Trying Out for AC/DC: The Frontman of a Local Cover Band Remembers His Day Leading the Legends
Last month, for two hours, a twenty-nine-year-old construction worker from Butner, North Carolina, fronted AC/DC. It was an audition, not a public performance, and he was ultimately passed over for the big name of Axl Rose. Still, Lee Robinson experienced something electrifying and unforgettable, and he came away with the kind of ego boost that pays dividends in perpetuity.
In March, Robinson received a call from Jeff Young, his bandmate in Thunderstruck, a Raleigh AC/DC tribute band. AC/DC’s people had left Young a voice mail asking that Robinson audition for the position of lead singer for the remaining dates on the band’s Rock or Bust tour. Brian Johnson, the band’s lead singer since replacing Bon Scott in 1980, had been forced to quit the tour due to hearing issues.
Robinson was aware that AC/DC needed a singer, of course. To no avail, he had asked around as to how to send the band a press kit. Then the call came. At first, Robinson thought his buddy was joking.
“I’m at work, swinging a hammer like I always do, and I get a text out of nowhere from Jeff, saying AC/DC’s agent just called him. It's a group message—the whole band’s freaking out, and I’m like, 'OK, well that’s a hilarious joke. Whatever. I hate you guys,'" he remembers. But he called Young anyway. "Jeff’s response was, 'Hurry the hell up and get to my house.'"
Thunderstruck is Robinson’s first real band. Before that, his experience included a cover band that played Ratt and Cinderella tunes in the town’s bars just for fun. Young, who is about twenty years Robinson’s senior, has known Robinson since the now-singer was a kid. He even played in a band with Robinson’s dad. Years ago, he’d asked him to front his cover band, but Robinson didn’t feel ready.
In 2013, after Young showed up at a gig and joined the band for “Highway to Hell,” Young offered him the job again. This time, Robinson accepted. He’s grown into the role and gained confidence. Still, he’s quick to point out that, with Thunderstruck, he was essentially there to impersonate Brian Johnson and Bon Scott. Going into the audition, his aim was pretty much the opposite. When he got to Atlanta, he met with the tour manager and stage manager, who confirmed that was the correct instinct.
“I knew all the songs on the set list, but nonetheless, you’re with AC/DC, you’re not in a tribute band anymore, so I wanted to know the songs front, back, left, and right," he says. “I said, ‘I’m sure you guys aren’t looking for live karaoke action,' and they said, ‘No, we’re looking for a singer. We don’t want Brian Johnson or Bon Scott.' Onstage [with Thunderstruck], it’s my job to be Brian Johnson, but in real life it’s my job to be Lee Robinson.”
Soon he was jamming with the tech crew. It shouldn’t have been a big deal, but it was. They played the first verse of "Back in Black," and he froze.
"This was just the tech crew, not even the band, but for some reason, the minute they started playing, the nerves just hit me," he admits. "And as soon as we got done with the first verse, the first chorus—which I basically stammered through like a child—on the microphone, I asked the guys, ‘Have I wasted anyone’s time yet?’ And nobody spoke, they all just went dead silent. So, that's a yes.”
Happily, it didn’t end there. Robinson went outside and almost lost his lunch but managed to get his faculties together. He returned, the band came in shortly thereafter, and it was good.
"You’re sitting there with AC/DC. You don’t have a choice. You can’t be nervous. You can’t be scared. You just gotta be a man," he says. "And once they fired up, man, it sounded so genuine and so good that all I could do was smile—almost missed my intro, almost missed my cues, because I was smiling."
During the two hours it took for them to run through the set list, Robinson didn’t hear much in the way of feedback, especially from Angus Young, whom he believes to be the only irreplaceable member of AC/DC. (“Angus is the face of AC/DC,” he says.) The moment when Angus finally spoke is one that Robinson savors.
“He took his guitar off and he turns to me, and just grabs his throat," says Robinson. "And he doesn’t say anything; he’s just looking at me, readjusting his hand, almost like he was holding a hot pan or something. And then he says, ‘Whatever happens, man, you’ve got a hell of a voice.’"
For those two hours, Robinson really served as the leader of the band, too. They'd finish one song, and Young would turn to him and wait for orders on the next song, which he'd have to call out.
"He looked at me like, What’s the next song? And I’m looking at him like a twelve-year-old kid," he says. "Like, I don’t know… 'Highway to Hell'?"
And then it was done. He’d sung his heart out, had a Mean Joe Green moment with his favorite member of the band, and was back to work, swinging a hammer like he always did. Weeks went by. He and the tour manager had gotten to texting daily, formalities gone. When he received an email from the tour manager, he knew something was up, and it probably wasn’t good. In the end, they let him down gently, the operative phrases being “The band is going in a different direction,” and "Please keep this under your hat until we make a formal announcement.”
Robinson agreed to keep his mouth shut. Before the email, he’d enjoyed sitting on his secret knowledge. It was, of course, less fun having to keep the knowledge to himself, knowing he was out of the running. On April 16, Robinson learned what the world did, that Brian Johnson’s replacement for the remainder of the tour would be Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses.
“I love Guns N’ Roses,” he says. “But I hate Axl for AC/DC, and I may be a bit biased because I wanted the job, but the same time, AC/DC and Guns N’ Roses are two separate bands completely, and they’re two separate attitudes. It’s not a good fit."
Still, if he had to lose out to someone, he’s OK with that person being Axl Rose. His favorite band is GN’R, for one thing. And he understands the point of going with an outsize figure like Rose.
“If they’d have picked some other poor kid from the country, that would have been a lot worse,” he says. “They picked a big name; they picked a good singer and a great frontman. So that makes me feel better about the way they went, versus somebody else like myself out of the streets. I would have felt like they had no respect for my skills as a vocalist if they had gone in the other direction.”
AC/DC’s scheduled appearance in Greensboro in March was among those canceled after Johnson’s departure. If and when AC/DC rolls back this way with Axl Rose, you can bet that Robinson will be on hand.
“I get to meet the band in Greensboro, and I’m gonna ask them if I can sing a song," Robinson beams. "And if they say yes, I’m gonna go out there and demolish the song. And hopefully Axl doesn’t hit me.”