Updated: Sep 26, 2020
A few months ago I found myself in the midst of a heated Twitter debate around a Rolling Stone ‘Top 100 Vocalists of All Time’ poll. It’s the same one that does the rounds once or twice a year, the same one you’ve likely already seen and has just has likely riled you up in the same way it does everyone.
No one can possibly agree on a meritocratic ordering of these subjective things; everyone backs their own horse and no one seems to want to find a middle ground. It’s a perfectly reasonable thing to disagree on, and the disagreeing on is part of the fun.
The debate caught fire however when I engaged with a very particular fanbase of which I suppose I’m a member - Michael Jackson's - tempers flared and defensive barriers went up. I found my mentions swamped with aggressors and all sense of nuance and reason left the building - on my part too, most likely. This is the first time this has ever happened on social media, ever, so I wanted to explore.
The 2008 list, compiled by a panel of '179 experts', claimed Bob Dylan and John Lennon for its top 10. OK. That these two men have written, recorded and performed outstanding contributions to the Rock & Pop canon was not what was up for discussion.
Lennon & Dylan. One led the biggest pop and youth culture revolution of all time, and so did the other.
Fine. The fact that these men both ranked above the likes of Stevie Wonder, Whitney Houston, Al Green, Smokey Robinson and Michael Jackson however, proved to be a very serious point of contention. Why?
Firstly, Bob & John are inferior technicians to all the names that I mentioned. Neither men could hit the notes that Whitney or Stevie could, or still can in Wonder’s case. Neither men had the dexterity or rhythmic nuance of Jackson. And I certainly don’t fancy hearing a Dylan cover of Al Green’s ‘Let’s Stay Together’. Or Lennon singing one of Smokey Robinson’s songs for that matter. Hang on…
Here’s how the Top 20 ranked:
1. Aretha Franklin
2. Ray Charles
3. Elvis Presley
4. Sam Cooke
5. John Lennon
6. Marvin Gaye
7. Bob Dylan
8. Otis Reading
9. Stevie Wonder
10. James Brown
11. Paul McCartney
12. Little Richard
13. Roy Orbison
14. Al Green
15. Robert Plant
16. Mick Jagger
17. Tina Turner
18. Freddie Mercury
19. Bob Marley
20. Smokey Robinson
(Rolling Stone, 2008)
Some things to take from this at first glance:
12 Black singers
2 female singers
13 dead (at the time of writing) singers
So, dead Black men make the best vocalists and women tag along for the ride? Obviously not. So, lists are lists and not to be taken literally.
So what makes a singer? If we take the old adage ‘there are two types of music; good and bad’, we can go from there. To be able to competently sing, say Opera, then one must be at least technically proficient, with a range sufficient to adequately complete a given piece of music…but would you say, I don’t know, Paul Potts is a better singer than '80s pop crooner, George Michael? Opera trumps pop, no? You know the answer - it all depends on what you feel when you hear them sing.
Puccini’s Nessun Dorma is one of music’s great emotive passages and watching Paul Potts skip and jolt his way though it during his 2007 Britain’s Got Talent audition is really quite deceptive. The studio audience is waiting to be moved by something - good or bad, the piece itself always moving; its strings bringing back memories of Italia '90 and that big man dressed in black.
Potts kind of hits the notes and he knows the words, but his timing’s off and there’s no….heart, which is at odds with what you’re seeing because he’s clearly putting everything he has into the performance. I have no problem with Potts, he saw a chance and grabbed it with both hands, carving out a respectable career for himself, but to emote how you feel through tone alone is where the singer’s art lies and it doesn't lie here.
To put Potts in context, and not unjustly against one of the great tenors in Pavarotti, here is a compilation of a wide variety of stylistic and technical approaches to the climax of the piece. You can shut your eyes and know the difference. When you get shivers, you've got a singer. (Special mention for Sarah Brightman and Aretha Franklin here).
Joseph Calleja 0:22 Andea Boccelli 0:47 Mario Lanza 1:17 Sarah Brightman 1:42 Jussi Bjorling 2:15 Micheal Bolton 2:41José Carreras 3:06 Park Gi-Cheon 3:32 Deanna Durbin 3:58 Il Volo 4:29 Plácido Domingo 4:56 Aretha Franklin 5:20 Luciano Pavarotti 6:04 Beniamino Gigli 6:36 Greg Pritchard 6:58 Franco Corelli 7:16 Monica Naranjo 7:40 Paul Potts 8:06 David Phelps 8:35 Jonas Kaufmann 9:07 The Three Tenors 9:35
Conversely, watching George Michael stroll into the Freddie Mercury Tribute rehearsal room with no broadcast in mind, in front of no audience bar stage hands and, er, David Bowie, to sing Queen’s Somebody To Love with such spirit, gusto, passion and heart sends shivers down my arms just thinking of it.
Of course, this is an unfair comparison. George Michael was a remarkable vocalist with a near operatic range at his disposal. A master of pop and soul and practically a veteran performer by 1991; whereas Potts, a Carphone Warehouse salesman, was squeezed into a suit and make up and shoved onto a stage for a studio audience TV broadcast. However, experience has nothing to do with ability to communicate.
Leona Lewis came from anonymity at a third of Potts’s age and made herself a star with one performance. Emoting is where it’s at. Though arguably, she hasn't capitalised on it.
Aretha Franklin almost always gains top spot amongst male dominated lists like this. Rightly so, she was a singer of astounding ability. She could sing Gospel, Jazz, Blues, Rhythm and Blues, Pop and Opera. She cast her net across decades of stylistic changes and fashion and her pure yet raw, powerful voice came from a place of hardship, beauty, sorrow and joy. Technical brilliance in a marriage of pure controlled emotion. I’ll never argue there was anyone better. In fact, she is arguably America's most important musical artist of the 20th century.
Ray Charles had something similar, but distinctly different. He didn’t have the range of Franklin, yet his was a voice of feel and experience. His brilliance spilled over onto the keyboard, a virtuoso musician, and created a special kind of heady brew in his own intoxicating mix of groove and touch. Again, spanning different styles and genres across decades, his was a generational talent, which when coupled with his songwriting ability created something that so idiosyncratic that it’s hard to define. But Georgia On My Mind will make you cry and Leave My Woman Alone will get your arse up and dancing. Say no more. Possibly my personal favourite vocalist of them all.
And then there’s the ‘other’ kind of feel. The kind that Lennon had. The kind that Kurt Cobain had. The kind that Dylan still has, though it’s evolved as to be unrecognisable from the supercharged firebrand of automatic communication from 1965's It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding). It’s an ugly kind of feel. Often ragged, sometimes out of tune and time. Almost always alive, as if the three of them have to get their point across or THEY’LL JUST DIE.
Cobain often sounded as if he would die part way through a song. Take any live performance of Aneurysm or the iconic Where Did You Sleep Last Night from their Unplugged session. This was not technical singing, but a scraping of the bottom of life’s barrel, a dirty urgency. It gnaws at you.
I've heard this performance a million times, and so have you. One of the pleasures of music is passing it on to the next in line, waiting for it to mean something to them, discovery. So here's a lovely video of someone that's never heard a Nirvana track experiencing the pain and joy we all did back in 1993.
Lennon could do this too, but whilst working in a distinctly more 'Pop' idiom - obvious examples are Twist & Shout and Leave My Kitten Alone, but his finest performances come from places of adult expression of joy and hope like the chorus in Hey Bulldog or Instant Karma. That he could also whisper Julia or Oh My Love into your ear and make your hair stand up on end lends weight to a different kind of singing. A singer of poisoned lullabies.
Marvin Gaye, almost unique in this list, had a mix of this ugly beauty and pure grace. Making his name as a soul crooner of some distinction, it was when his producer insisted, against Gaye’s wishes, on raising the key of Heard It Through The Grapevine to the upper limits of his range forcing it to break up that his magic became tangible. His voice grew to be not only technically wonderful, but in parts, ugly to force a point. His album What’s Going On has this mix all over it, mirroring the social upheaval he was singing about whilst longing for something new. Brother, brother…
Here's some Marvin A cappella.
Michal Jackson. Has there ever been a more divisive talent? As a boy, he could out-sing Smokey Robinson. He took one of Smokey’s songs and made it better at an age where I was learning how to ride a bike. (There's a delicious Reddit rumour that Smokey and Diana Ross are actually MJ's parents. Why not?) The boy could emote like a bluesman and sing like a bird. This wasn’t a prodigy, but something approaching an angel. He was beautiful to look at and yet had the face of an old man, with the pipes to match.
Yet, his voice (and this is all that I’ll write about here) took some interesting turns as he aged. As the boy turned to man (ahem) his voice became lighter, more rhythmic. More childlike. He was music's Benjamin Button, born with an old soul that searched for youth (shut it) and the further away he got from it, the more detached he became. The more accomplished his all round ‘song and dance’ routine became, the more his emotions seemed to drop from a sheer surface rather than somewhere inside. And this is where my Twitter beef was born. Yes, there are numerous moments of brilliance littered throughout his career. Stranger In Moscow from his last studio album has a haunting beauty. Technically, it’s great, but Jackson rarely opened himself up to sing a truth. His truth. He tried to unite his fanbase by singing in universal themes - Earth Song being the main culprit - but it came across as phony. Disingenuousness was hardly his worst crime, but it’s one that has undermined his whole career.
Jackson could move. Literally and figuratively, of course. Thinking about this piece today, I put Smooth Criminal on Youtube for my five year old daughter, and of course she sat open mouthed as this pied piper wove his spell over the next generation. Her foot tapping next to mine. As it ended, she looked at me and said, simply: "Again!". In a few years I hope she'll have the same reaction to Kurt Cobain.
Technically, Jackson could wipe the floor with the best - when he really meant it, or he was in danger of being overshadowed. His duet with a peak vocal range Paul McCartney in Say Say Say illustrates this better than any other example I can think of. Paul can sing. Really sing, emotively, passionately, technically naturally gifted across multiple octaves (as was Lennon and Cobain) and he was/is blessed with melodic pants, but when Jackson comes swinging in, he is simply blown out of the water. Different leagues altogether. Yet, give me Macca 6 days out of 7.
Bob Dylan is a teller of tales, and bitter, hilarious truths; both personal and universal. Part teller of his own life, part teller of ours. His voice is a singular wail into the night, and is not universally adored. It draws battle lines. A performance artist of elite standing, his voice examines who he is and who he wants us to believe. It could be number two on this list, or not on it at all.
So, what separates Paul Potts from Pavarotti? They can both sing the notes. It comes down to a marriage of technical finesse and natural feel with a desperate need, and ability, to communicate. A very human desire and need. Some have one, rarely does someone have two, almost no one has all. If you have and you want to communicate a truth - a beautiful one, or a painful, ugly one, then you may be on to something. You may be a singer.
As ever, I'd love to hear your thoughts.