The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

19 November 2004

None too smooth

Andrea Harris wonders when singing styles shifted:

I think I was going to try to write something about the way what used to be called "bad" — and deliberately bad, not just off-key — singing had become in fact an acceptable mode of expressing oneself musically, and to wonder how and why this came about. This phenomenon — the "rough" voiced singing that Janis Joplin — and Bono, and others — mostly use or used has not only become accepted, but has become the preferable singing technique, at least in the rock and MOR pop venues. It is passing strange that smooth, almost Sinatra-esque singers such as Jim Morrison and Iggy Pop ever made it in the rock world, so much has "rough, emotional, authentic, soul" singing been preferred.

I see two possible sources for this particular phenomenon, one black, one white, both raw and ragged.

The earlier of the two is James Brown's "Prisoner of Love," recorded in 1963, a song previously associated with ultra-smooth crooners like Billy Eckstine and Perry Como. The Godfather of Soul couldn't croon if his life depended on it, so he got the song across the only way he could: by scraping away pop boilerplate and replacing it with his own desperate screams. This wasn't the first time Brown had attempted a pop standard — two years earlier he'd given a similar treatment to "Bewildered," another song from the Eckstine repertoire — but "Prisoner" did well enough on the pop charts (#18 in Billboard) to suggest to Brown that he was on the right track. Not that you could have persuaded him otherwise.

It was about this time that Bob Dylan, possessor of another ravaged rasp, was coming into his own as a folkie. What he lacked in tone, he made up for in transcendence: people were willing to listen to his songs even if he sang them. Still, he didn't achieve truly iconic status until the literally-electric arrival of "Like a Rolling Stone," a six-minute track off Highway 61 Revisited that Columbia issued at full length on a 45, an extended workout for both Dylan's cascade of imagery and his porcupine-on-acid half-growl half-whine. After this made Number Two, the boundaries that had defined popular-music vocals more or less faded into the background; conventionally "pretty" voices might be praised, but they might just as well be scorned.

Posted at 9:29 PM to Tongue and Groove


I must say that now both styles of music appeal to me -- "rough" and the crooner style. I swear I heard a Perry Como song the other day and though "I. Must. Buy." I even have standards for each sort of singing style. For instance there is "good" rock-style singing, and pathetic imitation.

But on the other hand for the most part the appeal of Dylan -- "transcendant" or not -- eluded me. I do like "Lay Lady Lay," and "Knockin' On Heaven's Door," but he's singing in an atypical fashion (for him) on both those songs. The rest of his repertoire just makes me think of dreary old episodes of Cannon featuring blowsy used-up women in maxi-dresses being questioned by said rotund detective on the whereabouts of their con-men ex-boyfriends.

Posted by: Andrea Harris at 9:41 PM on 19 November 2004

Indeed, I was astounded when I discovered who the singer was on "Lay Lady Lay."

Posted by: McGehee at 6:33 AM on 20 November 2004

But you need to go back further than the 1960's for the origins of the "rough" voice. How about John Lee Hooker? Muddy Waters? Or all the way back to Son House?

Some of the Delta Blues singers crooned sweetly, like Leroy Carr and Robert Johnson. But I think about half of them had the sort of "rough" style now being decried. I always liked it.

Posted by: Sean Gleeson at 10:35 AM on 20 November 2004

Certainly all of them were influences, and I'd even add Louis Armstrong, who had gravel in even his most dulcet tones, but given the mythos of the present-day pop scene — nothing happened before Elvis — I think keeping the focus on the latter half of the 20th century is appropriate, if not necessarily historically correct. (Not to be confused with the CBS "fake, but accurate" stance.)

And there's always the question of Bo Diddley, who sounded rather like Muddy Waters after a meeting with a grinding wheel, but who created a purely instrumental roughness incorporated into his trademark "hambone" beat.

Posted by: CGHill at 12:23 PM on 20 November 2004

Before Elvis "rough" voices couldn't really make it in mainstream pop. Afterwards, with the integration of blues, country and R&B into the genre you could and did get away with it.

I mean, Johnny Cash and Joan Armatrading couldn't even stay on pitch yet their voices were "evocative" enough to do the job.

The true greats can play it either way. Paul McCartney did ballads and he did Little Richard. And Aretha can do it all.

Posted by: The Proprietor at 2:38 PM on 20 November 2004