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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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70. Gregg Allman

Born December 8th, 1947
Key Tracks “Midnight Rider,” “Whipping Post”
Influenced Ronnie Van Zant, Warren Haynes, Darius Rucker

For Gregg Allman, all roads lead back to Ray Charles: “When I heard him, I was like, ‘That’s my goal in life,’ ” says Allman, who grew up mimicking the R&B records he heard in his segregated childhood hometown of Daytona Beach, Florida. “Ray Charles is the one who taught me to just relax and let it ooze out. If it’s in your soul, it’ll come out.” Allman’s mournful wail comes out on Allman Brothers standards like “It’s Not My Cross to Bear” and “Whipping Post.” Dwight Yoakam says Allman’s white-blues tradition goes back to Hank Williams. “It’s not just the African-American influence but the country side of his voice,” says Yoakam. “You could take ‘Midnight Rider’ and do it to ‘Lovesick Blues.’ ” Even in his earliest recordings, says Sheryl Crow, “He sounded like he’d already lived a thousand lifetimes.”

69. Ronnie Spector

Born August 10th, 1943
Key Tracks “Be My Baby,” “Baby I Love You,” “Walking in the Rain”
Influenced Joey Ramone, Patti Smith, Billy Joel

Backed by future husband Phil Spector’s wildly romantic production, Veronica “Ronnie” Bennett’s knife-blade belting with the Ronettes became a defining voice of the early Sixties, and it filtered down to everyone from Patti Smith to Joan Jett to the E Street Band. Steve Van Zandt grew up listening to hits such as “Be My Baby,” but the true power of Ronnie Spector’s singing only reached him later. “It was when Marty Scorsese screened a movie he had just done, called Mean Streets, for me and Bruce,” Van Zandt says. “I was, like, ‘Whoa!’ ” Scorsese’s use of “Be My Baby” perfectly captures the innocence and erotic promise of Spector’s voice. Van Zandt would later produce Spector. “I was a little too reverent,” he says, looking back. “I didn’t want to put anything around her voice. I just wanted to hear her.”

68. Wilson Pickett

Born March 18th, 1941 (died January 19th, 2006)
Key Tracks “In the Midnight Hour,” “Land of a 1,000 Dances,” “Mustang Sally”
Influenced Bob Seger, Bruce Springsteen, Joe Cocker

“When Wilson Pickett screamed, he screamed notes,” producer Jerry Wexler once said. “His voice was powerful, like a buzz saw, but it wasn’t ever out of control. It was always melodic.” Pickett’s signature shout served as the climax for many of his 38 hit singles. “You can feel it comin’,” said Pickett, “and you don’t let go until the moment is exactly right.” The man known as “the Wicked Pickett” and the “Midnight Mover” was soul’s purest badass: Immortal songs like 1965’s “In the Midnight Hour” and 1966’s “Mustang Sally” brought a new level of ferociousness to R&B belting. But Pickett’s good friend Solomon Burke notes that Pickett had another side. “Wilson was able to hold that note until you felt it,” says Burke. “He made you listen.”

67. Jerry Lee Lewis

Born September 29th, 1935
Key Tracks “Great Balls of Fire,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “Breathless”
Influenced Elton John, Kid Rock, John Fogerty

Few artists have attacked singing with the ferocity of Jerry Lee Lewis, a key combustible element in the rock & roll Big Bang of the Fifties. Just as he percussively hammered the keyboard of his piano, the Killer could transform his voice exclusively into a rhythm instrument, often tearing at his lyrics until the words become staccato nonsense syllables and he sounds like one of the faithful speaking in tongues. “It was evangelical,” Steve Van Zandt says of Lewis’ singing. Lewis moved effortlessly from shouting rockabilly to pure, classic country, scoring eight Number One hits on the country-singles chart. “He mystifies me, he’s so good,” says Art Garfunkel. “He’s having a great time. He’s rhythmically united with the piano, and the groove is sublime. He leaves you speechless.”

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66. Thom Yorke

Born October 7th, 1968
Key Tracks “Fake Plastic Trees,” “Karma Police,” “Everything in Its Right Place”
Influenced Chris Martin, Jim James, Tom Champlin

By the turn of the century, the broad, emotive sweep of Thom Yorke’s voice had made him one of the most influential singers of his generation. His high, keening sound, often trembling on the edge of falsetto, was turning up on records by Coldplay, Travis, Muse, Elbow and numerous others. “I tried to sing like Thom Yorke,” Coldplay’s Chris Martin told Rolling Stone. “The Radiohead influence on us was plain to see.” But Yorke himself “couldn’t stand the sound of me anymore” ”” and went on to reinvent his voice beginning with 2000’s Kid A. Using electronic trickery and exploiting what he called “the tension between what’s human and what’s coming from the machines,” he changed his voice into a disembodied instrument; songs like “Everything in Its Right Place” sound like fragmented transmissions from some distant galaxy.

65. David Ruffin

Born January 18th, 1941 (died June 1st, 1991)
Key Tracks “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “My Girl,” “Walk Away From Love”
Influenced Hall and Oates, Michael Jackson, Rod Stweart

Motown founder Berry Gordy said that any of the five Temptations could have been a lead singer, but it was David Ruffin who stood out most from the pack. In contrast to his heavenly-voiced partner, Eddie Kendricks, Ruffin sang as if every word was a plea ”” pain and desperation filled his lead vocals on “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “(I Know) I’m Losing You” and “I Wish It Would Rain.” “His voice had a certain glorious anguish that spoke to people on many emotional levels,” says Daryl Hall, who briefly recorded and performed with Ruffin in the Eighties. “I heard in [his voice] a strength my own voice lacked,” said Marvin Gaye, who added that Ruffin’s work “made me remember that when a lot of women listen to music, they want to feel the power of a real man.”

64. Axl Rose

Born February 6th, 1962
Key Tracks “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” “Paradise City,” “November Rain”
Influenced Josh Todd (Buckcherry), Marilyn Manson, Chester Bennington

“Axl sings the most beautiful melodies with the most aggressive tones and the most outrageous, freakish range,” says Sebastian Bach. “There’s maybe five people in the world that can sing in his range.” Slash once described the sound of Rose’s voice in slightly different terms: It’s like “the sound that a tape player makes when the cassette finally dies and the tape gets ripped out,” he said, “but in tune.” It’s immediately identifiable, with a combination of brute force and subtlety that is easy to overlook amid the sonic assault of Guns n’ Roses. Ballads like “Patience” and “November Rain” reveal a startling intimacy, even vulnerability, but it’s his fearsome screech on full-throttle metal like “Welcome to the Jungle” that can still peel paint off the walls, more than 20 years later.

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63. Dion

Born July 18th, 1939
Key Tracks “Teenager in Love,” “The Wanderer,” “Runaround Sue,” “Abraham, Martin and John”
Influenced Lou Reed, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen

Art Garfunkel describes Dion as “a bold extrovert of a singer,” and Steve Van Zandt hears “the sneer of punk” in his late-Fifties and early-Sixties hits such as “The Wanderer” and “Runaround Sue.” A key figure in doo-wop’s transition to rock & roll, the Bronx-born singer defined an attitude of white-boy rebellion ”” and delivered his lyrics with a casual, swinging phrasing that rivals Sinatra. Heavyweights such as Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and John Lennon were all on record as fans of his rowdy vocals. But Dion’s favorite compliment came from an even more unimpeachable source. Once, at a television taping, Little Richard’s mother, Leva Mae, took Dion aside and asked him, “You the boy that sings ‘Ruby Baby’? Son, you got soul.”

62. Lou Reed

Born March 2nd, 1942
Key Tracks “Satellite of Love,” “I’m Waiting for the Man,” “Venus in Furs” (the Velvet Underground)
Influenced The Strokes, David Bowie, Patti Smith

“I do Lou Reed better than anybody,” Reed once boasted onstage. He was only half-kidding. There is no voice in rock like Reed’s: a confrontational blend of dry intonation and hard New York-native attitude that suited the dark, frank songs he wrote about sex, drugs and lost souls for the Velvet Underground and on a lifetime of provocative solo albums. “I don’t do blues turns, because I can’t,” Reed told Rolling Stone in 1989. “And I’m not trying to put on a phony accent.” But underlying Reed’s acidic talking-blues delivery is a deep love of Fifties R&B and doo-wop. As a teenager, he listened to vocal groups such as the Paragons and the Diablos on the radio, influences that can be clearly heard in his most romantic songs, such as “Satellite of Love” and “Perfect Day.”

61. Roger Daltrey

Born March 1st, 1944
Key Tracks “My Generation,” “I Can See for Miles,” “Pinball Wizard,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again”
Influenced Ian Gillan (Deep Purple), Robin Zander, Eddie Vedder

“You don’t realize how great a singer Roger Daltrey is until you try to do it yourself,” says the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne, whose band did a Tommy medley at VH1’s 2008 Rock Honors special for the Who. From the anxious stutter in “My Generation” to the glass-breaking wail that tops off “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” the voice of the Who is one of the most powerful instruments in hard rock. Daltrey didn’t write his own lyrics, but he had an uncanny ability to adapt to whatever character songwriter Pete Townshend came up with (the vulnerable, Christlike Tommy cooing “See Me, Feel Me,” the cocky thug of “Slip Kid” spitting out the words). “It’s a very strange process,” Daltrey says. “That’s why I shut my eyes when I sing ”” I’m in another space, and the characters are living in me.”

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