OPINION QUESTIONS are big on Quora and I try to provide answers that are accurate but somewhat off the beaten path. The question I received this morning was, “Who are the all-time great frontmen in music?” I read the question as who are the great lead singers of rock groups, as both vocal and visual performers.
In an instrumental group, the frontman would be the individual who is out front leading the band, regardless of the instrument he plays. Fortunately, most of the better-known dictionaries agree with me, defining frontman as “the lead performer in a musical group” (Merriam-Webster) and “a performer, as a singer, who leads a musical group” (Dictionary.com).
But the question was about “great” frontmen, and for me, that would mean a singer who was not only a capable singer but a capable entertainer, someone who kept the audience’s attention on the stage and the band when they were performing.
From 1970 to 1975, Mike Love may have been the most effective frontman in rock & roll, helping the Beach Boys out of obscurity and making them hip.
This would rule out such great singers as Chuck Berry, James Browne, Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Richard Penniman, and Elvis because they are all solo singers. The ones who were great singers and great frontmen—the singers who kept us watching while listening to the group of which they were a member—included such singers as Mick Jagger, Van Morrison, Mark Lindsay, Roger Daltrey, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Robert Plant. 1
A singer who rarely gets the credit he deserves in arguments such as this is Mike Love, once the lead singer of the Beach Boys, now the lead singer of a group he calls the Beach Boys. Love has been called the “most hated man in rock” by some (lots) of his detractors. Whether or not this is true is beside the point when it comes to fronting a band on stage.
So without further ado, my posted answer to the question “Who are the all-time great frontmen in music?” is indented between the first two images below:
They blew the crowd away
In the ’60s, the Beach Boys sang beautifully, of course, but on stage or in person, the only one who had any “presence” was non-singing drummer Dennis Wilson. The other members were practically non-entities on stage, including nominal frontman Mike Love. 2
This was typical of many rock & roll bands in America at the time, s many of them were just kids. But the Beach Boys got better and by the end of the decade, they were putting on good shows. But they still had no real pizazz as entertainers.
Compare any film clips of the Beach Boys in 1964-1965 with any of the Beatles and George, the so-called “quiet Beatle,” had more charm and presence on a bad day than all five Beach Boys had on the best day of their careers!
Skip ahead to 1975: after the totally unexpected success of the Endless Summer album topping the charts and selling millions of copies in 1974, the Beach Boys quickly turned into an oldies jukebox on stage. Their shows became a routine of the band cranking out the hits of their early years as reflected on the hit album.
In the early ’70s, the Beach Boys were trying their damnedest to connect with and win over the counterculture and they were often quite successful.
Ahhh, but in between, they were something else! In the early ’70s, when they were trying their damnedest to connect with and win over the counterculture—the people who went to the big concerts then—the Beach Boys were often rather amazing and quite successful. More than the others, Mike Love had come into is own as a frontman, making every show an event.
His competitiveness drove him to a level of showmanship that seemed to indicate he wanted to make people forget Mick Jagger! During a concert, he was all over the stage, doing whatever it took to give the audience a great show and to encourage them to be a part of the show.
I saw them several times during those years and most of the time they were the opening act for another currently more popular group. The overwhelming majority of the audiences had not come to be for the Beach Boys.
But each and every time, Mike and the band took the crowd to places they had never expected to go when they had paid for their tickets to the show. This often made it difficult for the headliners to follow them. 3
So, as crazy as it may sound now, for a few years, Mike Love—the guy that everyone (including the other Beach Boys) loves to hate—was the unquestioned leader of the Beach Boys on stage. He took the unhippest band in the world and made them stars, winning over audience after audience.
That is one hell of an accomplishment. 4
For those few years (say, 1970 to 1975), Mike Love was arguably the greatest frontman in rock & roll.
The Endless Summer album was a two-record compilation of hit singles with a few album sides from the Beach Boys’ glory years 1963-1965. Essentially it recycled previously recycled material, but for some reason the record caught on in 1974 and went to the top of Billboard’s LP chart, selling several million copies. It inspired a huge influx of young fans to their concerts demanding that the group provide them with an endless summer of fun fun fun, to which the group eagerly acquiesced.
Not such good vibrations
I am an ardent Brian Wilson fan of long-standing. I consider PET SOUNDS to be the greatest rock/pop album ever made. I believe that Mike Love was at least partially responsible for the undermining of Wilson’s SMILE album in 1966-1967.
That said, this is not the first time I have sung the praises of Mike Love, nor is it likely to be my last. For interested readers, here are three other articles of mine about Love and the Beach Boys.
• “A Requiem For Those Timeless Good Good Good Vibrations” features reviews of two books: Requiem For The Timeless, Volume 1, which is Johnny Rogan’s ongoing and epic attempt to present us with everything we could ever want to know about the Byrds! The other review is of Mike Love’s recent autobiography, Good Vibrations – My Life As a Beach Boy, which I titled “Not Such Good Vibration.”
• “Mike Love’s Excitations And Good Vibrations” addresses Love’s contributions, primarily as a lyricist, to the body of songs written by Brian Wilson for the Beach Boys. There are more than five dozen songs, many of them hit singles, that sold millions of records worldwide.
• “Sex, Love, Hitchhiking, And Other Excitations” addresses the song and the recording Good Vibrations and manages to suggest that readers see the 1968 movie I Love You, Alice B. Toklas with Peter Sellers and Leigh-Taylor Young.From 1970 to 1975, Mike Love may have been the most effective frontman in rock & roll. Click To Tweet
FEATURED IMAGE: Instead of talking about the staid photo of the Beach Boys on stage in 1971 at the top of this page, I thought I’d include a photo here from the movie mentioned above. For those interested readers, this is not a photo of Peter Sellers.
1 An argument could be made for Buddy Holly, who was the lead singer and frontman for the Crickets, but the Crickets were also his band when he recorded as a solo artist, so it could go either way.
2 Hell’s Belles, when Brian Wilson was replaced by Glen Campbell as part of the touring band in 1965, most audiences couldn’t tell the difference!
3 In 1972, I saw the Beach Boys open for the Kinks at the Allentown Fairgrounds, so it was my two faveravest bands on one stage! Everyone was there for the British band and many booed when the Beach Boys took the stage. By the end of their set, I don’t think there was a person in the audience who wasn’t earing a stoned grin. After the roadies had set up for the Kinks’ equipment, they came out and set six-packs of beer by each guy’s place. Definitely not the right move in following Mike Love’s Beach Boys.
4 For younger readers, it is impossible to explain to you how unhip the Beach Boys were, how far from grace they had fallen from 1967 to 1969. It’s the center of the story of their career and it’s ignored in almost every book written by any of the guys.