The Unrepentant Human Voice

Many prior forms of music treated the human voice primarily as a musical instrument, and the singer as another musician.

Emphasis was consequently placed on clarity of tone, the ability to control the voice’s volume and pitch, to produce certain musical effects, such as vibrato, and ultimately to subjugate the voice to serve the desires of a composer, arranger, producer or conductor.

At one point in the history of European classical music, boys were even castrated before their voices had changed, in order to create castrati, possessing voices with very unique and particular qualities.

When microphones became available to singers for live performances in the early 1930’s, it enabled a new style of singing, one that no longer required a vocalist to be able to project to the back rows of a venue. This led to the popularity of singers such as Rudy VallĂ©e and Bing Crosby, so-called “crooners” who could sing in soft, low voices, and rely on their microphones, amplification systems, and speakers to convey their sentiments all the way to the back of the room.

This style of singing lent itself to a romantic and sometimes sentimental emotional expression, mined thoroughly by stars such as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Perry Como.

During this same period, blues singers developed a broader approach to the use of their voices, especially as they gained access to microphones and electric guitars. In the 1950’s, singers like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf used microphones to capture all the intimate nuances of their voices, but they were moaning, shouting and growling, not crooning.

Adding to the mix, other musical styles, such as gospel, rhythm and blues, and bluegrass all contributed their own particular modes of vocalization.

As rock and roll emerged, there were two lines of development for vocalists. On the one hand, singers such as Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly were clearly valued for their voices, whereas artists such as Chuck Berry and Bill Haley were appreciated for other reasons, but not known particularly for their great voices.

Another stream of influence came from folk singers such as Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. These were songwriters and activists who used their voices to tell stories. In many ways their vocal performances were as much dramatic as musical, providing shading and emphasis, but clearly focused on the delivery of the words, as much or more than the performance of the music.

Rock music drew on all of these influences and then went beyond them.

First, rock bands such as The Beatles had no single singer as a front man. In their case, John and Paul both sang frequent lead parts, with George singing harmony and occasional lead, and even Ringo sometimes being given a lead vocalist role. While John and Paul were both gifted and distinctive vocalists, neither were particularly idolized for the sounds of their voices, or for any particular mode of vocal expression. If anything, their gifts lay in their immense flexibility, ably demonstrated in their early cover versions of songs ranging from Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” to “Please Mr. Postman” by The Marvelettes.

A group such as The Band took this distribution of vocal chores even further when they moved beyond the backup role they had played for singers Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan. Although they had multiple band members who could sing as well as play, their earthy, organic vocals seemed perfectly suited to their own compositions, but were rarely employed, and hardly seemed suitable, for handling any more conventional material.

Secondly, in addition to sometimes going beyond the singling out of a lead vocalist, rock artists abandoned traditional restrictions on how the human voice could be employed as part of a musical performance. As rock lyrics matured to express all aspects of being human, with nothing off limits, modes of vocal expression developed in parallel, revealing an unrepentant human voice, no longer trying to mask its humanity or hide its limitations, but using all possible modes of vocal expression to express the full range of human thoughts and feelings.

As examples, listen to Bob Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone, Buffalo Springfield’s For What It’s Worth, Sympathy for the Devil by The Rolling Stones, or King Harvest by The Band.

But also, certainly, listen to performances by female artists, such as Darlene Love on Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), Laura Nyro on “Save the Country,” and Joni Mitchell on “Chelsea Morning.”

These are all vocal performances so uniquely wrought to match their material, and expressing so many different facets of being human, not just through the words and the melodies, but through the unchained use of the singers’ voices, that one can’t listen to them without becoming more fully alive, more deeply in touch with one’s own humanity.

This liberated use of the human voice, not just to perform vocal gymnastics, but to fully express so many different lives, so many different aspects of being human, is a vein that runs throughout all of the best rock music.

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