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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.

Farrell/Redferns

5

John Lennon

Born
October 9th, 1940 (died December 8th, 1980)

Key Tracks
"I Feel Fine," "Strawberry Fields Forever," "Imagine," "Instant Karma"

Influenced
Bono, Neil Young, Liam Gallagher

There was a tremendous intimacy in everything John Lennon did, combined with a formidable intellect. That is what makes him a great singer. In "Girl," on Rubber Soul, he starts in this steely, high voice: "Is there anybody going to listen to my story. . . ." It's so impassioned, like somebody stepping from the shadows in a room. But when he comes to the chorus, you suddenly realize: He's talking directly to her. When I heard this, as a young teenager, it hit the nail on the head. It embodied the feelings I was living with every day — completely burning with sexual desire, with almost a regret at being so overpowered.

He had a confidence, a certainty about what he was feeling that carried over into everything he sang. One of the things about John Lennon and the Beatles that went by a lot of people was how unusual it was for people in their class, from Liverpool, to be catapulted into the higher reaches of entertainment and society, without disguising their working-class roots and voices. It was such an audacious thing to do, not to change who they were. That was the heart of John Lennon's singing — to say who he was and where he was from.

He didn't sing very loud. I got that sense when I was learning "Oh My Love," on Imagine. That song has to be done quietly, which turns out to be a feat of strength. It's ironic — to sing high and quiet, you have to be physically strong. In "I'm Only Sleeping," on Revolver, he sounds sleepy, like he's half in bed as he sings. Or "I'm So Tired," on the White Album — there is an irritableness to it. These songs live in you because of the remarkable facility of the singer to inhabit those moments and portray them. "Imagine" is a masterful performance. He inhabits that idea — our innermost longing for a world in which peace is real — when he sings it. And it is sung with fearlessness, without erring on either side — polemic or sappy. It's wonderful to have an idea expressed so well that everybody can sing it. That's a song he made you want to sing.

The more he developed as a writer, he was able to show his voice in various contexts. There is a thrilling aloneness in the way he sings "A Day in the Life." His singing on John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band is to the bone. He willed himself to express his pain: "Mother/You had me/But I never had you." It's a crushing depiction that stays with you forever. Double Fantasy is less tortured — there is a lot of happiness there. The singing is just beautiful, perhaps more the product of singing at home, to his son. John Lennon went through a lot to have the life he had. He gave up some things to get others. And he died before a lot of those themes could be examined.

But it was a stunning thing — he always told the truth. He felt he had the right to talk about this stuff, and that gives his voice a singular identity. It's not the chops of a heralded singer — no one goes on about his actual technique. He went right to what he felt, what he had to say.

RB/Redferns

4

Sam Cooke

Born
January 22nd, 1931 (died December 11th, 1964)

Key Tracks
"A Change Is Gonna Come," "Bring It on Home to Me," "You Send Me"

Influenced
Otis Redding, Art Garfunkel, Rod Stewart

If a singer is not singing from the soul, I do not even want to listen to it — it's not for me.

Sam Cooke reached down deep with pure soul. He had the rare ability to do gospel the way it's supposed to be — he made it real, clean, direct. Gospel drove Sam Cooke through his greatest songs, the same way it did for Ray Charles, who came first, and Otis Redding.

He had an incomparable voice. Sam Cooke could sing anything and make it work. But when you're talking about his strength as a singer, range is not relevant. It was his power to deliver — it was about his phrasing, the totality of his singing.

He did a lot of great songs, but "Bring It on Home to Me" is a favorite. It's just a well-crafted song with a great lyric and melody. It's a song that's written to allow you to go wherever you can with it. "A Change Is Gonna Come" is another song I covered; it's a great arrangement.

Not many people can play this music anymore, not the way Sam Cooke did it, coming directly from the church. What can we learn from a singer like him, from listening to songs like "A Change Is Gonna Come"? It depends on who the singer is and what they are capable of, where their head is and how serious they are. But Sam Cooke was born to sing.