Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Singing Someone Else's Heart Out

Lots of people find the sound of an autotuned vocal as pleasurable as fingernails across a blackboard. But there’s something I think I dislike even more — hearing someone sing in someone else’s voice. There may be no more expressive an artistic act than singing, but doing it in someone else’s voice ruins the whole thing for me.

I think first in this regard of Janis Joplin, and her brazen aping of Bessie Smith, of whom she is said to have felt herself the reincarnation. I always found Joplin shrill and sort of desperate, and could bear to listen to her only in very small doses, however palpable her anguish, which I have no doubt was the genuine article. My early ardor for Joe Cocker dissipated quickly, as I became ever more acutely aware of how slavishly (!) he impersonated Ray Charles. Anyone who imagines that that vocal sound came naturally to Cocker needs to hear his (terrific!) version of The Beatles’ “I’ll Cry Instead,” on which he sounds very much more like John Lennon.

Who, remarkably, never sounded like anyone other than John Lennon, even while McCartney was occasionally becoming Little Richard or, on “Lady Madonna,” Fats Domino. Where Eric Burdon aped Big Joe Turner, such of his contemporaries as Roger Daltrey never sounded much like anyone other than themselves.

One could, if he chose, condemn singers using their own voices, but someone else’s accents, but at the cost of losing The Beatles and pretty much all other Brits of that era. The closest our heroes came to singing in their own accents was their occasional elongation of the u in a word like Chuck (“Grandchildren your knee,” warbled Paul on Sgt. Pepper, “Vera, Chuck, and Dave,” with Chuck’s u heading toward that in chute.) Listen carefully and you’ll hear a distinct tonal kinship between Gerry (of the Pacemakers) and the Beatles’ two main singers. Learn to speak in the same linguistic bioregion, apparently, and you and a guy from the next neighborhood over are apt to share some key vocal qualities. If you know what you’re listening for, you can hear the Midlands unmistakably in Roy Wood’s bleat.

It took the likes of Syd Barrett and early middle-period Ray Davies to demonstrate that a Brit could sing in his own accent without international audiences deserting him in droves. Oddly, though, there was nothing authentic about David Bowie’s appropriating Anthony Newley’s hammy East Endisms somewhat later, in his own late early period. Speaking, Bowie sounded no more as he did singing than Mr. Jagger, speaking, sounded as he did drawling “King Bee.”

I have come to recognize the early Rolling Stones as having achieved one of the great feats of chutzpah in popular music history — five little English boys performing minstrel show versions of the music of the American rural (and other) black man of decades past, and somehow not being hooted off stage. If, a few years later, Barrett and Ray Davies would make the world safe for Brits to sing authentically, Jagger made it safe in the mid-60s for 45 million ultra-mannered snotnoses to sing out of tune in American garage bands with perfect Brian Jones (or, for our younger readers, Johnny Ramone) hair, and a knowledge of the blues gleaned largely from Yardbirds records. They were the best of times, and the worst.

A Facebook friend today wrote of having acquired an albumful of Elton John sounding on the soundalike records for which he was hired before he became a star like everyone from the ill-fated boyos in Badfinger to Stevie Wonder to Norman (“Spirit in the Sky”) Greenbaum. Versatile as he apparently was, I wonder why he decided to spend his career impersonating Jose Feliciano.


  1. Yes , I always liked Roger Daltry's voice for that reason. Influences can be so strong that sometimes you may have to concentrate hard to be yourself, - and aren't opera singers trained to sound like other opera singers? Those Elton John 'Top of the Pops' tapes must be very revealing.

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