There’s something a bout a voice that’s personal, not unlike the particular odor or shape of a given human body. Summoned through belly, hammered into form by the throat, given propulsion by bellows of lungs, teased into final form by tongue and lips, a vocal is a kind of audible kiss, a blurted confession, a soul-burp you really can’t keep from issuing as you make your way through the material world. How helplessly candid! How appalling!
Contrary to anything you’ve heard, the ability to actually carry a tune is in no regard a disability in becoming a rock & roll singer, only a mild disadvantage. Conversely, nothing in the vocal limitations of a Lou Reed guarantees a “Pale Blue Eyes” every time out, any more than singing as crazy-clumsy as Tom Waits guarantees a “Downtown Train.” Yet there’s a certain time-tested sturdiness to the lowchops approach forged by touchstone figures like Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison and Jonathan Richman, one that helps define rock & roll singing.
For me, Bob Dylan and Patti Smith, just to mention two, are superb singers by any measure I could ever care about — expressivity, surprise, soul, grain, interpretive wit, angle of vision. Those two folks, a handful of others: their soul-burps are, for me, the soul-burps of the gods. The beauty of the singer’s voice touches us in a place that’s as personal as the place from which that voice has issued. If one of the weird things about singers is the ecstasy of surrender they inspire, another weird thing is the debunking response a singer can arouse once we’ve recovered our senses. It’s as if they’ve fooled us into loving them, diddled our hard-wiring, located a vulnerability we thought we’d long ago armored over. Falling in love with a singer is like being a teenager every time it happens.
This is an excerpt from Jonathan Lethem’s introduction to the Greatest Singers of All Time feature in the November 27, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone. A panel of 179 experts ranked the vocalists.
November 8th, 1949
“Nick of Time,” “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” “Angel from Montgomery,” “Love Me Like a Man”
Norah Jones, Sheryl Crow, the Dixie Chicks
“For many years, I couldn’t stand listening to my own voice,” says Bonnie Raitt. “Not enough gravitas or experience to convey the depth of emotion I wanted to express.” But Raitt would become a blues force all her own on songs such as the ferocious “Love Me Like a Man” from 1972, combining influences ranging from Ray Charles and Joan Baez to Muddy Waters, as well as her father, John Raitt, a star of Broadway musicals. By the time of 1989’s Nick of Time and 1991’s Luck of the Draw, she had grown into her vocal ambitions, most obviously in her heart-rending delivery of ballads such as “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” “I’ve never been one to think about how to sing,” says Raitt. “Once I start, I’m just living it. I prefer to just let ‘er rip.”
October 1st, 1945 (died January 13th, 1979)
“The Ghetto, Pt. 1” “Where Is the Love”
Alicia Keys, R. Kelly, John Legend
Donny Hathaway died in 1979, but his warm, suave soul has never been more influential. He’s been name-checked in songs by Amy Winehouse, Nas, Common and Fall Out Boy (the new “What a Catch, Donnie”), and Justin Timberlake calls “(Another Song) All Over Again,” from FutureSex/LoveSounds, “my homage to Donny Hathaway.” It’s easy to hear why Hathaway still appeals to modern-pop and neo-soul singers alike. He was equally comfortable with smooth ballads (“The Closer I Get to You”) and rolling funk (“The Ghetto”). He was a master of melisma (while never overdoing it), and his smoky voice wrapped superbly around his female duet partners, most notably Roberta Flack. No wonder Timberlake calls him “the best singer of all time.”
September 7th, 1936 (died February 3rd, 1959)
“That’ll Be the Day,” “Rave On,” “Not Fade Away”
John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger
“He had this totally unique, perfect blend of old hillbilly and new rock & roll,” says singer-songwriter Joe Ely. “And he had that bit of country in there to give it a sense of place.” Ely grew up in Holly’s hometown of Lubbock, Texas, which made him especially susceptible to Holly’s signature vocal hiccup and other down-home touches. “It seemed like everybody in the whole town had a garage band and was playing ‘That’ll Be the Day’ and ‘Peggy Sue,’ ” Ely says. The future Beatles and Rolling Stones were doing the same thing across the Atlantic, trying to capture that quintessentially American vocal sound. “I saw Buddy Holly two or three nights before he died,” Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone. “He was great. He was incredible.”
December 8th, 1943 (died July 3rd, 1971)
“Light My Fire,” “Break On Through (to the Other Side),” “L.A. Woman”
Iggy Pop, Ian Astbury
The difference between Jim Morrison and Elvis Presley, Patti Smith says, “is that Elvis had humility. I don’t think Jim had it.” Still, Morrison, who was at least as influenced by Frank Sinatra as he was by Presley, was capable of surprising delicacy: On “People Are Strange” and “Light My Fire,” he lets his baritone glide, crooning just above a whisper. Otherwise, Morrison’s vocals were all mood, attitude and sex — he was grounded in roadhouse-blues hollering, but able to project the dreaminess of a mystical incantation (“Riders on the Storm”) or the sleaze of a boozy pickup (“L.A. Woman”). And on the Doors’ hardest rock songs — “Break On Through (to the Other Side)” stands out — his unhinged aggression presaged punk rock. “It was thrilling, sensual, powerful and experimental,” said Perry Farrell.
September 8th, 1932 (died March 5th, 1963)
“I Fall to Pieces,” “Walkin’ After Midnight,” “Crazy”
Loretta Lynn, Linda Ronstadt, k.d. lang
With her husky alto and aching hiccup on early-Sixties songs like “Crazy,” “I Fall to Pieces” and “Sweet Dreams (of You),” Cline was the first major country star to make a decisive crossover into pop, setting the stage for singers from Dolly Parton to Faith Hill. To Lucinda Williams, Cline’s voice exceeded any one genre. “Even though her style is considered country, her delivery is more like a classic pop singer,” says Williams. “That’s what set her apart from Loretta Lynn or Tammy Wynette. You’d almost think she was classically trained.” LeAnn Rimes has been absorbing Cline’s technique her entire life. “I remember my dad telling me to listen to the way she told a story,” says Rimes. “I remember feeling more emotion when she sang than anyone else I had ever heard.”
February 20th, 1967 (died circa April 5th, 1994)
“Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Lithium,” “All Apologies”
Dave Grohl, Gavin Rossdale, Rivers Cuomo
Kurt Cobain’s ferocious rasp clawed its way out of the rock & roll underground in 1991, transforming the fury and anguish of punk rock into pop singing like nothing else had before. He could scream himself raw in tune. (Listen, for instance, to his electrifying howls on Nirvana’s “Stay Away.”) What Sub Pop’s Jonathan Poneman said first caught his attention about Cobain’s voice was that “it was so emotionally versatile.” Beneath his singing’s bloody power, there was a subtler roughness that came from blues and folk music. His interpretation of the Lead Belly song “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” Patti Smith says, “was just magnificent — when he sings ‘I will shiver,’ you can feel that he’s shivering, straight through his veins.”
Bobby “Blue” Bland
January 27th, 1930
“I Pity the Fool,” “Farther Up the Road,” “Cry, Cry, Cry” “Turn On Your Love Light”
Van Morrison, B.B. King
Bland called it a “squall” — the choked, gospel-inspired near-scream that became his trademark. “I got the idea from Rev. C.L. Franklin, Aretha’s father,” Bland told Rolling Stone. “I had to work with that a long time before I got it to perfection.” But Bland, whose admirers range from Van Morrison to Jay-Z, was more than a blues shouter — on the quieter moments of signature tunes such as “I Pity the Fool” and “Turn On Your Love Light,” he could just as easily adopt a smooth, uptown croon, complete with elegant vibrato, like his early hero Nat “King” Cole. “If I could sing like Bobby Bland,” said his longtime collaborator B.B. King, “I’d be a happy man.” Adds Gregg Allman, “It’s a one-of-a-kind voice — I wonder how many people tore up their throats trying to imitate that shout.”
September 12th, 1931
“He Stopped Loving Her Today,” “She Thnks I Still Care,” “(We’re Not) The Jet Set”
Garth Brooks, Elvis Costello, Alan Jackson
George Jones doesn’t sound like he was
Influenced by any other singer: He sounds like a steel guitar. It’s the way he blends notes, the way he comes up to them and comes off them, the way he crescendos and decrescendos. The dynamic of it is very tight and really controlled — it’s like carving with the voice.
He has had a huge effect on all of country music — you can hear a direct line from him to Buck Owens to Randy Travis to George Strait. The Beatles listened to Buck Owens and his Buckaroos, and I think through them, George Jones’ sound informed McCartney’s style — McCartney had that George Jones swoop, as I call it.
The first time I heard George was on a copy of his greatest hits. I was already familiar with Hank Williams and Porter Wagoner, but not George and his West Texas thing. I was amazed at what he was doing with his voice. Since then, I’ve covered a couple of my favorites — “Why Baby Why” and “She Thinks I Still Care” — and I wrote a song called “Bartender’s Blues,” where I tried to sound as much like George as I could. And then he recorded it himself! It was one of those things where it all comes around.
November 7th, 1943
“Both Sides Now,” “Help Me,” “Raised on Robbery”
Robert Plant, Jewel, Fiona Apple
Joni Mitchell began as the archetype of the folkie female singer-songwriter, an heir to Joan Baez. But she quickly moved forward, incorporating influences from jazz and the blues. “Joni Mitchell heard Billie Holiday sing ‘Solitude’ when she was about nine years old — and she hasn’t been the same since,” says Herbie Hancock. Those lessons of emotional vulnerability are evident in her delicate soprano trill, as well as in the undisguised wear of the sultry voice of her later work, punctuated by her jazzy syncopation. “Joni’s got a strange sense of rhythm that’s all her own,” Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone. Above all, Mitchell won’t be boxed in. “The way she phrases always serves the lyrics perfectly, and yet her phrasing can be different every time,” Hancock says. “She’s a fighter for freedom.”
October 18th, 1926
“Johnny B. Goode,” “Promised Land” “No Particular Place to Go”
The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen
“You’re great, you sing country and rock & roll,” Jerry Lee Lewis’ mother once told him. “But Chuck is the king.” Chuck Berry approached the great rock & roll divide from the opposite side of Elvis Presley, synthesizing the singing styles of blues and country musicians. “When I played hillbilly songs, I stressed my diction so that it was harder and whiter,” said Berry. The result was that every rock singer of the Sixties — from Liverpool, London, L.A. or Long Island — sang with a mid-American accent, trying to sound like St. Louis’ own Chuck Berry. His mischievous, lilting voice, slaloming through his tricky banks of syllables, erased the distinction between white and black and made it simply rock. “If you tried to give rock & roll another name,” said John Lennon, “you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’ “
June 3rd, 1942 (died December 26th, 1999)
“People Get Ready,” “Superfly” “I’m So Proud”
Bob Marley, Tracy Chapman, Jimi Hendrix
Curtis Mayfield was actually proud of his ability to silence a crowd: “They could just be screaming and hollering and getting down, but when the Impressions came out, they would respectfully be quiet.” Mayfield’s self-described “soft, little voice” brought a new level of intimacy and intensity to soul music, from the tenderness of “I’m So Proud” to the outrage of “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below We’re All Going to Go.” He never lost the spirituality of the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers, whom he sang with as a teenager in Chicago, on songs such as the churchy, uplifting “Keep on Pushing.” “His register was soft and gentle, yet powerful,” says Mavis Staples. “His love songs made you fall in love, and his message songs made you want to go out and do something good for the world.”
November 17th, 1966 (died May 29th, 1997)
“Mojo Pin,” “Last Goodbye,” “Hallelujah”
Chris Martin, Damien Rice, Rufus Wainwright
Hearing Jeff’s Live at Sin-é EP was one of those moments that happens only a few times in your life as a music fan — it was something otherworldly, and he shocked me with the depth of talent he displayed. I can’t compare his voice to anything — he had such an unusual breadth of influences, from Sonic Youth to Edith Piaf. Jeff and I became friends, and when we performed together, I would watch him and try to figure out things — like, “How is it possible that he’s holding that note that long?”
But you can talk all day about technical aspects, and you get nowhere. Jeff had the ability to sing a cappella in almost a whisper in a packed club environment and be able to hear a pin drop — that’s not about technical ability, that’s something else.
There was an almost punk-rock tenacity to the way he would force you to listen to the effeminate side of his voice. I saw shows with a room full of guys wearing flannel shirts, and he would bring a song down to him singing vocal runs a cappella. He would keep doing it to the point that it was beyond discomfort for these guys who were all standing there trying to be tough. You would be uncomfortable for so long that you would then have this rejuvenation and discovery that this guy was fearless. Listening to him sing — it’s one of those indications that the human race isn’t all bad and life is worth living and there is beauty and brilliance in humanity.
March 25th, 1947
“Your Song,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “Tiny Dancer”
Rivers Cuomo, George Michael, Axl Rose
John Lennon once told Rolling Stone that when he heard Elton John singing “Your Song” — the 1970 breakthrough ballad that spotlighted John’s voice and its union of rock & roll grandness with deep soul feeling — he thought, “Great, that’s the first new thing that’s happened since we happened.” Only a few years earlier, John had claimed, “I can’t really sing.” Once he found his voice, though, he quickly turned out to have a dumbfounding stylistic range, unleashing his singsong falsetto and his ferocious hard-rock bellow. “He was mixing his falsetto and his chest voice to really fantastic effect in the Seventies,” says Ben Folds. “There’s that point in ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,’ where he sings, ‘on the grooound’ — his voice is all over the shop. It’s like jumping off a diving board when he did that.”
November 12th, 1945
“Heart of Gold,” “Powderfinger,” “Rockin’ in the Free World”
Jeff Tweedy, Wayne Coyne, Conor Oberst
An engineer at an early Neil Young studio session told him, “You’re a good guitar player, kid, but you’ll never make it as a singer.” But Young soon proved himself able to convey emotional truths with a sound no one else could produce — a quavering, lonesome tenor that works equally well over the crazed distortion of Crazy Horse and the acoustic chords of his ballads. “It’s very difficult for anyone else to sing his stuff,” says David Crosby. “You go somewhere when Neil sings — you definitely don’t just stay in your seat.” Says Lucinda Williams, “That voice summons up something. It’s ethereal, spooky, soulful, and completely unique to him.”
Born September 23rd, 1949
Key Tracks “Thunder Road,” “
Born in the U.S.A.,” “Girls in Their Summer Clothes”
Influenced Eddie Vedder, Jon Bon Jovi, Brandon Flowers, Win Butler
“When Bruce Springsteen does those wordless wails, like at the end of ‘Jungleland,’ that’s the definition of rock & roll to me,” says Melissa Etheridge. “He uses his whole body when he sings, and he puts out this enormous amount of force and emotion and passion.” Springsteen has used numerous vocal approaches over the past four decades: soul shouting, Roy Orbison belting, Elvis-style crooning, country-folk drawling, garage-rock hollering. “He finds the emotional drama in the characters in his songs,” says Etheridge. “When he sings ‘The River,’ he’s going to break your heart.” When Bono inducted Springsteen into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, he said Springsteen’s voice sounded as “if Van Morrison could ride a Harley-Davidson.”
April 16th, 1939 (died March 2nd, 1999)
“I Only Want to Be With You,” “Son of a Preacher Man”
Duffy, Amy Winehouse, Joss Stone
“What makes a great singer is that you have to be completely naked within a song,” says Shelby Lynne, who recently released an album of Dusty Springfield covers. “Dusty was open to being fragile and letting her guard down.” A conservatively raised English girl, Springfield was a folk singer until she discovered R&B after hearing the Exciters’ “Tell Him” while walking along a New York street. Songs like “I Only Want to Be With You” combined intelligence and energy. Her tendency to linger a shade behind the beat on ballads lent her soul singing a wonderful languor, but when she belted, she could rattle the windows. “Her voice wasn’t black and it wasn’t white,” says Darlene Love, whom Springfield greatly admired. “It was totally unique. You knew it was Dusty when she came on the radio.”
August 9th, 1963
“The Greatest Love of All,” “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” “Saving All My Love for You,” “I Will Always Love You”
Beyoncé, Mariah Carey, Faith Evans, Mary J. Blige
The daughter of R&B and gospel singer Cissy Houston, Whitney grew up around family friends Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight; Dionne Warwick was a cousin. “When I started singing,” she once said, “it was almost like speaking.” By the time she was 22, Whitney had emerged as the greatest female voice of her generation: Her 1985 debut alone included the monster hits “Saving All My Love for You,” “How Will I Know” and “The Greatest Love of All.” Her voice is a mammoth, coruscating cry: Few vocalists could get away with opening a song with 45 unaccompanied seconds of singing, but Houston’s powerhouse version of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” is a tour de force.
May 12th, 1948
“Gimme Some Lovin'” (with the Spencer Davis Group), “Dear Mr. Fantasy” (with Traffic), “When You See a Chance” (solo)
Dave Matthews, John Mayer
Steve Winwood exploded onto the London music scene as a teenager with his powerful, soulful tenor — notably on “Gimme Some Lovin'” and “I’m a Man” with the Spencer Davis Group. “I thought he had the greatest voice,” said Billy Joel, “this skinny little English kid singing like Ray Charles.” The frontman for the jazz-infused pop of Traffic and then the jam rock of Blind Faith (with Eric Clapton), Winwood re-emerged in the mid-Eighties with the hits “Back in the High Life Again” and “Higher Love” — highly polished soul pop that made him a star all over again. “He was able to copy Jimmy Reed, and I thought, ‘Where the hell is this voice coming from?’ ” said Spencer Davis. “From a diminutive guy, at that age, how can he do it? But he did it.”
May 106th, 1960
“One,” “With or Without You,” “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “Beautiful Day”
Eddie Vedder, Chris Martin, Thom Yorke
I would describe Bono’s singing as 50 percent Guinness, 10 percent cigarettes — and the rest is religion. He’s a physical singer, like the leader of a gospel choir, and he gets lost in the melodic moment. He goes to a place outside himself, especially in front of an audience, when he hits those high notes. That’s where his real power comes from — the pure, unadulterated Bono. He talks about things he believes in, whether it’s world economics or AIDS relief in Africa. But the voice always comes first. That’s where his conviction lies.
He has so many influences. You hear Joe Strummer, Bob Marley, Otis Redding, Elvis Presley, even John Lennon. And he has the same range as Robert Plant. It’s amazing, the notes he has to go through in the first lines of “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” But it’s filtered through this Irish choirboy. The Joshua Tree shows the mastery Bono has over his voice and what he learned from punk, New Wave and American musicians like Bob Dylan. In the quiet moments of “With or Without You,” you can imagine him sitting under the stars. Then, when he comes back to the chorus, all of a sudden it’s a hailstorm.
A lot of Bono’s free-form singing comes from the band’s rhythms and the church-bell feeling of the Edge’s playing, the way the guitar sings in that delay. Bono can glide vocally through all of that. But it’s very natural. And he’s not afraid to go beyond what he’s capable of, into something bizarre like his falsetto in “Lemon.” In “Kite,” on All That You Can’t Leave Behind, he belts it out like he’s crying with joy.
I never had the feeling he was manipulating the power of his voice to show off. They say a submarine never goes in reverse. That’s Bono, always looking for a new way of singing something. That’s one thing I learned from him: Never rest. Keep learning and be a good listener. That’s the spirit of singing — and he definitely has it.
June 10th, 1910 (died January 10th, 1976)
“Smoke Stack lightning,” “Back Door Man,” “I Asked for Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)”
Robert Plant, Captain Beefheart, Tom Waits
John Fogerty was nine when he first heard Howlin’ Wolf’s sandpaper voice on the radio. “It was just so powerful, and so mystical and spooky,” he says. Wolf’s preternatural croak on tracks like 1956’s “Smoke Stack Lightning” and 1961’s “Back Door Man” would inspire British Invasion bands such as the Yardbirds and the Rolling Stones, not to mention Fogerty’s own Creedence Clearwater Revival: “We followed his career the way that we would later follow Elvis and Buddy Holly,” he says. Wolf’s greatest legacy was the sense of soulful menace that singers like Fogerty would try to approximate. “When I heard Howlin’ Wolf,” said legendary Sun Records producer Sam Phillips, “I said, ‘This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.’ “
June 7th, 1958
Little Red Corvette,” “When Doves Cry,” “Kiss”
OutKast, D’Angelo, Gwen Stefani, Kevin Barnes
“Prince is the boldest black singer in postmodern music, hands down,” says Roots drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson. “His voice has multiple personalities, he’s fearless, and when he screams, he truly sounds like he’s crazy.” Indeed, that throat-shredding climax to “The Beautiful Ones” sure feels like a man who has lost his mind — it’s as convincing as the passion dripping from the lighter-than-air falsetto in “Adore,” the pure-rock shouting of “Let’s Go Crazy” or the robotic deadpan of “When Doves Cry.” “His vocals are just limitless,” says Lenny Kravitz. “There’s the androgynous, very feminine Prince, there’s the James Brown-style Prince, the gospel Prince, the rock & roll Prince. He has so many different textures and dimensions with his voice — and everything is funky.”
February 21st, 1933 (died April 21st, 2003)
“Mississippi Goddam,” “Four Women,” “I Wish Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free”
Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, Erykah Badu
“White people had Judy Garland — we had Nina,” Richard Pryor once said. Nina Simone’s honey-coated, slightly adenoidal cry was one of the most affecting voices of the civil rights movement — “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” is still heartbreaking, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” life-affirming. She could belt barroom blues, croon cabaret and explore jazz — sometimes all on a single record. “I heard her sing a song in French — I didn’t even know what she was saying, and I started crying,” says Mary J. Blige, who will play Simone in an upcoming feature film. “Then she goes from that to ‘Mississippi Goddam,’ singing it like a church record, but she’s cursing out the system. Nina could sing anything, period.”
January 19th, 1943 (died October 4th, 1970)
“Piece of My Heart,” “Cry Baby,” “Me and Bobby McGee”
Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow, Lucinda Williams
“She was shaking that shake that she did, and was screaming. I’d never seen anything like it,” says Melissa Etheridge of seeing Janis Joplin on “The Ed Sullivan Show” back in 1969. Joplin’s gravelly rasp, over the psychedelic blues of Big Brother and the Holding Company (on 1968’s breakthrough Cheap Thrills), and the rough-hewn country soul on her later solo albums, represented an entirely different approach for female vocalists: wild and uninhibited yet still focused and deliberate. Her performances were more about passionate abandon and nuanced phrasing than perfect pitch. “She would just kinda sing and scream and cry,” says Etheridge, “and she’d sound like an old black woman — which is exactly what she was trying to sound like.”
September 17th, 1923 (died January 1st, 1953)
“Lovesick Blues,” “Cold, Cold Heart,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”
George Jones, Buddy Holly, Dwight Yoakam, Willie Nelson
“At first listen, Hank may not sound like a real good singer,” says Merle Haggard, “but he had a unique method of sincerity. I never heard anything Hank sang that I didn’t believe.” More than any other voice, the warm, nasally moan of Hank Williams — with its upbeat hiccup and downcast cry — defines country. His most famous songs, from “Hey, Good Lookin'” to “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” set the template for all subsequent country music — and not just a little rock and soul. “He sounds like his heart is breaking,” says Rhett Miller of the Old 97’s. “It’s so perfect, so unfiltered, and he really embraced his hillbilly. He pronounced ‘can’t’ like ‘cain’t’ and ‘still’ like ‘steel.’ You don’t hear that kind of regionalism anymore. We’ve lost that.”
June 9th, 1934 (died January 21st, 1984)
“Lonely Teardrops,” “That’s Why (I Love You So),” “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher”
Al Green, Ben E. King, Bobby Darin, Michael Jackson
Jackie Wilson remains unmatched in the category of loosened-tie, high-energy rhythm & blues vocalists. The operatic drama in his voice, his on-the-beat phrasing and his clear, high range on late-Fifties hits like “Reet Petite” and “Lonely Teardrops” influenced everyone from Al Green to Elvis Presley. “Oh, God, was he exciting,” says Sam Moore, of soul’s dynamic duo Sam and Dave. “One time I was watching him from the wings at the Apollo, singing, ‘You better stop . . . yeaahh!’ — and he twists, jumps, falls into a split and slides back up holding the note — ‘your doggin’ around!’ James Brown could do that, but he was a shouter. Jackie Leroy Wilson had a pure voice. He was a complete singer within himself.”
August 29th, 1958
“I Want You Back” (the Jackson 5), “Billie Jean,” “Man in the Mirror” (solo)
Justin Timberlake, Chris Brown, Usher
Michael Jackson is a perfect storm of innate talent and training. His singing as a child is astounding: He just nailed “I Want You Back” — there’s maybe one bum note on that song, which is crazy to me, because he was only 11 years old.
One of the key elements of his style is how he uses his voice as an instrument. His signature grunts — “ugh,” “ah” and all that — are rhythmic things that guitar players or drummers usually do. He’s one of the most rhythmic singers ever — Prince emulated James Brown a lot more, but Michael Jackson approximated it more naturally.
And he has insane range. I can sing pretty high, but I had to drop “Beat It” a half step when I sang it. He sings this incredibly high note — I think it’s a high C or even a high C-sharp, which no one can hit — on “Beat It,” as well as “Billie Jean” and “Thriller.” What people don’t realize is that he can go pretty deep too. You hear that on “Burn This Disco Out,” on Off the Wall — he goes deep into his range, which blows me away.
When somebody gets as big as he did, you lose sight of how avant-garde and revolutionary they are, but Michael Jackson pushed the boundaries of pop and R&B. Think about it: On “Beat It,” you had an R&B singer doing a full-on rock song with Eddie Van Halen. Or the intro on “Man in the Mirror”: He’s got this reverb in his voice, and any time he goes “uh!” it goes for miles. To me, that’s up there with some Brian Eno shit. That’s how far out there it is.
August 31st, 1945
“Brown Eyed Girl,” “Moondance,” “Tupelo Honey”
Elvis Costello, Bono, Bruce Springsteen, Ray LaMontagne
John Lee Hooker called Van Morrison “my favorite white blues singer.” Morrison has left his mark on over 40 years’ worth of rock, blues, folk, jazz and soul, as well as several genres that only really exist on his records. He’s the most painterly of vocalists, a master of unexpected phrasing whose voice can transform lyrics into something abstract and mystical — most famously on his repetition of “. . . and the love that loves the love . . .,” on “Madame George,” from Astral Weeks. Morrison’s growls and ululations inspired singers from Bob Seger to Bruce Springsteen to Dave Matthews. Sometimes they can even be an overwhelming influence: Bono said that he had to stop listening to Morrison’s records before making U2’s The Unforgettable Fire because “I didn’t want his very original soul voice to overpower my own.”
January 8th, 1947
“Life on Mars?” “Fame,” “Space Oddity,” “Heroes
Morrissey, Scott Weiland, Trent Reznor
There are singers with a more naturally beautiful voice than David Bowie’s dramatic, powdery, British-accented baritone, but nobody else in rock is as gifted at acting in song. Before he became a pop star, he studied theater, which served him well: Every great Bowie song has a specific persona behind it. His chameleonic transformations aren’t just in his appearance but also in his voice, from the androgynous curlicues at the edges of his Ziggy Stardust vocals to the Philly-soul affectations of Young Americans to the hard-boiled crooning of his Eighties arena-rock period. Bowie always keeps his cool, but as anyone who’s ever crashed and burned trying to sing “Ashes to Ashes” at karaoke can tell you, he’s a phenomenally agile singer — as his longtime collaborator Carlos Alomar said, “This dude can wail.”
January 25th, 1938
“At Last,” “Sunday Kind of Love,” “Tell Mama”
Janis Joplin, Bonnie Raitt, Christina Aguilera
“There’s a lot going on in Etta James’ voice,” says Bonnie Raitt. “A lot of pain, a lot of life but, most of all, a lot of strength.” James is often thought of as the ultimate blues mama, her voice a steamroller fueled by brass and sass. But as the lush, soaring “At Last,” a Number Two R&B hit in 1961, reveals every time it’s played as first dance at a wedding, James — still going strong in her sixth decade of performing despite a notoriously hard-knock life — isn’t limited to wailing; she’s equally powerful and entirely distinctive whether she’s singing pop, jazz, ballads or rock. “She can be so raucous and down one song, and then break your heart with her subtlety and finesse the next,” says Raitt. “As raw as Etta is, there’s a great intelligence and wisdom in her singing.”
February 26th, 1932 (died September 12th, 2003)
“Ring of Fire,” “I Walk the Line,” “Folsom Prison Blues”
Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, Steve Earle
Johnny cash “sounds like he’s at the edge of the fire,” Bob Dylan wrote in Chronicles. “Johnny’s voice was so big, it made the world grow small.” The Man in Black’s rolling, stentorian baritone is one of the defining voices in American music, from his earliest singles for Sun Records through his commercial prime in the Sixties and Seventies to his Nineties rebirth. He approached novelty songs such as “A Boy Named Sue” and “One Piece at a Time” as seriously as he did gospel music. “I’d been hearing ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ my whole life, but when I heard Johnny sing it, it dawned on me what it was about,” says his collaborator Rick Rubin. “It took on a whole new resonance and meaning. He said the words in a way that you really trusted them.”
February 19th, 1940
“The Tracks of My Tears,” “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” (the Miracles), “Cruisin’ ” (solo)
Al Green, Linda Ronstadt, Mick Jagger
“With his tone and delivery, you could fall in love with Smokey,” says fellow Motown star Martha Reeves. As a teenager, Robinson wanted to sing Platters-style doo-wop, but he ended up inventing his own vocal style, even as he and Berry Gordy Jr. created the Motown sound: His high, delicate delivery marked him as not so much a tenor as a male soprano, able to glide into a heartbreaking falsetto that remains one of the most distinctive sounds of 20th-century pop. On Miracles hits like “The Tracks of My Tears,” “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” and especially “Ooo Baby Baby” (with its near-wordless but endlessly affecting chorus), that voice made the thrills and heartbreaks of romance sound equally seductive. Said Paul McCartney, “Smokey Robinson was like God in our eyes.”
February 6th, 1945 (died May 11th, 1981)
“No Woman, No Cry,” “Redemption Song,” “I Shot the Sheriff”
Bono, Lauryn Hill, Buju Banton
To talk only about Bob Marley’s singing voice would negate what makes him one of the greatest voices of our time — why his voice is stamped in our history. He sang about heavy ideas, and he put them out there so delicately and so lightly, with such a generous groove, a generous feel and a generous voice. He didn’t sing correctly; he wasn’t trained, but he had a beautiful voice, a lot like one of my other favorite singers of all time, Marvin Gaye. If they had more similar accents and had sung in more similar styles, you’d hear it.
It’s hard to separate his voice from what he was singing about. Bob Marley sang with a great deal of power — enough to shake the foundations of his country’s government. A measure of a great singer is getting a message across, saying things that otherwise won’t be heard. And in a world that has ways of shutting down people that talk about peace and love, Bob Marley could get that message across and inspire us. It’s rare that something so serious and so beautiful as his music can rise as clearly to the top as he did. His voice is one of the most important inspirations of our time — he was the voice of oppressed people all over the world.
September 5th, 1946 (died November 24th, 1991)
“We Are the Champions,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “You’re My Best Friend”
Axl Rose, Joe Elliott, George Michael
He’s “the most inspirational frontman of all time,” says My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way. A hard-rock hammerer, a disco glitterer, a rockabilly lover boy, Freddie Mercury was dynamite with a laser beam, his four-octave range overdubbed into a shimmering wall of sound on records such as “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Killer Queen.” Even as he was dying, Mercury threw himself into his majestic, operatic singing. Queen’s Brian May recalls that Mercury could hardly walk when the band recorded “The Show Must Go On” in 1990. “I said, ‘Fred, I don’t know if this is going to be possible to sing,’ ” May says. “And he went, ‘I’ll fucking do it, darling’ — vodka down — and went in and killed it, completely lacerated that vocal.”
November 26th, 1939
“Proud Mary,” “River Deep — Mountain High,” “What’s Love Got to Do With It”
Beyoncé, Mick Jagger, Mary J. Blige
“I’ll never forget the first time I saw [Tina] perform,” said Beyoncé. “I never in my life saw a woman so powerful, so fearless.” Turner started touring with the Ike and Tina Turner Revue almost half a century ago; her breakthrough was their blazing 1971 cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary,” which included the declaration that she never does anything “nice and easy.” “She was so direct, so raw,” says John Fogerty, who wrote the song. Age has only deepened the ache and grit in her powerhouse cries and moans during her long career as a solo artist. Melissa Etheridge said that Turner’s voice defies classification. “You can’t say soul, R&B, rock & roll,” Etheridge said. “She’s all of it! She can squeeze passion from any line.”
Born July 26th, 1943
Key Tracks “Gimme Shelter,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Satisfaction”
Influenced Jack White, Steven Tyler, Iggy Pop
I sometimes talk to people who sing perfectly in a technical sense who don’t understand Mick Jagger. But what he does is so complex: His sense of pitch and melody is really sophisticated. His vocals are stunning, flawless in their own kind of perfection. There are certain songs where he just becomes a different person. Take “Angie”: I’ve never heard that tone from him since, and it wasn’t there before. And I love when he sings falsetto, like on “Emotional Rescue” or “Fool to Cry.”
I like him best when he’s singing super-raw. When I co-produced “God Gave Me Everything” [for Goddess in the Doorway], he did what he thought would be a scratch vocal. He barely knew the lyric — he was reading off a piece of paper. There were no stops, just one take. Bam! It ended up being the vocal we used on the record.
Mick is a disciplined artist, completely dedicated to his craft. His voice has changed somewhat and has a different texture, but it’s stronger now. One time the Stones were on tour, and during a two-week break Mick and I went on vacation in the Bahamas. We’d hang out during the day, go to the beach, shop at the market, cook dinner, drink wine. In the evening he would go to the bottom floor of the place where we were staying and put on a Rolling Stones soundcheck tape — just the band playing songs without him singing. He would stay down there, dancing and singing to keep himself in shape. Your voice is like a muscle. If you’re on the road and you stop for two weeks and then go back to do a show, you’re going to get hoarse. So he was down there every night practicing. As a result, at 65 years of age, he’s stronger than ever.
The beauty of that experience was sitting in a living room hearing “Brown Sugar” and “Satisfaction” live through the floor. That was my entertainment every night. It was very surreal.
August 20th, 1948
“Dazed and Confused,” “Immigrant Song,” “Sea of Love”
David Lee Roth, Freddie Mercury, Tori Amos, Axl Rose
As a teenager in the English Midlands, Robert Plant was obsessed with the rawest American blues. “When I saw Sleepy John Estes and heard that voice — part pain, part otherworldly — I went, ‘I want that voice,’ ” Plant told Rolling Stone in 2006. Somehow, he got that voice, and more: The unearthly howl he unleashed with Led Zeppelin was a bluesman crossed with a Viking deity. Singing like a girl never seemed so masculine, and countless hard-rock singers would shred their vocal cords reaching for the notes Plant gained by birthright. “His voice is picturesque,” says collaborator Alison Krauss. “It sounds so new and so old at the same time, with this crazy European mystery to it.”
April 13th, 1946
“Let’s Stay Together,” “Love and Happiness,” “Tired of Being Alone”
Prince, the Bee Gees, Justin Timberlake
Al Green’s voice sits at the perfect point between romance and sex: “Most black singers go zero to 100, rushing to the big payoff,” says Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson of the Roots. “But Al Green is like a soufflÃ© that takes 45 minutes to rise.” He was the last dominant singer of the soul era, but he sounded nothing like his predecessors. His pristine falsetto could explode into joy on “Let’s Stay Together” or create almost unbearable tension on “Simply Beautiful.” Green’s vulnerability and suave sexuality were rewarded with 13 Top 10 hits during the early Seventies, and lost none of their impact during his subsequent return to gospel music. “He takes amazing advantage of silence,” says Thompson, who produced Lay It Down, Green’s most recent album. “Quiet is his strength.”
April 23rd, 1936 (died December 6th, 1988)
“Oh, Pretty Woman,” “You Got It,” “Only the Lonely”
Bruce Springsteen, Chris Isaak, k.d. lang
Tom Petty called him “probably the greatest singer in the world.” Another of his fellow Traveling Wilburys, Bob Dylan, said he had “the voice of a professional criminal.” Roy Orbison shared rockabilly roots with Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley — he recorded the bopping “Ooby Dooby” at Sun Records in 1956 — before his soaring, symphonic vocals brought a new level of majesty and mystery to rock in the early Sixties. “Songs like ‘Leah’ and ‘In Dreams’ start out challenging, then just climb and climb into the stratosphere,” says protÃ©gÃ© Chris Isaak. Dion, who toured with Orbison, says that he actually sang very softly: “I’d be two feet away, and when he hit those high notes, it was quiet and heartfelt. But the emotion would go through you like a power drill.”
December 5th, 1932
“Tutti-Frutti,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” “Long Tall Sally”
James Brown, Prince, Paul McCartney
“When I heard [‘Long Tall Sally’], it was so great I couldn’t speak,” said John Lennon. “I didn’t want to leave Elvis, but this was so much better.” Richard Penniman grew up wailing gospel in church in Macon, Georgia, and he carried his feverish foundation with him into rock & roll: On songs like “Lucille” and “Tutti-Frutti,” he sounded like a preacher wrestling the devil to the ground. When he belted, “I’m gonna rip it up/I’m gonna shake it up” in 1956, Richard wasn’t just singing about the weekend — his falsetto shrieks were demolishing the rules of pop singing. It was a voice that leapt with a fury out of transistor radios, leaving scorch marks on an entire generation of singers and musicians. Said Jimi Hendrix, who played in Richard’s backing band, “I want to do with my guitar what Little Richard does with his voice.”
June 18th, 1942
“Yesterday,” “Hey Jude,” “Maybe I’m Amazed”
Elton John, Rod Stewart, Elvis Costello
“Paul is like an impressionist painter,” says James Taylor, who had the privilege of watching the Beatles record the White Album in 1968. “The pieces of his music are so elementary, yet the overall thing is so sophisticated. He’s such a precise and controlled singer.” On songs from the Beatles’ frenzied “I’m Down” to his own “Maybe I’m Amazed,” McCartney revealed himself as one of rock’s most agile and melodic screamers. But McCartney, who learned vocal harmonies from his musician father, is at least as gifted as a balladeer, drawing on British music-hall sounds from his childhood as much as Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers for songs such as “Yesterday” and “Michelle.” “People chose Lennon or McCartney,” says Taylor. “I was definitely on the McCartney side. He makes a beautiful sound.”
Born May 3rd, 1933 (died December 25th, 2006)
Key Tracks “I Got You (I Feel Good),” “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “The Payback,” “Give It Up or Turnit a Loose”
Influenced Michael Jackson, Sly Stone, Prince, George Clinton
For me, James Brown was never just the voice. It was the whole package. But the impact of that voice gave me hope, because it was a simple presentation and didn’t trade on range. And there was that scream. It was like an inner voice. It sounded like an assertion of rights of primitive man: “I am alive, and I can do things.” He used to describe his dancing as “African nerve control.” He had a point.
If you go back to his early recordings, he was trying to sing standards. He didn’t quite have what it took. The first time I heard him was on Live at the Apollo, from a few years later. I was working at a record store. Apollo has still got a lot of formal songs on it — “Try Me,” “Lost Someone.” But what really blew my mind and influenced my thinking was the continuity of the performance. You have the long introduction and the incredibly detailed entrance music. And when James comes in, he does a lot of holding back, with dynamic effect, loud and soft. In “Lost Someone,” there’s this opiate repetition where the band is going back and forth on two chords, and he’s saying, “I’ll love you tomorrow,” on and on. Then all of a sudden, he goes, “Uh!” He whacks you, and the band replies. Nothing is casual, but it doesn’t sound forced or straitjacketed.
He was a terrific editor. The one that flipped me out — I still remember being in the car, hearing it — is “I Can’t Stand It.” He was down to fuck the chorus, fuck the melody. This is barely a riff. But he pushes the group along like the coxswain on a Roman galley: Stroke, motherfucker, uh!
He always has an edge in his ballads where he lets you know it’s real. There’s a lesser-known one called “Mama’s Dead,” from Black Caesar. It just kills me. At the end, after he’s sung all these heavy things, he just says, “Everybody got a mother, and you know what I’m talkin’ about.” Or in the chorus of “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” — a lesser artist would say, “It wouldn’t mean nothin’ without a woman.” Or “without a girl.” But they wouldn’t say both. And it’s not just a lyric. He is singing something primitive and basic. He tells you how society runs. Man makes this, this is how money works. Maybe that comes from being somebody who didn’t have many things when he started out. The part in his autobiography that always gets me is when he lived with his dad, tapping the pine trees for rosin. You’re down to real poverty.
The big thing I got from him was, don’t just stand there and look at your shoe. Fuck that. It had to be like something’s going on here. He always sounds like he’s breaking loose. Once you’ve made the decision to go out in front of people and start moving around, it frees up so many things. You’re now creating movement in a society that’s based on order. And within yourself, you feel different. That motion makes you make decisions as a vocalist, decisions that free you from the stilted stuff.
In those situations, music has a cathartic power, and the guys who do it, they know that. That’s why James Brown could call himself Soul Brother Number One — and nobody ever said he was bragging.
May 13th, 1950
“Superstition,” “Sir Duke,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours”
Donny Hathaway, Maxwell, Adam Levine
To me, Stevie Wonder’s voice always sounds like tears of joy — like he’s right on the verge of crying, but it’s out of glee and peace, as opposed to the pain of someone like a Sly Stone.
There’s a richness to his voice, a clarity to all of its inflections. That vibrato is so impactful and piercing, but he never loses that underlying straightforward singing voice. His lack of sight must heighten his other senses, his ability to imagine and feel. It makes his music very visual, very graphic.
The first time I remember hearing Stevie Wonder was when I heard him singing “Fingertips,” in the movie Cooley High. I was in awe of this child’s ability to see himself so clearly and be so sure of himself so young. Then I had to go back and discover Stevie Wonder as a whole. My uncle had an album collection, so I had seen Talking Book and Innervisions, but I knew the covers before I knew the music. I got turned on to his amazing performances like “Superwoman,” “I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It” and, of course, “Ribbon in the Sky” — that song is so simple, but it’s so significant. His voice has so much variation and such diversity.
His confidence and his sense of self are just supernatural. Stevie Wonder knows exactly who he is, what role and responsibility he’s been given. But he revels in being chosen, singled out, and that’s what makes him who he is. He’s like a miracle.
September 9th, 1941 (died December 10th, 1967)
“(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” “These Arms of Mine,” “Try a Little Tenderness”
Al Green, Toots Hibbert, Chris Robinson
The first time i saw Otis, i had no idea who he was. It was on the sidewalk at 926 East McLemore Avenue in Memphis, which was Stax Rec-ords. This guy was unloading equipment and suitcases from a station wagon, taking it into the studio. He was a driver for the singer Johnny Jenkins. I didn’t see him much the rest of the day until later, when he asked for his audition. He sang “These Arms of Mine.” It was in B-flat.
It didn’t seem like an audition at all. It was a performance. It wasn’t the size of his voice — we knew lots of people with vocal powers like that. It was the intent with which he sang. He was all emotion. It was like, “This guy is definitely not singing for the money.” I don’t think he ever did.
Range was not a factor in his singing. His range was somewhat limited. He had no really low notes and no really high notes. But Otis would do anything that implied emotion, and that’s where his physicality came in, because he was such a strong, powerful man. Backstage, he would be like a prizefighter waiting to get out there. Playing “Respect” live with him was just energy and relentless joy.
Without singing, Otis was more distracted, not sure of himself. He couldn’t make the same movements in the studio when he sang. He was more restricted. You got the impression, though. He would do that thing where he stomped the left foot, then the right. And we all played with more intensity around him. He had that magnetism — “I’m a man!” — and he knew it, too. “These Arms of Mine” is still Otis’ signature song for me. It is so simple in its beauty and message. Here is a young man singing to a girl: “If you would even consider being with me, how happy I would be.” That’s such a basic emotion. That’s how he sang it, and that’s what got him over.
May 24th, 1941
“Like a Rolling Stone,” “Lay Lady Lay,” “Visions of Johanna”
John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Conor Oberst
Bob Dylan did what very, very few singers ever do. He changed popular singing. And we have been living in a world shaped by Dylan’s singing ever since. Almost no one sings like Elvis Presley anymore. Hundreds try to sing like Dylan. When Sam Cooke played Dylan for the young Bobby Womack, Womack said he didn’t understand it. Cooke explained that from now on, it’s not going to be about how pretty the voice is. It’s going to be about believing that the voice is telling the truth.
To understand Bob Dylan’s impact as a singer, you have to imagine a world without Tom Waits, Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Vedder, Kurt Cobain, Lucinda Williams or any other vocalist with a cracked voice, dirt-bowl yelp or bluesy street howl. It is a vast list, but so were the influences on Dylan, from the Talmudic chanting of Allen Ginsberg in “Howl” to the deadpan Woody Guthrie and Lefty Frizzell’s murmur. There is certainly iron ore in there, and the bitter cold of Hibbing, Minnesota, blowing through that voice. It’s like a knotted fist, and it allows Dylan to sing the most melancholy tunes and not succumb to sentimentality. What’s interesting is that later, as he gets older, the fist opens up, to a vulnerability. I have heard him sing versions of “Idiot Wind” where he was definitely the idiot.
I first heard Bob Dylan’s voice in the dark, when I was 13 years old, on my friend’s record player. It was his greatest-hits album, the first one. The voice was at once modern, in all the things it was railing against, and very ancient. It felt strangely familiar to an Irishman. We thought America was full of superheroes, but it was a much humbler people in these songs — farmers, people who have had great injustices done to them. The really unusual thing about Bob Dylan was that, for a moment in the Sixties, he felt like the future. He was the Voice of a Generation, raised against the generation that came before. Then he became the voice of all the generations, the voices in the ground — these ghosts from the Thirties and the Dust Bowl, the romance of Gershwin and the music hall. For me, the pictures of him in his polka-dot shirt, the Afro and pointy shoes — that was a brief flash of lightning. His voice is usually put to the service of more ancient characters.
Here are some of the adjectives I have found myself using to describe that voice: howling, seducing, raging, indignant, jeering, imploring, begging, hectoring, confessing, keening, wailing, soothing, conversational, crooning. It is a voice like smoke, from cigar to incense, where it’s full of wonder and worship. There is a voice for every Dylan you can meet, and the reason I’m never bored of Bob Dylan is because there are so many of them, all centered on the idea of pilgrimage. People forget that Bob Dylan had to warm up for Dr. King before he made his great “I have a dream” speech — the preacher preceded by the pilgrim. Dylan has tried out so many personas in his singing because it is the way he inhabits his subject matter. His closet won’t close for all the shoes of the characters that walk through his stories.
I love that album Shot of Love. There’s no production. You’re in a room hearing him sing. And I like a lot of the songs that he worked on with Daniel Lanois — “Series of Dreams,” “Most of the Time,” “Dignity.” That is the period where he moves me most. The voice becomes the words. There is no performing, just life — as Yeats says, when the dancer becomes the dance.
Dylan did with singing what Brando did with acting. He busted through the artifice to get to the art. Both of them tore down the prissy rules laid down by the schoolmarms of their craft, broke through the fourth wall, got in the audience’s face and said, “I dare you to think I’m kidding.”
April 2nd, 1939 (died April 1st, 1984)
“What’s Going On,” “Let’s Get It On,” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”
D’Angelo, R. Kelly, Usher
There’s no sound like Marvin Gaye: the way he sang so softly, almost gently — but also with so much power. That came straight from the heart. Everything in his life — everything that he thought and felt — affected his singing.
The first time I was really introduced to Marvin Gaye was the What’s Going On album, and I fell in love. It was so moving to hear him talk so desperately about the state of the world, on top of all that brilliant musicality. One of my favorite things he did was to follow the strings with his voice, or double things that the instruments are doing. There’s such a simple, subtle lushness to it that adds this whole other layer to the music.
These days we have Pro Tools and a thousand tracks, and you can do different vocals on every track. But back then you really had to innovate, like the way Marvin answered himself in songs, or all that really distant backing work, where his voice is all the way in the back and echoing. It’s haunting; he delivered every single song with such clarity that it gave me chills.
The live version of “Distant Lover” has to be one of the most incredible performances ever captured on tape. You can feel his confidence, his yearning — you can imagine his movements. The entire audience is hanging on his every word; he’s teasing them the whole time. That’s what makes Marvin Gaye immortal: the emotion that he evokes. What’s Going On changed my whole world — my life, my songwriting style, everything.
October 9th, 1940 (died December 8th, 1980)
“I Feel Fine,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Imagine,” “Instant Karma”
Bono, Neil Young, Liam Gallagher
There was a tremendous intimacy in everything John Lennon did, combined with a formidable intellect. That is what makes him a great singer. In “Girl,” on Rubber Soul, he starts in this steely, high voice: “Is there anybody going to listen to my story. . . .” It’s so impassioned, like somebody stepping from the shadows in a room. But when he comes to the chorus, you suddenly realize: He’s talking directly to her. When I heard this, as a young teenager, it hit the nail on the head. It embodied the feelings I was living with every day — completely burning with sexual desire, with almost a regret at being so overpowered.
He had a confidence, a certainty about what he was feeling that carried over into everything he sang. One of the things about John Lennon and the Beatles that went by a lot of people was how unusual it was for people in their class, from Liverpool, to be catapulted into the higher reaches of entertainment and society, without disguising their working-class roots and voices. It was such an audacious thing to do, not to change who they were. That was the heart of John Lennon’s singing — to say who he was and where he was from.
He didn’t sing very loud. I got that sense when I was learning “Oh My Love,” on Imagine. That song has to be done quietly, which turns out to be a feat of strength. It’s ironic — to sing high and quiet, you have to be physically strong. In “I’m Only Sleeping,” on Revolver, he sounds sleepy, like he’s half in bed as he sings. Or “I’m So Tired,” on the White Album — there is an irritableness to it. These songs live in you because of the remarkable facility of the singer to inhabit those moments and portray them. “Imagine” is a masterful performance. He inhabits that idea — our innermost longing for a world in which peace is real — when he sings it. And it is sung with fearlessness, without erring on either side — polemic or sappy. It’s wonderful to have an idea expressed so well that everybody can sing it. That’s a song he made you want to sing.
The more he developed as a writer, he was able to show his voice in various contexts. There is a thrilling aloneness in the way he sings “A Day in the Life.” His singing on John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band is to the bone. He willed himself to express his pain: “Mother/You had me/But I never had you.” It’s a crushing depiction that stays with you forever. Double Fantasy is less tortured — there is a lot of happiness there. The singing is just beautiful, perhaps more the product of singing at home, to his son. John Lennon went through a lot to have the life he had. He gave up some things to get others. And he died before a lot of those themes could be examined.
But it was a stunning thing — he always told the truth. He felt he had the right to talk about this stuff, and that gives his voice a singular identity. It’s not the chops of a heralded singer — no one goes on about his actual technique. He went right to what he felt, what he had to say.
January 22nd, 1931 (died December 11th, 1964)
“A Change Is Gonna Come,” “Bring It on Home to Me,” “You Send Me”
Otis Redding, Art Garfunkel, Rod Stewart
If a singer is not singing from the soul, I do not even want to listen to it — it’s not for me.
Sam Cooke reached down deep with pure soul. He had the rare ability to do gospel the way it’s supposed to be — he made it real, clean, direct. Gospel drove Sam Cooke through his greatest songs, the same way it did for Ray Charles, who came first, and Otis Redding.
He had an incomparable voice. Sam Cooke could sing anything and make it work. But when you’re talking about his strength as a singer, range is not relevant. It was his power to deliver — it was about his phrasing, the totality of his singing.
He did a lot of great songs, but “Bring It on Home to Me” is a favorite. It’s just a well-crafted song with a great lyric and melody. It’s a song that’s written to allow you to go wherever you can with it. “A Change Is Gonna Come” is another song I covered; it’s a great arrangement.
Not many people can play this music anymore, not the way Sam Cooke did it, coming directly from the church. What can we learn from a singer like him, from listening to songs like “A Change Is Gonna Come”? It depends on who the singer is and what they are capable of, where their head is and how serious they are. But Sam Cooke was born to sing.
January 8th, 1935 (died August 16th, 1977)
“Mystery Train,” “Hound Dog,” “Suspicious Minds”
Bono, Bruce Springsteen
There is a difference between people who sing and those who take that voice to another, otherworldly place, who create a euphoria within themselves. It’s transfiguration. I know about that. And having met Elvis, I know he was a transformer.
The first Elvis song I heard was “Hound Dog.” I wasn’t equipped with any of the knowledge I have now, about the Big Mama Thornton version or where all that swing was coming from. I just heard this voice, and it was absolutely, totally in its own place. The voice was confident, insinuating and taking no prisoners. He had those great whoops and diving moments, those sustains that swoop down to the note like a bird of prey. I took all that in. You can hear that all over Led Zeppelin.
When I met Elvis with Zeppelin, after one of his concerts in the early Seventies, I sized him up. He wasn’t quite as tall as me. But he had a singer’s build. He had a good chest — that resonator. And he was driven. “Anyway You Want Me” is one of the most moving vocal performances I’ve ever heard. There is no touching “Jailhouse Rock” and the stuff recorded at the King Creole sessions. I can study the Sun sessions as a middle-aged guy looking back at a bloke’s career and go, “Wow, what a great way to start.” But I liked the modernity of the RCA stuff. “I Need Your Love Tonight” and “A Big Hunk o’ Love” were so powerful — those sessions sounded like the greatest place to be on the planet.
At that meeting, Jimmy Page joked with Elvis that we never soundchecked — but if we did, all I wanted to do was sing Elvis songs. Elvis thought that was funny and asked me, “Which songs do you sing?” I told him I liked the ones with all the moods, like that great country song “Love Me” — “Treat me like a fool/Treat me mean and cruel/But love me.” So when we were leaving, after a most illuminating and funny 90 minutes with the guy, I was walking down the corridor. He swung ’round the door frame, looking quite pleased with himself, and started singing that song: “Treat me like a fool. . . .” I turned around and did Elvis right back at him. We stood there, singing to each other.
By then, because of the forces around him, it was difficult for him to stretch out with more contemporary songwriters. When he died, he was 42. I’m 18 years older than that now. But he didn’t have many fresh liaisons to draw on — his old pals weren’t going to bring him the new gospel. I know he wanted to express more. But what he did was he made it possible for me, as a singer, to become otherworldly.VIEW COMPLETE LIST
September 23rd, 1930 (died June 10th, 2004)
“What’d I Say, Pts. 1 & 2,” “I Got a Woman,” “You Don’t Know Me,” “Georgia on My Mind”
Van Morrison, Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder
Ray Charles had the most unique voice in popular music. He would do these improvisational things, a little laugh or a “Huh-hey!” It was as if something struck him as he was singing and he just had to react to it. He was getting a kick out of what he was doing. And his joy was infectious.
But there was something else I didn’t realize until we sang together in the Eighties, on my song “Baby Grand.” When he sings, he’s not just singing soulfully. He is imparting his soul. You are hearing something deep within the man. I thought it would just turn me into this little nerd from Levittown, New York. But it didn’t. It emboldened me. It was like an evangelical event. He was the minister and I was the congregation. I got all fired up.
Ray started out wanting to be Nat “King” Cole. When Nat went down low in a song, like “Mona Lisa,” there was a growl in there that was kind of sexy. Ray took that to a whole other level. He took the growl and turned it into singing. He took the yelp, the whoop, the grunt, the groan, and made them music.
Also, he was a piano player. The piano is a percussion instrument. You put your body into it. Ray had a lot of unique body movements I didn’t know until I saw him. Before I saw him, I heard those movements as he sang. I heard his shoulder go up a little on the left side, the way he lifted himself off the stool. Then I realized the voice I was hearing was also playing that piano.
The first Ray Charles I heard was Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. He’d had hits before that, the R&B stuff, like “What’d I Say.” But here is a black man giving you the whitest possible music in the blackest possible way, while all hell is breaking loose with the civil rights movement. When he sang “You Don’t Know Me,” I thought, “He isn’t just singing the lyrics. He’s saying, ‘You don’t know me. Get to know me.’ “
He could be very sly with a song. His 1972 version of “America the Beautiful” is an iconic recording. There was so much feeling in his performance. It was his way of saying, “This is my country too. We gave you your popular music. This was ours before it was yours.”
But Ray synthesized the blues into a language everybody could relate to. You can’t listen to Ray Charles and not say, “This is a man who felt deeply, who has lived this music.” He shows you his humanity. The spontaneity is evident. Another guy might say, “That was a mistake, we can’t leave that in.” No, Ray left it in. The mistake became the hook.
Born March 25th, 1942
Key Tracks “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Respect,” “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” “Think,” “Chain of Fools”
Influenced Whitney Houston, Alicia Keys, Aaron Neville, Annie Lennox
You know a force from heaven. You know something that God made. And Aretha is a gift from God. When it comes to expressing yourself through song, there is no one who can touch her. She is the reason why women want to sing.
Aretha has everything — the power, the technique. She is honest with everything she says. Everything she’s thinking or dealing with is all in the music, from “Chain of Fools” to “Respect” to her live performances. And she has total confidence; she does not waver at all. I think her gospel base brings that confidence, because in gospel they do not play around — they’re all about chops, who has the vocal runs. This is no game to her.
As a child, I used to listen to Aretha’s music because my mom played “Do Right Woman” and “Ain’t No Way” every single day. I would see my mother cry when she listened to those songs, and I’d cry too. Then I discovered her on my own with the Sparkle soundtrack. I must have played “Giving Him Something He Can Feel” 30 times in a row; eventually, I connected the dots to that voice my mom was listening to.
Even the way she pronounces words is amazing: In “Giving Him Something He Can Feel,” when she sings, “Many say that I’m too young” — the way she says “I’m,” you can almost see her saying it, like she’s all in your face, but you’re still right with her. You can really visualize her hands when she sings, “You’re tying both of my hands,” on “Ain’t No Way” — it’s the powerful way she hits the word “both.”
When you watch her work, you can see why Aretha is who she is. When we did the song “Don’t Waste Your Time” on my album Mary, she just went in there and ate that record like Pac-Man. She could be doing a church vocal run, and it would turn into some jazz-space thing, something I never encountered before. You’d say, “Where did that come from? Where did she find that note?”
It’s beautiful to see, because it helps people with a lack of confidence in their ability, like myself. I look at her and think, “I need a piece of that. Whatever that is.” —Mary J. Blige
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