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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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92

Morrissey

Born
May 22nd, 1959

Key Tracks
"How Soon Is Now?" "William, It Was Really Nothing," "What Difference Does It Make?" (the Smiths), "Irish Blood, English Heart" (solo)

Influenced
Thom Yorke, Brandon Flowers, Colin Meloy (the Decemberists)

Bono said that when he first heard Morrissey singing the Smiths' acid-tongued "Girlfriend in a Coma," "I nearly crashed my car and ended up in a coma. He has that gift." An icon of New Wave from his days in the Smiths and in his solo career, Morrissey owns a voice that's mannered, ironic, even consciously feminine — his phrasing owes more to tuxedoed crooners than to any rock singers before him. But his rejection of convention is also why he redefined the sound of British rock for the past quarter-century. With his falsetto cries, rolled r's and warbling yodels, he pulled off lyrics few other singers could possibly have gotten away with, and he opened up possibilities for rockers who've followed him, from Oasis to Interpol.

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91

Levon Helm

Born
May 26th, 1940

Key Tracks
"The Weight," "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"

Influenced
Jeff Tweedy, Lucinda Williams, John Hiatt

There is something about Levon Helm's voice that is contained in all of our voices. It is ageless, timeless and has no race. He can sing with such depth and emotion, but he can also convey a good-old fun-time growl.

Since Papa Garth Hudson didn't really sing, I always felt that, vocally, Levon was the father figure in the Band. He always seems strong and confident, like a father calling you home, or sometimes scolding you. The beauty in Richard Manuel's singing was often the sense of pain and darkness he conveyed. Rick Danko had a lot of melancholy to his voice as well, but he could also be a little more goofy. They were all different shades of color in the crayon box, and Levon's voice is the equivalent of a sturdy old farmhouse that has stood for years in the fields, weathering all kinds of change yet remaining unmovable.

The best thing about Levon is that he has so many sides, from the sound his voice gave to the Band's rich harmonies to how he can rip it up on songs like "Yazoo Street Scandal," "Don't Ya Tell Henry," "Up on Cripple Creek" and "Rag Mama Rag." He can pop in for sensitive moments, such as in between Manuel's vocals in "Whispering Pines." And he laid down one of the greatest recorded pop vocal performances of all time: "The Weight." I was fortunate to get to go to one of his Midnight Rambles a few years back when My Morning Jacket were recording up in the Catskills. To see him walk out on that stage and sit down behind the drum kit in person was a thrill. No one else plays the drums or sings like Levon, much less doing it at the same time.

There is a sense of deep country and family in Levon's voice, a spirit that was there even before him, deep in the blood of all singers who have heard him, whether they know it or not.

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90

The Everly Brothers

Born
Don Everly, February 1st, 1937; Phil Everly, January 19th, 1939

Key Tracks
"Bye Bye Love," "When Will I Be Loved," "Crying in the Rain"

Influenced
The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel

Beginning with the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel, every group for whom harmony singing is important owes a crucial debt to the Everly Brothers. Their hits in the Fifties and early Sixties seemed at once raw and pristine: When he first heard the Everlys, Art Garfunkel says, "I learned that every syllable can shine. They were Kentucky guys with beautiful, perfect-pitch harmonies and great diction. All those vowels and consonants, those s's and t's, every one of them killed me." Phil and Don Everly learned their own lessons from the great country tradition of family harmony singing. "They had a blend that only brothers could have," says Dion. "But then when Don would sing his solos on the bridges of those songs, oh, my God, they would transport you. It was brilliant."

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89

Solomon Burke

Born
March 21st, 1940

Key Tracks
"Everybody Needs Somebody to Love," "Cry to Me," "Just Out of Reach"

Influenced
Mick Jagger, Van Morrison, Ben Harper

Because Solomon Burke never had a big crossover hit, "the King of Rock and Soul" is not as widely known as others from the golden age of soul music. But his dramatic, sonorous voice — seasoned by his days as a boy preacher — is unrivaled in its ability to move effortlessly between R&B, pop, country and gospel. "My grandmother made sure that we listened to a variety of music, and that always stayed with me," says Burke. Recently, he's picked up a Grammy and long-overdue recognition, and tracks such as "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love" are now part of the soul canon. "He is Solomon the Resonator," Tom Waits has said, "the golden voice of heart, wisdom, soul and experience." King Solomon himself says, "I'm just trying to move as fast as I can, in as many directions as I can, for as long as I can."

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88

Willie Nelson

Born
April 30th, 1933

Key Tracks
"Blue EYes Crying in the Rain," "On the Road Again," "Whiskey River," "Blue Skies"

Influenced
Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Ryan Adams, Lucinda Williams

Willie Nelson's secret ingredient is his unconventional phrasing — something jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis has described as "very unpredictable, but it comes out poetic and very logical." Dwight Yoakam calls Nelson "the most avant-garde country singer of all time." You can hear his odd phrasing and experimental use of syntax in songs ranging from early hits that he wrote for other singers such as "Hello Walls" to signature Nelson tunes like "Bloody Mary Morning." Yoakam was a teenager the first time he heard "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" on Casey Kasem's Top 40 countdown: "I'd never heard anything like it," Yoakam says, referring to Nelson's warm, laid-back whine and impeccably casual tone. "He's not singing to you, he's talking to you."

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87

Don Henley

Born
July 22nd, 1947

Key Tracks
"Hotel California," "Desperado" (Eagles), "The Boys of Summer" (Solo)

Influenced
Bruce Hornsby, Sheryl Crow, Garth Brooks

Don Henley got his famously rough voice from belting out R&B tunes at Texas college gigs in his early band the Speeds. "The frat boys would all want James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding music, which I had to learn," Henley said. "I got hoarse singing that music four hours a night, trying to sound raspy until my voice blew out." Years later, that rasp in his fluid tenor voice would convey a world-weariness that defined Eagles classics such as "Hotel California" from 1976 and solo tunes like "The Boys of Summer" from 1984. "He has an amazing voice that is a mystery to us all," says songwriter J.D. Souther, who wrote or co-wrote many of those Eagles hits. "I would call him one of the great blues singers of our generation."

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86

Art Garfunkel

Born
November 5th, 1941

Key Tracks
"Bridge Over Troubled Water," "Scarborough Fair/Canticle" (Simon and Garfunkel), "All I Know" (solo)

Influenced
Cat Stevens, James Taylor

"He is a pure and beautiful tenor voice, and there really is no one like him," says James Taylor about Art Garfunkel, whose singing blends lyricism with a remarkable ease of delivery. He brought sweetness and wonder to his classic harmonies with Paul Simon, a delicacy that defined those songs, and some of the hopes of the late Sixties. "I'm looking for controlled beauty," he says, a standard he learned as a child from the likes of Italian opera star Enrico Caruso. "Those arias — I love a song with a high, pole-vault peak." That describes solo hits such as 1973's "All I Know" and 1975's "I Only Have Eyes for You." "I like to sing heartfelt, where you address the mike with your honesty," says Garfunkel. "You try to be authentic as a person, with all the doubt, wonder and mystery of being alive."

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85

Sam Moore

Born
October 12th, 1935

Key Tracks
"Soul Man," "Hold On, I'm Comin'," "Part Time Love"

Influenced
Al Green, Teddy Pendergrass, Bruce Springsteen

"You have to put something in it to make them move," said Sam Moore, half of the Sixties R&B duo Sam and Dave. Moore boasts a scratchy voice with incredible range — all honey-sweet soul and raw sexuality, gutbucket blues and gritty rock. He met fellow struggling club singer Dave Prater on the Miami R&B circuit in 1961; their partnership spawned supercharged classics such as "Soul Man" and "Hold On, I'm Comin'." Guitarist Steve Cropper says that Moore was holding back even on those songs: "There was a dynamic space between Sam and Dave, a wide margin as singers, and I think Sam had to tone down some," he says. Sam and Dave split for good in 1981; two years ago Moore released his first solo album in more than 35 years, featuring guest spots from Sting and Bruce Springsteen.

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84

Darlene Love

Born
July 26th, 1941

Key Tracks
"He's a Rebel," "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," "He's Sure the Boy I Love"

Influenced
Cher, Cyndi Lauper

Darlene Love's name did not appear on her first hit, 1962's "He's a Rebel" (it was credited to the Crystals instead of Love's own group of session singers, the Blossoms), but there was nothing anonymous about her voice. On Phil Spector-produced songs such as "He's Sure the Boy I Love" and "Wait Til' My Bobby Gets Home," her husky, church-trained alto — infused with an unusual mix of strength and abject longing — was a rare instrument sturdy enough to vault over the Wall of Sound. Love, whom Bette Midler has called "one of the greatest voices in all of pop music," says two songs best capture her range: " '(Today I Met) The Boy I'm Gonna Marry' is a ballad where I'm pleading, and you get to hear the softness in my voice," Love says, "whereas 'Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)' — it's just all power."

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83

Patti Smith

Born
December 30th, 1946

Key Tracks
"Gloria," "Rock N Roll Nigger," "Because the Night"

Influenced
Chrissie Hynde, PJ Harvey, Cat Power

As a teenager, Michael Stipe considered Patti Smith his favorite singer. Her voice, he said, "wasn't a strained, perfect crescendo of notes. It was this howling, mad beast." Smith unleashed that beast in signature tracks like "Gloria" and "Land" — combinations of classic R&B songs and Smith's stream-of-consciousness slurs, grunts and moans. "She was just real guttural," said Stipe. "It was like all the body noises you make." Smith credits Grace Slick with opening the doors for that kind of vocal anarchy. "She gave us permission to bring a whole new level of strength and intelligence," Smith says. "She created a space for other people to explore." Smith passed that forward: "[Her] whole zeitgeist was that anybody could do it," said Stipe. "I took that literally. I thought, 'If she can sing, I can sing.'

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82

Tom Waits

Born
December 7th, 1949

Key Tracks
"New Coat of Paint," "Downtown Train," "Dirt in the Ground"

Influenced
Nick Cave, James Hetfield, Isaac Brock (Modest Mouse)

Tom Waits' voice "has the smoothness of Barry White, but the raspiness of a mountain lion," says hip-hop producer RZA. The "smoothness" may be hard to believe, but on early solo LPs like 1973's Closing Time and 1974's The Heart of Saturday Night, Waits was more like Hoagy Carmichael than a wild animal, with