essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
Rolling Stone magazine has a list called “the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time”! They do explain that this is a list of the most influential artists (“recording artist” is a music industry term for vocal performer) in the history of rock and roll, which turns out to be pop music USA 1958-to the present. It was made by industry professionals, critics and musicians (Rolling Stone staff and their friends I guess). So the list could have better been called “100 Most Influential Rock and Roll Vocal Performers”. Perhaps that’s why it got so many vitriolic comments, of the “why wasn’t so-and-so included, or included too low on the list?” variety. Misleading title, and a definition which wasn’t noticed, so many people not reading these days. This is not that list btw, which can be found here: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/100-greatest-artists-of-all-time-19691231.
This is a list inspired by the RS list title. Instead of cursing about omissions, I got to thinking about the term “great” and how we use it. And about the meretricious point that in popular art and music it means simply amount of sales. A record is assessed simply by how many copies it sells. That’s why we call it “pop” music. Some of these records we take to heart and love, and they become part of our emotional life, but who can measure such impacts? We all know that a lot of bad music has been and is popular. Nobody now would call “The red, red robin goes bob bob bobbin along”, or “How much is that doggy in the window?”, or “Like a rubber ball, I come bouncing back to you” great songs. The jury is probably still out on “Bebop a lulu, she’s my baby”. But many agree apparently that “Cheek to Cheek”, “Maybellene” or “Respect” are in fact great (looking for the moment only at North American pop music). Great, irrespective of sales. And that “great” singers means also consistency. One hit wonders are not in the running, no matter how good their song.
The list of singers that follows (in alpha order, not rank order: these are collaborators, not competitors) is not restricted to rock and roll or pop music (but it is restricted to music I happen to like: for good or bad it’s a personal list). It includes only individuals and not groups. And it’s addressed to the Little Prince, the hero of the 1943 book (140 million copies sold) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900–1944). The Prince believed that one sees clearly only with the heart (and he was in love with a rose!). So I would explain to the Prince that these singers speak to the heart. Or that, in our terms, they have soul. My list is a lot shorter than Rolling Stone magazine’s one. Check with the Little Prince before you add the names I left out, forgot or never knew.
Adele Adkins, born in London in 1988, became popular through her song posted on Myspace in 2006. Her albums 19 (2008) and 21 (2011) were best sellers, and the second sold 30 million copies, and made her among the best selling singers of all time. Her next album, 25, is due November 2015. Her song “Someone Like You” is her best known one, a soulful lament and perhaps a true story.
Sezen Aksu, born in Denizli Turkey in 1954, came to prominence in 1975. Since then she has released 25 albums and sold more than 40 million records, as well as remixes and film appearances. She is the most influential artist in Turkish popular music, and has made it more traditional and more internationally accepted. Her live shows are spectacular. Albums of note are Gülümse (1991), Deliveren (2000) and Bahane (2005).
Alcione Nazareth, born in Maranhão Brazil in 1947, released her first album in 1975. She has since made over 40 albums, 25 of which have reached gold or platinum sales figures. Known throughout Brazil as one of the greatest samba singers, any of her albums can be enjoyed without knowing Portuguese. A recommended album is A Paixão tem Memória of 1997 (especially the opening song, “Alem da cama”). Pure soul.
Haris Alexiou (Χάρις Αλεξίου) was born in Boeotia Greece in 1950. She has released 38 albums since 1975, most of which have reached platinum sales figures, making her one of the top sellers in Greek pop music history. Haris has toured extensively throughout the world and is famous for her live performances, which are strikingly dramatic. Great albums include Odos Nefelis ’88 (1995), and Parakseno Fos (2000) and many more.
Ana Carolina Sousa was born in 1974 in Minas Gerais Brazil. She has released 10 albums since 1999, all of which have reached platinum or diamond sales figures. She has a distinctive voice, deep and expressive. Her album Estampado (2003) is recommended, and her collaboration with Seu Jorge (Ana e Jorge 2005). The song “Quem de Nós Dois” from Ana Rita Joana Iracema e Carolina of 2001 is a standout in her work.
Rosana Arbelo was born on Lanzarote Canary Islands in 1964. She has released eight albums since 1996. Her first, Lunas Rotas, made it to the top of the album charts in Spain and South America, both initially in 1996 and on re-release in 2003. She has a warm, melodious voice with a touch of flamenco style, and her songs are lyrically heartfelt and with melodies hard to forget. Essential listening is Lunas Rotas (1996) and Magia (2005).
Eleftheria Arvanitaki ( Ελευθερία Αρβανιτάκη) was born in 1957 in Athens Greece. She has released 15 albums since 1984, all of them reaching gold or platinum sales figures, making her Greece’s most popular female vocalist after Haris Alexiou. She is known for her distinctive bell like tone of voice. Highly recommended is the infectious live recording Ektos Programmatos of 1998 and The Very Best of (1999) international release.
Fred Astaire (1899-1987): all through the 30s and 40s George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern wrote some of their best songs for him, and made him one of the best selling singers of all time. “Night and Day”, “They Way You Look Tonight”, “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”, “A Fine Romance”, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”, the list is endless. The songs succeed by the feeling and elegant phrasing he gave them.
Chuck Berry, born in Missouri in 1926, fused blues, country and jazz to make something new, eventually called rock and roll. He had the stage act, the guitar skill and the lyrics to appeal to a new audience. Quite deliberately he created songs that gave a generation a sense of identity. His influence is everywhere in rock and roll; a dozen of his songs such as “Johnny B Goode”, “Maybelline” and “Rock and Roll Music” define it still.
Maria Bethânia Viana Telles Veloso was born in Bahia Brazil in 1946. She has released 50 albums since 1964 and sold 26 million records, making her one of the best selling singers in Brazil. Her brother is Caetano Veloso. She is a dramatic singer, suggesting by her tones a story behind the lyrics she sings that is very involving. It’s the blues, Brazilian style. Recommended albums are Alibi (1978), Âmbar (1996) and Ao Vivo (1970).
Jackson Browne, born in 1948, has released 14 albums since 1972, and sold more than 18 million records. He is known for his melodic gifts, and intricate, articulate very personal lyrics, which have touched a chord with listeners since his first self-titled release, following a number of songs written for the Eagles. Recommended albums are For Everyman (1973), Late for the Sky (1974), The Pretender (1976), Running on Empty (1977).
Adriana Calcanhotto was born in Rio Grande do Sul Brazil in 1965. She has released 11 albums since 1990 and gained an enormous following. Her cool, expressive voice is able to reveal nuances of feeling in many of her songs that can transform quite ordinary material. A example of this is “Devolva-me” from Publico, a banal 60s love song revealed as a tragic drama. Recommended albums are Publico (2000), and Cantada (2002).
Sandy Denny was born in London in 1947. She died in 1978 from drug complications. For a year in 1969 she was lead singer for the British folk rock band Fairport Convention, then had a solo career. Now widely regarded as the finest and most influential vocalist in folk-rock, her voice can be heard at its peak on the seminal Fairport Convention album Liege and Leaf (1969), and superbly on the Richard Thompson song “Farewell, Farewell”.
Fats Domino was born in Louisiana in 1928. He wrote songs that combined rhythm and blues orchestration, boogie-woogie piano and sweet pop lyrics, and from 1949 to 1968 had 11 top 10 singles and 40 top ten hits on the rhythm and blues charts. The biggest seller of those singers who created rock and roll, his sound has survived intact until today. “Ain’t That a Shame”, “Blue Monday”, “I’m Walkin”, the songs just work.
Ronnie Drew (1934-2008) was born in Dublin, and was the lead singer of the Dubliners folk group 1962-1995. He did much to preserve traditional Irish music and the work of songwriters such as Dominic Behan. He was a superb showman, with one of the most distinctive voices in folk music, and immensely influential. The first 10 Dubliners albums are recommended, especially Finnegan Wakes (1966) and A Drop of the Hard Stuff (1967).
Bob Dylan was born in Minnesota in 1941. He has released 36 albums since 1962 and sold over 100 million records. Dylan’s voice was very effective on the acidulous, sarcasm laden songs of the 60s such as “Like a Rolling Stone” or “Desolation Row”, on non-love songs like “It Ain’t Me Babe”, introducing literature into popular culture. Essential is the Scorsese film No Direction Home (2005),and the album Highway 61 Revisited (1965).
Cesária Évora (1941-2011) was born in Cape Verde. She released 12 albums from 1988, most of which reached gold sales figures. She sang the morna of her native islands, in a beautiful deep contralto, but with sophisticated Paris orchestration that gave her work a wide appeal. Probably her best album was Miss Perfumado (1988) which contained her best known song “Sodade”, also the title of a 1994 compilation album.
Aretha Franklin was born in Tennessee in 1942. She has released over 40 albums and sold more than 75 million records, with more than 20 rhythm and blues number one singles. She bought gospel into rhythm and blues. Not just a great voice, her delivery is both energetic and infectious. Songs like “Respect” or “Think” are known by almost everyone. Recommended albums: Lady Soul (1968), Amazing Grace (1972).
Anni Frind (1900-1987) was born in Bohemia. She was a famous German soprano who started her career in 1922 and retired from the stage and left Germany on the rise of Hitler to power. She was a prolific recording artist, and is most often associated with Strauss’ Nun’s Chorus and the work of Lehár. Nothing I’ve heard is so strong and fragile as her Nun’s Chorus heard on an old 78 rpm shellac record, with a remarkable purity of tone.
Glykeria Kotsoula was born in Macedonia Greece in 1953. She has released 22 albums since 1980, many of them achieving gold sales figures, making her one of Greece’s top selling singers. She has also recorded and released best selling CDs in Israel and Europe. Known for her distinctive husky voice, she is a captivating singer. Recommended albums are Maska (1998), O Glyki Mou Ear (2006), hymns for the Byzantine Easter.
Billie Holiday (1915-1959). She came from nowhere and revolutionised popular song, making everything she sang her own. Whether her singles with Ted Wilson in the 30s or her big band numbers or the late work on Verve in the 50s, she transformed everything she sang, even using the imperfections in her voice to make the song more personal. For those few who haven’t listened to her, any and all her albums are essential listening.
Andy Irvine was born in London in 1942. He is central to the modern folk movement, a composer, virtuoso on mandolin and bouzouki, and well known as a member of the group Planxty. He was a fan of Woody Guthrie and Ewan MacColl, part of a group of musicians which later became the Dubliners, and introduced Greek instruments to Irish music. Recommended is Planxty’s 2004 concert, and first self titled album of 1973.
Mick Jagger was born in 1943 in Kent. It’s hard to overestimate how influential he has been as a singer and performer. Yet his act is pure pastiche, from the style of Otis Redding and James Brown to that of Mick Jagger. He learnt from rhythm and blues singers how to project emotion and sexuality, and popularised rock theatre. Recommended are The Rolling Stones Now (1965), Out of Our Heads (1965), Exile on Main Street (1972).
Joyce Moreno was born in 1948 in Rio de Janeiro Brazil. She has released 37 albums since 1968, and gained a large following in both Brazil and Europe. She is an accomplished guitarist, composer and singer, and her work is mainly in the bossa tradition, with her scat singing emphasising the rhythm of her guitar in a hypnotic and melodious way. Recommended albums are Feminina (1980), Hard Bossa (1999), Rio de Janeiro (2012).
Luke Kelly was born in Dublin in1940, and died 1984 from the effects of a brain tumor. He is widely regarded as Ireland’s finest singer, at the forefront of the folk revival of the 60s, and a lead singer with the Dubliners 1963-83. He made what are definitive versions of both traditional and contemporary material and his new releases still reach the top of the Irish charts. Recommended is The Performer, a 2005 collection of his work.
Bia Krieger was born in Brazil in the late 1960s and lives in Canada. She has released nine albums, many showcasing innovative versions of French chanson sung in Portuguese and MPB classics sung in French, as well as her own compositions. She has a following on three continents, and continues to offer sophisticated versions of Brazilian and European material. Recommended: Sources (2000), Carmin (2003), Navegar (2015).
John Lennon was born in Liverpool in 1940, murdered in New York in 1980. He was perhaps the most popular star in the world and his death traumatised millions. One of rock and roll’s finest vocalists, he is said not to have liked his own voice. Probably pop’s major composer. Total record sales are estimated at over 600 million. Essential: With the Beatles (1963), Rubber Soul (1965), The Beatles (1968), and as solo artist, Imagine (1971).
Carmen Linares was born in Andalusia Spain in 1951, and is regarded as Spain’s finest female flamenco singer. She began her recording career in 1970. She sings with passion and commitment. Recommended: Cantaora (1988), La Luna en el Rio (1991), Un Ramito de Locura (2002). She is a guest on Carlos Núñez’ Os Amores Libres (1999) and appears in Carlos Saura’s film Flamenco, Flamenco (2010).
Little Richard Penniman was born in Georgia in 1932. Probably the most influential performer in rock and roll and in many of the genres it created. His style is gospel, Pentacostal style, and his flamboyant stage costume and piano playing electrify the string of hits he wrote in the late 50s, “Tutti Frutti”, “Long Tall Sally”, “Good Golly Miss Molly”, “Lucille” and more. Gifted as both singer and dancer, he put the rock and roll show on the road.
Joni Mitchell was born in 1943 in Canada. She has released 27 albums since 1978, all characterised by expressive vocals, virtuoso guitar and song writing which at time is quite effective as poetry, as in the songs “Come in from the Cold” or “Both Sides Now”. Her material includes pop, modern jazz and electronica. Comparable to Dylan in her literary influence on pop. Recommended albums: Blue (1971), Dreamland (2004).
Van Morrison was born in Belfast in 1945. He invented a new genre, Celtic soul, and produced in his first two albums two of the greatest albums in pop music history, Astral Weeks and Moondance. He has released 35 albums since 1968, and is still one of the greatest vocalists, guitarists, arrangers and songwriters in popular music. Recommended: Astral Weeks (1968), Moondance (1970), Tupelo Honey (1971), Wavelength (1978).
Gianna Nannini was born in Siena Italy in 1954. She has released 27 albums since 1978, and most of them since Cuore (1998) have reached multi platinum sales. Perhaps the best rock singer in Europe, her high energy music is characterised by exceptionably good arrangements and a raspy vocal as exciting as flamenco. Recommended albums are: Cuore (1998), Grazie (2006), and the compilation Giannabest (2007).
Clara Nunes (1942-1983) is one of Brazil’s most popular singers. She released 17 albums from 1966, and sold a million copies of each from the mid 70s until her death during a routine operation. She is a best seller in Brazil today. Her music is ‘infectious’: she makes you want to dance the samba. She is best seen on video, but recommended albums are Claridade (1975), Nação (1982), and any compilation album.
Roy Orbison (1936-88) was born in Texas. He released 29 albums from 1961 and had 12 number 1 singles 1960-65, then experienced a revival in the 1980s. One of the most accomplished singers in popular music history, he was also the composer of a string of enduring songs, “Only the Lonely”, “Crying”, “In Dreams”, “Blue Bayou” and many others. Two of the 27 compilation albums of his work have reached platinum sales figures.
Dulce Pontes was born in 1969 near Lisbon Spain. She has released nine albums since 1992 which explore fado, folk music from around the world, pop, and opera. She has a powerful voice and extends it to the limits of its range. She has collaborated with Ennio Morricone and many other artists. Recommended albums: Caminhos (1996), O Primeiro Canto (1999) and Momentos (2009).
Zizi Possi was born in 1956 in São Paulo Brazil. She has released 19 albums since 1978 of MPB classics, including two which explore her Italian roots through popular music of her parents’ generation. She is one of the finest vocalists of her generation and her releases are also distinguished by superb arrangements. Recommended: Sobre Todas as Coisas (1991), Valsa Brasileira (1993), Per Amore (1997).
Elvis Presley (1935-77). He released 20 number one albums from 1956, and had 36 number one singles. Album sales total over 600 million, making him the most popular artist of the 20th century. He also starred in 30 forgettable films and in two spectacular concerts, Elvis (1968) and Aloha from Hawaii (1973). Despite extensive mismanagement he became and is an icon. Essential: any one of eleven compilations, all with platinum sales.
Otis Redding (1941-67). He was born in Georgia and started his career with Little Richard. He released six albums from 1964, and another 14 were released posthumously. But it was not until five compilation albums were released from 1967 that he was recognised as the greatest soul singer in pop history. The Dock of the Bay: the Definitive Collection (1987) and Very Best of Otis Redding (2002) reached platinum sales figures.
Elis Regina (1945-82). She released 46 albums from 1961, including several posthumous ones, and is Brazil’s most popular singer, and perhaps its greatest in the MPB and Bossa tradition. A career highlight is Elis & Tom (1974) with Tom Jobim, on which the interaction of the two singers is remarkable, Montreux 1978 with Hermeto Pascoal (1982), the 1987 compilation Personalidade, the 2006 live show DVD, Elis Regina Carvalho Costa.
Johnny Rivers was born in 1942 in New York. He has released 29 albums since 1964 and sold over 30 million records. Best known for his superbly arranged live albums at the Whiskey a Go Go of the mid 60s, which included his version of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis”, which displaced the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on the Billboard Top 100. One of the greatest soul singers. Essential: at least one of the compilation albums.
Paul Robeson (1898-1976). He was a sportsman, stage and film actor, and humanitarian as well as a singer, and excelled in all these fields. Forever associated with the song “Old Man River” from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Many compilation CDs available such as, Robeson (1959), Songs of Free Men (1968), The Complete EMI Sessions 1928-1939 (2008). Essential: the PBS American Masters film Here I Stand (1999).
Amália Rodrigues (1920-99). She released 53 albums from 1952, including posthumous releases and compilations. She is considered the ‘Queen of Fado’, a popular genre of Portuguese music characterised by melancholy. It was a form she established and made popular, and extended. Ranked by some as among the greatest voices of the 20th century. Essential: The Art of Amália (1998, vol 2 2005), The Queen of Fado (2011).
Paul Simon was born in New Jersey in 1941. He made nine albums with Art Garfunkel 1964-70, and 14 solo albums, many with multi platinum sales figures. He is known for songs such as “The Sounds of Silence” and “Bridge over Troubled Waters” and for his contribution to the film The Graduate (1967), as well as the South African inspired album Graceland. Recommended: Graceland (1986), Concert in the Park (1991 DVD).
Nina Simone (1933-2003). The “high priestess of soul” released almost 60 albums from 1958 and many of them were top 10 hits on the album charts. She began with “I Loves you Porgy” from Porgy and Bess and went on to sing jazz standards, Broadway shows, blues, folk, pop, and protest songs. She was a pianist, performer and singer of genius. Recommended: the compilation Anthology (2003), Montreux 1976 (2005 DVD).
Rod Stewart was born in London in 1945. He has released 34 albums since 1969, most of them reaching multi platinum sales figures, and has sold over 100 million records, making him one of the most popular singers in pop music history. He is known for songs like “Maggie May”, “You Wear It Well”, “I Was Only Joking” and his distinctive, raspy voice. Recommended: the compilation The Best of Rod Stewart (1989).
Gianmaria Testa was born in Piedmont Italy in 1958. He has released nine albums since 1995, and is one of the finest of contemporary European singer-songwriters. With a cigarette flavoured tenor voice and virtuoso guitar skills, he is both a lyricist of genius and a superb arranger. He excels in live performance, often only accompanied by his guitar. Recommended: Montgolfières (1995), Valzer di un Giorno (2000).
Caetano Veloso was born in 1942 in Bahia Brazil. He has released 50 albums since 1967, and has been since then at the forefront of developments in Brazilian popular music. He is an innovator also in American popular jazz, and in many diverse styles, from bossa to electronica, and is one of Brazil’s best known singers. Recommended: Estrangeiro (1989), Fina Estampa (in Spanish 1994), Ao Vivo (with Maria Bethánia (1978).
Fats Waller (1904-1943). He wrote and performed over 400 of his compositions from 1922, some of them the greatest of the 20s and 30s, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”, “Ain’t Misbehavin’”, “Honeysuckle Rose” and many others. A charismatic generous star, he was also among the most popular of the performers of his day, and one of the most influential pianists and organists in jazz history. Amazon has 173 compilation albums.
Papa Wemba was born in 1949 in the Belgian Congo. He has made 43 solo albums since 1970 and is among the leading soukous singers in Africa. He records in both Kinshasa and Paris. A powerful tenor and alto, his music is infectious. Not to be missed is the song “Sala Keba” available on YouTube. Recommended: Foridoles (1994), Voyageur (1999), Best of (2006).
Neil Young was born in 1945 in Toronto Canada. He has released 40 solo albums since 1968, many of which have achieved multi platinum sales figures. He is a singer/songwriter known for his guitar playing in a very unconventional style, and is often rated as among the greatest of guitarists. Known for the influential albums After the Gold Rush (1970) and Harvest (1972). Recommended: Greatest Hits (1993).
There are many who could be added here.
Big Bill Broonzy
Mississippi John Hurt
Most of these later ones don’t have the impact on me the others do. The list tends to grow, especially when others look at it. And then there’s the new singers, the ones we haven’t really heard yet outside of places like YouTube and Vimeo.
According to Charles Darwin, humans probably sang before they learned to talk. It probably sounded like Johnny Weissmuller in the Tarzan films, by some accounts: “blended in with that voice are the growl of a dog, a trill sung by a soprano, a note played on a violin’s G string and the howl of a hyena recorded backward”. The earliest account we have of singers is as priests and priestesses. Song was a way of communicating with the gods, and the singers were inspired (which means the god spoke through them). Perhaps this is why we have always respected singers, the most popular ones, and still have singers who are “idols” or “icons” today.
Almost every human sings, though it might not sound like singing sometimes. Let’s not forget all those, like the Pythoness of Delphi or the troubadours and trouveres of the Middle Ages or someone like Josepha Webber (for whom Mozart wrote the role of Queen of the Night), who sang before the era of recorded sound and video. There are millions of singers in the world today. Some get a recording contract. A few of these are popular. And a few of these have soul. Many could be added to my list. Let’s give thanks.
Data on these singers has been taken from Wikipeda and is gratefully acknowledged. More information on them all is through the search field here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page. Many examples of their performances can be accessed at https://www.youtube.com.
©2015 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.