I grew up listening to my mother, a world-class coloratura soprano, sing at the house with her opera singing friends. Later, my mother, along with my high school choral director, taught me how to sing correctly (as in using the voice as nature intended it so it does not get damaged). After performing and making records of my own, I also taught voice to others. As I have a great appreciation for the combination of emotional power and expression, technique, relaxation, and confidence that is so essential to being a phenomenal vocalist, here are my 10 favorite singers (in no particular order), who truly have impressed and still inspire me:
1-Muddy Waters: I certainly appreciate the fact that Muddy was a friend and supporter of mine, and in my opinion, he is the unquestionable king of the electric blues. Waters is also the godfather of the modern rock band, and a large part of why the Rolling Stones and every other pale blues/rock band even exist. Muddy’s commanding vocal delivery and alpha-male-testosterone-laden voice let you know just who the man is every time he opened his mouth. Even as he aged, he didn’t lose the vocal power that was unquestionably his.
2-Howlin’ Wolf: Like Waters, Howlin’ Wolf is another classic Chicago blues legend of incomparable vocal talent. His large, intimidating stature matched his voice which sounded like a chainsaw that could hack through literally anything on earth. Wolf captivated fans with his ominous and even spooky delivery on tracks such as “Smokestack Lightnin’,” the Willie Dixon penned “Back Door Man,” and “Evil (Is Going On).”
3-Elvis Presley: Beyond being one of the largest cultural icons of the 20th century, the king of rock ‘n’ roll was actually a quite good technical vocalist, who paid attention to pitch, tone, and technique much of the time. He had the rare gift of being able to pour so much emotion into every single line of each song he ever sang. Presley’s uncanny ability to take even mediocre songs like “Too Much” and “Stuck On You,” and through his vocal delivery, transform them into number 1 smash hits lands him as one of my absolute favorites.
4- Luciano Pavarotti: What else could be said about Luciano’s near flawless voice? With a gorgeously balanced and rich tone, Pavarotti’s voice was a perfect blend of chest, head, and middle registers. As classical music is so regimented of an art form, it takes a phenomenal vocalist to bring about the richness of expression that connects to a broad audience within such a restrictive, rigid musical format, and Pavarotti masterfully did just that.
5-Aretha Franklin: When the Queen of Soul shouts out “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” you give it to her right on the spot. One of the most powerfully primal vocalists ever, Aretha belts out every song with unquestionable authority, range, and vocal resonance. When I heard Aretha speak in an interview about how she wanted to sing classical music, I was so impressed with the fact that she refused to restrict her talent to the styles she is most known for.
6- Bessie Smith: Some nights after performing my solo show, I would emotionally wind down by coming home and listening to Bessie Smith in the early AM hours before falling asleep. With a voice as big as a Mac Truck, Bessie simply opened her mouth and sang without the benefit of any modern technology, and let her voice wail. Smith also had fantastic vocal discipline and control, and didn’t strain her voice in the same way that so many blues singers commonly do.
7- Maria Callas: What I like so much about the voice of Maria Callas, is that when she sang a classic aria, it was unlike so many other female opera singers who sounded more prim and proper, formal, and even prissy. Callas’ voice (even within the rigid confines of classical music), possessed a primal dominance and aggressive spirit that could simply overtake her listeners while unlocking the inherent emotional potential of the composition.
8- Little Richard: When Richard sang rock ‘n’ roll back in the 1950’s, his voice was truly like no other. Commandingly hitting high notes that decades later, only the best heavy-metal-wailers could deliver, Little Richard may simply be the most compelling and dominant straight-out rock ‘n’ roll belter of all time. In fact, Jimi Hendrix (who had played guitar for Richard), had remarked that he wanted to do with his guitar what Little Richard did with his voice.
9- Frank Sinatra: His words, phrasing and delivery always captivated his listeners with each song he sang. In the classic tradition of singers who actually sang entire songs through with no technological “fix-me-ups,” Sinatra delivered every performance with the authority of being the only boss in town as he so masterfully displayed in tracks like, “New York, New York.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, Sinatra also had the gift of being able to convey the sense of intimacy that he was singing only to you.
10- Paul McCartney: To me, Paul is one of the best pop singers ever. I give him credit because his vocal performances have been quite consistent on his studio recordings, and he largely still sounds great live. Someone I knew who had worked with Paul McCartney told me that he ideally needs 2-3 days rest between performances, and even today, when he’s in good voice, he sounds as wonderful as he did back in the 1960’s on such tracks as “Eleanor Rigby” and “Yesterday.”