The Singers Talk: The Greatest Singers of Our Time Discuss the One Thing They're Never Asked About: Their Voices
Now here’s an interesting premise for a book: Jason Thomas Gordon, lead singer and drummer of the LA-based rock group Kingsize, interviews dozens of vocalists, some of them very prominent, about . . . their voices.
If you’ve ever wanted to know if Paul Stanley of KISS does vocal warmups before he goes out and screams at his audience, this is the book. Thom Yorke of Radiohead says this is the most geeked-out he’s ever been talking about his vocal chords. But he’s game, as are singers in a wide variety of fields—Nick Cave, Tony Bennett, Bruce Springsteen, Chuck D, Roger Daltrey, Stevie Nicks, Mavis Staples, Rod Stewart, Michael Stipe, Roger Waters, and many more. The closest he comes to talking to a jazz singer is Norah Jones, but these musicians talk about jazz quite a bit.
The singers are asked who their own favorites are, and the consensus among them appears to be—even from vocalists as far from her field as possible—that Nina Simone is the greatest singer who ever lived. Also placing high are Frank Sinatra (Willie Nelson’s favorite) and Tony Bennett. It’s great fun to hear that John Lydon, a/k/a Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, puts Doris Day in the top spot. Not one but two singers (Nick Cave and Jeff Tweedy of Wilco) say their ideal duet partner would be the relatively obscure (and quite dead) ’60s folk chanteuse Karen Dalton. Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters says his proudest moment is not sharing a stage with David Gilmour, it’s singing a duet with the late John Prine on “Hello in There.” He says, “I’m getting a bit teary . . . I loved the man, and I loved his music so much.”
The book is helped by the fact that not only is Gordon a singer himself, but he seems to have listened closely to the music of every artist he interviews. The revelations are at a bit of a remove when Gordon’s subject is a friend talking about a deceased superstar, i.e., Tom Morello on Chris Cornell, Robby Kreiger on Jim Morrison, Steven Van Zandt on Little Richard, Butch Vig on Kurt Cobain, and Clive Davis on Whitney Houston. Gordon would have done better to instead talk to a few more living subjects—though guitarist Steve Cropper on Otis Redding is quite interesting. (Otis, a total unknown, walked into the studio lugging someone else’s gear. But he had to sing only four words, “These arms of mine,” for Cropper to want to record him at Stax.)
The musicians seem to be disarmed by not being asked the standard questions. Very few of the subjects took voice lessons, but Steve Perry of Journey is urged to “explain throat positions.” Rod Stewart debunks the myth that he intentionally damaged his vocal chords to get that distinctive rasp. Ozzy Osbourne is queried about pre-show rituals, and he says he chews on a piece of apple because “Pavarotti used to do that before every show.” If you thought that rock singers only listen to other rock singers, this book will dissuade you.
This book is in some ways a companion to Jon Niccum’s The Worst Gig, because most of the subjects are asked for their “most embarrassing vocal mishap ever.” Roger Daltrey forgot the words to Springsteen’s “Born to Run” at a charity show in LA. Sam Moore of Sam and Dave went for a high note and . . . farted. Chan Marshall almost fell off the stage because she “accidentally smoked pot like a fool.”
It’s funny that TV shows such as Daisy Jones and the Six portray their singers smoking like fiends, because this book is full of first-hand cautionary tales about the damage cigarettes do to the vocal chords. There’s plenty of other advice in the book, too, but it’s not really a guide for singers.
There are a few spelling errors the editor should have caught and, folks, it was Kurt Weill, not Kurt Vile, who wrote “Ballad of the Soldier’s Wife.” Lloyd Price’s name is misspelled as “Llyod.” Twice. And former Free and Bad Company vocalist Paul Rodgers, who’s frequently cited admiringly, gets his name spelled differently each time.
This is a book to browse. Skip the singers you hate, at least at first, but maybe come back to them in a quiet moment. They all have some hard-won truths to impart.