18 July 2022

What makes a good singer?

Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Surely a good singer needs a good voice?

Apart from the obvious question, “What is a good voice?” I would have to say it isn’t enough. We can all think of singers we like who do not have a good voice or whose voice has gone, but they have adjusted their material to suit.

Let’s start with an obviously good voice – and as a bonus a good song.

Now here is a stark contrast, Billie Holiday with her last album, voice gone, but emotionally raw. It is said to be her favourite album, and it is certainly one of mine. I haven’t worked out which one yet, (I need to get a move on – I’m 76 soon!) but I want something by her played at my funeral.

Very few rock singers can be described as having a good voice, but that’s probably a function of the material as much as anything. Here’s a surprise, though – John Bon Jovi singing Gershwin! With Larry Adler!

Perhaps even more surprising – Meatloaf on the same album!

In a recent documentary on BBC TV, (trailer below) Mick Jagger said himself he didn’t have a great voice, but he was fortunate he could still hit the same notes as he did when he was 19. He also has good diction and of course a great stage presence, both of which seem to me to be pretty important.

That’s probably a factor in my next example. Rod Stewart has a pretty ropey voice, I would suggest, but he hits the note he wants, has excellent diction and phrasing and chooses good songs. From this impromptu performance he seems a nice guy too.

A long way from Rod Stewart, here is Lotte Lenya singing Kurt Weill – a pretty good combination I think.

The late Norma Waterson had a limited range, but was a wonderful exponent of traditional music (and not so traditional too – there is a wonderful performance by her of Lost in the Stars, very much channelling Lotte Lenya.) Here she is though with a very old song, ‘Death and the Lady.’

Nobody ever suggested Jake Thackray had a good voice! Here he is though with a brilliant, and surprisingly romantic, song, one of many such written by him.

Jake Thackray sang many songs written by Jacques Brel. Brel’s music is in the tradition of modern chanson or chanson réaliste, along with singers like Edith Piaf and Juliette Gréco. Marianne Faithfull was apparently an admirer of Gréco’s work and I would suggest both her and Leonard Cohen as modern exponents.

The whole tradition could be the subject of a post, but for now, let’s end this one with Piaf.

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