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100 Greatest Singers of All Time

Aretha, Elvis, Lennon, Dylan and many more

Greatest Singers

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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.

RB/Redferns

52

Brian Wilson

Born
June 20th, 1942

Key Tracks
"In My Room," "Don't Worry Baby," "Carline, No"

Influenced
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.

Winter/Getty

51

Gladys Knight

Born
May 28th, 1944

Key Tracks
"I Heard It Through the Grapevine," "Neither One of Us," "Midnight Train to Georgia"

Influenced
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."

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