It is the most important instrument in rock and roll and far and away the most underrated.
It takes years to finesse and the cruel irony is that just when most musicians start to master its many nuances, their physical aptitude for it begins to diminish.
It is the voice. The vox. The pipes, the golden throat, the mouthy spitter of words. OK, I made that last one up. It’s late. Cut me some slack.
The delusion persists that while you can teach yourself an instrument like the guitar or the piano, the voice is something you either have or you don’t- you spit out of the womb and either you sound like Aretha Franklin or you’re the next Bea Arthur. Sure, it’s understood that talented people might be able to improve their range with a vocal coach but most are convinced that they either sing like a bird or that they can’t sing for shit. Good luck convincing the latter folk that with a little training they could have million dollar voices.
But they could.
In fact, they have.
The Rock and Roll Hall of (F)Lame is littered with less-than-gifted vocalists who transformed a non-traditional set of pipes into a multi platinum career. Removing cultural context and focusing strictly on the music, the voice defines a band’s sound, no matter how strong or unique the musicians behind it.
Take away Adam Duritz’ plaintive whine and Counting Crows become indistinguishable from a thousand bar bands blowing up Big Ten bars across the midwest. Remove Dave Mustaine’s… well, remove Dave Mustaine’s voice from Megadeth and you’re hearing the kind of high quality speed metal that has since been duplicated thousands of times. Strip away Kurt Cobain’s gravelly rasp and you’re hearing another fuzzed-up, tuned-down gaggle of grumps from Seattle.
Again, we’re looking at the music retroactively, setting aside the cultural importance of these bands. Through the passage of time, as the lines of new genres are drawn and then filled in by the bands who contribute to and copy the sound, it is ultimately the singer that most clearly distinguishes one band from another.
Think about it- how many times have you been in earshot of a radio and the following unfolded:
“Shit. Who is that?”
“That tune? Yeah, that’s um… oh shit, I know it. I’m drawing a blank.”
“We should know this.”
“I know. Wait- hold on, wait’ll the guy starts singing.”
“Yeah, it’s the song that goes… da da DA da da daaaaa… Shit!”
Cue the singer.
“Don’t you love her madly…”
“Jim Morrison! The Doors! Dude, we should have known that with the piano.”
No one is saying that Nirvana is a nondescript grunge clone, nor is anyone questioning Megadeth’s substantial influence on heavy metal. Slash is a phenomenally-influential guitarist whose talents became the backbone of the music of Guns N’ Roses. While the band might not have achieved the heights they did without him, it is Axl Rose’s voice, not Slash’s musicianship, that distinguishes GNR’s sound from any other group in history.
Paradoxically, while individual voices separate one band’s sound from another, hindsight reveals that there are some “voices” that are shared by many vocalists. These voices often become the singular defining characteristic of a genre, but more often than not they suggest that imitation is either the sincerest form of flattery or the baldest expression of laziness.
Here are the most notable voices in rock and roll:
The Affected Southern Drawl
Popularized by blues-influenced acts of the Sixties, The Affected Southern Drawl is essentially the sound of a white man trying to sound like Muddy Waters. Guys like Mick Jagger and Steven Tyler (né Tallarico), from Dartford, England and New York respectively, grew up sounding as much like Spongebob Squarepants as sounding like black blues singers from the South. But they forged immortal vocal identities by mimicking the original blues guys and mixing in their own white boy swagger. As with any other instrument, a performer’s limitations often inform their style, so while those two couldn’t be black, they could rip off as much the hustle and flow as their DNA would allow.
A defining characteristic of this voice is that the practitioners would not be traditionally strong singers but for their mimicry. They compensate for average voices with exaggerated enunciation and elongated vowels, favoring lyrics that are more rhythmic than meaningful.
Nobody, and I mean nobody, took The Affected Southern Drawl as far as Berkeley, California native John Fogerty, whose swampy twang sent Credence Clearwater Revival into superstardom and who still has people thinking that he was born on the bayou.
Opposites include Joe Strummer, Al Barr and Morrissey.
The Dreamy Falsetto
Like Stonehenge, no one really knows where this voice came from but its creamy and effete pitch has guided some of the greatest rock and roll of all time. From Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” to Thom Yorke belting out Radiohead insta-hits like “Karma Police,” The Dreamy Falsetto simulates its own instrument more than any other voice because it is so obviously contrived. None of the people who use this voice sound sound that way in conversation. Nonetheless, while the voice is as patently false as a Florida electoral count, it somehow implies sincerity. And it works. No one thinks Jeff Buckley is having a laugh in his version of “Hallelujiah,” with his soft voice creating an understatement as strong as any line of Marshall stacks. It is a defining moment in twentieth century music. Neil Young took the falsetto one step further, infusing his with anger and vitriol- spitting out fiery anti-establishment rhetoric with the timbre of a ten year old boy.
The Balls-to-the-Wall Belter
This voice comes from guys with naturally strong pipes who have learned to sing from the deepest recesses of their diaphragm. The Balls-to-the-Wall Belter can achieve unthinkable volume while retaining crystalline clarity in his/her voice. Ronnie James Dio was one of the best. In fact, Claudia Friedlander, a clasically-trained voice teacher in New York, was asked to listen to five legendary metal vocalists, all of whom she was unfamiliar with, and to comment on their styles. Of Dio, Friedlander gushed, “he performs with perfect legato, clear diction, and a consistent, organic vibrancy. He arranges his resonance space to create a shallow snarl without setting up any resistance for his breath.” Along with Iron Maiden vocalist Bruce Dickinson, she praises the two for being “so impeccable that they’re each in their own way presenting a manifesto of how to sing well, irrespective of musical genre.”
The classic in this category is The Who’s Roger Daltrey, who infused Pete Townshend’s lyrics with an authentic blue collar bravado that took adequate songs and made them anthemic. Rob Halford (Judas Priest) is another stellar example of this voice, showcasing a tremendous range that has held up remarkably well throughout an exhaustive career.
Janis Joplin and Aretha Franklin are the female embodiments of this voice. All great female vocalists since have been inspired by or flat out copied one of those two legends.
The “I Have No Business Singing, But My Band Fucking Rules”
While guys like Jagger and Tyler figured out ways to create a powerful voice through smoke, mirrors and bald-faced aping, Ozzy Osbourne just used what limited skills he had and made it work for whatever band stood behind him. Most importantly, he sold it. All great bands are ruthless in their personnel decisions, so the fact that Osbourne lasted as long as he did with Black Sabbath with such a marginal voice is a testament to his sonic compatibility with that band. He might not have been traditionally strong, but his voice was the ideal complement to the colossal weight of Sabbath. Likewise, on his own, Joey Ramone couldn’t sing his way out of a paper bag, but with his leather coat, tight jeans and bowl cut hanging over his shades, he was the only voice that could ever work for The Ramones. Likewise, while Frank Sinatra didn’t lose much sleep over Geddy Lee, the latter’s robotic twang suits Rush’s prog-genius far better than any golden throated crooner ever could.
This voice is utterly irreplaceable to the band.*
Nashville Pussy’s Blaine Cartwright is the most extreme example of a vocalist who is utterly devoid of technical singing skills, but whose voice is the perfect complement to richly-talented backing band.
Opposites include anyone in the previous or following categories.
The Voice of God
There are some cats who are possessed of otherworldly voices. Voices so glorious that listening to them makes you feel guilty- like there’s no way you’ve ever done anything to deserve the listening experience you now have. Gregg Allman is pretty much the only guy in this category. Listening to him sing “Stormy Monday” on the Allman Brothers’ 1971 Fillmore East album is like hearing God sing his way out of a really bad hangover. It’s not that his voice is pristine- it’s just raw. It’s as close as anyone will ever get to seeing a man’s soul.
Bob Dylan is Gregg Allman’s vocal opposite.
The Robert Plant
Robert Plant inhabits his own category because he is a Belter with an Affected Southern Drawl often showing flashes of a Voice of God. Admittedly derivative of his heavy blues foundation, his vocals are the blueprint for all great rock vocalists since Led Zeppelin’s self-titled 1969 debut album. The Robert Plant is a veritable showcase of range, often underscored by songs with quiet passages later contrasted with bombastic odes to volume. Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, Wolfmother’s Andrew Stockdale and Graveyard’s Joakim Nilsson are three members of the small group of lucky bastards to have this voice.
Robert Plant’s opposite number, and there’s only one, is Christopher Cross.
Suggesting real talent, yet augmented with an unnecessary affectation, this voice is so good that it can afford to not take itself so seriously. Elvis Presley obscured his natural talents with put-upon accents and enhancements that would have seemed cartoonish had his considerable skills been anything less than obvious. Likewise, Freddie Mercury, despite crippling bouts of self-doubt, knew that his voice was as real as the pyramids, which allowed him to alternate between mountain-sized high notes and campy patter without compromising his integrity. The Fresh-n-Sassy vocalist is cocky enough to have a good time with performing while understanding the need to provide listeners with ample reminders of their qualifications. Robbie Williams and Tina Turner are living examples of this voice.
The Chatty Chatterson
You’ve got to give credit where credit is due. Some vocalists know that they can’t sing and they can’t be bothered with trying to improve. Consequently they talk over the music, lingering between spoken word and halting attempts at singing. The refusal of these vocalists to indulge in traditional singing becomes their artistic expression, effectively insulating them from higher expectations. Lou Reed did what he needed to do without trying to fit his vocals into a more traditional mode, and in the context of New York City’s burgeoning art rock community, it became a manifesto of non-conformity. Nick Cave’s solemn monotone is essential to the morose material he conveys, and Jonathan Richman used non-singing to famously remind the world of the seductive charms of Pablo Picasso, who was never called an “asshole.”
180 degrees from Chatty Chattersons are Christina Aguilera, Elton John and Sebastian Bach– people who would sing their breakfast order just to stretch out their voices.
The Bluesman’s Lament
This voice has been virtually unchanged since it emerged from the Mississippi Delta over a century ago. This voice, plus the sound of a blues shuffle on a beat up acoustic guitar, were the ingredients of rock and roll. Without this simple recipe, there would be no Elvis, Beatles, Cliff Richard, Led Zeppelin, Cannibal Corpse or Lady Gaga. Depending on your sensibilities, these may be good things or bad things but whether it’s problems with your old lady/man, finances, prison or the bottle, there’s a blues song embedded in every trial and tribulation.
The Bluesman’s Lament is a long, soulful voice that sounds like the only thing keeping the singer alive is the promise of one more line to sing. It varies little from singer to singer, which is the appeal- it is the cry of the everyman, from Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy to Stevie Ray Vaughn and Johnny Lang.
The other side of this coin contains the pictures of Katrina Leskanich, Boy George and Katy Perry.
The “A for Efforts”
These are guys who have little in the way of natural talent, but who gamely sing on with such earnesty that you can’t help but root for them. Often it is the musician’s character and/or creative integrity that outweighs their vocal limitations, earning them a hall pass from fans and critics alike. Lemmy sounds like two cats fucking on a chalkboard, but no one cares because he sings honestly and fearlessly and in doing so, not only birthed the speed metal generation, but attracted the respect of some of music’s greatest living legends. On the Americana side, no one’s expecting “Jeff Tweedy Night” anytime soon on <i>American Idol,</i> but it matters not at all because the honesty in his voice and his unrepentant deconstructionist approach to songwriting in his band Wilco has made him a game-changer in modern music. Courtney Love is the female version of this voice. Say what you will about her off-stage exploits but she has released some critically-exalted and commercially-explosive music with her monstrously-limited voice.
For just under two disastrous minutes, Roseanne Barr was the exact opposite of this voice.
Sure, there are outstanding instrumental classics in rock, but the greatest statements in rock and roll are made by the vocalist. The singer enjoys a freedom like no other musician- he can run, strut, taunt and slither across the stage, and while the rest of the band might enjoy a moment in the sun with the odd solo, make no bones about it- the one swinging the microphone is The Man.
My Favorite Vocalists of All Time
Ronnie James Dio
*I know, I know- Ozzy was more than adequately replaced by Ronnie James Dio. But in doing so, Dio did not replace Ozzy in Black Sabbath as much as he created a separate and distinct Black Sabbath. Ozzy could not replace Dio in Black Sabbath any more than he could replace one of the Spice Girls. Two separate Sabbaths led by two very different front men.