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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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54

Luther Vandross

Born
April 20th, 1951 (died July 1st, 2005)

Key Tracks
"Never Too Much," "Superstar," "A House Is Not a Home"

Influenced
Alicia Keys, John Legend

No singer made the Top 40 sound so intimate — often painfully so — as Luther Vandross. "Singing allows me to express all the mysteries hidden inside," he once said. Vandross grew up worshiping at the altar of Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick and Diana Ross, then labored throughout the Seventies singing everything from Burger King commercials to sessions with David Bowie (on Young Americans), before emerging as the dominant R&B vocalist of his era. His warm, rich singing on hits like "Never Too Much" defined soul during the years between disco and hip-hop, influencing a generation of vocalists — including Mariah Carey, who was petrified to duet with Vandross on a cover of "Endless Love" in 1994. "It was intimidating to stand next to him," she says. "Luther was incomparable — his voice was velvety, smooth, airy, with an unmistakable tone."

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53

Muddy Waters

Born
April 4th, 1915 (died April 30th, 1983)

Key Tracks
"Got My Mojo Workin'," "Mannish Boy," "I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man"

Influenced
Mick Jagger, Robert Plant

If you really check Muddy Waters out in performances on tape, he's almost not even there. He puts his whole body and his whole energy into his voice. When he's singing, something else enters the room. For a certain sound, if you don't put your body into it, you're not going to get the note.

It takes everything, every faculty you've got. He was absolutely confident and superbrave. I first heard Muddy when I was a kid, around my family's music store. His baritone always stood out — not only above other blues singers but above all voices and styles of music that I heard. His voice really pierced me in a way that wouldn't let go. The specific record that I wore to the bone was Hard Again. That record has been on repeat my entire life. And also Electric Mud — that was my go-to record when I was making my album with the Blind Boys of Alabama.

Recently, I've been playing "Hoochie Coochie Man" in my set. I'll just come out and say it: My approach is to do my best Muddy Waters impersonation, straight out. I'm trying to dig down into that part of my vocal range, and there's no reason to stray too far from where he took it.

A song like "Mannish Boy" is to the blues what "Purple Haze" is to rock. And Muddy's voice carries that whole song — there's no musical changes at all. It's hip-hop in a way — before there was hip-hop. It grabs you by the throat. If it doesn't move you when you hear that, I'm curious as to what does move you.

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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.

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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."