It usually takes skill and/or training to be successful at your craft. Talent also helps, but in popular music, there is another factor, the material and the presentation that matter to fans.
There are tons of singers, just watch one of of those TV talent shows, most of which you wouldn’t pay money to hear. That got me curious about the difference between a singer and a vocalist, since many of us tent to use the words interchangeably.
Most of the definitions I found more or less echoed what I said above. Vocalists represent trained, experienced and possessors of skill and vocal abilities. But certainly, not all vocalists are the same.
There are great singers like Adele, Elvis, Elton, Freddie, Bowie, Barbra, Marvin, Linda, Garfunkel, and Janis to name a few. Popular music is popular for a variety of reasons, especially because of Big Band, jazz and R&B vocalists like Ella, Bing, Frank, Tony, Dean, Perry, Nat, Dinah, Doris, Judy and Aretha. These singers “own” their songs with their style and unique vocal abilities and singing skills. Timbre, range, volume, warmth, phrasing, enunciation are qualities of the voice.
Bob Dylan is not noted for his vocal ability, neither is Neil Young. Yet these two have sold millions of albums and still sellout concerts. They are foremost, songwriters. Dylan is a great musical stylist and Young is more than a decent guitarist. Both have succeeded in spite of their limited vocal abilities, much like folk, and country and Western singers, whose voices paint the emotion and imagery of their songs, using their imperfect delivery to communicate to the plain folks. It does not have to be pretty to be effective.
Who are these vocalists that were very successful careers but who lacked a silky or full-ranging voice? Here are some that come to mind. A voice can be thin, reedy, hoarse-sounding, lacking in pitch control or whiny, but otherwise effective for the songs they sing or the style they project.
Rod Stewart – You wouldn’t think this guy would have the success and his work cut across generations and genres of music. Graduating from rock and roll, he stylized ballads, new wave, blues, soul, American classics and his folky traditional Scottish ancestry.
Leonard Cohen – A folk singer by genre, he mixed types of music during his long career. Elegant, but genuine are words I used to describe him. A poet and novelist, who travelled extensively, his songs were often deeply personal, which was reflected in his singing.
Lou Reed – I never felt that he could sing a lick, often talking his lyrics, or something between singing and talking. Yet, he was one of the most defining artists of his time. It was not how he sang as much as what he conveyed. Instead of polish, his fans wanted grit.
Louie Armstrong – Not just a trumpeter, he was an in-demand vocalist, particularly in the jazz world. He’s best known for songs like “What a Wonderful World”, “Hello Dolly!” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
Kris Kristofferson – One of the most vocally limited singer-songwriters, but his songs told stories and his voice added to the emotion and fracture of his characters. If you ever saw him solo, with just a guitar and harmonica, you did not dwell on what he couldn’t sing, rather, it was his earthiness and hard-edge emotion that he effectively communicated with his audience.
Bonnie Tyler – A very husky voice has not detoured her career, which is over four decades now. Pop-rock and ballads are what she is known for, but she embraces country, blues and Celtic influences in addition to more traditional pop songs.
Tom Waits – With a deep, gravely voice, Waits sings of the underbelly of life. One thinks of the Beat Generation inhabiting his songs, twisted around his jazz stylings. His music has the starkness of folk and the twists and turns of the blues. I think of pulp characters on a lonesome, late night journey around the fringe of society when I hear Waits sing. His voice is not pretty, but he finds his niche.
Elvis Costello – I’ve heard his voice described as a nasally sneer. First known as an angry punk rocker, he had a tendency even early on to indulge in ballads and other types of music, including big orchestrated ballads, jazz and country. He does not have a bad voice, just limited, but that’s not stopped his journeys into every type of music imaginable and collaborations with Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach, Fiona Apple, Allen Toussaint, the Brodsky Quartet and wife Diane Krall. Limited or not, Costello is praised for his different musical styles and vocal stylings. I think he would be happy signing jazz songs in a piano bar, and he would be good at it.
John Hiatt – For awhile, Hiatt was better known as a songwriter than a performer, although having his own singing and recording career was his aim. Hiatt has a deep, gravelly voice, which extenuates his songs of loss struggle, but there is hopefulness in his songs as well. Is he pop or country or folk? He’s all of those because he writes from the heart and experience, so his musical style has a wide lens.
Joe Cocker – Another gravelly voice, but what an instrument. Cocker literally threw his entire body into the performance. If you can get past the roughness, Cocker has a voice that could cut diamonds with his focus or wipe away a tear with tenderness.
Marianne Faithful – Always a distinctive voice, her sound grew deeper and more textured with age and health issues. In truth, this helped her career as her songs took on a more cutting edge and mirrored the darkness of her lyrical subjects.
Brian Johnson – I’m not a big AC/DC fan. These guys don’t need a trained voice for their music, screams and shrieks do the trick. Johnson will forever be compared to early band frontman Bon Scott, who set the style for AC/DC. A little bit of this band is good enough for me.
Gene Simmons – KISS has sold millions of records and tons of merchandise. Leader Simmons has a limited range, in my opinion, but he’s successful in projecting the band’s attitude and appealing to hard rocking, hard partying fans. I know, he’s more than just a long tongue.