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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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2

Ray Charles

Born
September 23rd, 1930 (died June 10th, 2004)

Key Tracks
“What’d I Say, Pts. 1 & 2,” “I Got a Woman,” “You Don’t Know Me,” “Georgia on My Mind”

Influenced
Van Morrison, Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder

Ray Charles had the most unique voice in popular music. He would do these improvisational things, a little laugh or a “Huh-hey!” It was as if something struck him as he was singing and he just had to react to it. He was getting a kick out of what he was doing. And his joy was infectious.

But there was something else I didn’t realize until we sang together in the Eighties, on my song “Baby Grand.” When he sings, he’s not just singing soulfully. He is imparting his soul. You are hearing something deep within the man. I thought it would just turn me into this little nerd from Levittown, New York. But it didn’t. It emboldened me. It was like an evangelical event. He was the minister and I was the congregation. I got all fired up.

Ray started out wanting to be Nat “King” Cole. When Nat went down low in a song, like “Mona Lisa,” there was a growl in there that was kind of sexy. Ray took that to a whole other level. He took the growl and turned it into singing. He took the yelp, the whoop, the grunt, the groan, and made them music.

Also, he was a piano player. The piano is a percussion instrument. You put your body into it. Ray had a lot of unique body movements I didn’t know until I saw him. Before I saw him, I heard those movements as he sang. I heard his shoulder go up a little on the left side, the way he lifted himself off the stool. Then I realized the voice I was hearing was also playing that piano.

The first Ray Charles I heard was Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. He’d had hits before that, the R&B stuff, like “What’d I Say.” But here is a black man giving you the whitest possible music in the blackest possible way, while all hell is breaking loose with the civil rights movement. When he sang “You Don’t Know Me,” I thought, “He isn’t just singing the lyrics. He’s saying, ‘You don’t know me. Get to know me.’ “

He could be very sly with a song. His 1972 version of “America the Beautiful” is an iconic recording. There was so much feeling in his performance. It was his way of saying, “This is my country too. We gave you your popular music. This was ours before it was yours.”

But Ray synthesized the blues into a language everybody could relate to. You can’t listen to Ray Charles and not say, “This is a man who felt deeply, who has lived this music.” He shows you his humanity. The spontaneity is evident. Another guy might say, “That was a mistake, we can’t leave that in.” No, Ray left it in. The mistake became the hook.

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1

Aretha Franklin

Born March 25th, 1942
Key Tracks "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," "Respect," "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)," "Think," "Chain of Fools"
Influenced Whitney Houston, Alicia Keys, Aaron Neville, Annie Lennox

You know a force from heaven. You know something that God made. And Aretha is a gift from God. When it comes to expressing yourself through song, there is no one who can touch her. She is the reason why women want to sing.

Aretha has everything — the power, the technique. She is honest with everything she says. Everything she's thinking or dealing with is all in the music, from "Chain of Fools" to "Respect" to her live performances. And she has total confidence; she does not waver at all. I think her gospel base brings that confidence, because in gospel they do not play around — they're all about chops, who has the vocal runs. This is no game to her.

As a child, I used to listen to Aretha's music because my mom played "Do Right Woman" and "Ain't No Way" every single day. I would see my mother cry when she listened to those songs, and I'd cry too. Then I discovered her on my own with the Sparkle soundtrack. I must have played "Giving Him Something He Can Feel" 30 times in a row; eventually, I connected the dots to that voice my mom was listening to.

Even the way she pronounces words is amazing: In "Giving Him Something He Can Feel," when she sings, "Many say that I'm too young" — the way she says "I'm," you can almost see her saying it, like she's all in your face, but you're still right with her. You can really visualize her hands when she sings, "You're tying both of my hands," on "Ain't No Way" — it's the powerful way she hits the word "both."

When you watch her work, you can see why Aretha is who she is. When we did the song "Don't Waste Your Time" on my album Mary, she just went in there and ate that record like Pac-Man. She could be doing a church vocal run, and it would turn into some jazz-space thing, something I never encountered before. You'd say, "Where did that come from? Where did she find that note?"

It's beautiful to see, because it helps people with a lack of confidence in their ability, like myself. I look at her and think, "I need a piece of that. Whatever that is."

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