Is a Band Without Its Original Members Still the Same Band?

What gives a musical group its identity? Is it the name on the poster or the people on the stage?

Rolling Stones
Ronnie Wood (far left) has taken on the role in Rolling Stones originally filled by Brian Jones. Debby Wong/Corbis

As the Rolling Stones tour North America this summer, only three of the original five members will still be in the band. But those three, most people would agree, are the essential core: singer-songwriter Mick Jagger, guitarist-songwriter Keith Richards and drummer Charlie Watts. The second guitar slot has changed over twice—from Brian Jones to Mick Taylor to Ron Wood--and retired bassist Bill Wyman has been replaced by non-member Darryl Jones. But few would dispute that this is the genuine article.

The Beach Boys are also touring, but only one of the original members will be on hand: lead singer Mike Love. Two of the original five (brothers Carl and Dennis Wilson) are dead, but the other two surviving members (Al Jardine and third brother Brian Wilson) will be touring this month under the Brian Wilson banner. Love will be joined by another longtime Beach Boy, Bruce Johnston, but Wilson will also have another former member, Blondie Chaplin. So why does Love get to present his show as the Beach Boys, when Wilson, the group's chief songwriter, secondary lead singer and producer, can’t?

Beach Boys
The Beach Boys are back on tour with only a fraction of the original members, including Mike Love and Bruce Johnston, above. Other original band members are performing separately. Zak Hussein/Corbis

Love would explain that he has the legal rights to the name, and he would be right. But if we view the situation not from a lawyer's perspective but from a fan's, it's clear that Wilson deserves our allegiance. And this raises the questions that every fan must confront sooner or later: What gives a band its identity? How much can you change its personnel before it's no longer the same band?

Early in my music-critic career, the Washington Post sent me to review the Marvelettes, the female Motown trio that had its first hit in 1961 with “Please, Mr. Postman.” It didn’t take much investigation to learn that the 1983 version not only contained no members of the original group but also no members who were old enough to read when “Please, Mr. Postman” was first released. It was a scam operated by promoter Larry Marshak, who had registered his right to the name after Motown dropped the group. The former members sued him, but it wasn’t until 2012 that the original members’ heirs finally prevailed in court. In 2007, California became the first state to pass the Truth in Music Advertising Act, soon followed by other states.

That clarified the legal issues, but what about the artistic question: How much can a band change before it no longer deserves our attention? Is a music group more like a baseball team that changes so gradually that it retains our loyalty no matter who’s on the roster? Or is it more like a basketball team, where the departure of one superstar such as Lebron James can dramatically alter the identity of the Cleveland Cavaliers or Miami Heat?

We usually link the identity of a band to its lead singer and/or chief songwriter. As long as that person is still around, we’re willing to accept a new drummer or new keyboardist. This may not be fair, but it's true. Keith Moon and Tiki Fulwood were great drummers before they died, but we’re willing to accept the Who and Parliament-Funkadelic without Moon or Fulwood as long as Roger Daltrey and George Clinton are on hand. But once that key voice is gone, we usually lose interest in the band.

Brian Wilson
Brian Wilson and Al Jardine, both part of the original Beach Boys, are touring together as their own act. Manuel Nauta/NurPhoto/Corbis

John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr might have been able to carry on as the Beatles after Paul McCartney quit, but it seems unlikely that audiences would have accepted Harrison and Starr as the Beatles if both Lennon and McCartney had left. It would have been foolish for Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic to go on as Nirvana after Kurt Cobain committed suicide in 1994. Wisely, they didn’t, and Grohl launched a new band, the Foo Fighters, with its own identity.

But it's not impossible for a band to survive the loss of a lead-singer-songwriter if they handle it properly. Witness the quick sellouts for the farewell concerts by the Grateful Dead this summer. No one disputes that Jerry Garcia, the singer-guitarist who died in 1995, was the band’s linchpin. But fans recognize that the band was not only a musical democracy but also the binding glue of a community larger than any one person.

The Temptations, another Motown group, handled personnel turnover like a baseball team. The lead-singer role was passed from Al Bryant to Eddie Kendricks to David Ruffin to Dennis Edwards, but it always sounded like the Temptations thanks to the gospel-based harmonies and the Motown songwriting/production system. Otis Williams, the baritone harmonizer, wasn’t a lead singer but he was the organizational leader who guided the group through all its changes.

Fleetwood Mac also handled changing personnel smoothly, morphing from a British blues band led by Peter Green, Jeremy Spencer and Danny Kirwan to a California pop band led by Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie. It worked only because the unchanging core—drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie, who gave the band its name—had a distinctive sound and a vision of what the band should be.

Sometimes a strong vision can be as effective as a great talent in keeping a group relevant. Williams and Fleetwood kept their bands alive by recognizing that there are always talented singers out there if you have the good taste to identify them and the sagacity to link the new to the old. Fiddler Tammy Rogers has done something similar with the great country band the SteelDrivers.

Fleetwood Mac
Stevie Nicks and Mick Fleetwood perform as part of Fleetwood Mac, a band that was able to make a smooth transition as its members changed. DMC/Splash News/Corbis

Two gifted co-writers, Chris Stapleton and Mike Henderson, co-founded the group in 2008, looking to return bluegrass to its unacknowledged roots in the blues and honky-tonk with songs such as “Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey (Tellin’ White Lies)” and “The Blue Side of the Mountain (Where the Sun Don’t Ever Shine).” The son of a Kentucky coal miner, Stapleton possessed a deep, baritone growl that gave these songs an intimidating aggression, reinforced by the slashing melodic lines from Henderson’s mandolin and Rogers’ fiddle. It was unlike anything else in bluegrass.

But after two Grammy-nominated albums and an on-screen appearance in the Robert Duvall movie Get Low with the SteelDrivers, Stapleton realized he could make more money staying home in Nashville with his family writing hit songs for the likes of Kenny Chesney, George Strait, Luke Bryan and Miranda Lambert than he could touring the bluegrass circuit.

So he quit in 2010, followed by Henderson in 2011. But Rogers knew the SteelDrivers had a signature sound that shouldn’t be abandoned. She convinced banjoist Richard Bailey and bassist Mike Fleming to stay in the band, and they replaced Stapleton with the sound-alike Gary Nichols and Henderson with picker Ben Truitt. They even convinced Stapleton and Henderson to keep writing songs for the band.

The result is an unlikely success story for a band that has lost its lead singer. The SteelDrivers’ new album, The Muscle Shoals Recordings, is named after the northwestern Alabama studio where Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, Wilson Pickett, Lynyrd Skynyrd and many more created famous music. Nichols grew up near that studio, and brought the band down to Sheffield to record songs that hint at all those predecessors.

The SteelDrivers May 2015

There’s a Pickett-like soulfulness in the way Nichols’ gravel-grinding voice describes the fall from heaven to hell on Rogers’ “Long Way Down,” and a Skynyrd-like Southern-rock swagger to Truitt’s mandolin chop on Stapleton’s “Drinkin’ Alone.” “Ashes of Yesterday,” a lament for love lost, is a lilting, hillbilly waltz co-written by Rogers and Henderson. Nichols’ “Brother John” describes a man running for his life after killing his lover's abusive lawman husband by having Bailey’s nervous banjo fleeing Rogers’ implacable fiddle. All the songs dig deep into the betrayal, heartbreak, violence and death that used to be staples of country music before Nashville’s Music Row converted to suburban rock.

As for the original duo, Stapleton issued his first solo album, Traveller, earlier this year, turning from the string-band format to the drummer-driven sound of country-rock His mesmerizing, throat-gargling baritone is intact, though, as is his obsession with working-class men too restless and jobless to stay sober or settled for long. He wrote or co-wrote a dozen of the album's 14 songs, and he refuses to smooth over the difficulties of life.

The Mike Henderson Band’s new album, If You Think It's Hot Here, returns the leader to his roots in barroom blues. Trading in his mandolin for his old Fender Bassman, he rolls his silver cylinder across the strings on rollicking renditions of songs by Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Hound Dog Taylor and Henderson himself. Unlike many blues revivalists, Henderson and his keyboardist/co-producer Kevin McKendree understand that rhythm is more crucial to the music than flashy solos. When Henderson sings the album's title track, a warning about the hellfire below, his old pal Stapleton sings the harmony.

It’s a rare story in music: A band breaks up and everyone lives happily ever after—or at least for the next few years. It worked because Rogers recognized that the SteelDrivers possessed a personality apart from its constituent members—and because she knew how to serve that sound.

Editor's note, June 29, 2015: We originally misidentified SteelDrivers singer Gary Nichols as Ben Nichols. The error has been fixed.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.