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Top 100 Singers Of All Time

Posted by on Jan 31, 2009

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Something a little different today, although it’s online, so to speak, so it fits the model. Rolling Stone Magazine put together a listing of what they say are the 100 Greatest Singers In History. I’ve got to tell you, I love stuff like this because it invokes pretty good memories, great discussions, and of course we all get to have our favorites and those that we don’t like. Being a former professional musician (I got paid for it, therefore I was a professional), I’d like to think that I have at least some basic knowledge on the subject.

Just to get this out of the way, though, we’re talking about rock musicians. No operatic folks are on the list, which is a shame because if one can’t get Andrea Bocelli or Sarah Brightman in a list then it’s not quite accurate. Also, any list that has Mariah Carey all the way down at #79 tells me that the list is not only not about singers, but that it’s more a list of performers who impress people who like rock than an article about true singers. And come on; no Celine Dion, no Whitney Houston, no Donna Summer,… ugh!

Obviously, I’ve already given some early commentary on this list. But let’s look at the top ten only; if you want to jump right to the entire list, you can use this link to get there.

Going in reverse order, #10 is James Brown. Most people only know the James Brown of Eddie Murphy fame, but when he started out, James Brown had a very melodic voice. Later on he decided to give that up for more histrionics, but no matter. You can’t have a discussion about vocalists in history without James Brown. This isn’t a bad pick.

At #9 on the list we have Stevie Wonder. I wrote in a review last year that Stevie Wonder is the number one pop music genius of all time, and he’s still influencing musicians of today, so there’s no gripe about this pick either.

At #8 is Otis Redding, and if I have a gripe about this pick, it’s that I just don’t see him being in the top ten. His untimely death has probably added way more credence to his importance, but when it comes to singers, there’s so many more who were not only more important, but better singers.

At #7 is Bob Dylan; here’s the big pick that lets us know it’s more about legacy than actual vocal talent. I say this while being a big time Dylan fan. Bob Dylan couldn’t sing his way past the first round of American Idol, let alone be considered a legitimate singer on any list. However, his body of work was remarkable, and he came alone at just the right time to touch upon the psyche of America. His lyrics impressed me so much that I bought his book of lyrics some years ago, just to study the composition structure of them. Top ten in importance, yes; top ten singers, no way.

At #6 is Marvin Gaye, and this is a great pick for the top ten. There were few other natural singers who could compete with Marvin Gaye, and he knew it. Marvin Gaye was so good that he’s the only performer in Motown history who didn’t have to go through “performance school”; of course, it didn’t hurt that he was married to Berry Gordy’s sister either. Still, Marvin Gaye could have made a nun give up her virginity, there was so much sex in his smooth sound. No gripes here.

At #5 is John Lennon, and once again, I have to put him on the list with Dylan; important for the times, but not all that great a singer. His range was limited, and, well, truthfully, I think he had more of an emotive voice with no real range. I can’t think of anyone else who could have brought the kind of power he did to a song like “Imagine”, but he was a great performer, and an even better man, than he was a singer.

At #4 is Sam Cooke, and I’ll say right now that the only gripe I might have here is that I could see him being at #2, except he left this world way too soon. Sam Cooke was smooth, he had range, and, well, he was just likable as a singer and as a man. Well, except for the woman who ended up killing him, I suppose, but even there,… well, we’ll probably never know the real story. Sam Cooke could make you feel good; he could make you cry; he could pretty much do anything he wanted to do with his voice, which is what makes me so impressed with him. It was his voice and one of his songs I thought about the night Barack Obama was elected president, and what it meant to me. Great pick!

At #3 is Elvis Presley, and there’s just no way anyone can gripe about this pick across the board. Elvis was the man, plain and simple, and if he’d known how to take care of himself, he’d probably still be the man right now in his 70’s. Elvis could sing, he had presence, he touched people, and mixed in the middle of a lot of fluff were some pretty good songs. Let’s face a fact here; without Elvis being exactly what he was, a big, good looking country white kid that loved to sing what at the time was termed “race music” and doing those “heinously sexy moves”, we’d have been stuck with Pat Boone’s generic style for the rest of our lives, black music might never have had the opportunity to become as prominent as it has, and music in general would have stagnated. Yes, I think he was that important.

At #2 is Ray Charles, and I love Ray Charles. Though I might not have put him at #2, he’d have definitely been in the top ten. Ray Charles did stuff with music that no one else dared to do, which makes him important, and he did it because of the music, not for any other reason. Ray Charles did jazz, and always considered himself a jazz musician. But he also did rock, pop, gospel, country, and classical, and went to the top in every single genre. Ray Charles also touched people, but oddly enough, according to his own autobiography, he never really understood why, except for the soul of the music. And man, there’s no one who could have taken that soul away. Ray Charles was truly the king of soul.

At #1 is the queen of soul, Aretha Franklin. If you’re not old enough to remember the true power of Aretha Franklin singing almost anything then I feel sorry for you. Aretha Franklin was raw power and emotion; when she went soft, you held onto your own hands because you knew the explosion of emotion was coming. The daughter of a preacher who cut her chops in church, she has earned 21 Grammy awards, was the first female inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and has the best selling gospel album in history, Amazing Grace. All that, and she’s still prominent today, singing at the inauguration of President Barack Obama just a week and a half ago. No problems with the queen being at number one.

And there you go. As I said, something different to talk about, but hey, it’s the day before the Super Bowl, so let’s have some fun here. Now, if I went through the entire top 100, there’s a lot of artists I’d throw out and replace with someone else. But for now, enjoy what’s there, and offer your own opinions; should be fun.

The Essential Barack Obama: The Grammy Award-Winning Recordings

The Essential Barack Obama: The Grammy Award-Winning Recordings








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25 Comments »

I’ve often wondered how they come up with this list. Is it personal opinion of the people sitting around having a cup of coffee or have they some statistics they go by, as in record sales or something.

Must be because I am an Aussie but I’ve never heard of Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding or Sam Cooke. Personally I would have gone for Elvis as No.1 but I am pretty biased as far as Elvis is concerned.

Sire´s last blog post..Women & The All About Me Syndrome

January 31st, 2009 | 5:55 PM
Mitch:

If you’ve ever heard the song “Heard It Through The Grapevine” or “Sexual Healing”, you’ve heard of Marvin Gaye. If you’ve ever heard “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay”, you’ve heard of Otis Redding. I don’t know a big worldwide song that Sam Cooke might have done, but if you looked at the video I posted you’ll at least hear his voice; maybe you’ve heard of “Cupid” or “Another Saturday Night”, which were big hits for him. We’re about the same age, but his songs might not have made it across the Big Pond. They certainly knew who he was in England.

January 31st, 2009 | 5:59 PM

Mitch,

For the most part, I agree with the list. I definitely would’ve added Luther Vandross because even in his short career he added tremendous value to the music world. Many babies were made and lots of couples used one of his songs for their wedding or their first dance.

I would’ve rated James Brown and Stevie Wonder higher and moved Lennon and Elvis down a few notches.

I absolutely loved Bob Dylan and I’m surprised Eric Clapton didn’t make the list.

Beverly Mahone´s last blog post..College Life and Murder

January 31st, 2009 | 8:16 PM
Mitch:

Luther made the list down in the 50’s somewhere; I hadn’t even thought about Clapton not being on the list.

February 1st, 2009 | 12:34 AM

The list definitely underwhelms me. Considering where Dylan, Lennon and Paul McCartney (11) are, 14 is pretty low for Al Green and 18 is rock-bottom for Freddie Mercury, who provided dozens of different vocal tracks on some of Queen’s songs.

As you get further down the list, it seems to almost get random. If you’re going to put Tom Waits on a list like that, you’re doing it for his ability to use his voice as an instrument, not for general quality, which means 82 is too low.

Willie Nelson — who I’m not sure has a one-octave range — is up there in the 80s as well.

And not far ahead of Waits and McCartney — at 79 — is Mariah Carey, who has had (and may still have) records for the biggest vocal range. What’s with that?

You should also note that McCartney is on the list twice — at 76.

February 1st, 2009 | 9:59 AM
Mitch:

Josh, the list is incorrect on that one; #76 is supposed to be Steve Perry, lead singer for Journey. I don’t think Paul McCartney ever sang “Oh Sherry”. LOL

As for the rest, I agree with you about the list in general. If it was only singers, then many of these folks shouldn’t be on the list, especially Tom Waits; if it’s about importance, then some of the rankings need to be adjusted drastically.

February 1st, 2009 | 12:01 PM

Wow, OK, definitely got brain-tangled. Should read not far ahead of Waits and Nelson is Carey, and the first time McCartney is on the list is 11, the second time at 76.

February 1st, 2009 | 10:01 AM
Boyz II Men:

Mitch my man, you’ve picked a love of mine! How could I resist responding here.

First off, I am in full agreement with you on Sam Cooke! He’s magical and I actually had “A Change is Gonna Come” as my away message for much of the electoral season. That song is also part of one of the greatest scenes in the movie Malcolm X. Sam was a tremendous singer and it’s a shame that he, Marvin and Luther all seemed to die before we were finished hearing great music from them.

Second, notice how few women are in the top of the list? Do you have any idea why that is? Are women just not considered as strong of vocalists?

Third, NO WHITNEY HOUSTON!? O dear. Bagging Mariah was bad enough but forgetting Whitney is unforgiveable.

One thing I often wonder about is, a lot of these lists seem to play on age old singers who were great. Are new singers simply not valued as much because we don’t know how great they will be viewed in the future yet? I’m thinking this because of Whitney and Celine’s absence. And really, there were a ton of tremendous singers from the late 80s and 90s who could really work their magic.

Let me know what you think!

February 1st, 2009 | 3:09 PM
Mitch:

I do believe that, when you have things like this, that most of the time it usually favors newer folks, so it’s interesting that music has gone the other direction. They also have Christina Aguilera on this list, another wonderful pure singer, but so low that it still makes the list look like it’s more about important entertainers than actual singers. And you’re right, not enough women on the list; they totally left out Diana Ross, who, combined with the Supremes and alone, has probably had as many, if not more, number one hits than anyone else on the list.

With historical lists, you almost have to have a date limit on them to have an opportunity to be fair. But this list does what it was supposed to do; court controversy. I mean, Teddy Pendergrass isn’t on this list either, nor Roberta Flack, or, gasp, Chaka Khan! We can see where the bias is.

February 1st, 2009 | 3:57 PM
Boyz II Men:

Another interesting observation that I appreciate is that a strong portion of the singers (especially top ten) are R&B singers. What can I say, if you’ve got a voice, you join the genre that lets you flex it!

And yea, it’s weird. When you look at movies or games, it seems like a lot of the world runs on a short attention span. But music seems to run contrary with the older it is, the better it is. I wonder if this is because music is one of the few entertainment forms that is fairly resistant to technological advances.

February 1st, 2009 | 9:49 PM
Mitch:

Could be, but I doubt it’s that easy. My belief is that the people who were asked to do the voting were mostly late 30’s to early 50’s, people with some generational span so they could make a decision based on, well, the possibility of actually hearing some of these performers live. If you’re in your 20’s, probably 35% of the people on the list you’ve never heard of, so how could you vote for them? I’m actually wondering if, more than myself and Josh and myself, anyone else who reads this or checks out the list has heard of Tom Waits. But many 20 somethings might put Britney Spears, Pink, Jonas Brothers, et al, on this list, and, uhhh, no, they don’t belong on this list either. lol

February 1st, 2009 | 11:09 PM
Boyz II Men:

O and Mitch, what’s this about you being a professional singer back in the day! What kind of stuff did you do?

February 1st, 2009 | 3:17 PM
Mitch:

I sang in weddings, in the church, for about 14 years. Classical or pop or religious, more than half the time accompanying myself on the piano. I gave it up when I got my one and only standing ovation in the last wedding I did for a wedding song I’d actually written to have played at my own wedding one day, but didn’t get the chance to perform. I figured it would never get better than that. 😀

February 1st, 2009 | 3:59 PM
Peter Arponen:

Your list is fine, except that it is definately slanted to one genre and a relative time span. Seems you haven’t ventured out too much. The Wonderman I would have left off the list, though. Would have replaced him with another Steve…Winwood. Remember him?

October 12th, 2009 | 9:12 AM
Mitch:

Hi Peter,

I remember Steve Winwood, and, well, I liked some of his songs, but I never understood a single word he ever said. As for the list, it really wasn’t my list, it was Rolling Stones list. I was just commenting on their top 10. At that point, it may be slanted in the people I believe could sing versus those who I believe were great entertainers, but not actually singers.

I’m not sure I could put together my own top 10 “real” singers of all time. I do know, though, that if I were to start, I’d have Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey, Sarah Brightman and Luciano Pavarotti on the list. Heck, I think I’m going to do it for an upcoming blog post, but I’ll probably go top 15 or 20 instead, like I’ve done with some of my other lists. Thanks for the idea.

October 12th, 2009 | 9:28 AM
Bill Bryce:

did I miss Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Roy Orbison, Freddie Mercury? or are you not talking about pure singing voices. Putting dylan on the same list as sister aretha and omitting voices like the above mentioned is a sin. you said it yourself, dylan couldn’t get past the first round of american idol.
I am CORNfused…..

December 1st, 2009 | 3:29 PM
Mitch:

Hi Bill,

I’m with you, Bill. I think Freddie Mercury was on their list somewhere, but I don’t remember the other names you mentioned. That, plus it was more of a rock list rather than a broad overview, like what I tried to do here.

December 1st, 2009 | 3:37 PM
Rachel:

WHAT ABOUT ANN WILSON FROM HEART????? Greatest female vocalist in rock history!!! And Pat Benetar for that matter- at least a three-octave range!

April 6th, 2010 | 12:35 AM
Rachel:

With a few exceptions, this list sucks. Whoever compiled it was clearly trying to show off their modern musical history knowledge by throwing a bone to old artists. But let’s face it- the only artists on this list that started their popular careers before 1970, whose voice as an actual instrument, are Aretha and Elvis. The rest of these older artists, they are simply singers.

April 6th, 2010 | 12:42 AM
Mitch:

Actually Rachel, I don’t even consider them all singers as much as entertainers, and the list was supposed to highlight singers. Dylan certainly isn’t a singer on my list anyway. I actually have my own list of my top singers on this blog, and if I’d made it a larger list both of the ladies you mentioned would have been on it somewhere.

April 6th, 2010 | 12:57 AM

No one will beat the king which is Elvis Presley.`””

June 30th, 2010 | 12:43 AM
Mitch:

I don’t know, Louis. Michael Jackson had more sales and lasted a heck of a lot longer. lol

June 30th, 2010 | 10:20 AM
Val:

Ah – your comments are still open on this one, good! (I was just looking at my feed reader and saw there are some brill posts I’ve missed reading!)

Two of my fave singers are Seal and Joan Armatrading. Check ’em out!
🙂

Dylan wrote brilliant songs but voice-wise, is a taste I never acquired. Ditto John Lennon apart from the odd song or two.

I’m with you 100% on Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin. Gosh, there are/were some fabulous singers.
🙂

August 4th, 2010 | 9:30 AM
Mitch:

Yes, there were and are some great singers, Val. I like Seal, but I was never much of an Armatrading fan. I hope you saw my post about who I considered as the top 10 singers in history, as well as my top 13 entertainers.

August 4th, 2010 | 10:50 AM
Val:

I’ve not seen them yet. Will have a look later.
🙂

August 4th, 2010 | 8:29 PM