List of Best Music Artist of the World
Mary J. Blige
“I can do a record with Elton John, I can do ‘One’ with Bono, I can work with Method Man, Jay-Z, and no one says, ‘Why is she doing that?’ ” says Mary J. Blige. “And that’s because I know exactly who I am and what I want.” Blige’s 1992 pairing with rookie Sean “Puffy” Combs for What’s the 411? defined a new era for R&B, matching new-jack attitude with old-school emotion and songcraft. “She’s the true heir to Aretha Franklin,” duet partner Sting once said. Sixteen years later, Blige’s exposed-nerve vocals keep getting more precise and more powerful. “I’m vocally the strongest I’ve ever been,” says Blige. “I did the work, and now I can do whatever I want to do.”
Steven Tyler has a theory about how singing first began. “It had to be with the first primate uttering a moan during sex,” he says. “I truly believe that’s where the passion of voice comes from.” Every line Tyler sings is informed by a leer and a wink, whether overtly (“Love in an Elevator”) or with more subtlety (“Walk This Way”). In the course of nearly four decades fronting Aerosmith, Tyler has defined both the sound and style of the lead singer in a hard-rock band. “It’s hard to separate the singer from the person,” says Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry. “You need personality to be a frontman.” Tyler has that in spades, along with — amid all the yelps, groans, growls and squeals — an unerring sense of pitch. “As Tony Bennett said, ‘Without heart, this is no art,’ ” Tyler says. “I wear my heart on my sleeve.”
Sheryl Crow calls Stevie Nicks’ voice a “combination of sheer vulnerability and power,” and Courtney Love swoons over “that ridiculous beautiful tone.” Nicks’ strong, deceptively versatile voice — by turns husky, warm, velvety and childlike — has provided the color and texture for songs ranging from smooth and mysterious Fleetwood Mac hits such as “Rhiannon” and “Dreams” to solo rockers like “Stand Back.” “She’s so tiny, and this big, deep voice comes rattling out, and I think that’s very sexy,” said Debbie Harry of Blondie. Nicks has influenced and mentored a wide generation of younger female singers, from the country of the Dixie Chicks to the sweet pop of Vanessa Carlton. “Her voice soothes me,” says Love, “gives me something to aspire to and leaves me feeling courageous.”
“He brought Ray Charles to the mix as an influence on rock & roll,” says Steve Van Zandt. Joe Cocker’s voice is an irresistible force that combines a love of American soul music with an undeniable depth of feeling: The Northern English belter supercharged Charles’ raw-throated vocals with rock & roll attitude, most famously on his hit cover of the Boxtops’ “The Letter” and his monumental Woodstock performance of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends.” The response to that helped push along a wave of blue-eyed-soul acts, including Leon Russell, and Delaney and Bonnie. Cocker would go on to interpret tunes by Randy Newman and Traffic as if they were R&B classics. And once he was done with them, that’s what they were.
Patti LaBelle pushes everything she sings over the top, from her early-Sixties hits with the Bluebelles through her politically minded Seventies records with her space-funk trio, LaBelle — including the French Quarter funk of “Lady Marmalade,” from 1975 — to the past few decades’ solo albums. She has inspired generations of soul singers — a pre-fame Luther Vandross was the first president of her fan club. Her love of the spotlight is legendary, but she earns it with her astonishing force and control; when LaBelle’s voice simmers in its churchy low register, it’s usually a sign that she’s about to leap up and howl the roof off. “She makes lyrics come alive,” says producer Kenny Gamble. “And after all these years of singing, she’s hitting notes that some opera stars can’t hit.”
Karen Carpenter’s white-bread image and sad fate — she died of anorexia in 1983 — have overshadowed her chocolate-and-cream alto voice. But other performers know the score: Elton John called her “one of the greatest voices of our lifetime,” and Madonna has said she is “completely influenced by her harmonic sensibility.” Impossibly lush and almost shockingly intimate, Carpenter’s performances were a new kind of torch singing, built on understatement and tiny details of inflection that made even the sappiest songs sound like she was staring directly into your eyes. Still, she’s a guilty pleasure for many. “Karen Carpenter had a great sound,” John Fogerty once told Rolling Stone, “but if you’ve got three guys out on the ballfield and one of them started humming [a Carpenters song], the other two guys would pants him.”
Anybody my age turning on MTV and seeing Annie Lennox sing ‘Sweet Dreams’ — that was enough right there,” says Rob Thomas. “There was something so soulful in the way she sang songs like ‘Walking on Broken Glass.’ ” Lennox combines a childhood love of Motown with an operatically powerful voice — crystalline in tone, yet sultry. She introduced R&B to New Wave with Eurythmics, and in her solo career, she invented a sort of New Age soul, based around shimmering synths, horn blasts and, most important, layer upon layer of that voice. “Annie is amazingly versatile,” says Thomas. “She can sound like a beautiful angel — or she can make it sound like she’s gargling glass. A great singer is somebody who makes you believe what they’re saying, and you always believe Annie.”
Bono said that when he first heard Morrissey singing the Smiths’ acid-tongued “Girlfriend in a Coma,” “I nearly crashed my car and ended up in a coma. He has that gift.” An icon of New Wave from his days in the Smiths and in his solo career, Morrissey owns a voice that’s mannered, ironic, even consciously feminine — his phrasing owes more to tuxedoed crooners than to any rock singers before him. But his rejection of convention is also why he redefined the sound of British rock for the past quarter-century. With his falsetto cries, rolled r’s and warbling yodels, he pulled off lyrics few other singers could possibly have gotten away with, and he opened up possibilities for rockers who’ve followed him, from Oasis to Interpol.
There is something about Levon Helm’s voice that is contained in all of our voices. It is ageless, timeless and has no race. He can sing with such depth and emotion, but he can also convey a good-old fun-time growl.
Since Papa Garth Hudson didn’t really sing, I always felt that, vocally, Levon was the father figure in the Band. He always seems strong and confident, like a father calling you home, or sometimes scolding you. The beauty in Richard Manuel’s singing was often the sense of pain and darkness he conveyed. Rick Danko had a lot of melancholy to his voice as well, but he could also be a little more goofy. They were all different shades of color in the crayon box, and Levon’s voice is the equivalent of a sturdy old farmhouse that has stood for years in the fields, weathering all kinds of change yet remaining unmovable.
The best thing about Levon is that he has so many sides, from the sound his voice gave to the Band’s rich harmonies to how he can rip it up on songs like “Yazoo Street Scandal,” “Don’t Ya Tell Henry,” “Up on Cripple Creek” and “Rag Mama Rag.” He can pop in for sensitive moments, such as in between Manuel’s vocals in “Whispering Pines.” And he laid down one of the greatest recorded pop vocal performances of all time: “The Weight.” I was fortunate to get to go to one of his Midnight Rambles a few years back when My Morning Jacket were recording up in the Catskills. To see him walk out on that stage and sit down behind the drum kit in person was a thrill. No one else plays the drums or sings like Levon, much less doing it at the same time.
There is a sense of deep country and family in Levon’s voice, a spirit that was there even before him, deep in the blood of all singers who have heard him, whether they know it or not.
Beginning with the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel, every group for whom harmony singing is important owes a crucial debt to the Everly Brothers. Their hits in the Fifties and early Sixties seemed at once raw and pristine: When he first heard the Everlys, Art Garfunkel says, “I learned that every syllable can shine. They were Kentucky guys with beautiful, perfect-pitch harmonies and great diction. All those vowels and consonants, those s’s and t’s, every one of them killed me.” Phil and Don Everly learned their own lessons from the great country tradition of family harmony singing. “They had a blend that only brothers could have,” says Dion. “But then when Don would sing his solos on the bridges of those songs, oh, my God, they would transport you. It was brilliant.”
Because Solomon Burke never had a big crossover hit, “the King of Rock and Soul” is not as widely known as others from the golden age of soul music. But his dramatic, sonorous voice — seasoned by his days as a boy preacher — is unrivaled in its ability to move effortlessly between R&B, pop, country and gospel. “My grandmother made sure that we listened to a variety of music, and that always stayed with me,” says Burke. Recently, he’s picked up a Grammy and long-overdue recognition, and tracks such as “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” are now part of the soul canon. “He is Solomon the Resonator,” Tom Waits has said, “the golden voice of heart, wisdom, soul and experience.” King Solomon himself says, “I’m just trying to move as fast as I can, in as many directions as I can, for as long as I can.”
Willie Nelson’s secret ingredient is his unconventional phrasing — something jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis has described as “very unpredictable, but it comes out poetic and very logical.” Dwight Yoakam calls Nelson “the most avant-garde country singer of all time.” You can hear his odd phrasing and experimental use of syntax in songs ranging from early hits that he wrote for other singers such as “Hello Walls” to signature Nelson tunes like “Bloody Mary Morning.” Yoakam was a teenager the first time he heard “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” on Casey Kasem’s Top 40 countdown: “I’d never heard anything like it,” Yoakam says, referring to Nelson’s warm, laid-back whine and impeccably casual tone. “He’s not singing to you, he’s talking to you.”
Don Henley got his famously rough voice from belting out R&B tunes at Texas college gigs in his early band the Speeds. “The frat boys would all want James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding music, which I had to learn,” Henley said. “I got hoarse singing that music four hours a night, trying to sound raspy until my voice blew out.” Years later, that rasp in his fluid tenor voice would convey a world-weariness that defined Eagles classics such as “Hotel California” from 1976 and solo tunes like “The Boys of Summer” from 1984. “He has an amazing voice that is a mystery to us all,” says songwriter J.D. Souther, who wrote or co-wrote many of those Eagles hits. “I would call him one of the great blues singers of our generation.”
“He is a pure and beautiful tenor voice, and there really is no one like him,” says James Taylor about Art Garfunkel, whose singing blends lyricism with a remarkable ease of delivery. He brought sweetness and wonder to his classic harmonies with Paul Simon, a delicacy that defined those songs, and some of the hopes of the late Sixties. “I’m looking for controlled beauty,” he says, a standard he learned as a child from the likes of Italian opera star Enrico Caruso. “Those arias — I love a song with a high, pole-vault peak.” That describes solo hits such as 1973’s “All I Know” and 1975’s “I Only Have Eyes for You.” “I like to sing heartfelt, where you address the mike with your honesty,” says Garfunkel. “You try to be authentic as a person, with all the doubt, wonder and mystery of being alive.”
“You have to put something in it to make them move,” said Sam Moore, half of the Sixties R&B duo Sam and Dave. Moore boasts a scratchy voice with incredible range — all honey-sweet soul and raw sexuality, gutbucket blues and gritty rock. He met fellow struggling club singer Dave Prater on the Miami R&B circuit in 1961; their partnership spawned supercharged classics such as “Soul Man” and “Hold On, I’m Comin’.” Guitarist Steve Cropper says that Moore was holding back even on those songs: “There was a dynamic space between Sam and Dave, a wide margin as singers, and I think Sam had to tone down some,” he says. Sam and Dave split for good in 1981; two years ago Moore released his first solo album in more than 35 years, featuring guest spots from Sting and Bruce Springsteen.
Darlene Love’s name did not appear on her first hit, 1962’s “He’s a Rebel” (it was credited to the Crystals instead of Love’s own group of session singers, the Blossoms), but there was nothing anonymous about her voice. On Phil Spector-produced songs such as “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” and “Wait Til’ My Bobby Gets Home,” her husky, church-trained alto — infused with an unusual mix of strength and abject longing — was a rare instrument sturdy enough to vault over the Wall of Sound. Love, whom Bette Midler has called “one of the greatest voices in all of pop music,” says two songs best capture her range: ” ‘(Today I Met) The Boy I’m Gonna Marry’ is a ballad where I’m pleading, and you get to hear the softness in my voice,” Love says, “whereas ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’ — it’s just all power.”
As a teenager, Michael Stipe considered Patti Smith his favorite singer. Her voice, he said, “wasn’t a strained, perfect crescendo of notes. It was this howling, mad beast.” Smith unleashed that beast in signature tracks like “Gloria” and “Land” — combinations of classic R&B songs and Smith’s stream-of-consciousness slurs, grunts and moans. “She was just real guttural,” said Stipe. “It was like all the body noises you make.” Smith credits Grace Slick with opening the doors for that kind of vocal anarchy. “She gave us permission to bring a whole new level of strength and intelligence,” Smith says. “She created a space for other people to explore.” Smith passed that forward: “[Her] whole zeitgeist was that anybody could do it,” said Stipe. “I took that literally. I thought, ‘If she can sing, I can sing.’
Tom Waits’ voice “has the smoothness of Barry White, but the raspiness of a mountain lion,” says hip-hop producer RZA. The “smoothness” may be hard to believe, but on early solo LPs like 1973’s Closing Time and 1974’s The Heart of Saturday Night, Waits was more like Hoagy Carmichael than a wild animal, with a jazzy croon lightly covered in gravel. But as Waits’ songs got darker and weirder — more dada than doo-be-doo — on albums like 1985’s Rain Dogs and 1992’s Bone Machine, so did his singing. It is now one of the most dramatic instruments in pop, a deep, pitted bark — part carnival hustler, part crackling furnace. Waits can still sell a ballad, too, like the haunting “House Where Nobody Lives,” on 1999’s Mule Variations. “He has a little bit of James Brown,” says Rickie Lee Jones. “And a whole lot of Louis Armstrong.”
John Lee Hooker
Everything parents don’t want you to get into as a teenager — that’s what you could hear in John Lee Hooker’s voice. Everything you love about the night, about love and desire, sex and retribution, all those sides of us the blues was meant to call up.
His voice encompassed such a deep range of emotions, the widest range of colors of any blues singer. It was as seductive as it was foreboding. Pain, defiance, anger — all those emotions were so acute with John Lee, and that’s what draws us to the blues.
My favorite part of his voice was actually his cry. His low, slightly menacing tone made the other side of his singing that much more powerful. There was a gravity to his tone — with his shades, the suit — but there was also this impish, elfin quality, and you could hear it when he laughed, which he did a lot onstage because he enjoyed playing so much. Especially on the boogie tunes, he would go from growl to glee in quicksilver time.
Because we had been friends since 1969, I wasn’t prepared for how overwhelming it was singing face to face with him when we did “I’m in the Mood” for his album The Healer. When he turned it on, that was as powerful an erotic pull as I’ve ever had from a singing partner. I was just swept away by the power of his voice. And, you know, I was a grown woman, but I was literally trembling and had broken out in a sweat by the time we were done. If I were a smoker, I would have needed a cigarette.
My favorite singing of his was when he would call me on the phone and sing to me, sometimes for an hour. It was a little flirty, but he was never actually hitting on me, he was just having fun. It was all the power and none of the guilt! I miss him so much. If they could make a drug that was John Lee, I’d never be sober.
In 1962, a song called “Sherry” blasted from AM radios with a facile falsetto vocal so impossibly precise, many thought it had “one-hit wonder” written all over it. Forty-eight Hot 100 singles later, Frankie Valli (Born Francis Castelluccio) is still a giant of the male vocal pop of his era. He’s a complete singer, with a multi-octave range and the ability to handle a variety of styles: “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man” and “Rag Doll” showed off his doo-wop dexterity, with support from the Four Seasons. Valli’s solo hits, like “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” revealed his taste for more mainstream material, with a rich R&B influence. “Frankie Valli has become one of the hallmark voices of our generation,” said the Bee Gees’ Barry Gibb. “He created a style that we all still strive to emulate.”
“When I was little,” Mariah Carey says, “I used to wake up with a really raspy voice and” — she shifts to her signature squeak — “talk in a really high voice. My mother couldn’t understand it, and she’s an opera singer. But then I started to try to sing using that voice.” Carey is famous for her staggering vocal range — including those ravishing high notes — and power. Her mastery of melisma, the fluttering strings of notes that decorate songs like “Vision of Love,” inspired the entire American Idol vocal school, for better or worse, and virtually every other female R&B singer since the Nineties. But technical skill alone doesn’t make for hits, and Carey’s radiant, sweetly sexy presence has been knocking them out of the park for two decades. She’s scored more Number One singles than any solo artist — 18 and counting.
“Sly was definitive cool,” says Gnarls Barkley vocalist Cee-Lo. Sly Stone’s funk was so revolutionary in its conception, its writing, its arranging, it can be easy to overlook his remarkable singing. “Sometimes he sounded like he wasn’t trying, and that confidence can be very attractive,” Cee-Lo adds. Stone’s vocals mutated from the wild exuberance of “Dance to the Music” to hazy isolation on There’s a Riot Goin’ On, creating moods that were radically different but no less powerful. “He started as that cheerleader,” says the Roots’ Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, “then pulled back the Wizard of Oz curtain and revealed a lonely shell of a man.” Family Stone bass player Larry Graham says Stone’s singing was always shifting: “We were never surprised when he laid down a great vocal track. We all just expected it.”
Merle Haggard’s tough but smooth baritone epitomized Sixties and Seventies country, from the stubborn attack of “Okie From Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me” to the delicate crooning on “Silver Wings” and “If We Make It Through December.” “The only thing that vies with Haggard’s poetic genius,” says Dwight Yoakam, “is the gift he has as a singer who delivers those songs with one of the most pure and profoundly powerful voices in music.” Haggard owes his biggest debts to country pioneers Jimmie Rodgers and Lefty Frizzell; when he dips down to his signature low notes, he’s invoking another key influence: Southern soul man Brook Benton. Check out “I Threw Away the Rose,” in which one of those low notes comes from out of nowhere, adding a visceral thrust to the lyrics’ desperation.
“Other than Robert Plant, there’s no singer in rock that even came close to Steve Perry,” says American Idol judge Randy Jackson, who played bass with Perry in Journey. “The power, the range, the tone — he created his own style. He mixed a little Motown, a little Everly Brothers, a little Zeppelin.” When he was 10 years old, Perry heard Sam Cooke’s “Cupid” on his mom’s car radio, and decided he had to be a singer. After singing in a college choir, he joined Journey at the age of 28, quickly revealing a penchant for quavering, reverb-soaked melodrama that appealed to millions of fans — but few rock critics. Yet his technical skills (those high notes!), pure tone and passionate sincerity now seem undeniable. “He lives for it and loves it,” says Jackson. “I just saw him not long ago, and he still has the golden voice.”
Drawing inspiration from the most aggressively carnal moments of Mick Jagger, Elvis Presley and Jim Morrison, Iggy Pop’s force-of-nature vocals with the Stooges invented the snarling style that came to define punk rock. “I got the idea of the voice as an irritant from Mick Jagger,” Iggy told Rolling Stone. “When he sang, it was the opposite of nice.” But Iggy wasn’t all about provocation: In his more restrained post-Stooges work — on songs from the David Bowie-produced The Passenger to his 1990 hit single “Candy” — he let his baritone relax into a louche, affecting croon. “Iggy has a very manly voice, very sexual, very emotional, very fierce, very wry — a lot of humor,” says the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde. “He was just like a wild colt, and he grew into a wild stallion.”
“I want to be in tune,” James Taylor told Rolling Stone in 2008. “I want to sing pretty, I want to sing sweet.” Taylor boasts a classic American voice — a clear, vibrato-less instrument as reassuring as a warm fireplace. “Don’t get fooled by James’ understatement,” says David Crosby. “As beautiful as his voice is, there’s nothing mellow about a performance like ‘Fire and Rain’ — it’s about a man who’s experienced highs and lows.” Taylor’s steadiness as a singer has allowed him to handle coffeehouse folk, rock & roll, country music and R&B with equal ease. “Ultimately, I think James’ voice reflects the man,” says Crosby. “He’s kind, lovely and very much a gentleman. He doesn’t walk off the path too far, but what a path he’s walked. It also doesn’t hurt that, for me, he’s up there as a songwriter alongside Lennon and McCartney, Dylan and Joni Mitchell — the best of the best.”
Dolly Parton describes her voice as “a cross between Tiny Tim and a nanny goat.” Such self-deprecation is typical, but others hear her childlike quaver and soulful delivery as effervescent, joyful, heartbreaking — sometimes all in the same song. Her range includes fingerpicked folk songs (“Coat of Many Colors”), soaring ballads (“I Will Always Love You”), classic country (“My Tennessee Mountain Home”) and mainstream pop (“9 to 5”). “Each song has its own message and its own dynamics and range,” she says. “I don’t try to do anything but listen to the words and act them out vocally, as an actor would act out a scene.” Parton has impacted stars as far-flung as Whitney Houston and Jessica Simpson. Says LeAnn Rimes, “Dolly made me realize that there are endless possibilities when communicating with your voice.”
The backwoods yowl that put the fire into Creedence Clearwater Revival’s gritty late-Sixties hits like “Green River” and “Proud Mary” actually was not, as the man says,
Born on the bayou. John Fogerty’s abrasive baritone didn’t even come naturally at first. “In ’64, I got a job playing in a club, and I had a tape recorder with me,” he recalls. “I would record the whole night and then listen to myself back, and every day I would try to force myself to get that sound that was in my head.” He was trying to channel the voices of blues singers like Howlin’ Wolf and Bo Diddley that he heard on the radio in his hometown of El Cerrito, California. “As a kid, there was that point I realized the stuff I liked was more dangerous than the stuff my parents liked,” he says. “It was that threatening sound.”
Bonnie Raitt calls reggae pioneer Toots Hibbert “one of the most powerful and original soul singers ever,” singling out his “gruff, classic style.” In the late Sixties, Hibbert and his band, the Maytals, cut classic singles such as “Sweet and Dandy” and “Monkey Man,” which set a template for a couple of generations of ska revivals and garnered the Jamaican singer well-earned comparisons to Otis Redding. “A hundred years from now,” Hibbert says, “my songs will be played, because it is logical words that people can relate to.” He didn’t need fancy songs to come across: His most famous tune is “Pressure Drop,” which is just five lines repeated over and over. But his greatest performance could be “54-46 Was My Number,” his defiant, deeply funky memory of a short stint in prison. It was definitive proof that A-level soul wasn’t limited to the North American mainland.
For Gregg Allman, all roads lead back to Ray Charles: “When I heard him, I was like, ‘That’s my goal in life,’ ” says Allman, who grew up mimicking the R&B records he heard in his segregated childhood hometown of Daytona Beach, Florida. “Ray Charles is the one who taught me to just relax and let it ooze out. If it’s in your soul, it’ll come out.” Allman’s mournful wail comes out on Allman Brothers standards like “It’s Not My Cross to Bear” and “Whipping Post.” Dwight Yoakam says Allman’s white-blues tradition goes back to Hank Williams. “It’s not just the African-American influence but the country side of his voice,” says Yoakam. “You could take ‘Midnight Rider’ and do it to ‘Lovesick Blues.’ ” Even in his earliest recordings, says Sheryl Crow, “He sounded like he’d already lived a thousand lifetimes.”
Backed by future husband Phil Spector’s wildly romantic production, Veronica “Ronnie” Bennett’s knife-blade belting with the Ronettes became a defining voice of the early Sixties, and it filtered down to everyone from Patti Smith to Joan Jett to the E Street Band. Steve Van Zandt grew up listening to hits such as “Be My Baby,” but the true power of Ronnie Spector’s singing only reached him later. “It was when Marty Scorsese screened a movie he had just done, called Mean Streets, for me and Bruce,” Van Zandt says. “I was, like, ‘Whoa!’ ” Scorsese’s use of “Be My Baby” perfectly captures the innocence and erotic promise of Spector’s voice. Van Zandt would later produce Spector. “I was a little too reverent,” he says, looking back. “I didn’t want to put anything around her voice. I just wanted to hear her.”
“When Wilson Pickett screamed, he screamed notes,” producer Jerry Wexler once said. “His voice was powerful, like a buzz saw, but it wasn’t ever out of control. It was always melodic.” Pickett’s signature shout served as the climax for many of his 38 hit singles. “You can feel it comin’,” said Pickett, “and you don’t let go until the moment is exactly right.” The man known as “the Wicked Pickett” and the “Midnight Mover” was soul’s purest badass: Immortal songs like 1965’s “In the Midnight Hour” and 1966’s “Mustang Sally” brought a new level of ferociousness to R&B belting. But Pickett’s good friend Solomon Burke notes that Pickett had another side. “Wilson was able to hold that note until you felt it,” says Burke. “He made you listen.”
Jerry Lee Lewis
Few artists have attacked singing with the ferocity of Jerry Lee Lewis, a key combustible element in the rock & roll Big Bang of the Fifties. Just as he percussively hammered the keyboard of his piano, the Killer could transform his voice exclusively into a rhythm instrument, often tearing at his lyrics until the words become staccato nonsense syllables and he sounds like one of the faithful speaking in tongues. “It was evangelical,” Steve Van Zandt says of Lewis’ singing. Lewis moved effortlessly from shouting rockabilly to pure, classic country, scoring eight Number One hits on the country-singles chart. “He mystifies me, he’s so good,” says Art Garfunkel. “He’s having a great time. He’s rhythmically united with the piano, and the groove is sublime. He leaves you speechless.”
By the turn of the century, the broad, emotive sweep of Thom Yorke’s voice had made him one of the most influential singers of his generation. His high, keening sound, often trembling on the edge of falsetto, was turning up on records by Coldplay, Travis, Muse, Elbow and numerous others. “I tried to sing like Thom Yorke,” Coldplay’s Chris Martin told Rolling Stone. “The Radiohead influence on us was plain to see.” But Yorke himself “couldn’t stand the sound of me anymore” — and went on to reinvent his voice beginning with 2000’s Kid A. Using electronic trickery and exploiting what he called “the tension between what’s human and what’s coming from the machines,” he changed his voice into a disembodied instrument; songs like “Everything in Its Right Place” sound like fragmented transmissions from some distant galaxy.
Motown founder Berry Gordy said that any of the five Temptations could have been a lead singer, but it was David Ruffin who stood out most from the pack. In contrast to his heavenly-voiced partner, Eddie Kendricks, Ruffin sang as if every word was a plea — pain and desperation filled his lead vocals on “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “(I Know) I’m Losing You” and “I Wish It Would Rain.” “His voice had a certain glorious anguish that spoke to people on many emotional levels,” says Daryl Hall, who briefly recorded and performed with Ruffin in the Eighties. “I heard in [his voice] a strength my own voice lacked,” said Marvin Gaye, who added that Ruffin’s work “made me remember that when a lot of women listen to music, they want to feel the power of a real man.”
“Axl sings the most beautiful melodies with the most aggressive tones and the most outrageous, freakish range,” says Sebastian Bach. “There’s maybe five people in the world that can sing in his range.” Slash once described the sound of Rose’s voice in slightly different terms: It’s like “the sound that a tape player makes when the cassette finally dies and the tape gets ripped out,” he said, “but in tune.” It’s immediately identifiable, with a combination of brute force and subtlety that is easy to overlook amid the sonic assault of Guns n’ Roses. Ballads like “Patience” and “November Rain” reveal a startling intimacy, even vulnerability, but it’s his fearsome screech on full-throttle metal like “Welcome to the Jungle” that can still peel paint off the walls, more than 20 years later.
Art Garfunkel describes Dion as “a bold extrovert of a singer,” and Steve Van Zandt hears “the sneer of punk” in his late-Fifties and early-Sixties hits such as “The Wanderer” and “Runaround Sue.” A key figure in doo-wop’s transition to rock & roll, the Bronx-born singer defined an attitude of white-boy rebellion — and delivered his lyrics with a casual, swinging phrasing that rivals Sinatra. Heavyweights such as Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and John Lennon were all on record as fans of his rowdy vocals. But Dion’s favorite compliment came from an even more unimpeachable source. Once, at a television taping, Little Richard’s mother, Leva Mae, took Dion aside and asked him, “You the boy that sings ‘Ruby Baby’? Son, you got soul.”
“I do Lou Reed better than anybody,” Reed once boasted onstage. He was only half-kidding. There is no voice in rock like Reed’s: a confrontational blend of dry intonation and hard New York-native attitude that suited the dark, frank songs he wrote about sex, drugs and lost souls for the Velvet Underground and on a lifetime of provocative solo albums. “I don’t do blues turns, because I can’t,” Reed told Rolling Stone in 1989. “And I’m not trying to put on a phony accent.” But underlying Reed’s acidic talking-blues delivery is a deep love of Fifties R&B and doo-wop. As a teenager, he listened to vocal groups such as the Paragons and the Diablos on the radio, influences that can be clearly heard in his most romantic songs, such as “Satellite of Love” and “Perfect Day.”
“You don’t realize how great a singer Roger Daltrey is until you try to do it yourself,” says the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne, whose band did a Tommy medley at VH1’s 2008 Rock Honors special for the Who. From the anxious stutter in “My Generation” to the glass-breaking wail that tops off “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” the voice of the Who is one of the most powerful instruments in hard rock. Daltrey didn’t write his own lyrics, but he had an uncanny ability to adapt to whatever character songwriter Pete Townshend came up with (the vulnerable, Christlike Tommy cooing “See Me, Feel Me,” the cocky thug of “Slip Kid” spitting out the words). “It’s a very strange process,” Daltrey says. “That’s why I shut my eyes when I sing — I’m in another space, and the characters are living in me.”
When you land in Iceland, you feel like you’re somewhere a bit magical. Maybe it’s the volcanic activity, maybe it’s the dried fish, but something’s going on: Everyone seems to be extraordinarily beautiful, and everyone appears to be able to sing. Their singers are so far ahead of everyone else — especially Björk. Her voice is so specific and such a new color. Now that she’s been around for 20 years, everyone forgets quite how extraordinary she is. She could be singing the theme from Sesame Street, and it would sound completely different to how anyone else would do it, and completely magical.
She first crossed my radar on “Big Time Sensuality,” from that video where she’s on the back of a flatbed truck. I really got into her on Homogenic, largely because there’s so much space left for the singing. On that album, there are strings and beats, but it isn’t very full musically, so she has to do all the dynamics and everything. If you really want to hear what she can do, listen to “It’s Oh So Quiet,” from Post: She can go from zero to 60 faster than any other vehicle in terms of singing. And then to angry.
In the movie Dancer in the Dark, she’s singing as a different person and it stills sounds completely genuine. She could be an opera singer or she could be a pop singer. Dulux Paint has a catalog that has all the colors you can buy of paint, right? That is how Björk’s voice is. She can do anything. In our studio, there are pictures on the wall of our favorite artists. I can see Mozart, Jay-Z, Gershwin, PJ Harvey … and Björk.
The gravelly crooner who brought so much soul to Seventies rock & roll left school at 15 to go to work as a silk-screener. “I had this little handheld transistor radio that I used to sleep next to,” Stewart remembers. “I would listen to all the black singers that came over from America — Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, blues singers like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. This was a new world for me. I wanted to be able to sing like these people.” His attempts would produce aching ballads like “Maggie May” and “Tonight’s the Night (Gonna Be Alright),” as well as Stones-like rockers such as “Stay With Me” (with the Faces) and “Hot Legs.” Before long, singers such as Paul Westerberg and then Chris Robinson would bring the Stewart rasp into Eighties punk and Nineties mainstream rock.
Danity Kane, Kelly Clarkson
“I knew she could really sing,” Herbie Hancock said of his 2005 collaboration with teen pop’s most accomplished vocalist. “But I didn’t know she could sing like that. She knocked me out.” Christina Aguilera has had the finesse and power of a blues queen ever since she was a child star (she appeared on Star Search at age 11). Even in her teen-pop “Genie in a Bottle” days, she was modeling her dramatic, melismatic technique on old-school soul heroines like Etta James; you could hear it first come to fruition on 2002’s “Beautiful.” Patti Smith, of all people, says Aguilera’s rendition of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” at last year’s Grammys was “one of the best performances that I’ve ever seen…I sat and watched it, and at the end, I just involuntarily leapt to my feet. It was amazing.”
Bruce Springsteen, Iggy Pop, David Johnsen
Of all the British Invasion singers, Eric Burdon had the most physically imposing voice. When he burst onto the scene in 1964, his voice was “big and dark,” says Steve Van Zandt. “He invented the genre of the white guy singing low.” Nor was the depth of Burdon’s pitch lost on Steven Tyler when he first heard Burdon sing “The House of the Rising Sun”: “I thought, ‘Aha! You start off the song an octave lower so you can flamb? the tail end of it an octave higher.’ ” After his run of hits with the Animals (“It’s My Life,” “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”) ended, Burdon showed he could handle Seventies funk during his stint in War, recording the torrid “Spill the Wine” and a souled-out version of “Tobacco Road.”
By the time the Staple Singers’ string of R&B hits kicked off in the early Seventies, Mavis Staples’ liquid contralto had already been tearing the roof off with her family’s gospel group for two decades and had become the signature voice of the civil rights movement. She’d had some trepidation about playing to secular audiences, but as her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, told her, “The people in the clubs won’t come to church. So we take the church to them.” It worked: She’s got the most undiluted gospel technique of any pop star ever. (Check out the Staples’ transcendent take on “The Weight” in The Last Waltz.) In 2001, Bob Dylan described the first time he heard her sing: “That just made my hair stand up, listening to that. I mean, that just seemed like, ‘That’s the way the world is.'”
“His voice is so tough and so masculine,” says Alison Krauss, who grew up a big fan of Paul Rodgers, “he might as well be standing there with a gun while he’s singing.” With his throaty, impeccably controlled roar, Rodgers was born to sing over big guitars — which he did again and again, most notably with pioneering rockers Free and the Seventies hitmaking machine Bad Company. From “All Right Now” to “Can’t Get Enough,” his combination of macho blues power and melodic sensitivity still sets the standard for hard-rock frontmen. Rodgers was idolized by the late Freddie Mercury (whom he is now replacing in Queen) and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zant. “The sound of his voice represents a whole kind of man to me,” says Krauss. “Incredibly masculine, sexy, hardworking.”
No singer made the Top 40 sound so intimate — often painfully so — as Luther Vandross. “Singing allows me to express all the mysteries hidden inside,” he once said. Vandross grew up worshiping at the altar of Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick and Diana Ross, then labored throughout the Seventies singing everything from Burger King commercials to sessions with David Bowie (on Young Americans), before emerging as the dominant R&B vocalist of his era. His warm, rich singing on hits like “Never Too Much” defined soul during the years between disco and hip-hop, influencing a generation of vocalists — including Mariah Carey, who was petrified to duet with Vandross on a cover of “Endless Love” in 1994. “It was intimidating to stand next to him,” she says. “Luther was incomparable — his voice was velvety, smooth, airy, with an unmistakable tone.”
If you really check Muddy Waters out in performances on tape, he’s almost not even there. He puts his whole body and his whole energy into his voice. When he’s singing, something else enters the room. For a certain sound, if you don’t put your body into it, you’re not going to get the note.
It takes everything, every faculty you’ve got. He was absolutely confident and superbrave. I first heard Muddy when I was a kid, around my family’s music store. His baritone always stood out — not only above other blues singers but above all voices and styles of music that I heard. His voice really pierced me in a way that wouldn’t let go. The specific record that I wore to the bone was Hard Again. That record has been on repeat my entire life. And also Electric Mud — that was my go-to record when I was making my album with the Blind Boys of Alabama.
Recently, I’ve been playing “Hoochie Coochie Man” in my set. I’ll just come out and say it: My approach is to do my best Muddy Waters impersonation, straight out. I’m trying to dig down into that part of my vocal range, and there’s no reason to stray too far from where he took it.
A song like “Mannish Boy” is to the blues what “Purple Haze” is to rock. And Muddy’s voice carries that whole song — there’s no musical changes at all. It’s hip-hop in a way — before there was hip-hop. It grabs you by the throat. If it doesn’t move you when you hear that, I’m curious as to what does move you.
Elton John, David Crosby, Ben Folds
In the mid-sixties, Brian Wilson was the ultimate singer’s songwriter, composing the California-dream hits sung by the Beach Boys’ main lead vocalists, Mike Love and Brian’s brother Carl. But Brian’s own high, bright tenor was often the top voice in the group’s intricate surf-angel harmonies, and when he stepped out front, the vulnerable tremor that came with his plaintive falsetto made songs like “Don’t Worry Baby” and the Pet Sounds jewel “Caroline, No” sound like profound melancholy. Brian’s singing was “adult and childlike at the same time,” said John Cale. “It was difficult for me not to believe everything he said.” Art Garfunkel describes that voice as “this unique, crazy creation, a mix of rock & roll and heartfelt prayer” — a magic still heard in Brian’s solo shows and on his latest album, That Lucky Old Sun.
Mariah Carey, Jill Scott
Gladys Knight’s advice about great singing: “Just sing the song and say the words.” Knight combined precise classic-pop elegance with pure soul power on songs like “Midnight Train to Georgia” and “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye).” She approaches singing with impressive seriousness and does not like to improvise: When it came time to record the rocking coda (“I got to go…”) to “Midnight Train,” her brother, Bubba, who was one of her famed support group, the Pips, sang the parts live into her headphones, and she delivered them in her own inimitable style. As Mariah Carey said when inducting Knight into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, “She’s like a textbook to learn from. You hear her delivery, and you wish you could communicate with as much honesty and emotion as she does.”