They don’t make singers like that anymore!

Thomas Edison made the first recording of a human voice on December 6, 1877, but he did not record a singer. The first great singer to be recorded was Enrico Caruso, and he made over 250 sound recordings. There may have been singers prior to Caruso who were even better virtuosos but we have no way of knowing that because sound recording is the definitive judge of a singer’s ability. In recording studios, it has often been said that “tape don’t lie”. Even the best recording engineers cannot make a good singer sound like a great singer. Skipping briefly through the jazz era, a few great singers who deserve honorable mention are Billy Holiday, Al Jolson, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby and Tony Bennett. The concept of what constitutes a great singer is subjective, but the key qualities a great singer must possess are range, timing, phrasing, pitch, timbre, emotional impact and originality of style.

Elvis Presley was the first great rock and roll singer. His first hit record in 1954 entitled That’s All Right was a blues song written by Arthur Crudup and it proved that Elvis had a unique quality in his voice. Songs like Jailhouse Rock and All Shook Up demonstrated that Elvis was the epitome of rock and roll, and songs like Are You Lonesome Tonight and Can’t Help Falling in Love showed the world that Elvis could put the emotion of love into a vocal track with intense male sexuality. With one of his last blazing bursts of energy in 1972, Elvis proved that he was still a hunk-a hunk-a Burning Love during his twilight years. Elvis can be credited for breaking down the racial barrier that existed for black singers within the record companies in the 1950′s. Little Richard said, “He was an integrator. Elvis was a blessing. They wouldn’t let black music through. He opened the door for black music.” Elvis opened many doors. He let Pandora out of her box and girls all over the country began to scream at the very sight of Elvis. Much has been written about the King of Rock and Roll and his impact on our culture, but the focus of this article is on a unique vocal quality that has not received attention. Elvis pioneered many instantly memorable vocal mannerisms that shall hereinafter be collectively referred to as the rock and roll vocal schtick. It is possible that Elvis picked up his vocal schtick from Otis Blackwell, the songwriter who wrote many of Elvis’ early hit records, because Otis sang his original songs on the demos that Elvis listened to and Otis originated much of the phrasing that Elvis recorded. But much water has passed under the bridge since those days and we may never know whether the Memphis chicken’s schtick preceded the Otis egg.

The word “schtick” is derived from a Yiddish word and it refers to various bits of business that cause an entertainer to be instantly memorable. Prior to Elvis introducing the concept into rock and roll, it was very common in the movie business for actors to achieve fame by virtue of their schtick. Jack Benny became notorious for being stingy and a bad violin player even though in real life, he tipped lavishly and he was an expert violin player. Groucho Marx had his stooped strutting, his lascivious eyebrow raising, and his cigar. Elvis had his gyrating hips and his out of control, shaking leg, but he also put a new kind of mannerism into his singing. On All Shook Up, he turned “Mm mm mm, oh oh oh, yeah yeah yeah!” into a memorable chorus, predating the Beatles famous yeah yeah yeah’s by about 10 years. Predating Elvis by four years, Fats Domino had already developed his signature vocal style by the time he hit the R & B charts in 1950 with The Fat Man which sold over a million copies. One year after Elvis opened the door with That’s All Right, Fats crossed over into the mainstream with Ain’t That a Shame in 1955, and soon millions of people found their threeee-ill on Blueberry heeee-ill. That there is rock and roll vocal schtick in a nutshell, and countless singers picked right up on the groove.

In the 1950′s, original vocal styles literally oozed out of the radio every day. Tony Williams, the lead singer for The Platters, was a truly great singer who had it all – range, timing, phrasing, pitch, timbre, emotional impact and originality of style. As a professionally trained singer, Tony was able to express the emotional essence of previously recorded songs like Smoke Gets in Your Eyes with professional style and grace, but he also influenced the new rock and roll vocal style. In the number one selling hit record, Only You, Tony could have sung the words “Only you can make this change in me” using straightforward and traditional phrasing, but instead he sung “cand-a make this change in me” and threw in a bit of schtick. Marty Robbins and Ben E. King were also two seminal rock and roll singers who embodied all the qualities that define a great singer. There were many other outstanding singers during the 1950′s but the most sublime singer of them all was Smokey Robinson. In addition to every other quality previously discussed, Smokey sang complex blues melismas as if God told him the secret and said “Smokey, you will make everybody think this is easy.” Nobody can sing like Smokey Robinson, nobody can duplicate his vocals, and when Linda Ronstadt recorded her version of Ooh Baby Baby, she had to white out his melismas because she had too much sense to even try to duplicate him. Buddy Holly, among his many achievements, may be credited for introducing the hiccup into rock and roll vocals (fantastic schtick). But the award for Most Outrageous Rock and Roll Schtick of All Time goes to Little Richard for “a wop-bop-a-loo-mop alop-bam-boom” and his earth shaking, high pitched woo’s that Paul McCartney duplicated with enormous commercial success. Other great primal rock and roll singers of the 1950′s who deserve Most Honorable Mention include Roy Orbison, Brenda Lee, Del Shannon, Jimmy Jones, Frankie Valli, and the list goes on and on.

The great singers of rock and roll peaked during the 1960′s and 1970′s with John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Jim Morrison, and Janis Joplin. Robert Plant’s 12 year career with Led Zeppelin began with the band’s formation in 1968 and continued until John Bonham’s death in 1980. That fatal day may have been the turning point in the history of great rock and roll singers because even though some very good singers achieved fame and success after 1980, none are in the same exalted league with the Great Ones. Discussing each of the great singers could generate an entire article for each one of them, but suffice it to say that history has already passed judgment on them and declared their venerable status. In terms of the key vocal qualities defined in the first paragraph of this page, Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin must also receive honorable mention. But in terms of the sheer number of hit records and brilliant vocals that incorporate all the qualities of a world class singer, Paul McCartney is arguably the best rock and roll singer of all time. It’s always nice to end a treatise with a provocative pronouncement like that one, and then to immediately disappear into oblivion before anyone can throw a tomato.

About the author:

Peter Cross is a singer/songwriter/producer/Web Master. You can find this article at: They don’t make singers like that anymore! and his home page at: Rock and Roll with an Immortal Soul. All work protected by Library of Congress Registration No. TXu1-257-177.

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