10 pop singers with pipesEditorial
At the 13th Annual Grammy Awards in 1971, Aretha Franklin sang “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”, with Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel in the audience. Aretha spends this whole song making her voice stretchier and more surprising, and as she’s singing, she’s always getting out of her own way. There’s that, and there’s the soul coming out of her voice like a laser.
When I was a kid, I was obsessed for a little while over Helly Dolly!, and Barbra Streisand made me laugh out loud, even when I was drooling over that awesome gold dress she wore when she sashayed down the stairs to sing with Louis Armstrong (I mean, come on). Barbra always seemed pretty kooky to me, and I never quite jumped on the Streisand train as much as everybody else seemed to; but I can appreciate solid singing when I hear it. Speaking of good singing, here’s her singing “The Way We Were” in 1975. She’s got a colour palate like a rainbow, and her belting chops are something fierce.
Stevie’s voice doesn’t really seem to age. He’s got that easy tenor sound that agile on command. There’s something friendly about Stevie’s mix of head voice and chest voice, and even his improvised “oohs” and “ahhs” as the audience sings along are supported and relaxed. Plus, that gleaming smile. Here he is in 1990, singing “Isn’t She Lovely?” in Japan.
Elton John is almost a picture of what the voice can and cannot do. In 1986, he had throat surgery to remove polyps from his vocal cords. After the surgery, Elton said of his new voice, “It’s deeper, has more resonance and it’s stronger.” His is a career where you can hear the natural happenings of the voice, including aging as well as heavy use (probably some overuse in there, too). Post-surgery, Elton traded the easy, speech-like ring (and some of the falsetto) in his sound for something a little more grounded in his whole body. First. have a listen to him sing “Tiny Dancer” in 1971 (below), and be sure to compare it to him singing the same song in 2013.
Ah, the sounds of my youth. Mariah Carey’s Emotions was one of the first cassette tapes I bought, and I wore the thing out in my clunky cassette (and CD!) player. However you feel about 21st-century Mariah, you can’t ignore the fact that in the 1990s, she was a force. Remember those whistle tones?
Hey, I was 13 when Titanic came out, and I fell for that damn tin flute song just like everybody else. But kind of like Barbra Streisand, I never full got on le train Dion. I know, I’m a bad singer-phile, bad Canadian. She doesn’t seem kooky, she is kooky, and I get that it’s part of her onstage charm. In all seriousness, when you listen to her sing “The Power of Love” in 1997, the goosebumps can’t be avoided. Plus, she busts out some Elvis-isms for her Memphis, TN, audience.
Obviously. In her prime, Whitney was one of those singers who was so solid, whose voice always cut you right in the gut, who made even the most stoic of listeners sing along at choruses ([ænd’aaaaaaɪɪɪaaaa], anyone?). The control, the lightness she uses when she belts way up there, it’s all the stuff of every trained singer who’s gotta deliver night after night onstage. Not surprisingly, I couldn’t decide which Whitney clip to show you. Our runner-up is her “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” in 1990, with her bouncy hair and her all-business approach to that microphone. The main prize is an obvious choice: her singing of “I Will Always Love You” in 1994 at the 36th Annual Grammy Awards. This stuff is so good that I need to quote a dramatic friend of mine: “get a gun”.
I love when Beyoncé sings live for events like the Superbowl or big award shows, because she always adds a little something extra so that we all know she’s not lip-syncing. When Beyoncé performs, it’s athletic and constantly about her audience. Natural talent is part of the mix, I’m sure, but as any opera singer will tell you, what she does takes work. Speaking of work, here she is at the Grammys in 2010.
Lady Gaga could have all the makings of a distract-and-divert type of performer, one whose pyrotechnics and crazy costumes blur the fact that they can’t really sing. Sort of like Britney Spears and that big snake she wore in Vegas. But with Lady Gaga, her public persona is the memorable personality surrounding real singing and songwriting chops. Anyone hear her Sound of Music mash-up at the Oscars last year? Legit stuff. I mean, all those songs aren’t even supposed to be sung by the same person. Sort of like her look, Lady Gaga’s voice is like a chameleon that morphs to fit each song; the cool part is that every vocal colour she uses a version of her own healthy voice. Proof: her wicked singing of “Speechless”, where she does to a piano what I’ve always wanted to do.
Adele has the way of standing and singing that’s almost hypnotic, and I love that she’s almost reminding us why “parking and barking” is sometimes the best thing ever. The grit and raw in her voice are carefully balanced, and you can hear the metallic ring of some of her money notes. She sings with her honest voice, and when you watch her it’s almost like you’ve stumbled into a private moment. She uses that old school tool of just making your voice sound like what you’re saying, and that’s just what singing is all about.
Who are your favourite non-classical singers? Share your faves in the comments below!