Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Singers Who Can't Sing

A recent post on Howlin' Hobbit's
blog made me think about all of the singers that I like who can't really sing. I have gotten into heated arguments with friends and family over some of these. People in their fan base love their music so much that they just can't hear the fact that their actual singing isn't very good, but it somehow makes the music work. Still, from a purely aesthetic standpoint, their voices are not "good" singing voices. If you were a teacher in a music class and one of these guys enrolled incognito and then sang for you, you would probably choke.

That does not mean that they shouldn't sing. In fact, many of these performers have a genuine drama in their voices that recreates the song anew.

When I was in musical theater, there were always people in the cast who, when they got a solo, would go "pretty" with it every time, instead of going "character." As a result, their solo would just sound horribly wrong.

Even guys like Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett, after their voices have long lost the youthful timbre that made them stars, still manage to carry the song with the shear drama of their voices coupled with their ability to interpret.

Here is my top ten list of singers who can't sing but should nonetheless keep singing. If you disagree, just try to imagine each of them singing "Some Enchanted Evening" and tell me it would sound as good as Enzio Pinza. Or, on the other hand, try to imagine Enzio Pinza singing "Walk on the Wild Side" or "Vertigo."

1. Louis Armstrong (of course he can't keep singing because he's dead
2. Moms Mabley (see Louis)
3. Sonny Bono (see Moms)
4. Bono (Okay, I admit I included Sonny Bono just so I could follow him with Bono)
5. Lou Reed
6. Neal Young
7. Marianne Faithful (the older version)
8. Bob Dylan
9. Mick Jagger (Okay, maybe he should stop now)
10. Tom Waits
11. Muddy Waters
12. Carol Channing
13. Johnny Rotten
14. As long as I mention Johnny, why not Joe Strummer?
15. Van Morrison
16. Johnny Cash
17. Leon Russel

Okay, so that's seventeen.


Billy Canary said...

James Brown, Jonathan Richman, Jacques Brel and Billy Holiday, Big Mama Thornton and Victoria Williams. I suppose it all boils down to what kind and how much of a snob ya wanna be. Dolly Parton. Willy Nelson. Clarence Fountain. I do think Jerry Vale should never have started.

Billy Canary said...

All of the Bee Gees, living or dead.

Brother Atom Bomb of Reflection said...

James Brown, Big Mama, Clarence Fountain have a nice wailing quality. Jaques Brel had that kind of voice the French like. Other than that, I agree.

The Bee Gees and the Chipmunks, separated at birth?

Newman said...

you obviously haven't hear bono sing pavorotti's (yes, i know its spelled wrong) part on miss sarajevo. that boy can sing.

Jim said...

Over the last few years, I have really grown tired of assertions by the Artistically Correct community of critics and art/music teachers. I just don't buy it.
Beyond not damaging yourself (your "instrument" if you like to talk that way) and perhaps doing things to optimize projection, intelligibility and such if you sing live in a relatively-unamplified medium (such as local theater), who's to say what's proper? Tom Waits is certainly not a PC singer.

Now, to be dutifully hypocritical, here are a few of my opinions:

I think Sinatra was pretty much phoning it in towards the end of his career. Not as icky as Bing, I suppose, but he didn't seem all there to me.

Ian Gillan ("Jesus" in the original recording of "JC Superstar," Deep Purple MkII) - best rock singer ever, IMHO; (at least in his youth, anyway.)

The young Elly Ameling - about the only soprano that I can listen to for long periods of time singing in the why-I'll-never-understand-prevailing operatic style.

The Roches - They have support, intonation, expressivity; what they thankfully lack is automatic vibrato.

Maddy Prior (Steeleye Span) - she developed her own sound from English folk singing. She's great and unique.

Jane Siberry of Canada - another unique voice; in the early part of her career through the 80's, she seemed conscious of every inflection she put on her voice. I appreciate the consciousness that flows through her singing.

Janis Joplin - now here's a singer who was probably damaging her voice; who knows how long she'd be able to sing if she lived? But her expressiveness was unique and beautiful (to me, anyway).

Julie Andrews - a beautiful, controlled voice. Inspiration to me in my youth (although, being male, I didn't want to _sound_ like her). Too band her voice got wrecked in spite of her great technique.

Ella Fitzgerald, Patsy Cline, Sarah Vaughan, Shirley Bassie, were all great singers in their own right, but whenever I've heard Billie Holiday's singing it seems so beautiful and tragic at the same time, well, it just does something to me. I think it had more to do with who she was than what she consciously did with her voice.

vivage said...

Doesn't this come down to What is art?

Jim said...

Yah, same issue, methinks.

I suspect that you're making a reference to my recent journal entry on deviantart about that very same thing, right? ;->

(by the way, when I say "modern music" in that journal entry, I'm talking about the "serious composers", not pop music.)

Billy Canary said...

Hey Bro, Didn,t we see Janey Siberry with the Knitters? Or somewhere? We thought she was someone else.

Brother Atom Bomb of Reflection said...

We saw Phranc. And some local band.

I've seen Jane Siberry, but that was a long time ago.

Frank Sinatra had such a long career. I think when he was a young crooner, he relied on the beauty of his voice.

Brother Atom Bomb of Reflection said...

Sorry, I didn't finish my thought.

In Sinatra's mid-life career, his voiced lost some of that beauty and he relied more on dramatics.

Then, as an old guy, yeah, he called it in.

vivage said...

Partly your journal entry Jim, partly that all of us old theater peeps had many lengthy (over years) conversations/arguements regarding this very subject.

Subjectivity seems always to be our limiting factor.

Billy Canary said...

I think it was Jane Siberry. She was wearing a cowboy hat. We thought maybe she was John Doe's new squeeze. And I think she is on John's latest solo effort. I will look and see.

Brother Atom Bomb of Reflection said...

It definitely was not Jane Siberry. Is Jane Siberry Joh Doe's new squeeze. I thought that, after the divorce, both he and Exene met the loves of their lives and settled down and had families.