Home Music Music Lists

100 Greatest Singers of All Time

Aretha, Elvis, Lennon, Dylan and many more

Greatest Singers

Getty

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.

Micelotta/Getty

50

Bonnie Raitt

Born
November 8th, 1949

Key Tracks
"Nick of Time," "I Can't Make You Love Me," "Angel from Montgomery," "Love Me Like a Man"

Influenced
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."

Verona/Getty

49

Donny Hathaway

Born
October 1st, 1945 (died January 13th, 1979)

Key Tracks
"The Ghetto, Pt. 1" "Where Is the Love"

Influenced
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."

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

48

Buddy Holly

Born
September 7th, 1936 (died February 3rd, 1959)

Key Tracks
"That'll Be the Day," "Rave On," "Not Fade Away"

Influenced
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."

Persson/Redferns

47

Jim Morrison

Born
December 8th, 1943 (died July 3rd, 1971)

Key Tracks
"Light My Fire," "Break On Through (to the Other Side)," "L.A. Woman"

Influenced
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.

Michael Ochs Archive/Getty

46

Patsy Cline

Born
September 8th, 1932 (died March 5th, 1963)

Key Tracks
"I Fall to Pieces," "Walkin' After Midnight," "Crazy"

Influenced
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."

Estrada/Retna

45

Kurt Cobain

Born
February 20th, 1967 (died circa April 5th, 1994)

Key Tracks
"Smells Like Teen Spirit," "Lithium," "All Apologies"

Influenced
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."

Smillie/Camera Press/Retna

44

Bobby “Blue” Bland

Born
January 27th, 1930

Key Tracks
"I Pity the Fool," "Farther Up the Road," "Cry, Cry, Cry" "Turn On Your Love Light"

Influenced
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."

Gwinn/Retna

43

George Jones

Born
September 12th, 1931

Key Tracks
"He Stopped Loving Her Today," "She Thnks I Still Care," "(We're Not) The Jet Set"

Influenced
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.

Russell/Redferns

42

Joni Mitchell

Born
November 7th, 1943

Key Tracks
"Both Sides Now," "Help Me," "Raised on Robbery"

Influenced
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."

Montfort/Camera Press/Retna

41

Chuck Berry

Born
October 18th, 1926

Key Tracks
"Johnny B. Goode," "Promised Land" "No Particular Place to Go"

Influenced
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.' "

Putland/Retna

40

Curtis Mayfield

Born
June 3rd, 1942 (died December 26th, 1999)

Key Tracks
"People Get Ready," "Superfly" "I'm So Proud"

Influenced
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."

Goodacre/Retna

39

Jeff Buckley

Born
November 17th, 1966 (died May 29th, 1997)

Key Tracks
"Mojo Pin," "Last Goodbye," "Hallelujah"

Influenced
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.

Redfern/Redferns

38

Elton John

Born
March 25th, 1947

Key Tracks
"Your Song," "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," "Tiny Dancer"

Influenced
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."

Persson/Redferns

37

Neil Young

Born
November 12th, 1945

Key Tracks
"Heart of Gold," "Powderfinger," "Rockin' in the Free World"

Influenced
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."

Gershoff/Retna

36

Bruce Springsteen

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."

Redfern/Redferns

35

Dusty Springfield

Born
April 16th, 1939 (died March 2nd, 1999)

Key Tracks
"I Only Want to Be With You," "Son of a Preacher Man"

Influenced
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."

Bieri/AFP/Getty

34

Whitney Houston

Born
August 9th, 1963

Key Tracks
"The Greatest Love of All," "I Wanna Dance With Somebody," "Saving All My Love for You," "I Will Always Love You"

Influenced
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.

Putland/Retna

33

Steve Winwood

Born
May 12th, 1948

Key Tracks
"Gimme Some Lovin'" (with the Spencer Davis Group), "Dear Mr. Fantasy" (with Traffic), "When You See a Chance" (solo)

Influenced
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."

Solaro/AFP/Getty

32

Bono

Born
May 106th, 1960

Key Tracks
"One," "With or Without You," "Where the Streets Have No Name," "Beautiful Day"

Influenced
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