On a recent television interview, Linda Ronstadt, talked about her career and current battle with Parkinson’s disease. In her prime, she was perhaps the best and most versatile vocalist. Her singing voice was the gold standard, and now it is silenced.
That got me thinking about the best singers of my generation. So I made a list of ten. The list below contains numerous omissions, but the voices I picked are the ones who impressed me the most over a number of years. Every list is open to debate and mine is as well.
What really makes a really good singer? Talent obviously. The ability to move around vocally, from various styles, to shifting gears mid-song. Solid vocal range is a must, a smooth transition up and down the scale and precise phrasing. The best vocalists tackle challenging songs but do not overpower the lyrics or the music. God-given ability is very important, but utilizing it to enhance a piece of music, to make it take flight, is a satisfying experience for the listener.
The names on my list represent voices that have range, can soar with power or be gentle and soft. These voices might lack classical training and polish, but they can deliver all the emotions of life. These are voices you remember; their songs likely still playing in your head.
Linda Ronstadt – With a voice that could sing country ballads to belting out rock and roll to Spanish folk songs to Gilbert and Sullivan show tunes, she could do it all. From silky ballads to a rousing rocker that could fill an auditorium, she made it sound easy. Her singing was never forced, just easy and genuine texture. “You’re No Good” and “Hurt So Bad”
Joni Mitchell – Joni Mitchell possesses a voice you either like or don’t. Her voice is her instrument, like her guitar or piano, tuned to fit the story in her song. As the writer of her songs, she wrote to maximize her abilities. She can change her pitch, sustain or sharpen a phrasing better than anyone. Best performances: “Help Me” and “Both Sides Now”
Aretha Franklin – The best R&B singer,she could blow the roof from the building or just shake it with her emotion. As good as she was, she was even better. Her vocal range stretch more than three octaves. David Bowie said of her, “La Supreme Femme Noir.” Best performances: “Chain of Fool’s” and “Natural Woman”
David Bowie – An acquired taste for some, distinctive and able to interpret many styles of music, as adaptive as his persona. Bowie has a full range and used it well. Bowie’s voice had thickness and confidence, on the low notes as well as when his notes climbed. Best performances: “Fame” and “Rebel Rebel”
John Lennon – A pure rock and roll voice. He could sing ballads or rockers with equal sincerity and richness. He disliked the sound of his voice, using a variety of recording wizardry to change it. Beautiful phrasing and edgy emotion. His range might not have been the broadest but it was full and rich, and he knew how to use it. Maybe the greatest double-tracked voice ever. Best performances: “Imagine” and “Help!”
Elton John – The voice of a pop star, the voice of his generation. His voice has deepened through the decades and his range has narrowed some, but he has augmented his range with a richness and maturity gained from years of singing his songs. Best performances: “Tiny Dancer” and “Benny and the Jets”
Art Garfunkel – A voice like an angel, floating like the highest, most delicate clouds in the sky. He could step up or down in range, with perfect phrasing and pitch. Garfunkel’s voice served as the perfect counterpoint to Paul Simon’s more traditional voice. He had a top range that could dance like the smoothest ballerina. Best performances: “Traveling Boy” and “I Only Have Eyes For You”
Karen Carpenter – She owned AM radio in the 1970’s. Her voice was sweet but with soul, almost perfect in sound but has an Earthiness that seemed like she lived next door. Her phrasing was smooth and there was a deep richness in the flow of the lyrics. Best performances: “Close to You” and “We’ve Only Just Begun”
Diana Ross – Diana Ross moved easily from pop to soul to R&B to show tunes. Her voice is big but not overpowering, easy, but soaring. There is a smokiness in her delivery, particularly with jazz stylings that remind us of nightclub singers of other eras. Best performances: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Touch Me in the Morning”
Donna Summer – First known for breathy and moaning disco songs, she had to break away to earn her credentials in R&B and pop. Her voice had a big range (three octaves) and could hold a note, or modify a note, for a week. Best performances: “MacArthur Park” and “Try Me, I Think We Can Make It”
Honorable mention: Ann Wilson, Roger Daltrey, Greg Lake, Van Morrison, Robert Plant, Freddie Mercury, Paul McCartney, Gladys Knight.