Monday, December 11, 2017


Barbara Dane

When a friend restated the simple question—“Who is the best singer?”—that her mother had recently posed, I chuckled at the burden of having to develop a response. Far too many locales, styles, eras, people, and tunes jumbled themselves. The friend, a formidable singer herself, had replied “Freddie Mercury” to her mother, perhaps owing to a Queen song she’d just overheard. In fairness, I love a question both fundamental and fundamentally unanswerable, as this one. Quite a few people can sing, by the way. So, to repurpose a phrase, I pressed my ear to many hundreds of exemplary numbers.  

Too, I required a framework. I chose the twentieth century since it has concluded for the most part. (I leave the twenty-first century to its inhabitant critics.) It felt inequitable to compare men and women together, thus I opted to develop a separate list for each. “Critical acclaim” would be necessary for inclusion but not “star status.” I rejected singers whose catalogues presented “same-y” or saccharine. Character, roughened voice, pioneering sound, and jarring delivery all appealed to me. I hardly resisted a song that “ripped my heart out” (to borrow another phrase.)

If I studied a variety of styles, including jazz, rock, folk, country, blues, soul, and R&B, I left opera, easy listening, and other niches to inhabitant critics. Rather than be “an island” I allowed the counsel of others to penetrate the cold, unforgiving veneer of my soul. Published lists, however, such as the Rolling Stone Magazine “100 Greatest Singers of All Time,” often disappointed me. I tended to reject a vocalist who recorded flippant material, but not a singer who presented with a (classically) lovely voice. Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” is just such a (classically) lovely song. 

Rev. Gary Davis

The representative record for each singer (accompanying the lists) may be the one you’d expect, or if not, then a solid starting point. Some of these musicians—Karen Dalton and Rev. Gary Davis, for example—might not appear on any other lists of this nature. Good. Investigate these marvelous artists with my blessing. And why, Dear Reader, should my list reinforce any others? (Nota bene: Twelve of my twenty singers did not appear on the Rolling Stone extravaganza.) Here we have a scatting, haunting, versatile, steaming, scuffling, powerful, sensitive, trailblazing, salty, enchanting group—and that’s just the women. The men will add the candors of gravel, work-fat vernacular of sinew, law-breaking impulses of restlessness, transcendence of zen, and gyration of dialect.

Freddie Mercury did not make my list. Tina Turner did not make my list. Patsy Cline did not make my list. Marvin Gaye did not make my list. They’re all very fine vocalists. But this gathering concerns itself with “unassailable” qualities. By that, I mean the shadow in the voice, how it burrows into reason long after it has burrowed into stark emotional discharge. How it may glide or stagger between the stations of crisis and (however naked) the stations of distrustful calm. Some of these vocals peaked like trumpets. Some negotiated new terrain where the words of a song (necessarily) gave way to sound-play. Some voices burned free of rooftops and treetops and fingertips, like late-day sunlight in early winter.

To me, each of these unassailable singers could answer my friend’s mother’s unanswerable question. Enjoy.  

Mahalia Jackson

The Ten Unassailable Female Vocalists of the Twentieth Century (with Representative Record + Year Recorded)
Betty Carter (“Sounds (Movin’ On)” 1980)
Karen Dalton (“Katie Cruel” 1971)
Barbara Dane (“Special Delivery Blues” 1957)
Aretha Franklin (“Respect” 1967)
Billie Holiday (“Strange Fruit” 1939)
Mahalia Jackson (“Keep Your Hand on the Plow” 1955)
Nina Simone (“Feeling Good” 1965)
Bessie Smith (“Down Hearted Blues” 1923)
Kitty Wells (“It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” 1952)
Tammy Wynette (“Stand by Your Man” 1968)

Next 5: Ella Fitzgerald, Janis Joplin, Jean Ritchie, Koko Taylor, Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Van Morrison

The Ten Unassailable Male Vocalists of the Twentieth Century (with Representative Record + Year Recorded)
Louis Armstrong (“Heebie Jeebies” 1926)
Ray Charles (“I’ve Got a Woman” 1954)
Rev. Gary Davis (“Samson and Delilah” 1961)
Bob Dylan (“Like a Rolling Stone” 1965)
Roscoe Holcomb (“On Top of Old Smokey” 1961)
Robert Johnson (“Hell Hound on My Trail” 1937)
John Lennon (“Imagine” 1971)
Little Richard (“Long Tall Sally” 1956)                       
Van Morrison (“Brown Eyed Girl” 1967)
Elvis Presley (“Heartbreak Hotel” 1956)

Next 5: Johnny Cash, Sam Cooke, Howlin’ Wolf, Leadbelly, Jimmie Rodgers.

 Kitty Wells

Discography / Women
Betty Carter: “Sounds (Movin’ On)” from The Audience with Betty Carter (Bet-Car Records, 1980)
Karen Dalton: “Katie Cruel” from In My Own Time (Paramount Records, 1971)
Barbara Dane: “Special Delivery Blues” 1957 from Trouble in Mind (San Francisco Records, 1957)
Aretha Franklin: “Respect” b/w “Dr. Feelgood” (Atlantic, 1967)
Billie Holiday and Her Orchestra: “Strange Fruit” b/w “Fine and Mellow” (Commodore, 1939)
Mahalia Jackson: “Keep Your Hand on the Plow” from The World’s Greatest Gospel Singer (Columbia, 1955) [Arguably a more stirring rendition recorded live, with Duke Ellington; see: Duke Ellington Live at Newport 1958 (Columbia)]
Nina Simone: “Feeling Good” from I Put a Spell on You (Philips, 1965)
Bessie Smith: “Down Hearted Blues” b/w “Gulf Coast Blues (Columbia, 1923)
Kitty Wells: “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” b/w “I Don’t Want Your Money, I Want Your Time” (Decca, 1952)
Tammy Wynette: “Stand by Your Man” b/w “I Stayed Long Enough” (Epic, 1968)

Roscoe Holcomb

Discography / Men
Louis Armstrong: “Heebie Jeebies” b/w “Muskrat Ramble” (OKeh, 1926)
Ray Charles and His Band: “I’ve Got a Woman” b/w “Come Back” (Atlantic, 1954)
Blind Gary Davis: “Samson and Delilah” from Harlem Street Singer (Prestige Bluesville,1961) [Arguably a more stirring rendition recorded live; see: Rev. Gary Davis “Samson and Delilah (If I Had My Way)” from The Reverend Gary Davis at Newport (Vanguard, 1968)]
Bob Dylan: “Like a Rolling Stone” from Highway 61 Revisited (Columbia,1965)
Roscoe Holcomb: “On Top of Old Smokey” from The Music of Roscoe Holcomb and Wade Ward (Smithsonian Folkways, 1962)                                                             
Robert Johnson: “Hell Hound on My Trail” b/w “From Four Until Late (Vocalion, 1937)
John Lennon: “Imagine” from Imagine (Apple Records, 1971) [Arguably better performances with the Beatles, including, for example, “A Day in the Life” (1967), “Come Together” (1969), and “Revolution” (single version, 1968)]
Little Richard: “Long Tall Sally” b/w “Slippin’ and Slidin’ (Peepin’ and Hidin’)” (Specialty, 1956)
Van Morrison: “Brown Eyed Girl” b/w “Goodbye Baby (Baby Goodbye)” (Bang Records, 1967)
Elvis Presley: “Heartbreak Hotel” b/w “I Was the One” (RCA Victor, 1956)

Sources for discography: 45cat, Allmusic, Discogs, Smithsonian Folkways, Wikipedia. 

Betty Carter

Also See
Louis Armstrong: “Am Pluto Waterly Yours
Jump Around: Top 25 Greatest Jump Blues Songs
John Coltrane: Energy Kick



Barbara Dane, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Little Richard are living singers. We refer to them in the past tense only in the context of their presence in the 20th Century. ---------------BA

Anonymous said...

Great stuff. Maybe you overrate Van Morrison a bit. I would include Eddie Money in the honorable mentions.


Hey Casey,

You're still focused on two tickets to paradise, perhaps. Didn't Eddie Rabbit sing that song? Or was that Peter Rabbit? Or was that Pierre Le Lapin, who sang Deux Billets a Paradis? But I digress.

I like Van the Van quite a bit. I'll stand by that pick.

Up the Swans!

Jefferson Hansen said...

Cool list, Dan. Some of these people I've never heard of, especially on the woman list. It gives me something to check out. Thanks for the discography.



Thanks for taking time to read the post, Jeff, I really appreciate it. Let me know if you enjoy some of the singers who are new to you. I'd appreciate hearing back.

It was tough to choose the Barbara Dane song, since she's such an eclectic performer. "I'm On My Way" is a good one as is "Nine Hundred Miles."


tpw said...

No: Frank Sinatra? Bing Crosby? Hank Williams? John McCormack?


Hey TPW,

Of those four, the ones I really wrestled with were Sinatra and Hank Williams, and of those two, I especially enjoy Hank Williams, who had an undeniable influence on country and rock music. In the end, I saw figures like Roscoe Holcomb, Robert Johnson, and Jimmie Rodgers as having more distinctive -- and moving -- voices. As for Sinatra, I listened to him again and again and just didn't feel much, I hate to say. I tried to see it from the standpoint of others, especially a few friends who really stood up for him, but this list would be more about earthier sounds, I suppose.

One of the most obvious things about this sort of list -- is how imperfect it may be. And hopefully would give rise to other lists.

Bing Crosby does appear in a post from a few years ago, entitled the 25 Most Important American Musicians. As does Sinatra. See:

I don't know much about John McCormack, except that he recorded on cylinders, made a substantial donation to the U.S. (WW 1) war effort, and eventually returned to Ireland. By mentioning him, you're pointing out an area that I haven't really addressed -- namely, the recordings and singers of the really early part of the 20th Century, i.e., the "oughts", and whether they should be included in a list like this one. This is an open question. Thanks for bringing him up.


tpw said...

I mentioned your list during a visit to our friend Doug today. It's the kind of thing he loves. He also knows (or knew) a great deal about early 20th-cen. recorded music, and, in fact, turned me on to the great Billy Murray. Murray---and this is true for so many---was extremely popular and famous in his day, only to be completely forgotten today. His version of "Lovesick Blues", e.g., came decades before that of Hank Williams, whom he no doubt influenced. Van is a longtime favorite of mine, but I would personally hesitate before putting him on the list. He brilliantly adapts African American vocal gestures and phrasing to his singing, but one could argue that he is thus too derivative. Otis Redding---that man could sing! While talking with Doug (who says, BTW, "I haven't seen Dan in a really long time"), I thought of Edith Piaf---but you are, I think, limiting yourself to the U.S., no? You may have seen this old post of mine, but, if not, check it out:


TPW, Good Sir:

Sausages and I will be visiting the Prince of Wales himself tomorrow, after lunch. We might even catch the Swansea fixture with him. I am reading your own blog post as I type.

Many of the issues you raise -- re: Van the Man, Otis Redding, Hank Williams, the great Billy Murray, and many others -- have tormented me these past several weeks.

The issue wasn't always "could this person sing" but *what* was he or she singing, and how often did the catalogue (sic) vary from from song to song. As much as I like Hank Williams and Otis Redding, I don't think they displaced anybody on the list. Whether to put Sam Cooke or Otis Redding in the "Next 5", which I placed right below the Ten Unassailable fellows, was a tough call. I chose Sam Cooke because I'd already selected a number of rough characters and Cooke represents a smoother sound.

Hank Williams, Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra all appeared in my post on the 25 Most Important American Musicians, even as only one, Williams, is a favorite of mine. There are a lot of ways to recognize contributions, and hopefully, I'm doing an all right job of it.

And Edith Piaf -- of course I thought of her. I just didn't see her bumping out any of the women I selected. In fact, I was torn up about Jean Ritchie, the folk singer, not making the Unassailable Ten ladies. I saw La Vie En Rose a few years back and have always played some of Piaf's singing from time to time.

As for the Irish and the Jews, I think we're getting along pretty well. We're all from the Bronx, in any event. Thanks for checking back in to the blog, I really appreciate it, and I'll look forward to regaling Doug with some stories -- some of them true -- about all of us tomorrow.