Thursday, January 13, 2005

listen, they're singing ...

beware of ... them

All music tonight, (almost) no politics.

Some singers have a special quality to their voices, that unnamable something that induces an almost physical pleasure response. They’re one of them, the bearers of vocal tones from the beyond, those resonances that set off sympathetic vibrations in the listener’s innermost core. It’s a subjective quality, this that-ness, but like Justice Stewart with pornography, I know it when I see it - or rather when I feel it. It's a reaction that’s almost embarrassingly sensual, although it doesn't have to be sexual in nature. When sexuality gets into the mix, though, it's aphrodisiacal. Depending on your inclinations, your musical version of a loaded gun could be Barry White, Emmylou Harris, or Muddy Waters.

I’m a “roots music” guy, so it’s not surprising that for me it doesn’t depend on the technical skill of the singer. I can like a singer very much even if they don’t have it, but I love them when they do. Even those singers can make lousy records, because magic will only take you so far. But when one of them makes good records, look out. My list of these magicians doesn't include too many obscure names, because success is a much higher probability for these fortunate few. But there are some hidden treasures out there, and I'll think of some more in the future. Here's who's on my mind tonight.

My wife and I have played the voices game on long car drives because, at least for us, our reactions are surprisingly similar. Play it if you like – “them or not-them?” – but be prepared for controversial results. Stevie Winwood, yes – Stevie Wonder, no. (Even though Stevie Wonder made many great records, and is a powerful and deeply soulful singer.) Dionne Warwick, yes – her niece Whitney Houston, no. (Whitney’s an unfortunate example of the calisthenic school of modern R&B singing.) Van Morrison, emphatic yes. Ray Charles – what, are you kidding? Of course.

Aretha Franklin (Jesse Kornbluth just wrote about my favorite Aretha album) gets stunning yesses on both electricity and technique. Diana Ross? Her costume changes may be a bit much, but listen to any Supremes hit and you’ll see she was one of them. So were other Motown greats, like the immortal Marvin Gaye, Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops, and the troubled David Ruffin of the Temptations. Check out Otis Redding, but don't forget Otis Clay, Al Green's fellow graduate of the Willie Mitchell Memphis soul machine, whose songbag was raided for Bob Seger's version of "Trying to Live My Life Without You." And the prodigal preacher of soul, Howard Tate, who once was lost but now is found (after 30 years on the street and rebirth as a preacher.)

What about country? Willie Nelson for sure, but be more selective in buying albums than he was in releasing them. Dolly Parton gets a yes, and is one of the under-recognized greats of country songwriting too. Be discriminating with her, too – the general rule of thumb with Dolly and Willie is the earlier the better. Lefty Frizzell, not Hank Williams, created the template for 99% of the male country singers out there today, with a voice as smooth and relaxing as Irish coffee. His chief acolyte, Merle Haggard, also has the touch. And listening to George Jones makes me fall off the bar stool every time, although I haven’t had a drink in years. Then there’s Tammy Wynette, who should have been underwritten by a Defense Department research lab: her voice is a machine for inducing remote-control heartbreak.

I suspect Ralph Stanley has lived for 10,000 years, and that's just in this incarnation. He will chill your blood when he wails out "Man of Constant Sorrow" or "Oh Death." I revere Stanley so much that I’m in that small minority who didn’t care for “Oh Brother Where Art Thou" - although I recognized and appreciated the Preston Sturges homage in the title, and am generally a Coen Brothers fan. Having a group called “The Soggy Mountain Boys” re-do Constant Sorrow was sacrilege for me, however, and having Stanley’s voice come out of a Ku Klux Klan leader’s mouth was an insult I couldn’t bear. I suspect regional prejudice is at work. Ralph Stanley is a world-class artist. Would film makers have been allowed to treat Pavarotti this way? Or Yo-Yo Ma? Or Mahalia Jackson? I put Ralph in a class with any of them, and the fact that he talks with a Southern accent doesn't detract from the respect I believe he deserves. But enough gripin', let's get back to the singin'.

Otis Redding. Sam Cooke. For me, Bob Dylan qualifies, too. Listen to “We Are The World” again (if you can stand it) and you’ll hear him blow away a roomful of superstars because, while they were all terrific singers, he was one of them. Michael McDonald has a voice that can electrify anything, even the excessively wispy soft-rock of Christopher Cross’ "Ride Like The Wind." But listen to his greatest stuff instead, starting with his politically minded "Takin' It to the Streets," with its brilliant opening line, “You don’t know me but I’m your brother, ” and another that could be directed to the President, “you don’t know my kind in your world." Then move on to "What a Fool Believes," where Carole Bayer Sager’s powerful lyrics can equally be applied to this Administration: “what a fool believes/no wise man has the power to reason away.” Then forget lyrics and just listen to that voice.

For more blue-eyed soul, The Righteous Brothers were both dazzling singers, but only Bill Medley was one of them. Listen to his baritone resonance, with the Brothers and on his own, especially on his then-controversial 60’s interracial love song, "Brown-Eyed Woman." “I could love you,” he sings in that voice, and the all-black female chorus (filled with those voices, too) responds “Stay away, baby.” The forbidden love feels unstoppable.

And no appreciation of that-ness would be complete without a tribute to Dusty Springfield, whose magical tones triggered a yearning in the heart and body of a pre-adolescent future blogger - a longing that I now know was doomed from the start. If it's just lust on my mind, not the full spectrum of romantic desire I felt for Dusty, I can always listen to the woman who makes the orgasmic sound at the beginning of "Gun Love" by ZZ Top. But I digress a little ... she ain't even singin'.

Group voices can have it too, and so can the tonal quality of certain instruments in combination, even when the singers or instruments don't have it independently. The Davis Sisters (especially on their classic song "I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know"), or Lou Rawls backing Sam Cooke on "That's Where It's At," or the organ/violin blend on Don & Dewey’s classic soul instrumental "Justine" - they all had it. The Everly Brothers have it as a duo, sometimes, particularly on songs like the relatively obscure "Oh What a Feeling." There are certain blends of voices or instruments seem to work every time, no matter who the participants are. That’s why I want to be reincarnated as three black women who can sing, or two Texans who can play twin fiddles.

Those voices are out there to be found. I’ll think of a dozen more as soon as this piece is done. But don’t take my word for it. Go. Listen. Test the theory for yourself. Warning: it is highly addictive.

Get Them:

You can start anywhere. For soulful sounding voices, start with greatest hits collections for: Steve Winwood, Dionne Warwick, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations and David Ruffin solo, the Four Tops, the Supremes (where Diana was at her best), Sam Cooke (or better yet, this incredible live recording ), Howard Tate and Otis Clay, the Doobie Brothers (with too much non-Michael material, although that’s pretty good 70's rock), the Righteous Brothers, the exquisite Dusty Springfield, (try the funky Dusty in Memphis, too), and Aretha at her best. "Never Loved A Man" remains incredible. It's the R&B first-person version of "Women Who Love Too Much", with that straight-to-the-point opening lyric: "you're a no-good heartbreaker, you're a liar, and you're a cheat," followed immediately by the demand for a kiss.

For country, the honky-tonk primogenitor is Lefty Frizzell, and on the distaff side are the angelic voices of Davis Sisters, who weren't actually sisters. Skeeter Davis took the last name to join the duo, and when her partner died in a car crash went on to stardom on her own. I love this Willie Nelson album and this one. Emmylou Harris is a great harmony singer, so try these duets. Here's a collection of some of Merle Haggard's best. On the folk side, I think Dylan sings great when he covers old folk tunes on Good As I've Been to You. "Jim Jones" is chilling, and great Method acting too. Van Morrison kills on this collection, and on this hypnotic meditation of an album. These George Jones hits are awesome. Ralph Stanley’s keening genius shines here and here, so take your pick. Start your worship experience of Ray Charles and the immortal Otis Redding with these collections, if you're not already a believer.

A man on your mind? Try Barry White, Muddy Waters, or Waylon Jennings for a testosterone-fueled rush. Or find some of them on your own and tell me about it.

Who did I forget? Do you disagree with my list?