13 Best Rock and Roll Trios
So much from so little!
Let's hear it for the power trios! All groups on this list started as a trio, though some may have added a musician or two over the years. Nevertheless, if they hadn't been very good as a trio, they wouldn't be on this list. So, let's start the countdown!
13. The Stray Cats
Rockabilly blasted off in the 1950s with artists such as Billy Haley and the Comets, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Chuck Berry and - primed for the retro sound - the Stray Cats led a revival of the genre in the early 1980s. Fronted by flashy lead guitarist Brian Setzer and enhanced by the potent rhythm section of Lee Rocker and Slim Jim Phantom, the Stray Cats, like the Jimi Hendrix Experience some years before, had to tour the UK before making it big in the U.S. Then, in 1982, MTV widely played two of their tunes, “Rock This Town” and “Stray Cat Strut,” both of which made the American Top 10. In 1984, the Stray Cats disbanded and then got back together again two years later. And then in 1992, they broke up once more and reunited in 2004 and again in 2009. The Stray Cats have produced 10 albums and numerous singles.
12. Grand Funk Railroad
Grand Funk Railroad was definitely no funk band! Fancying themselves a power trio such as Cream or Blue Cheer, Grand Funk Railroad (later shortened to Grand Funk) began filling arenas in 1969, and their first six LPs, including a live album, sold very well. Judging from the material on this Live Album, they liked to play very, very loud. At any rate, because of perceived shortcomings, the critics generally panned them (Grand Junk, anyone?), while fans dug them to death. After all, singer/songwriter/lead guitarist Mark Farner had exceptional all-around rock and roll skills and drummer/vocalist Don Brewer and bassist Mel Schacher provided a thunderous rhythm section.
Farner showed considerable competence on ballads such as “Closer to Home” and “Mean Mistreater,” and he could certainly wail and howl on tunes such as the raucous “Inside Looking Out.” Farner certainly wasn’t the greatest lead guitarist around, but he didn’t need to be. In 1972, the band added a keyboard player and also developed a more classic – dare I say “poppy”- style with such numbers as “We’re an American Band” and “The Loco-Motion.” Eventually the group disbanded and then Farner launched a solo career. At one point, the original trio reunited for awhile. The current alignment, five guys, minus Mark Farner (how dare they!), still tours.
11. Los Lonely Boys
Comprised of three brothers – Henry, Jojo and Ringo Garza – LLB plays a style of music known as Texican rock and roll, a blend of Tejano (or Tex-Mex music), Texas blues and blue-eyed soul. Hailing from San Angelo, Texas, the three brothers formed a band in Nashville in the 1990s. In 2004, “Heaven,” the group’s first single, placed #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 and won a Grammy Award for Best Pop Performance by a Group. Then, in 2005, LLB corroborated with Carlos Santana on the song, “I Don’t Wanna Lose Your Love,” found on the album All That I Am; another hit single by the group is John Lennon’s “Whatever Gets You Through the Night.” The band has covered many other hit songs, including “Evil Ways,” “Well All Right,” “Polk Salad Annie,” “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” and “Born on a Bayou.” Their most recent album is Revelation (2014).
10. Emerson, Lake and Palmer
ELP performed one of their first concerts at the Isle of Wight Festival in August 1970. Jimi Hendrix played there too. The British progressive/symphonic rock band had at least an informal arrangement to form a quartet with Hendrix, who reportedly had been getting bored with his triad. ELP’s lineup was Keith Emerson (keyboards, Moog synthesizer), Greg Lake (guitar, bass and vocals) and Carl Palmer (drums, percussion). Emerson was sometimes labeled “the Jimi Hendrix of the Hammond organ.” Lake produced all the band’s albums until their temporary breakup in 1979. Some critics called the band one of the first Super Groups. The members came from bands such as King Crimson (Lake) and The Nice (Emerson).
In 1973 the band formed its own record label and then recorded perhaps its greatest studio album, Brain Salad Surgery. ELP had top billing at the April 1974 California Jam concert, upstaging Deep Purple. When onstage, ELP displayed unusual musicianship, as well as showy theatrics, such as a spinning grand piano and firing cannons. The band took a three-year break to reinvent themselves, and then in 1977 began touring with an orchestra of 75 members, including a choir, until it became too expensive. Their last studio album of the 1970s, Love Beach, is generally considered – even by the band itself – little more than obligatory banality. Emerson, Lake and Palmer still exists in some fashion and tours when they feel the motivation.
9. Green Day
From the beginning Green Day started as a trio, though it eventually added guitarist Jason White in 2012. Green Day is a punk revival band that emerged from Berkeley in 1987. Beginning with members Billy Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt, and drummer John Kiffmeyer (replaced by Tré Cool in 1990) the band struck pay dirt in 1994 with the release of Dookie, their third studio album, which sold 10 million copies. Along with punk bands such as Sublime, Offspring, Bad Religion and Rancid, Green Day is credited with the rejuvenation of the punk genre in the U.S. But Green Day’s popularity dipped somewhat in the late 1990s to the early 2000s, though surging again with the release of the rock opera American Idiot in 2004, and later helped produce a stage version based on the album. Altogether, Green day is considered one of the top selling rock groups of all time and has won numerous Grammy Awards.
Kurt Cobain’s said, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” That’s what grunge group Nirvana did in the early 1990s. Led by edgy, reclusive, unkempt, nonconformist Kurt Cobain, the hard rock triumvirate hit pay dirt with the release of their second album, Nevermind, widely considered a rock classic. Backing up Cobain, Chris Novoselic played bass and Dave Grohl the drums. Then Cobain married blonde bombshell Courtney Love, who had her own rock group, Hole, and then the couple became America’s most reviled rock superstars, mainly because they were both heroin addicts and, perhaps even worse, didn’t seem to give a shit about it.
Then Nirvana released Incesticide, a modest work at best. But their third album, In Utero, was another exceptional one, particularly the very popular tunes “Heart-Shaped Box” and “Rape Me,” which the trio performed on Saturday Night Live (at which point having added another guitarist). After that, Cobain started losing his way, spending $400 per day on heroin. He died in April 1994 with an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head (some think he was murdered). Since then, Nirvana hasn’t resurrected itself – except, that is, at the 12/12/12 Concert with Sir Paul McCartney!
7. Crosby, Stills and Nash
Crosby, Stills and Nash (CSN) were another super group of sorts, this one extolling the hippie ethos of the late 1960s to early 1970s. Their music became a kind of religion. Borne of very popular rock bands from the middle 1960s, Stephen Stills (Buffalo Springfield and the unbelievable collaboration album, Super Session), David Crosby (the Byrds) and Graham Nash (the Hollies), CSN played – at least at first - without a rhythm section, utilizing folk-rock harmonies, while playing acoustic guitars and singing, with each member writing songs. As just about every baby boomer knows, CSN played one of their first live performances at Woodstock. And we’re scared shitless! Their first album was the eponymous Crosby, Stills and Nash, featuring the smash hit “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” Within a year, the group added singer/guitarist Neil Young, formerly of Buffalo Springfield. (But Young continued playing with his band Crazy Horse.) The quartet’s greatest album was the double live album set Four Way Street. Shortly, however, Young left the band for a time, mainly because of the personality clashes and professional preferences involving him and Stephen Stills.
Over the years, CSN recorded and toured intermittently as a trio or quartet (with Young), or did solo work or members temporarily joined different bands, as when Stills joined the country-influenced Manassas in 1972. Along the way, drug problems took their toll on band mates, particularly Stills (alcohol) and Crosby, who, cocaine-addicted and finally busted, spent time in prison. The trio reunited for Woodstock’s twenty-fifth anniversary concert in 1994. But by the late 1990s CSN had no recording contract, so they began financing their own recordings. As of the summer of 2012, CSN still performs and tours. Regarding the rock trios, CSN’s vocals may be numero uno.
6. The Police
From the beginning The Police showed a remarkable talent for producing a plethora of hit pop singles. Formed in 1977, the band played a mixture of jazz, rock and reggae, though they may have had the appearance of just another blonde-coiffed punk rock assemblage. The Police’s front man, Sting (born Gordon Sumner on Oct. 2, 1951), played bass and sang the lead, while Andy Summers played guitar and Stewart Copeland rattled the drums, the latter two adding some vocals and songwriting ability as well. Their initial hit single was “Roxanne,” first recorded in 1978 and then re-released the following year.
Then they made “Message in a Bottle,” their first number one hit and “Walking on the Moon,” another smash. Their fourth album, Ghost in the Machine, released in 1981, had a lusher techno sound, including the use of horns and keyboards and produced even more scores such as “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” “Invisible Sun” and “Spirits in the Material World.” Perhaps their greatest album was Synchronicity, produced in 1983, which spawned another mega hit, “Every Breath You Take.” The album was nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards, losing to Michael Jackson’s Thriller, though “Every Breath You Take” won the award for best song. A clash of egos between Sting and Andy Summers led to the troika’s demise in 1984, at which point they spun off into solo careers, with Sting becoming a jazz-infused pop superstar. In 2007 to 2008, The Police launched a reunion tour which, so the band informed, would definitely be their pop coda.
5. ZZ Top
Some things never change – for the better. ZZ Top, the prototypical hard rock power trio, has been ripping it up for 40 years. In fact, they still have the same manager! Of the three Texans, Billy Gibbons plays lead guitar, with Dusty Hill on bass and Frank Beard on drums. They all do vocals – pretty much essential in a threesome. One night on The Tonight Show, Jimi Hendrix said that Gibbons was one of the finest young guitarists around. Anyway, ZZ Top’s third album, Tres Hombres, featured the very popular tunes “La Grange” (introducing their most notable riff) and “Jesus Just Left Chicago.” The band continued churning out hits such as “Tush” and “Heard It on the X.” Then the band went on an unplanned hiatus in 1977. In 1979, the trio reunited, now recording for Warner Brothers, and put out the album Deguello, featuring the huge hit “Cheap Sunglasses.”
In the early 1980s, ZZ Top updated its act, producing a high-tech-oriented sound using such devices as synthesizers and drum machines, certainly appropriate for the New Wave decade. However, they never strayed far from their blues-rock roots of the 1960s. In 1983, the trio produced their most popular album to date, Eliminator, which exemplified their ability to produce marketable singles such as “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” “Legs,” and “Sharp Dressed Man.” The album sold 10 million copies. In the 1990s, the band produced even more memorable numbers – “My Head’s in Mississippi” and “Burger Man.” In 2003, the band’s last album with RCA was Mescalero, which showed some of Gibbons’ best raw, crunchy guitar work to date. These days, ZZ Top reportedly plans to return to its pre-1980s sound. This is the best kind of news, for rock fans will always appreciate the pure unadulterated riff.
4. Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble
Stevie Ray Vaughan, a high school dropout who couldn’t read music, flashed like a Texas flood out of Austin, Texas in the early 1980s. Vaughan, a blues guitarist by trade, could play his Fender Stratocaster with his teeth or behind his back, perhaps imitating the histrionics of artists such as Jimi Hendrix and Freddie King. As for the name of his group, Double Trouble refers to the title of a song with the same name by blues master Otis Rush, one of Vaughan’s mentors. It also seemed to be a good name for Vaughan’s rhythm section: Chris Layton on drums and Tommy Shannon on bass. In addition to being a spectacular blues guitarist, Vaughan showed his gift for rock ‘n’ roll by playing Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” on the group’s second album Couldn’t Stand the Weather. And, on the album Soul to Soul, Vaughan played Hendrix’s “Little Wing.” (If anything, Vaughan played these songs better than Hendrix did!) In 1985, the band added keyboardist Reese Wynans, putting versatility in their repertoire.
Thereafter, Vaughan got into drug trouble and, after a time in rehab, gave up all drugs, even caffeine, and remained clean and sober for the last four years of his life. Vaughan and Double Trouble’s last studio album, In Step, featured “Riviera Paradise,” a slow, jazzy stroll that emphasized Vaughan’s astonishing musical range. Then, on August 26, 1990, after playing at a concert with Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Jimmie Vaughan and others, Vaughan, not wanting to delay until another helicopter came along, climbed into a crowded one, which then crashed within minutes because of foggy conditions. Tragically, Stevie Ray Vaughan entered the annals of rock stars dying before their time. He was only 35. At least drugs didn’t get him . . . !
3. The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Since Jimi Hendrix died way back in September 1970, much has been written about him and his acid rock power trio. So rather than write about what Jimi did, I’ll write about what he wanted to do. In the book, Secrets from the Masters (from the pages of Guitar Player magazine), Jimi said, “In older civilizations they didn’t have diseases as we know them. It would be incredible if you could produce music so perfect that it would filter through you like rays and ultimately cure.” That’s what Jimi wanted to do with his music – more, more and more. Jimi also wanted to buy a Big Top, set it up out in the country, hire his own security people and have concerts lasting days. Just a week before Jimi’s death, he had plans to begin recording with master jazz arranger Gil Evans and legendary trumpeter Miles Davis. Jimi also wanted to learn to read and write music so he could assemble an orchestra for whom he could write and conduct. In addition, Jimi wanted to do some filmmaking and writing. He had in mind a cartoon character named “Black Gold,” who would be part of a rock opera similar to the Who’s Tommy.
Apparently Jimi’s musical aspirations had no bounds! In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, he said, “I’d like to get something together, like with Handel and Bach, and Muddy Waters, flamenco type of thing. If I could get that sound, I’d be happy.” Some of these aspirations probably would have come to pass if Jimi hadn’t taken an accidental overdose of sleeping pills and transitioned to another plane of existence. Here’s a pertinent excerpt from Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”: And if I don’t meet you no more in this world, then I’ll meet you in the next one and don’t be late, don’t be late.
Rush has been a rock power trio during six decades, forming in 1968 and recording their first album in 1974. In the old days, they were decidedly hard rock, influenced by the current heavy metal who’s who of Cream, The Who, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. From the late 1970s through the 1980s, their sound became more electronic and new-wave oriented, as bassist/keyboardist/vocalist Geddy Lee embraced the use of emerging technology, utilizing synthesizers and sequencers. Drummer Neil Peart also began rapping on electronic percussion. Then, in the early 1990s, Rush left the synthetic sound and returned to a mainstream, guitar-oriented feel with the release of Counterparts in 1993.
The band went on hiatus in the late 1990s to early 2000s, as Peart mourned the death of his daughter in a car accident and contemplated retirement. But Rush made a comeback, producing the album Vapor Trails in 2002, guitarist Alex Lifeson’s axe in prominence. Over all these years, Rush has remained an inventive, adaptive band, seemingly always in the forefront of the contemporary rock sound – and that ain’t an easy thing to accomplish! In 2013, Rush was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Cream was the cream of the crop – and the members knew it! Formed in the UK in 1966, Cream consisted of guitarist/singer Eric Clapton, bassist/singer/harmonica player Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker. Blues guitarist Clapton assembled the triad, even after he discovered that Bruce and Baker essentially hated each other. Cream’s first album was the classic Fresh Cream, which still sounds asskickingly good. Featured on the album was one of rock’s first tunes highlighting a drum solo – “Toad,” which showed Baker’s prowess as a frenetic, jazz-influenced drummer. (In those days, everybody thought Baker was a speed freak, because he played so fast.) Their second album, Disraeli Gears, highlighted Cream’s ability to produce marketable singles such as “Sunshine of Your Love,” “Strange Brew” and “Tales of Brave Ulysses.” When touring, in the tradition of bands such as the Grateful Dead, Cream became known for its long, improvisational versions of such songs as “Spoonful,” “N.S.U” and “Sweet Wine.” Clapton once stated that he still has hearing damage from the loudness with which the band played during those days.
Cream’s third album, Wheels of Fire, (a double album set), exemplified the triumvirate’s versatility, particularly Bruce’s classical orientation on songs such as “Passing the Time,” “Those Were the Days” and “Pressed Rat and Warthog”; also, Clapton’s live version of Robert Johnson’s blues standard “Crossroads,” has become a blues-rock staple. (Interestingly, Clapton considers himself to be - above all else – a blues guitarist.) Cream tossed out one more album, essentially a dried out bone called Goodbye, which featured a passably good concert version of “I’m So Glad” and “Badge,” a tune presaging Clapton’s subsequent descent into pop mania. Cream reunited for a set in 1993 and then four sets in 2005. But plans for another reunion are not in the works. Even though Cream lasted for only two years, the technical virtuosity of its members and their critical acclaim and popularity are without peer in the world of rock ‘n’ roll.
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© 2008 Kelley Marks