other qualities of a good singer. Think of Johnny Cash and Frank Sinatra. Rock singers like Bon Scott could sing the phone book to a rock and roll beat and make it sound good. His voice however, was not what most people would not classify as the best singing voice. He is one of my favourite singers by the way, so I am not trying to disparage his legacy in any way.
My Merriam-Webster dictionary describes charisma as “a personal quality of leadership arousing popular loyalty or enthusiasm.” It lists allure and appeal as synonyms. Sort of a bland and dry definition if you ask me. It’s the X-factor that draws people in, captivates them and captures their attention. I think it comes down to being so comfortable in your own skin that performing in front of people is second nature. Mick Jagger is certainly known for having charisma. The kind of person who walks into a room and everyone notices.
It also helps if you know your material cold. That is, you know the words to the songs you sing by heart, without having to resort to any kind of notes or sheet music. If you do need visual aids to help you remember lyrics, try an electronic alternative such as an iPad with a teleprompter app, so it’s less obtrusive and visible to the audience. Having intimate knowledge of each chord; each note; each rest; and each nuance of every song you perform will make your presentation seem effortless. That kind of familiarity can only come from repetition, practice, and rehearsal.
Bono, the lead singer of U2 best comes to mind. It’s not just in the lyrics but in how he talks to the audience between songs. Weaving a story out of the set-list. I had the good fortune of seeing The Tragically Hip shortly before Gord Downie’s untimely passing, and he too could really tell a story, while almost having a conversation with the audience. His phenomenal lyrics are some of the most creative and imaginative I’ve ever heard. His emotiveness was phenomenal as well. I saw Elton John in concert a while back and have seen lots of concert footage of him. He also has the ability to create mental images with lyrics and relate to the audience as he chats to them between songs.
Talk to your audience about how you came up with this song or why you cover this song. Tell the story that led to your decision to choose that particular song or write those lyrics. You may be surprised how many people are interested in knowing those things. A word of caution though, when talking to your audience, use proper mic etiquette. Don’t pop your P’s or slur you S’s. Speak clearly and at a reasonable tempo. Many people don’t understand how to talk into a mic properly. You have to annunciate correctly, with a loud and clear speaking voice, but not so loud that you cause distortion and feedback.
Also saw Tom Petty perform a few months before his untimely death and what I remember the most, are the stories he told the audience. He was just so at ease talking to thousands of people in the audience in front of him. I vividly remember him telling us about the first time he met his outstanding guitarist, Mike Campbell, and how he wanted him to join the band the minute he heard him play, so many years before.
Music is a visceral experience that evokes emotions of all sorts. Even if you’re covering somebody else’s songs, if you don’t feel it or aren’t moved by the music and the lyrics of the song, there is no way your audience will be moved either. Even the most intellectual and though-provoking of lyrics must deliver some sort of emotional connection with the listener. The song has to mean something to you before it can mean something to someone else listening.
How does this relate to the rest of us mere mortals trying to keep our garage band together and play the occasional gig? Even if you aren’t blessed with a naturally outgoing personality, I believe by studying these greats of showmanship, we can learn how to make our shows more entertaining. You don’t have to have the dance moves of Michael Jackson or Justin Timberlake but try to take cues on how they relate to and connect with their audiences. Their material is all over YouTube
Take singing lessons. Even if you’ve been singing for a while, a good vocal coach will give you tips on how to sing better without ruining your voice. Practice the exercises that your singing teacher gives you. I used to take regular singing lessons and was quite committed to practicing my vocal lessons. I stopped for whatever reason, and my singing has suffered because of it. It’s on my list of things to take up again because I really enjoy singing. Singing lessons will improve your singing in ways you can’t imagine, if you’ve never taken any before.
Of course, not all genres of music lend themselves to a razzle dazzle type of performance, but there are definitely elements above that you can incorporate into making any show more entertaining and interactive. As artists and interpreters, we all strive for originality, but there is nothing wrong with borrowing elements from other performers that have worked well for them, to improve your own performances.
By understanding what makes other performers great singers, showmen, and entertainers, you can incorporate just a little of their magic into your act. Above all, you have to connect to your audience and engage them. Relate to them and be happy to share your musical gifts with them.