“Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home.”
Hard to believe that at one time singers were considered second-class citizens in the music business and it was the bands or orchestras that enjoyed the spotlight. Case in point is the legendary true story of the rise of Frank Sinatra. In 1942, Tommy Dorsey had the second biggest orchestra in the world (Glenn Miller’s outfit was tops) and Frank was his “boy singer”. Dorsey had reeds, brass a rhythm section and singers; boy, girl and group. Sinatra, never lacking in confidence, tired of being part of the ‘factory’ and announced he wanted to go out on his own as a soloist. Well, that just wasn’t done. It was thought that without the powerful name of a bandleader behind you success would prove elusive.
Indeed, before this, successful pop singing vocalists you could count on one hand. Let’s start at the beginning with Al Jolson. Surely you could point to singers that predate him – Enrico Caruso comes to mind – but for our purposes here we’ll stick to singers of popular songs – pop singers. And when it comes to singers at the dawn of the era of recorded sound you have to start with Jolson. As I used to always tell my kids: he was born Asa Yoelson. He was a Lithuanian Jew. Jolson had a unique voice and a unique projection style necessitated by the fact that most halls of the time had no public address system. Jolson, therefore, had to sing to the back rows. Jolson was basically the blueprint for ‘star’: recordings, public performances and eventually films. Jolson holds many distinctions one of which was appearing in the first ‘talking picture’. (The first line? “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” Natch.) Others appearing at this time include Russ Columbo and Rudy Vallee, the former dying young in his prime from a gunshot wound to the head and the latter enjoying a lengthy career in Hollywood. Which brings us up to Harry Lillis Crosby. Bing, to you. Hard to sum up the ‘Crosby phenomenon’ in a few lines. Certainly he revolutionized the art of “mic singing”, using the new technology of amplification and microphones to convey intimacy in his recordings, public appearances and radio performances. It’s always hard to think of anything in it’s original context when it’s become so iconic but Bing’s style and personality were revolutionary. Into the 1950’s, Bing Crosby was perhaps the most successful and legendary performer in the entertainment world. His influence was widespread and landed in no small amount on the skinny shoulders of Sinatra of Hoboken. It terms of sheer grandeur, universal success and historical significance, Bing and Frank (and Louis Armstrong) stand alone. Sinatra’s legend has grown beyond his abilities as a singer or his weight as a Hollywood player. He has come to mean so much more. As the late ’40’s gave way to the ’50’s, a small handful of vocalists cemented their reputations as the best in the business. This short list includes Mel Torme. A supreme craftsman, he also possessed one the best nicknames in entertainment history: the Velvet Fog. And on the ladies side, you would have to cut it down the middle with Ella Fitzgerald on one side and Billie Holiday on the other. And for sheer artistry, longevity and versatility, Judy Garland finishes our short list.
Things definitely changed in the mid-to-late 1950’s with the rise of rhythm and blues and everyone’s favourite ex-truck driver from Tupelo. The Great American Songbook and the art of popular singing had to make room for new styles and new methods of “putting a song over”. Elvis Presley and other rock ‘n’ roll singers captivated listeners not always only with their pure tones and flawless diction but with the right emphasis on the right syllables and a well placed grunt or holler. And some just had a tone that sounded masculine, virile, ‘cool’. Voices began to emerge that would sound great just singing the phone book. I suggest you look into Lou Rawls, Dennis Morton of the Temptations, Wilson Pickett and, later, Al Green. Specific examples I can recommend include Billy Stewart’s take on “Summertime” and the Chairmen of the Board’s “Give Me Just a Little More Time”. Vocals that are simply a joy to listen to.
Pop song craft did not disappear in the rock ‘n’ roll era, however. You can hear this in some performers desire to sing well as opposed to letting a unique style sell their songs. There are some great examples from this era of the “perfectly held note”: when a vocalist goes to a place and it can sound just like a bell. Breath control and purity of pitch are some vital ingredients to achieve this. To illustrate, I encourage you to listen to “Cara Mia” by Jay and the Americans with Jay Black on lead.
And here are some great examples of “the Big Finish”: “Samba de Avio” by Tony Bennett, “Blues in the Night” by Rosemary Clooney, “Shangri-La” by Wayne Newton, “Speak Softly Love” by Andy Williams and Bobby Darin’s version of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”, which was inexplicably unreleased until 30 years after it’s recording. I mention Wayne Newton: yes, his voice has an odd tone but the cat could flat-out swing. His sense of rhythm is undeniable.
The “perfectly held note” brings to mind the use of vibrato, the ‘wobbly’ sound a singer will use when sustaining a note. You’ll have heard this from senior citizen ladies singing in church but also in the voices of Lorne Greene, Marilyn Monroe and some of Elvis Presley’s early ’70’s recordings. This sound can easily get on your nerves. What you need is a singer like the great Tom Jones who often will sustain the note for a time before bringing in the vibrato to ‘finish his thought’. Listen to him hit the last note of “‘Til”.
Then there is the “holler”. As Little Richard will tell you, he was a master at the holler: a jubilant, wordless exclamation that can add excitement and punctuate verses and choruses. Little Richard did not invented this, however, since such moans and groans and ‘Lawd, have mercy”s can be heard in blues and early rhythm and blues songs. But I suggest you listen to ANY of Little Richard’s seminal ’50’s recordings to hear great examples of this. Others include “Wolly Bully” by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)” by Stevie Wonder, Eric Burdon delivers one of the best in the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”, Mike Nesmith delivers a couple of good ones in the Monkees’ “Circle Sky”. Into the seventies, check out King Floyd’s “Groove Me” or Joe Tex and “I Gotcha”. One of the best is Roger Daltrey’s lung-buster in “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. Chris Robinson carries on the tradition as front man of the Black Crowes – check out their song “Remedy”. But the mother of them all – the “Stairway to Heaven” of the ‘holler song’ – is Edwin Starr’s “War”. His well-placed grunts and exclamations are a huge part of what makes this track so listenable. Indeed, they seem a part of the lyrics.
But what of the other side of the coin? What about terrible singers? I know what you’re thinking: a bad singer can’t have a career, right? I say, yes. You say: but it’s all subjective. I agree. And disagree. This hurts me to say because I love Jan and Dean but I have a real problem with Jan Berry’s voice. Funny considering they are basically a vocal duo. But listen to “You Really Know How to Hurt a Guy” and see what you think.
In Jan’s case, and in others, it doesn’t matter what the singer sounds like. And if you look into some lousy male singers they all seem to have ‘other stuff’ going on that make the actual quality of their voices moot. Take Jimi Hendrix: plain voice but who cares with that guitar work? Bob Dylan’s one of the VERY few artists in history who have gone beyond being just a legendary recording artist. He long ago established himself as an iconic contributor to history, culture and society at large. His singing voice has never been ‘pretty’ but it certainly always seems to fit his lyrics and songs. The same could be said for Neil Young’s voice. He also had ‘something to say’ and said it in such a way that the quality of his singing doesn’t factor in and never did. Listen to Geddy Lee of Rush. Few bands have a more devoted fan base than Rush. Few bands have such an insightful, creative and intelligent lyricist as drummer Neil Peart. The trio – add Alex Lifeson on guitar – displays such startling musicianship that the fact that Lee sings ‘less than well’ is almost unnoticeable. The best example of this has to be my main man Tom Waits. Early in his career, his singing voice was just unremarkable and proved a good instrument for his barroom fables. But as his career progressed, his voice took on a violent, rasping growl that made it sound like he gargles with crushed glass. But his songs – and his persona – are unique and beautiful things. The world that he presents in his songs is a fascinating place to go. And sometimes the ravaged voice is a perfect vehicle to express emotion and heartbreak. Case in point is “Anywhere I Lay My Head”, the last track from his seminal “Rain Dogs”. The voice that sings “I don’t need anybody” sounds so utterly devastated, perfectly accentuating the irony of the line.
Call it sexist but it seems that when a woman sings poorly she just sucks. People here in Canada love Anne Murray but her voice has a tone that I can’t stand. Back in the day, I listened to an oldies station non-stop in my apartment. Friends would shrink in fear as I suddenly would leap across the room to turn the radio off at the first seconds of a Murray recording. Of Rita MacNeil I won’t even speak. I used to say that I would rather GO TO BED with Anne Murray than LISTEN to Rita MacNeil. I try to feel positively about Yoko Ono because of her place in history but that howl! The first time I heard Jessica Simpson sing was on one of her TV specials. I thought – seriously – that it was a comedy skit. No, she really sings that way. The biggest mystery of all is Kate Bush. I don’t even know what to say here. So, it seems you have to be a folkie or have a persona-based, create-your-own-world singing style to get away with singing lousy. You could never, for instance, be a crooner with a less-than-stellar voice which is what makes the success of Rod Stewart’s American Songbook recordings such a mystery. Rod’s voice – yesterday’s or today’s – needs to be shouting “Sweet Little Rock ‘n’ Roller” instead of warbling “The Way You Look Tonight”.
Well, that’s all I have to say about that. The point of this post is not necessarily to tell you what’s good or bad but to turn you on to some coolness out there in the world of popular singing. As a last word, you should look into a guy named Michael Cunio. He sings with a group called Under the Streetlamp, a vocal group comprised of men who have sung in touring companies of “Jersey Boys”. If you like to hear someone just stand up there and sing, as I do, check this guy out.