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100 Greatest Singers

The beauty of the singer’s voice touches us in a place that’s as personal as the place from which that voice has issued. If one of the weird things about singers is the ecstasy of surrender they inspire, another weird thing is the debunking response a singer can arouse once we’ve recovered our senses

Rolling Stone May 17, 2011
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20. Smokey Robinson

Born February 19th, 1940
Key Tracks “The Tracks of My Tears,” “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” (the Miracles), “Cruisin’ ” (solo)
Influenced Al Green, Linda Ronstadt, Mick Jagger

“With his tone and delivery, you could fall in love with Smokey,” says fellow Motown star Martha Reeves. As a teenager, Robinson wanted to sing Platters-style doo-wop, but he ended up inventing his own vocal style, even as he and Berry Gordy Jr. created the Motown sound: His high, delicate delivery marked him as not so much a tenor as a male soprano, able to glide into a heartbreaking falsetto that remains one of the most distinctive sounds of 20th-century pop. On Miracles hits like “The Tracks of My Tears,” “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” and especially “Ooo Baby Baby” (with its near-wordless but endlessly affecting chorus), that voice made the thrills and heartbreaks of romance sound equally seductive. Said Paul McCartney, “Smokey Robinson was like God in our eyes.”

19. Bob Marley

Born February 6th, 1945 (died May 11th, 1981)
Key Tracks “No Woman, No Cry,” “Redemption Song,” “I Shot the Sheriff”
Influenced Bono, Lauryn Hill, Buju Banton

To talk only about Bob Marley’s singing voice would negate what makes him one of the greatest voices of our time ”” why his voice is stamped in our history. He sang about heavy ideas, and he put them out there so delicately and so lightly, with such a generous groove, a generous feel and a generous voice. He didn’t sing correctly; he wasn’t trained, but he had a beautiful voice, a lot like one of my other favorite singers of all time, Marvin Gaye. If they had more similar accents and had sung in more similar styles, you’d hear it.

It’s hard to separate his voice from what he was singing about. Bob Marley sang with a great deal of power ”” enough to shake the foundations of his country’s government. A measure of a great singer is getting a message across, saying things that otherwise won’t be heard. And in a world that has ways of shutting down people that talk about peace and love, Bob Marley could get that message across and inspire us. It’s rare that something so serious and so beautiful as his music can rise as clearly to the top as he did. His voice is one of the most important inspirations of our time ”” he was the voice of oppressed people all over the world.

18. Freddie Mercury

Born September 5th, 1946 (died November 24th, 1991)
Key Tracks “We Are the Champions,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “You’re My Best Friend”
Influenced Axl Rose, Joe Elliott, George Michael

He’s “the most inspirational frontman of all time,” says My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way. A hard-rock hammerer, a disco glitterer, a rockabilly lover boy, Freddie Mercury was dynamite with a laser beam, his four-octave range overdubbed into a shimmering wall of sound on records such as “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Killer Queen.” Even as he was dying, Mercury threw himself into his majestic, operatic singing. Queen’s Brian May recalls that Mercury could hardly walk when the band recorded “The Show Must Go On” in 1990. “I said, ‘Fred, I don’t know if this is going to be possible to sing,’ ” May says. “And he went, ‘I’ll fucking do it, darling’ ”” vodka down ”” and went in and killed it, completely lacerated that vocal.”

17. Tina Turner

Born November 26th, 1939
Key Tracks “Proud Mary,” “River Deep ”” Mountain High,” “What’s Love Got to Do With It”
Influenced Beyoncé, Mick Jagger, Mary J. Blige

“I’ll never forget the first time I saw [Tina] perform,” said Beyoncé. “I never in my life saw a woman so powerful, so fearless.” Turner started touring with the Ike and Tina Turner Revue almost half a century ago; her breakthrough was their blazing 1971 cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary,” which included the declaration that she never does anything “nice and easy.” “She was so direct, so raw,” says John Fogerty, who wrote the song. Age has only deepened the ache and grit in her powerhouse cries and moans during her long career as a solo artist. Melissa Etheridge said that Turner’s voice defies classification. “You can’t say soul, R&B, rock & roll,” Etheridge said. “She’s all of it! She can squeeze passion from any line.”

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16. Mick Jagger
Lenny Kravitz

Born July 26th, 1943
Key Tracks “Gimme Shelter,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Satisfaction”
Influenced Jack White, Steven Tyler, Iggy Pop

I sometimes talk to people who sing perfectly in a technical sense who don’t understand Mick Jagger. But what he does is so complex: His sense of pitch and melody is really sophisticated. His vocals are stunning, flawless in their own kind of perfection. There are certain songs where he just becomes a different person. Take “Angie”: I’ve never heard that tone from him since, and it wasn’t there before. And I love when he sings falsetto, like on “Emotional Rescue” or “Fool to Cry.”

I like him best when he’s singing super-raw. When I co-produced “God Gave Me Everything” [forGoddess in the Doorway], he did what he thought would be a scratch vocal. He barely knew the lyric ”” he was reading off a piece of paper. There were no stops, just one take. Bam! It ended up being the vocal we used on the record.

Mick is a disciplined artist, completely dedicated to his craft. His voice has changed somewhat and has a different texture, but it’s stronger now. One time the Stones were on tour, and during a two-week break Mick and I went on vacation in the Bahamas. We’d hang out during the day, go to the beach, shop at the market, cook dinner, drink wine. In the evening he would go to the bottom floor of the place where we were staying and put on a Rolling Stones soundcheck tape ”” just the band playing songs without him singing. He would stay down there, dancing and singing to keep himself in shape. Your voice is like a muscle. If you’re on the road and you stop for two weeks and then go back to do a show, you’re going to get hoarse. So he was down there every night practicing. As a result, at 65 years of age, he’s stronger than ever.

The beauty of that experience was sitting in a living room hearing “Brown Sugar” and “Satisfaction” live through the floor. That was my entertainment every night. It was very surreal.

15. Robert Plant

Born August 20th, 1948
Key Tracks “Dazed and Confused,” “Immigrant Song,” “Sea of Love”
Influenced David Lee Roth, Freddie Mercury, Tori Amos, Axl Rose

As a teenager in the English Midlands, Robert Plant was obsessed with the rawest American blues. “When I saw Sleepy John Estes and heard that voice ”” part pain, part otherworldly ”” I went, ‘I want that voice,’ ” Plant told Rolling Stone in 2006. Somehow, he got that voice, and more: The unearthly howl he unleashed with Led Zeppelin was a bluesman crossed with a Viking deity. Singing like a girl never seemed so masculine, and countless hard-rock singers would shred their vocal cords reaching for the notes Plant gained by birthright. “His voice is picturesque,” says collaborator Alison Krauss. “It sounds so new and so old at the same time, with this crazy European mystery to it.”

14. Al Green

Born April 13th, 1946
Key Tracks “Let’s Stay Together,” “Love and Happiness,” “Tired of Being Alone”
Influenced Prince, the Bee Gees, Justin Timberlake

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Al Green’s voice sits at the perfect point between romance and sex: “Most black singers go zero to 100, rushing to the big payoff,” says Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson of the Roots. “But Al Green is like a soufflé that takes 45 minutes to rise.” He was the last dominant singer of the soul era, but he sounded nothing like his predecessors. His pristine falsetto could explode into joy on “Let’s Stay Together” or create almost unbearable tension on “Simply Beautiful.” Green’s vulnerability and suave sexuality were rewarded with 13 Top 10 hits during the early Seventies, and lost none of their impact during his subsequent return to gospel music. “He takes amazing advantage of silence,” says Thompson, who produced Lay It Down, Green’s most recent album. “Quiet is his strength.”

13. Roy Orbison

Born April 23rd, 1936 (died December 6th, 1988)
Key Tracks “Oh, Pretty Woman,” “You Got It,” “Only the Lonely”
Influenced Bruce Springsteen, Chris Isaak, k.d. lang

Tom Petty called him “probably the greatest singer in the world.” Another of his fellow Traveling Wilburys, Bob Dylan, said he had “the voice of a professional criminal.” Roy Orbison shared rockabilly roots with Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley ”” he recorded the bopping “Ooby Dooby” at Sun Records in 1956 ”” before his soaring, symphonic vocals brought a new level of majesty and mystery to rock in the early Sixties. “Songs like ‘Leah’ and ‘In Dreams’ start out challenging, then just climb and climb into the stratosphere,” says protégé Chris Isaak. Dion, who toured with Orbison, says that he actually sang very softly: “I’d be two feet away, and when he hit those high notes, it was quiet and heartfelt. But the emotion would go through you like a power drill.”

12. Little Richard

Born December 5th, 1932
Key Tracks “Tutti-Frutti,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” “Long Tall Sally”
Influenced James Brown, Prince, Paul McCartney

“When I heard [‘Long Tall Sally’], it was so great I couldn’t speak,” said John Lennon. “I didn’t want to leave Elvis, but this was so much better.” Richard Penniman grew up wailing gospel in church in Macon, Georgia, and he carried his feverish foundation with him into rock & roll: On songs like “Lucille” and “Tutti-Frutti,” he sounded like a preacher wrestling the devil to the ground. When he belted, “I’m gonna rip it up/I’m gonna shake it up” in 1956, Richard wasn’t just singing about the weekend ”” his falsetto shrieks were demolishing the rules of pop singing. It was a voice that leapt with a fury out of transistor radios, leaving scorch marks on an entire generation of singers and musicians. Said Jimi Hendrix, who played in Richard’s backing band, “I want to do with my guitar what Little Richard does with his voice.”

11. Paul McCartney

Born June 18th, 1942
Key Tracks “Yesterday,” “Hey Jude,” “Maybe I’m Amazed”
Influenced Elton John, Rod Stewart, Elvis Costello

“Paul is like an impressionist painter,” says James Taylor, who had the privilege of watching the Beatles record the White Album in 1968. “The pieces of his music are so elementary, yet the overall thing is so sophisticated. He’s such a precise and controlled singer.” On songs from the Beatles’ frenzied “I’m Down” to his own “Maybe I’m Amazed,” McCartney revealed himself as one of rock’s most agile and melodic screamers. But McCartney, who learned vocal harmonies from his musician father, is at least as gifted as a balladeer, drawing on British music-hall sounds from his childhood as much as Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers for songs such as “Yesterday” and “Michelle.” “People chose Lennon or McCartney,” says Taylor. “I was definitely on the McCartney side. He makes a beautiful sound.”

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