10 underrated ’90s lead singers who stepped in when another vocalist left
Replacing an original band member is never a fun experience, and there’s surely no role more difficult to fill than that of the lead singer. There have been exceptions to the rule, in the sense that the band went on to continue being successful (think Sammy Hagar in Van Halen), but there have also been more than enough singers who replaced the original and didn’t get the credit he or she deserved.
Some were a “one album and done” deal, and others plundered forth with said band for a long enough stretch of time, only to find the shadow of their predecessor looming large every minute of it. Here’s to those who deserve(d) better.
Mötley Crüe – John Corabi
Let’s kick it off with the most controversial, shall we? John Corabi fronted one completely underappreciated record for the Crüe and, worse, barely got mentioned in 2019's hit biopic The Dirt. Hell, Machine Gun Kelly stole the show as drummer Tommy Lee. Their 1996 eponymous rockfest came in the wake of Vince Neil’s abrupt departure, with Corabi being snapped up from his band the Scream. First single “Hooligan’s Holiday” is a straight-up Mötley Crüe fan-favorite, with Mick Mars giving up a riff every bit as good as the one on “Kickstart My Heart.” But it was all about radio back then, and radio was not about Corabi. So, the song just didn’t get played. His lone Crüe LP is loaded with great tunes, from that one to blistering opening song “Power To The Music” to the lighter-waving “Misunderstood,” where his vocals truly shined.
Van Halen – Gary Cherone
Since we mentioned Van Halen at the outset, one singer who never got his due is the one guy who did only one record with the band. But what a record it is. The late Eddie Van Halen was oft-quoted as saying its time would come, and that sentiment is echoed by many—but certainly not all—Halen fans. Damn, the David Lee Roth versus Sammy Hagar debate is still a hot one. But Gary Cherone, from the rock band Extreme (and back there right now, still churning out stellar rock ’n’ roll), is the kind of singer who can do backflips, both vocally and literally. Lead single “Without You” bombed, and there was no damn good reason why. “Fire In The Hole” is everything a Van Halen lover buys a Halen record for, but, yes, the band did stray on this album, and it was easily at their most adventurous. Songs such as “Once” and “From Afar” are standouts, but nobody jumped.
Judas Priest – Tim “Ripper” Owens
Now, ol’ Ripper, he got to stick around a while. The inspiration for the Mark Wahlberg flick Rock Star, Owens was actually the frontman for a Judas Priest cover band (aptly named British Steel) when the gang came calling after heavy-metal royalty Rob Halford left to form his own band, Fight. Owens got two records under his belt (1997’s Jugulator and 2001’s Demolition), and the crowds showed. Why wouldn’t they? He handled the Halford stuff perfectly, and the new material grabbed fans by the throat. The subject matter was significantly deeper. Plus, it even earned the band a Grammy nomination.
Cannibal Corpse – George Fisher
Death-metal maestros Cannibal Corpse have 14 records to their name and are credited with being the top-selling death-metal band of all time. George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher replaced vocalist Chris Barnes in late 1995 and remains with the band to this day. Known not only for the width of his neck, Fisher also evidently uses it to hoist his famous guttural growl up and out. Despite joining the band after they were already up, running and even on quite a monstrous roll, Fisher ground out a name for himself not only due to his unique vocal style but by being such an outspoken video game fanboy that he wound up getting written into a World Of Warcraft game. His first record with Corpse, Vile, was the first death-metal album to appear on the Billboard 200 chart.
Anthrax – John Bush
John Bush is one of the most underappreciated on this list. Bush getting the gig after Joey Belladonna got fired felt similar to Hagar getting the Halen gig after Diamond Dave got the ax (or left, dependent upon whose story you chose to believe at the time). Bush is a growler, to be sure, but so much more than that, too. He was even asked to front a little band called Metallica in the early ’80s. But he accepted the Anthrax gig, who were now at the apex of their career (including guest-starring roles on sitcoms such as Married… With Children), and charged in to record the LP Sound Of White Noise, with “Only” as its first single. And who would deem this “a perfect song”? Metallica frontman James Hetfield himself. Bush hung around till 2005 when the inevitable reunion with Belladonna began.
Misfits – Michale Graves
Another to have one serious pair of shoes to attempt to fill, Michale Graves pulled on those still warm Dr. Martens from Glenn Danzig’s feet. Danzig will always be associated with the band he not only famously fronted during their heyday but also co-founded, yet Graves put in five years and created some great music while doing so. There are two full-lengths (1997’s American Psycho and 1999’s Famous Monsters), wherein Graves even co-wrote many of the tunes, including the gut-punch “Dig Up Her Bones.” Interestingly enough, Graves was asked if he’d ever rejoin the band some 10 years after his tenure ran short, and in addition to saying yes, he also joined a few Misfits in a one-off band of theirs circa 2009, wherein they actually opened for now-solo act Danzig.
Fleetwood Mac – Bekka Bramlett
Replace icon Stevie Nicks on vocals? Impossible, even heresy. That’s actually not necessarily hyperbole. Yet, the irreplaceable Nicks was replaced for a brief period in the ’90s. Being the offspring of duo Delaney & Bonnie, a force in the early ’70s with a proclivity for infusing soul into their otherwise very ’70s songs, and with some serious country cred of her own, Bekka Bramlett must have appeared to be an odd choice to fans who were seeing famous singers replaced by equally famous singers at the time—and famous in the same genre. She appeared on one record, 1995’s Time, which doubles as the record that lured Lindsey Buckingham back to the fold. Even if only for backing vocals on one track, Buckingham would soon return for real, along with Nicks. But Time is worth yours, with single “I Do” deserving of being covered by Nicks in concert. Even if Buckingham is gone again.
10,000 Maniacs – Mary Ramsey
Natalie Merchant surely had no second thoughts upon leaving the band she co-founded way back in 1981, thanks to her ground (and record)-breaking debut solo LP, Tigerlily. She might’ve been so busy touring behind that empowering record to notice that the 9,999 Maniacs she left behind found quite the suitable replacement for her in Mary Ramsey. The band’s violinist, and a singer on her own time in the folk-rock duo John & Mary, Ramsey hit the ground running with 1997’s Love Among The Ruins. The band continued enjoying chart success, specifically in the form of a cover of the Roxy Music classic “More Than This.” The sixth studio record by the band, other standout singles include “Rainy Day.” Ramsey, no stranger to writing lyrics, ably contributed, and stuck with the band until 2001. She took a hiatus but has been back out front for them since 2007.
Foreigner – Johnny Edwards
’80s rockers Foreigner can still fill stadiums, thanks to one hell of a catalog of hits and Mick Jones still being a master on his Strat. They’ve been doing it for a good long time now, with former Hurricane lead singer Kelly Hansen taking the place of rock royalty Lou Gramm. Hansen sounds just like Gramm without trying to, and they even released a strong record of new material with Hansen at the helm, 2009’s solid Can’t Slow Down. But let’s talk about their one-off in 1991 with a guy named Johnny Edwards out front. Unusual Heat gets unusual short shrift from both band and fans alike. It’s curious, too, as the record rocks from front to back, and first single “Lowdown And Dirty” is a mighty ’90s variation on the band’s classic “Dirty White Boy” that landed on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Airplay chart.
Dropkick Murphys – Al Barr
Boston’s legendary Celtic punk outfit were a force to be reckoned with in the early ’90s, snapping up every opening slot coming through, much to the chagrin of Bruisers lead singer Al Barr. So he was glad to hear that they were all through when Dropkick Murphys frontman Mike McColgan decided to quit the band the same year their first full-length, Do Or Die, was released, produced by Rancid’s Lars Frederiksen. Then Barr’s phone rang. “Barroom Hero,” a song that Quincy, Massachusetts, folk were champing at the bit for, was climbing the charts, and they needed someone to step in and sing it live. Barr accepted, and the Celtic punk world is all the better for it, rocking out with covers such as “Tessie” and “I’m Shipping Up To Boston.”