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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.

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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."

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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."

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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.

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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."

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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 has so many influences. You hear Joe Strummer, Bob Marley, Otis Redding, Elvis Presley, even John Lennon. And he has the same range as Robert Plant. It's amazing, the notes he has to go through in the first lines of "Sunday Bloody Sunday." But it's filtered through this Irish choirboy. The Joshua Tree shows the mastery Bono has over his voice and what he learned from punk, New Wave and American musicians like Bob Dylan. In the quiet moments of "With or Without You," you can imagine him sitting under the stars. Then, when he comes back to the chorus, all of a sudden it's a hailstorm.

A lot of Bono's free-form singing comes from the band's rhythms and the church-bell feeling of the Edge's playing, the way the guitar sings in that delay. Bono can glide vocally through all of that. But it's very natural. And he's not afraid to go beyond what he's capable of, into something bizarre like his falsetto in "Lemon." In "Kite," on All That You Can't Leave Behind, he belts it out like he's crying with joy.

I never had the feeling he was manipulating the power of his voice to show off. They say a submarine never goes in reverse. That's Bono, always looking for a new way of singing something. That's one thing I learned from him: Never rest. Keep learning and be a good listener. That's the spirit of singing — and he definitely has it.

Persson/Redferns

31

Howlin’ Wolf

Born
June 10th, 1910 (died January 10th, 1976)

Key Tracks
"Smoke Stack lightning," "Back Door Man," "I Asked for Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)"

Influenced
Robert Plant, Captain Beefheart, Tom Waits

John Fogerty was nine when he first heard Howlin' Wolf's sandpaper voice on the radio. "It was just so powerful, and so mystical and spooky," he says. Wolf's preternatural croak on tracks like 1956's "Smoke Stack Lightning" and 1961's "Back Door Man" would inspire British Invasion bands such as the Yardbirds and the Rolling Stones, not to mention Fogerty's own Creedence Clearwater Revival: "We followed his career the way that we would later follow Elvis and Buddy Holly," he says. Wolf's greatest legacy was the sense of soulful menace that singers like Fogerty would try to approximate. "When I heard Howlin' Wolf," said legendary Sun Records producer Sam Phillips, "I said, 'This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.' "

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30

Prince

Born
June 7th, 1958

Key Tracks
Little Red Corvette," "When Doves Cry," "Kiss"

Influenced
OutKast, D'Angelo, Gwen Stefani, Kevin Barnes

"Prince is the boldest black singer in postmodern music, hands down," says Roots drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson. "His voice has multiple personalities, he's fearless, and when he screams, he truly sounds like he's crazy." Indeed, that throat-shredding climax to "The Beautiful Ones" sure feels like a man who has lost his mind — it's as convincing as the passion dripping from the lighter-than-air falsetto in "Adore," the pure-rock shouting of "Let's Go Crazy" or the robotic deadpan of "When Doves Cry." "His vocals are just limitless," says Lenny Kravitz. "There's the androgynous, very feminine Prince, there's the James Brown-style Prince, the gospel Prince, the rock & roll Prince. He has so many different textures and dimensions with his voice — and everything is funky."