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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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34

Whitney Houston

Born
August 9th, 1963

Key Tracks
"The Greatest Love of All," "I Wanna Dance With Somebody," "Saving All My Love for You," "I Will Always Love You"

Influenced
Beyoncé, Mariah Carey, Faith Evans, Mary J. Blige

The daughter of R&B and gospel singer Cissy Houston, Whitney grew up around family friends Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight; Dionne Warwick was a cousin. "When I started singing," she once said, "it was almost like speaking." By the time she was 22, Whitney had emerged as the greatest female voice of her generation: Her 1985 debut alone included the monster hits "Saving All My Love for You," "How Will I Know" and "The Greatest Love of All." Her voice is a mammoth, coruscating cry: Few vocalists could get away with opening a song with 45 unaccompanied seconds of singing, but Houston's powerhouse version of Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You" is a tour de force.

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33

Steve Winwood

Born
May 12th, 1948

Key Tracks
"Gimme Some Lovin'" (with the Spencer Davis Group), "Dear Mr. Fantasy" (with Traffic), "When You See a Chance" (solo)

Influenced
Dave Matthews, John Mayer

Steve Winwood exploded onto the London music scene as a teenager with his powerful, soulful tenor — notably on "Gimme Some Lovin'" and "I'm a Man" with the Spencer Davis Group. "I thought he had the greatest voice," said Billy Joel, "this skinny little English kid singing like Ray Charles." The frontman for the jazz-infused pop of Traffic and then the jam rock of Blind Faith (with Eric Clapton), Winwood re-emerged in the mid-Eighties with the hits "Back in the High Life Again" and "Higher Love" — highly polished soul pop that made him a star all over again. "He was able to copy Jimmy Reed, and I thought, 'Where the hell is this voice coming from?' " said Spencer Davis. "From a diminutive guy, at that age, how can he do it? But he did it."

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32

Bono

Born
May 106th, 1960

Key Tracks
"One," "With or Without You," "Where the Streets Have No Name," "Beautiful Day"

Influenced
Eddie Vedder, Chris Martin, Thom Yorke

I would describe Bono's singing as 50 percent Guinness, 10 percent cigarettes — and the rest is religion. He's a physical singer, like the leader of a gospel choir, and he gets lost in the melodic moment. He goes to a place outside himself, especially in front of an audience, when he hits those high notes. That's where his real power comes from — the pure, unadulterated Bono. He talks about things he believes in, whether it's world economics or AIDS relief in Africa. But the voice always comes first. That's where his conviction lies.

He has so many influences. You hear Joe Strummer, Bob Marley, Otis Redding, Elvis Presley, even John Lennon. And he has the same range as Robert Plant. It's amazing, the notes he has to go through in the first lines of "Sunday Bloody Sunday." But it's filtered through this Irish choirboy. The Joshua Tree shows the mastery Bono has over his voice and what he learned from punk, New Wave and American musicians like Bob Dylan. In the quiet moments of "With or Without You," you can imagine him sitting under the stars. Then, when he comes back to the chorus, all of a sudden it's a hailstorm.

A lot of Bono's free-form singing comes from the band's rhythms and the church-bell feeling of the Edge's playing, the way the guitar sings in that delay. Bono can glide vocally through all of that. But it's very natural. And he's not afraid to go beyond what he's capable of, into something bizarre like his falsetto in "Lemon." In "Kite," on All That You Can't Leave Behind, he belts it out like he's crying with joy.

I never had the feeling he was manipulating the power of his voice to show off. They say a submarine never goes in reverse. That's Bono, always looking for a new way of singing something. That's one thing I learned from him: Never rest. Keep learning and be a good listener. That's the spirit of singing — and he definitely has it.

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31

Howlin’ Wolf

Born
June 10th, 1910 (died January 10th, 1976)

Key Tracks
"Smoke Stack lightning," "Back Door Man," "I Asked for Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)"

Influenced
Robert Plant, Captain Beefheart, Tom Waits

John Fogerty was nine when he first heard Howlin' Wolf's sandpaper voice on the radio. "It was just so powerful, and so mystical and spooky," he says. Wolf's preternatural croak on tracks like 1956's "Smoke Stack Lightning" and 1961's "Back Door Man" would inspire British Invasion bands such as the Yardbirds and the Rolling Stones, not to mention Fogerty's own Creedence Clearwater Revival: "We followed his career the way that we would later follow Elvis and Buddy Holly," he says. Wolf's greatest legacy was the sense of soulful menace that singers like Fogerty would try to approximate. "When I heard Howlin' Wolf," said legendary Sun Records producer Sam Phillips, "I said, 'This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.' "

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30

Prince

Born
June 7th, 1958

Key Tracks
Little Red Corvette," "When Doves Cry," "Kiss"

Influenced
OutKast, D'Angelo, Gwen Stefani, Kevin Barnes

"Prince is the boldest black singer in postmodern music, hands down," says Roots drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson. "His voice has multiple personalities, he's fearless, and when he screams, he truly sounds like he's crazy." Indeed, that throat-shredding climax to "The Beautiful Ones" sure feels like a man who has lost his mind — it's as convincing as the passion dripping from the lighter-than-air falsetto in "Adore," the pure-rock shouting of "Let's Go Crazy" or the robotic deadpan of "When Doves Cry." "His vocals are just limitless," says Lenny Kravitz. "There's the androgynous, very feminine Prince, there's the James Brown-style Prince, the gospel Prince, the rock & roll Prince. He has so many different textures and dimensions with his voice — and everything is funky."

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29

Nina Simone

Born
February 21st, 1933 (died April 21st, 2003)

Key Tracks
"Mississippi Goddam," "Four Women," "I Wish Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free"

Influenced
Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, Erykah Badu

"White people had Judy Garland — we had Nina," Richard Pryor once said. Nina Simone's honey-coated, slightly adenoidal cry was one of the most affecting voices of the civil rights movement — "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free" is still heartbreaking, "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" life-affirming. She could belt barroom blues, croon cabaret and explore jazz — sometimes all on a single record. "I heard her sing a song in French — I didn't even know what she was saying, and I started crying," says Mary J. Blige, who will play Simone in an upcoming feature film. "Then she goes from that to 'Mississippi Goddam,' singing it like a church record, but she's cursing out the system. Nina could sing anything, period."

janis joplin

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28

Janis Joplin

Born
January 19th, 1943 (died October 4th, 1970)

Key Tracks
“Piece of My Heart,” “Cry Baby,” “Me and Bobby McGee”

Influenced
Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow, Lucinda Williams

“She was shaking that shake that she did, and was screaming. I’d never seen anything like it,” says Melissa Etheridge of seeing Janis Joplin on “The Ed Sullivan Show” back in 1969. Joplin’s gravelly rasp, over the psychedelic blues of Big Brother and the Holding Company (on 1968’s breakthrough Cheap Thrills), and the rough-hewn country soul on her later solo albums, represented an entirely different approach for female vocalists: wild and uninhibited yet still focused and deliberate. Her performances were more about passionate abandon and nuanced phrasing than perfect pitch. “She would just kinda sing and scream and cry,” says Etheridge, “and she’d sound like an old black woman — which is exactly what she was trying to sound like.”