The singer and the song

Alison McMorland (left) and Peta Webb

It’s time to consider singers. I have produced a series of posts on musicians: on guitarists (strictly speaking guitar solos), bassists (strictly speaking bass lines) and drummers. Each has come with a top ten of personal favourites. To complete the ensemble we must have a singer. Other contributors might have been considered – keywords, rhythm guitar – but they must always be on the periphery. The core idea has to be guitar, bass, drums, voice. It is all that is needed.

You cannot consider a singer without the song that they sing. The two must be indivisible, because it is the identification of the one with the other that we the listeners seek the most.

It seems to me that there are three particular qualities that distinguish a great singer, beyond the standard technical requirements. One is the unique character of their voice, that entices and persuades us through its individuality. The second is the ability to tell a story. All singing is the relating of a story – the most rudimentary of love songs nevertheless presents the listener with a situation that demands a resolution, while even a nonsense singalong still conveys an emotion, and so has something to say. Songs frame narratives that the heart longs to explore, because the music forms so inviting a setting. The finest singers are simply the best storytellers, those through whom we find ourselves most lost in the story they have to tell.

The third quality is that of being us. In listening to a singer we become them. They express the emotions we want to express, whether we have realised this or not. Their voice becomes our voice, or else our voice has become theirs. The key to the singer and the song is identification.

So here, as before is a list of ten favourite singers of mine, with songs that best exemplify their art. I’ve left out classical singers, because they belong to a different argument somehow (and between them Jessye Norman, Roberta Alexander and Emma Kirkby would lay waste to the competition). It’s not a top ten, but hopefully an interesting ten, and some sort of order of preference (though ask me tomorrow and not only will the order be different but maybe it’ll be ten different singers).

10. Bob Dylan, ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’ (1962)

Well, of course I am going to include Bob Dylan. It’s Dylan’s voice that his detractors generally draw attention to when explaining their antipathy. They like the songs, but not the singer, and much prefer the songs without him. This is to miss the point entirely. The songs are what they are because of the singer that created them. In any case, Dylan’s voice, which has varied in delivery greatly over nearly six decades, can cajole quite as much as it can challenge. ‘Don’t Think Twice’ is such a revolutionary recording, a song from the heart such as had never been heard before. None of Dylan’s ‘protest’ songs had such power to persuade as this.

9. Blind Willie Johnson, ‘John the Revelator’ (1930)

Blind Willie Johnson’s deep gravelly voice sounds like a lifetime spent travelling down hard roads. It’s a half-sung, half-preaching style (Johnson was an evangelist preacher) that hits you hard with the strength of the feeling it expresses. Johnson’s rasping tones work all the more effectively for the way they are complemented here by the gentle voice of Willie B. Harris, the call-and-response effect of which makes ‘John the Revelator’ so powerfully persuasive. You cannot help but testify.

8. Alison McMorland and Peta Webb, ‘Our Ship is Ready’ (1980)

It’s cheating a bit to have two names, but I can only think of Alison McMorland and Peta Webb as one. Their eponymous album of unaccompanied folk song was a small sensation in its day, for its unadorned clarity and heartfelt delivery. This the final song on the record is the one that has lingered in my mind ever since. McMorland’s voice is the richer, cleaner one that sends shivers down the spine where she hits the high notes; Webb’s is earthier, more obviously folky. They intertwine perfectly in this song of regret and farewells.

7. Darondo, ‘Listen To My Song’ (1973)

Darondo is a mystery figure in the annals of soul music. He released three singles in the early 70s that became underground hits, but was not properly discovered until recently when an albumful of tracks was discovered, revealing him to be someone of raw originality with an extraordinarily expressive voice. ‘Listen To My Song’ sounds like he wanted to try out a dozen different vocal deliveries in the one ballad, sometimes more than one of them at the same time. But this is not flashiness of technique but instead the expert expression of a powerful feeling. It is singing as stream-of-consciousness, with dreamlike and hypnotic accompaniment to match.

6. Pavlov’s Dog (singer David Surkamp), ‘Julia’ (1974)

The argument that we must identify with the singer’s voice because it is ours possibly fails when it comes to David Surkamp. Surely no one has ever wanted to, or imagined that they might, sing like this. Its extraordinary effect works best with the opening track to Pavlov Dog’s album Pampered Menial (such a great title). It sounds conventional to begin with, with some flowery piano – and then the voice hits you, and you are dumbfounded. The operatic falsetto shocks at first, then intrigues, then leaves you determined to let someone else in on the secret because somehow it is marvellous. Just as I have done now.

5. Mississippi John Hurt, ‘Stack O’Lee’ (1928)

American bluesmen aren’t usually noted for the sweetness of their voices. You had to holler if you were going to get heard over the crowd in that juke joint. But then you have the folk blues of Mississippi John Hurt, who has the gentlest, most beguiling of vocal styles. It’s like a story is being passed on, quietly, to only you.

4. Curtis Mayfield, ‘We Got to Have Peace’ (1971)

Curtis Mayfield was one of the voices of the Civil Rights movements, firstly as singer and songwriter with the Impressions and then as a solo artist. It’s the urgency in his falsetto voice that is so distinctive, astutely balanced between anger and a belief that the time for change has come. That quality of fearful hope is particularly vivid in this timeless rallying cry for peace.

3. Kevin Coyne, ‘Sand All Yellow’ (1971)

I can remember, as a student, having people beg me to turn my music down, not because they objected to the volume but because they could not stand Kevin Coyne’s voice. His is an unvarnished bluesy delivery, to be sure, which can rant and rage as though he were affected by the same mental illnesses as the psychiatric patients he cared for early on in his career. But he could charm you with a rough sweetness too, and in this devastating number he combines the two, as the singer portrays two voices, one kindly and one menacing, each addressing a patient with troubled mind, the two finally blending into one.

2. Ann Peebles, ‘I Still Love You’ (1971)

Ann Peebles never became a great star, possibly because she didn’t really care enough to do so, but if you are looking for the heart of soul music there are few finer recordings than the best of her early to mid-70s work. Everyone knows ‘I Can’t Stand the Rain’ (or should do), but this yearning ballad with its delicate accompaniment shows such supreme technique, the heartfelt feeling reaching out without ever becoming strident. A connoisseur’s piece.

1. Fairport Convention (singer Sandy Denny), ‘Reynardine’ (1969)

Sandy Denny’s voice was breathtaking. It expressed that particular quality of the English (and Scottish) ballad, in which a tale is told that must take the breath away. The voice expresses the shock and the sorrow. In ‘Reynardine’, from Fairport Convention’s album Liege & Lief, she tells the tale of a sly seduction with a tremulous voice (spookily echoed by the instrumentation) that draws out the power in every single word, through peerless variety of tone and effect. She has no equal.

All ten, along with other favourites who at another time would each belong above, are given in this playlist:


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4 thoughts on “The singer and the song

  1. Interesting Post Luke, and a great point made in that there are certain qualities that we use to for lack of a better term judge a vocalist. I think I have always felt that there is a balance between the actual vocal abilities and the way a singer knows how to use their voice. We have all heard singers who have praise heaped upon them because they can reach so many octaves or have some other technical quality ascribed to their voice. But the best are those who know how to utilize their voice and make it fit the song and arrangement they are working with. I always loved Curtis Mayfield and Ann Peebles, and some of the others on your list. The best make you enjoy their rendition of a particular song.

  2. Brilliant! I’ve really enjoyed these Luke, our tastes are pretty aligned, and Sandy is my go-to singer (with Fairport) when I feel a bit sad, usually Liege and Leaf. Crazy Man Michael is probably my most played track, Farewell Farewell next….. I find her voice uniquely moving, and couldn’t agree more with your number 1. Lots in this list I haven’t heard, so I’m looking forward to some research listening. More please…. what about producers and some representative songs?

    1. ‘Crazy Man Michael’ is also my favourite from Liege & Lief, but I picked ‘Reynardine’ because her vocals are so remarkable.

      Glad you like the list. Bit disappointed with myself for picking such old stuff, but that which impresses happens when you are impressionable, inevitably.

      Whether I do more to fill out this particular picture, I don’t know (though I like the idea of producers – Lee Perry vs ‘Jack Frost’?). Pull ’em all together and the ensemble you get is Mike Oldfield, George “Fully” Fullwood, Jaki Liebezeit and Sandy Denny, and it would take a producer of uncommon ability to get such different talents to work together.

      But there will be more of something, in time.

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