A Subjective List

While stumbling around on the web at 3 a.m. today, I came across Rolling Stone‘s 100 Greatest Singers of All Time list. (“A panel of 179 experts ranked the vocalists.”) Now before I get all snarked up, I will say that I agree with many of the selections. I’d even go so far as to say I totally see the reasoning behind the #1 choice.

But a list that includes Stevie Nicks, Willie Nelson and Janis Joplin gives me pause. Great pause. Rating Roy Orbison above Freddie Mercury? More pausing. Then I realized, it’s really not about basic vocal beauty, is it? I mean, would you want Little Richard singing the Lord’s Prayer at your wedding? (Don’t answer that.)

Singers are great, in my opinion, not so much for their vocal prowess as for how they make us feel. Now don’t get me wrong; I appreciate super-human voices with technique up to there. I really like them — so much, in fact, that I wonder which of the “experts” at Rolling Stone decided that Bono should get the #32 slot, but Bobby McFerrin shouldn’t make the list at all. *scratching head*  Still, you have to go back to the overall effect.  Case in point:

There is no question, hesitation or waffling with regard to who is my #1 pick of all time. Don’t even have to think about it. From the moment I heard him sing the opening line of “Girl” (Is there anybody going to listen to my story…?), the space at the top was locked up forever. And I can’t really tell you why he’s my all-time #1. I don’t think I could find sufficient words. But if I were to give it a go, I’d tell you that his voice is so different, so expressive, so intimate…you feel like every lyric he sings is from a song you wrote and hold very dear and personal. His style is both plaintive and declaratory; tender and merciless; ragged and delicate.  Almost everyone I know can hear a recording of his voice and identify it within seconds. Add to that the fact that in 45 years of listening to him over and over and over, I have yet to hear one note sung out of tune.

In my mind, he’s just the entire package. And this from a “trained” singer in classical and jazz music. Just goes to show it’s more about what’s in your heart than anything. It is for me, anyway.

It’s an oft-mentioned adage in singer lore:  you’d much rather hear a singer who’s not necessarily technically perfect, but who can sell a song, lock and stock. The names on that list are few.

So how about you? If you had to choose one voice as your “Greatest Singer of All Time,” who would it be, and why? I covet your articulate and compendious opinions.

Aaaaaand it’s 5 a.m. Time to git bizzy. Have a dandy day, fiends. I highly recommend some Rubber Soul on your way to work this morning.

11 thoughts on “A Subjective List

  1. PKPudlin

    I was 7 when the Sound of Music came out (sure, sure – do the maff and you’ll know my age. :P). From that moment I wanted to be just like Julie Andrews. I had my mom cut my hair like hers, I smiled like her in my 2nd grade picture, I tried to sing like her, dance like her, etc. You get the picture.

    All these millions of years later, she is still my idol- a classy lady who has worked hard and aged gracefully, with a voice, now sadly silent, that charmed the birds from the trees.


    1. Rat Fink Post author

      Girl!! How I played and played and played that album (soundtrack from the movie) on my parents’ humongous stereo. Memorized every word of every song. I don’t blame you for wanting to be just like her — I think probably lots of little girls did!

      In 1975, I had the lead in SOM at my high school. I remember being so disappointed to discover that “I Have Confidence” was not in the Broadway version…haha

  2. Tom Hanks

    Great post. I feel neither articulate nor compendious but I agree with your summation of what makes a truly great singer. Normally I really don’t like “singers” because they have an american idolish way of concentrating on the technical aspects of what they are doing and the contrivance of that distracts me from whatever real heart the song should have had. People like Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera make me want to scream “SHUTUP I DON’T CARE!!!” No one should be in awe of their own voice. The only great technical singer who impresses me is Freddie Mercury.

    Whos my fav? I actually don’t know for sure. I really like Fiona Apple a lot lately. And though it may take away any credibility I ever had…Bob Dylans voice resonates with me more so than with many in-tune singers. John ranks up there pretty high too. Definitely better than Paul overall.

    I don’t want Little Richard to sing at my wedding…is that the correct answer?

    1. Tom Hanks

      Also….60’s girl singing groups….The Ronettes…The Crystals. Thats some of my favorite singing to listen to.

      1. Rat Fink Post author

        I could have written this response! Agreed on all fronts (except I don’t know much at all about Fiona Apple…gonna have to check her out).

        When I hear — and especially *see* — “Xtina” (seriously, please), I want to gouge out my own eyes with a spoon. Or maybe gouge out hers. And I don’t think respect for Dylan cheapens your cred at all! He is a balladeer for the ages, and I can totally see why you identify with him. You’re the same kind of songwriter and singer. I like Bryan Adams (probably one of the most unhealthy voices ever) very much. It’s not the clarity and beauty of his voice, because there really isn’t any; rather, it’s all in the delivery and passion behind it.

        And that was the correct answer: the only thing I’d want to hear Little Richard sing is “Lucille.” :-)

        1. Rat Fink Post author

          And incidentally, one of the bossest quotes I’ve ever seen at RtB:

          “No one should be in awe of their own voice.”


        2. Tom Hanks

          Awesome!..I’ve always wanted to say something boss haha.

          And I very much enjoy the thought of you attacking Christina Aguilera so as to remove her eyes haha.

          Here is a Fiona Apple song that I dig. To me her voice has an old fashioned smokey quality. Reminds me…very vaguely…of Billie Holiday.


          I’m going to check out some Bryan Adams to hear whatchoo talkin bout.

  3. RhineBolt

    For a good number of years now I have found myself repeatedly going through my music library to listen to David Ruffin and the Temps. Now as I read through what Rolling Stones had to say about him, I find what they said is exactly what I love about him. “Ruffin sang as if every word was a plea — pain and desperation filled his lead vocals” “I Wish It Would Rain” has been my favorite song by the Temps ever since I first heard it, mainly because of how Ruffin sings it, the emotion that we feel, or how I feel if that’s the case, I just wish I had been blessed with a voice like his.

    He might not be the best singer, placed 65th as he is. I guess I wouldn’t place him as best singer either though. I dont really know who my favorite singer is, I listen to all kinds of music, I love it all, but time and time again I find myself searching him out in my library.

    1. Rat Fink Post author

      Hey pal! :-)

      You can *never* go wrong with Motown, IMO. “I Wish it Would Rain” is one of my all-time faves. Have you heard “Ball of Confusion” and “Just My Imagination” ? Couple of my Temptations favorites also.

      How cool that someone your age (early 20s) loves classic Motown. I’ll bet lots of guys (including some artists today who were influenced by him) wish they had a voice like Ruffin’s.

      1. RhineBolt

        You can never go wrong indeed. This world is still a “Ball of Confusion” lyrics still ring true, and “Just My Imagination” is another one of my favorites as well, just like Ruffin, I love to hear Eddie Kindricks lead the vocals for the Temps as well.


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