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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.

Persson/Redferns

15

Robert Plant

Born
August 20th, 1948

Key Tracks
"Dazed and Confused," "Immigrant Song," "Sea of Love"

Influenced
David Lee Roth, Freddie Mercury, Tori Amos, Axl Rose

As a teenager in the English Midlands, Robert Plant was obsessed with the rawest American blues. "When I saw Sleepy John Estes and heard that voice — part pain, part otherworldly — I went, 'I want that voice,' " Plant told Rolling Stone in 2006. Somehow, he got that voice, and more: The unearthly howl he unleashed with Led Zeppelin was a bluesman crossed with a Viking deity. Singing like a girl never seemed so masculine, and countless hard-rock singers would shred their vocal cords reaching for the notes Plant gained by birthright. "His voice is picturesque," says collaborator Alison Krauss. "It sounds so new and so old at the same time, with this crazy European mystery to it."

Putland/Retna

14

Al Green

Born
April 13th, 1946

Key Tracks
"Let's Stay Together," "Love and Happiness," "Tired of Being Alone"

Influenced
Prince, the Bee Gees, Justin Timberlake

Al Green's voice sits at the perfect point between romance and sex: "Most black singers go zero to 100, rushing to the big payoff," says Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson of the Roots. "But Al Green is like a soufflé that takes 45 minutes to rise." He was the last dominant singer of the soul era, but he sounded nothing like his predecessors. His pristine falsetto could explode into joy on "Let's Stay Together" or create almost unbearable tension on "Simply Beautiful." Green's vulnerability and suave sexuality were rewarded with 13 Top 10 hits during the early Seventies, and lost none of their impact during his subsequent return to gospel music. "He takes amazing advantage of silence," says Thompson, who produced Lay It Down, Green's most recent album. "Quiet is his strength."

Redfern/Redferns

13

Roy Orbison

Born
April 23rd, 1936 (died December 6th, 1988)

Key Tracks
"Oh, Pretty Woman," "You Got It," "Only the Lonely"

Influenced
Bruce Springsteen, Chris Isaak, k.d. lang

Tom Petty called him "probably the greatest singer in the world." Another of his fellow Traveling Wilburys, Bob Dylan, said he had "the voice of a professional criminal." Roy Orbison shared rockabilly roots with Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley — he recorded the bopping "Ooby Dooby" at Sun Records in 1956 — before his soaring, symphonic vocals brought a new level of majesty and mystery to rock in the early Sixties. "Songs like 'Leah' and 'In Dreams' start out challenging, then just climb and climb into the stratosphere," says protégé Chris Isaak. Dion, who toured with Orbison, says that he actually sang very softly: "I'd be two feet away, and when he hit those high notes, it was quiet and heartfelt. But the emotion would go through you like a power drill."

Putland/Retna

12

Little Richard

Born
December 5th, 1932

Key Tracks
"Tutti-Frutti," "Good Golly Miss Molly," "Long Tall Sally"

Influenced
James Brown, Prince, Paul McCartney

"When I heard ['Long Tall Sally'], it was so great I couldn't speak," said John Lennon. "I didn't want to leave Elvis, but this was so much better." Richard Penniman grew up wailing gospel in church in Macon, Georgia, and he carried his feverish foundation with him into rock & roll: On songs like "Lucille" and "Tutti-Frutti," he sounded like a preacher wrestling the devil to the ground. When he belted, "I'm gonna rip it up/I'm gonna shake it up" in 1956, Richard wasn't just singing about the weekend — his falsetto shrieks were demolishing the rules of pop singing. It was a voice that leapt with a fury out of transistor radios, leaving scorch marks on an entire generation of singers and musicians. Said Jimi Hendrix, who played in Richard's backing band, "I want to do with my guitar what Little Richard does with his voice."

Antonious-Interfoto/Dalle/Retna

11

Paul McCartney

Born
June 18th, 1942

Key Tracks
"Yesterday," "Hey Jude," "Maybe I'm Amazed"

Influenced
Elton John, Rod Stewart, Elvis Costello

"Paul is like an impressionist painter," says James Taylor, who had the privilege of watching the Beatles record the White Album in 1968. "The pieces of his music are so elementary, yet the overall thing is so sophisticated. He's such a precise and controlled singer." On songs from the Beatles' frenzied "I'm Down" to his own "Maybe I'm Amazed," McCartney revealed himself as one of rock's most agile and melodic screamers. But McCartney, who learned vocal harmonies from his musician father, is at least as gifted as a balladeer, drawing on British music-hall sounds from his childhood as much as Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers for songs such as "Yesterday" and "Michelle." "People chose Lennon or McCartney," says Taylor. "I was definitely on the McCartney side. He makes a beautiful sound."

Corio/Retna

10

James Brown

Born May 3rd, 1933 (died December 25th, 2006)
Key Tracks "I Got You (I Feel Good)," "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," "The Payback," "Give It Up or Turnit a Loose"
Influenced Michael Jackson, Sly Stone, Prince, George Clinton

For me, James Brown was never just the voice. It was the whole package. But the impact of that voice gave me hope, because it was a simple presentation and didn't trade on range. And there was that scream. It was like an inner voice. It sounded like an assertion of rights of primitive man: "I am alive, and I can do things." He used to describe his dancing as "African nerve control." He had a point.

If you go back to his early recordings, he was trying to sing standards. He didn't quite have what it took. The first time I heard him was on Live at the Apollo, from a few years later. I was working at a record store. Apollo has still got a lot of formal songs on it — "Try Me," "Lost Someone." But what really blew my mind and influenced my thinking was the continuity of the performance. You have the long introduction and the incredibly detailed entrance music. And when James comes in, he does a lot of holding back, with dynamic effect, loud and soft. In "Lost Someone," there's this opiate repetition where the band is going back and forth on two chords, and he's saying, "I'll love you tomorrow," on and on. Then all of a sudden, he goes, "Uh!" He whacks you, and the band replies. Nothing is casual, but it doesn't sound forced or straitjacketed.

He was a terrific editor. The one that flipped me out — I still remember being in the car, hearing it — is "I Can't Stand It." He was down to fuck the chorus, fuck the melody. This is barely a riff. But he pushes the group along like the coxswain on a Roman galley: Stroke, motherfucker, uh!

He always has an edge in his ballads where he lets you know it's real. There's a lesser-known one called "Mama's Dead," from Black Caesar. It just kills me. At the end, after he's sung all these heavy things, he just says, "Everybody got a mother, and you know what I'm talkin' about." Or in the chorus of "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" — a lesser artist would say, "It wouldn't mean nothin' without a woman." Or "without a girl." But they wouldn't say both. And it's not just a lyric. He is singing something primitive and basic. He tells you how society runs. Man makes this, this is how money works. Maybe that comes from being somebody who didn't have many things when he started out. The part in his autobiography that always gets me is when he lived with his dad, tapping the pine trees for rosin. You're down to real poverty.

The big thing I got from him was, don't just stand there and look at your shoe. Fuck that. It had to be like something's going on here. He always sounds like he's breaking loose. Once you've made the decision to go out in front of people and start moving around, it frees up so many things. You're now creating movement in a society that's based on order. And within yourself, you feel different. That motion makes you make decisions as a vocalist, decisions that free you from the stilted stuff.

In those situations, music has a cathartic power, and the guys who do it, they know that. That's why James Brown could call himself Soul Brother Number One — and nobody ever said he was bragging.

Goodwin/Redferns

9

Stevie Wonder

Born
May 13th, 1950

Key Tracks
"Superstition," "Sir Duke," "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours"

Influenced
Donny Hathaway, Maxwell, Adam Levine

To me, Stevie Wonder's voice always sounds like tears of joy — like he's right on the verge of crying, but it's out of glee and peace, as opposed to the pain of someone like a Sly Stone.

There's a richness to his voice, a clarity to all of its inflections. That vibrato is so impactful and piercing, but he never loses that underlying straightforward singing voice. His lack of sight must heighten his other senses, his ability to imagine and feel. It makes his music very visual, very graphic.

The first time I remember hearing Stevie Wonder was when I heard him singing "Fingertips," in the movie Cooley High. I was in awe of this child's ability to see himself so clearly and be so sure of himself so young. Then I had to go back and discover Stevie Wonder as a whole. My uncle had an album collection, so I had seen Talking Book and Innervisions, but I knew the covers before I knew the music. I got turned on to his amazing performances like "Superwoman," "I Ain't Gonna Stand for It" and, of course, "Ribbon in the Sky" — that song is so simple, but it's so significant. His voice has so much variation and such diversity.

His confidence and his sense of self are just supernatural. Stevie Wonder knows exactly who he is, what role and responsibility he's been given. But he revels in being chosen, singled out, and that's what makes him who he is. He's like a miracle.

Persson/ Redferns

8

Otis Redding

Born
September 9th, 1941 (died December 10th, 1967)

Key Tracks
"(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay," "These Arms of Mine," "Try a Little Tenderness"

Influenced
Al Green, Toots Hibbert, Chris Robinson

The first time i saw Otis, i had no idea who he was. It was on the sidewalk at 926 East McLemore Avenue in Memphis, which was Stax Rec-ords. This guy was unloading equipment and suitcases from a station wagon, taking it into the studio. He was a driver for the singer Johnny Jenkins. I didn't see him much the rest of the day until later, when he asked for his audition. He sang "These Arms of Mine." It was in B-flat.

It didn't seem like an audition at all. It was a performance. It wasn't the size of his voice — we knew lots of people with vocal powers like that. It was the intent with which he sang. He was all emotion. It was like, "This guy is definitely not singing for the money." I don't think he ever did.

Range was not a factor in his singing. His range was somewhat limited. He had no really low notes and no really high notes. But Otis would do anything that implied emotion, and that's where his physicality came in, because he was such a strong, powerful man. Backstage, he would be like a prizefighter waiting to get out there. Playing "Respect" live with him was just energy and relentless joy.

Without singing, Otis was more distracted, not sure of himself. He couldn't make the same movements in the studio when he sang. He was more restricted. You got the impression, though. He would do that thing where he stomped the left foot, then the right. And we all played with more intensity around him. He had that magnetism — "I'm a man!" — and he knew it, too. "These Arms of Mine" is still Otis' signature song for me. It is so simple in its beauty and message. Here is a young man singing to a girl: "If you would even consider being with me, how happy I would be." That's such a basic emotion. That's how he sang it, and that's what got him over.

Wilmer/Redferns

7

Bob Dylan

Born
May 24th, 1941

Key Tracks
"Like a Rolling Stone," "Lay Lady Lay," "Visions of Johanna"

Influenced
John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Conor Oberst

Bob Dylan did what very, very few singers ever do. He changed popular singing. And we have been living in a world shaped by Dylan's singing ever since. Almost no one sings like Elvis Presley anymore. Hundreds try to sing like Dylan. When Sam Cooke played Dylan for the young Bobby Womack, Womack said he didn't understand it. Cooke explained that from now on, it's not going to be about how pretty the voice is. It's going to be about believing that the voice is telling the truth.

To understand Bob Dylan's impact as a singer, you have to imagine a world without Tom Waits, Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Vedder, Kurt Cobain, Lucinda Williams or any other vocalist with a cracked voice, dirt-bowl yelp or bluesy street howl. It is a vast list, but so were the influences on Dylan, from the Talmudic chanting of Allen Ginsberg in "Howl" to the deadpan Woody Guthrie and Lefty Frizzell's murmur. There is certainly iron ore in there, and the bitter cold of Hibbing, Minnesota, blowing through that voice. It's like a knotted fist, and it allows Dylan to sing the most melancholy tunes and not succumb to sentimentality. What's interesting is that later, as he gets older, the fist opens up, to a vulnerability. I have heard him sing versions of "Idiot Wind" where he was definitely the idiot.

I first heard Bob Dylan's voice in the dark, when I was 13 years old, on my friend's record player. It was his greatest-hits album, the first one. The voice was at once modern, in all the things it was railing against, and very ancient. It felt strangely familiar to an Irishman. We thought America was full of superheroes, but it was a much humbler people in these songs — farmers, people who have had great injustices done to them. The really unusual thing about Bob Dylan was that, for a moment in the Sixties, he felt like the future. He was the Voice of a Generation, raised against the generation that came before. Then he became the voice of all the generations, the voices in the ground — these ghosts from the Thirties and the Dust Bowl, the romance of Gershwin and the music hall. For me, the pictures of him in his polka-dot shirt, the Afro and pointy shoes — that was a brief flash of lightning. His voice is usually put to the service of more ancient characters.

Here are some of the adjectives I have found myself using to describe that voice: howling, seducing, raging, indignant, jeering, imploring, begging, hectoring, confessing, keening, wailing, soothing, conversational, crooning. It is a voice like smoke, from cigar to incense, where it's full of wonder and worship. There is a voice for every Dylan you can meet, and the reason I'm never bored of Bob Dylan is because there are so many of them, all centered on the idea of pilgrimage. People forget that Bob Dylan had to warm up for Dr. King before he made his great "I have a dream" speech — the preacher preceded by the pilgrim. Dylan has tried out so many personas in his singing because it is the way he inhabits his subject matter. His closet won't close for all the shoes of the characters that walk through his stories.

I love that album Shot of Love. There's no production. You're in a room hearing him sing. And I like a lot of the songs that he worked on with Daniel Lanois — "Series of Dreams," "Most of the Time," "Dignity." That is the period where he moves me most. The voice becomes the words. There is no performing, just life — as Yeats says, when the dancer becomes the dance.

Dylan did with singing what Brando did with acting. He busted through the artifice to get to the art. Both of them tore down the prissy rules laid down by the schoolmarms of their craft, broke through the fourth wall, got in the audience's face and said, "I dare you to think I'm kidding."

Redfern/Redferns

6

Marvin Gaye

Born
April 2nd, 1939 (died April 1st, 1984)

Key Tracks
"What's Going On," "Let's Get It On," "I Heard It Through the Grapevine"

Influenced
D'Angelo, R. Kelly, Usher

There's no sound like Marvin Gaye: the way he sang so softly, almost gently — but also with so much power. That came straight from the heart. Everything in his life — everything that he thought and felt — affected his singing.

The first time I was really introduced to Marvin Gaye was the What's Going On album, and I fell in love. It was so moving to hear him talk so desperately about the state of the world, on top of all that brilliant musicality. One of my favorite things he did was to follow the strings with his voice, or double things that the instruments are doing. There's such a simple, subtle lushness to it that adds this whole other layer to the music.

These days we have Pro Tools and a thousand tracks, and you can do different vocals on every track. But back then you really had to innovate, like the way Marvin answered himself in songs, or all that really distant backing work, where his voice is all the way in the back and echoing. It's haunting; he delivered every single song with such clarity that it gave me chills.

The live version of "Distant Lover" has to be one of the most incredible performances ever captured on tape. You can feel his confidence, his yearning — you can imagine his movements. The entire audience is hanging on his every word; he's teasing them the whole time. That's what makes Marvin Gaye immortal: the emotion that he evokes. What's Going On changed my whole world — my life, my songwriting style, everything.

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.

Time & Life Pictures/Getty

3

Elvis Presley

Born
January 8th, 1935 (died August 16th, 1977)

Key Tracks
"Mystery Train," "Hound Dog," "Suspicious Minds"

Influenced
Bono, Bruce Springsteen

There is a difference between people who sing and those who take that voice to another, otherworldly place, who create a euphoria within themselves. It's transfiguration. I know about that. And having met Elvis, I k