Home Music Music Lists

100 Greatest Singers of All Time

Aretha, Elvis, Lennon, Dylan and many more

Greatest Singers

Getty

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.

Winter/Getty

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."

Blumenfeld/Getty

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."

Putland/Retna

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."

Russell/Getty

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.

Micelotta/Getty

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."

Tabak/Sunshine/Retna

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.'

Corio/Redferns

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 a jazzy croon lightly covered in gravel. But as Waits' songs got darker and weirder — more dada than doo-be-doo — on albums like 1985's Rain Dogs and 1992's Bone Machine, so did his singing. It is now one of the most dramatic instruments in pop, a deep, pitted bark — part carnival hustler, part crackling furnace. Waits can still sell a ballad, too, like the haunting "House Where Nobody Lives," on 1999's Mule Variations. "He has a little bit of James Brown," says Rickie Lee Jones. "And a whole lot of Louis Armstrong."

Persson/ Redferns

81

John Lee Hooker

Born
August 22nd, 1917 (died June 21st, 2007)

Key Tracks
"Boom Boom," "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer," "Boogie Chillen"

Influenced
Van Morrison, Jim Morrison, Robert Plant

Everything parents don't want you to get into as a teenager — that's what you could hear in John Lee Hooker's voice. Everything you love about the night, about love and desire, sex and retribution, all those sides of us the blues was meant to call up.

His voice encompassed such a deep range of emotions, the widest range of colors of any blues singer. It was as seductive as it was foreboding. Pain, defiance, anger — all those emotions were so acute with John Lee, and that's what draws us to the blues.

My favorite part of his voice was actually his cry. His low, slightly menacing tone made the other side of his singing that much more powerful. There was a gravity to his tone — with his shades, the suit — but there was also this impish, elfin quality, and you could hear it when he laughed, which he did a lot onstage because he enjoyed playing so much. Especially on the boogie tunes, he would go from growl to glee in quicksilver time.

Because we had been friends since 1969, I wasn't prepared for how overwhelming it was singing face to face with him when we did "I'm in the Mood" for his album The Healer. When he turned it on, that was as powerful an erotic pull as I've ever had from a singing partner. I was just swept away by the power of his voice. And, you know, I was a grown woman, but I was literally trembling and had broken out in a sweat by the time we were done. If I were a smoker, I would have needed a cigarette.

My favorite singing of his was when he would call me on the phone and sing to me, sometimes for an hour. It was a little flirty, but he was never actually hitting on me, he was just having fun. It was all the power and none of the guilt! I miss him so much. If they could make a drug that was John Lee, I'd never be sober.

Brown/Getty

80

Frankie Valli

Born
May 3rd, 1934

Key Tracks
"Sherry," "Walk LIke a Man," "Can't Take My Eyes Off You"

Influenced
Billy Joel, the Beach Boys, the Bee Gees

In 1962, a song called "Sherry" blasted from AM radios with a facile falsetto vocal so impossibly precise, many thought it had "one-hit wonder" written all over it. Forty-eight Hot 100 singles later, Frankie Valli (Born Francis Castelluccio) is still a giant of the male vocal pop of his era. He's a complete singer, with a multi-octave range and the ability to handle a variety of styles: "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Walk Like a Man" and "Rag Doll" showed off his doo-wop dexterity, with support from the Four Seasons. Valli's solo hits, like "Can't Take My Eyes Off You," revealed his taste for more mainstream material, with a rich R&B influence. "Frankie Valli has become one of the hallmark voices of our generation," said the Bee Gees' Barry Gibb. "He created a style that we all still strive to emulate."

Winter/Getty

79

Mariah Carey

Born
March 27th, 1970

Key Tracks
"One Sweet Day," "Vision of Love," "Fantasy"

Influenced
Brandy, Christina Aguilera, Leona Lewis

"When I was little," Mariah Carey says, "I used to wake up with a really raspy voice and" — she shifts to her signature squeak — "talk in a really high voice. My mother couldn't understand it, and she's an opera singer. But then I started to try to sing using that voice." Carey is famous for her staggering vocal range — including those ravishing high notes — and power. Her mastery of melisma, the fluttering strings of notes that decorate songs like "Vision of Love," inspired the entire American Idol vocal school, for better or worse, and virtually every other female R&B singer since the Nineties. But technical skill alone doesn't make for hits, and Carey's radiant, sweetly sexy presence has been knocking them out of the park for two decades. She's scored more Number One singles than any solo artist — 18 and counting.