The Voca-lists Part Three: 5-1

View Part 1 here.

View Part 2 here.

5. Patsy Cline

Do you think I’m lame? Be honest, I can take it. But just to be clear, I like Zeppelin and Floyd as much as the next guy. The next guy probably thinks that poppy country music from the early 60’s sung by someone named Patsy sounds like the most boring thing in the world. It’s grandma music, they might say. But I think it’s fascinating. Because Patsy Cline was at the center of a stormy conflict.

It was a conflict between Patsy Cline the down-home cowgirl country singer and Patsy Cline the saccharine pop warbler. Cline was the first major country star to cross over into the pop charts, and her evolution from country to pop can be clearly seen in her most popular songs. Her first hit was “Walkin’ After Midnight” a rugged country song complete with twangy guitars and clip-clopping horseshoes, while her last hit before her untimely death was the sentimental, string-laden “Sweet Dreams”. What Patsy really wanted was to perform in her mother’s handmade cowgirl outfits and sing without sappy violins adorning her tracks. And even though they made her wear a cocktail dress and kept those violins in there, Patsy’s robust, emotive voice shone through regardless of the window dressing.

4. Howlin’ Wolf

This guy was massive. By that I mean two things. First of all, he was six-and-a-half feet tall and weighed three hundred pounds. Second of all, he was massively influential to generations of blues, soul, and rock singers. You may notice some glaring omissions from my favorite singers list. Where’s Jim Morrison? What about Otis Redding? And how could you forget James Brown? I’ll admit, they were hugely talented vocalists. But they were pretty much just variations on the theme of Howlin’ Wolf. The deep, deep South is embedded in that voice. If you listen closely, in that gruffness you’ll hear the fiery sermon of a Baptist preacher, the wind brushing past the magnolia plants, and maybe even the creak of an old wooden porch.

3. Sam Cooke

What is there to say about Sam Cooke? The effortless control he had over his voice was instrumental in inventing the genre known as soul. Sam Cooke is soul. They called him “The King of Soul”, and since that was taken, they called James Brown “The Godfather of Soul.” But let’s be real, which of those is higher? And though Cooke was known as a performer, he had a distinct songwriting style as well. The first time I heard Cooke’s song “Good Times” was actually on a Rolling Stones record. This was their early period, when they were still covering old rock and blues standards, with a couple soul songs thrown in there too. But something about the song tipped me off that it was Sam Cooke’s. I don’t know what it was. Maybe the melody, or the mood of the song. It just felt like Sam should have been singing it instead of Mick Jagger. That song belonged to a voice that sways and glides smoothly over the notes like a swan over water.

2. Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson was a weird guy. Did you know that he had a chimpanzee named Bubbles? And a tiger named Thriller (what else?). But all bizarre pets aside, who else can say that they made great music all the way from the Beatles era to the Nirvana era? Well, there are some people, like Eric Clapton, but they number very few. He was the greatest performer ever. He was the greatest dancer ever (in the world of pop music, at least). And he was my second favorite singer. That voice was technically perfect. A ten out of ten in terms of the notes he could hit and the vocal runs he could effortlessly accomplish. I always thought it was strange for him to open his first album as an adult artist, 1979’s Off the Wall, with a song like “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” which only featured Michael’s falsetto and skimped on the other facets of his voice. But if people thought that was all he could do, they were sorely mistaken. Oh, how wrong they were.

(drumroll please)

1. Jeff Buckley

Jeff Buckley combined a little bit of every singer on this list. He unified the gentleness of Art Garfunkel and Brian Wilson with the force of Tina Turner and Howlin’ Wolf. I don’t know how he did it. The son of forgotten 60’s folk singer Tim Buckley, Jeff burst onto the New York alternative scene in the early 90’s, released a studio album, Grace, in 1994, and drowned in 1997. But in that short time, he made a name for himself as one of the greatest vocalists in modern history. His cover of the Leonard Cohen hymn “Hallelujah” is certainly the definitive version of the song, and David Bowie himself called Grace the greatest album of all time. But the success went to his head, and in his later performances, Jeff sometimes added unnecessary vocal flourishes and would yelp and scream into the microphone to show off his vocal prowess. That’s why I chose this early show at a small venue called the Knitting Factory in New York City in 1992. It’s not perfect, but it shows off his voice better than any of his subsequent festival performances. His voice is both innocent and world-weary. It’s something too perfect for this world. Maybe that’s why he had to leave so soon.

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