Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Voices in Rock n' Roll Heaven

It’s a sad truth, but nonetheless a truth, that the rock and roll era is mostly over, after a half a century of changing the landscape of popular music. I was fortunate enough to be along for the full ride, doing a lot of work in record stores, and going to a ton of great concerts. I have often been asked who were the greatest rock and roll vocalists. Before I give my Top Twelve list, I want to make clear from the outset that I am not considering the many wonderful folk singers of the period, nor the blues singers, nor the straight soul singers, nor the purely pop singers. I am talking about real rock and roll voices here. So with those caveats, here’s my short list in no particular order. Enjoy.

1) Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin
2) Roger Daltrey of the Who
3) Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones
4) Freddie Mercury of Queen
5) Steve Perry of Journey
6) Sting of the Police
7) Janis Joplin of Big Brother and the Holding Company
8) Nancy Wilson of Heart
9) Lou Gramm of Foreigner
10) Daryl Hall of Hall and Oates
11) Gino Vanelli
12) Lennon and McCartney of the Beatles
13) Bono of U2--- Bonus Artist!

Almost all of these artists I heard in person, and up close. And in their prime they were unbelievable, and sustained it for a considerable period of time. Some of them, are still very good. If the issue was just who has the very best voice and range and power honestly it would be hard to pick but probably would be Gino Vanelli, whether or not one liked his style of music If we were to add the folk rockers and the art rockers to this list and not just limit it to the hard rockers one would need to add the following:

1) Crosby, Stills and Nash
2) James Taylor
3) Dan Fogelberg
4) Richic Furay of both Buffalo Springfield and Poco
5) Don Henley of the Eagles
6) Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues
7) Joan Baez
8) Joni Mitchell
9) Shawn Colvin
10) Annie Haslim of Rennaisance

There are of course others who deserve honorable mention, persons who had great voices but never with bands that had more than one good album. I am thinking of people like Paul Rodgers (Free, Band Company), or Paul Carrack (Mike and the Mechanics, etc) or Burton Cummings of the Guess Who. The issue in this post is great voices, not great bands. Who would you add to or subtract from the list? In any case--- rock on dudes.


D said...

In all good conscience, I would probably have to add Steve Tyler of Aerosmith. "Dream On"?

Josh said...

C'mon Doc, where's John Fogerty? How about Chris Cornell? He had one of the greatest ranges in the history of music.

Brett R said...

Maybe you don't Consider Bob Dylan as a Rock and Roller, but I think he deserves mention for his great influence.

Mark Daniels said...

This is an interesting list and a worthy attempt to quantify the unquantifiable.

Bob Dylan, who is a terrible singer I nonetheless love and consider to be one of the voices of "My G-g-g-g-eneration," has said that John Lennon had "the perfect rock and roll voice." That may be.

For my taste, your list gives a bit too much credit to those whose careers were more ascendant in the 1970s. But, it's a good list.

Mark Daniels

Chiou Lao Shi said...

What about Rod Stewart? Joe Cocker?

Yeah, that era has passed.

José Solano said...

Love your theology Dr. Witherington, and your enormous grasp of the Bible, but your politics is so-so and your appreciation of music and voices is pretty much frightening. I know you have a great sense of humor so you can handle this comment.

We’re from about the same era but while you were listening to those voices I feel I was blessed to be listening to Maria Callas, Jussi Bjoerling, Victoria de Los Angeles, Giuseppe di Stefano, Mario Del Monaco and on and on. And they did not have bands. They had great orchestras. Then there are singers like José Menese, Om Kalsoum, and a hundreds of others from throughout the world. Now those are voices and great artists. Yet somehow you even left out Aretha Franklin from your long list.


Anonymous said...

Hey Ben, good list. I have to agree hands down with your top two, but...

Crosby, Stills and Nash and no Young? And where is Roger Waters?

Sam said...

No Brian Johnson? :P

eddie said...

An interesting list and all the better for Annie Haslem sneaking in at the end. But it is fundamentally flawed by having the greatest rock singer of all (Paul Rogers) down in the honourable mentions.

gr8god said...

i'm not a big rock and roll guy, but there are some significant omissions here: elvis presley, buddy holly, ronnie van zant, steven tyler. i'm not enough of a rocker to evaluate their voices, but it sounds like you are. would you add any of them to your list?

Ben Witherington said...

You folks are right, Steven Tyler probably belongs in the list. Remeber however this is a list of great voices. Joe Cocker was a blues singer who did some rock and roll, and I like his body of work. I suppose if you include Janis Joplin, you should include him as well. I agree Paul Rogers was very good indeed. Roger Waters had just a fair voice, like Billy Joel's. Enjoyable, but not great. John Fogerty I love, and he has an interesting voice, but not great.

Jose, I was a classical musician (played violin in a symphony) for many years, but this list is not about that at all--- there is a separate place in heaven for the Caruso's of this world. And Aretha would be at the top of the list of soul singers, but she is in no way a rock and roller.

Elvis I suppose belongs in the list, but not Buddy Holly for sure. The man did not have a good rock and roll voice. If we go more on the popish side then you have to talk about people like Carl or Brian Wilson.

Robert Zimmerman aka Bob Dylan whose oeuvre I lovc did not have a good rock and roll voice, indeed at times he had a horrible one, and the issue here is voice. Neil Young's plaintive voice is effective and interesting, especially when in ensemble, but not a great voice-- no power, and very whiny. Rod Stewart was far too raspy to be considered as a great voice, and very little range.


Unknown said...

Well, I just now read this, so my one main addition has already suggested. There are several vocalists that I would add or subtract, and I might organize my list a little differently, but I agree with Josh: How could you leave John Fogerty off the list?

Obviously, in passing, any assessment of musical talent is going to be somewhat subjective, no matter how hard you try to be objective.

Marc Axelrod said...

Have you seen the book Rock Lists by David Marsh and someone else? It has list of everything imaginable pertaining to rock music.

This is a good list. I know you can't get everyone on a short list (thus the expression "short list"), but Greg Allman in his prime was a great singer.

And back in the 1950s, there was this fair singer named Little Richard.

If you go into Christian Rock, maybe Greg X Volz from Petra. What about the guy from Def Leppard, that guy had a tremendous voice. And I would probably find a way to move Fogerty up.

Oh yeah, where is Roy Orbison? And even though we would consider him soul, on the night he won the title from Sonny Liston, Cassius Clay referred to Sam Cooke as "the greatest rock and roll singer in the world." I love Sam Cooke's music, both his gospel and his secular stuff.

And do you remember Jackie Wilson's rendition of Hey Jude? Awesome!

Another honorable mention would have to be Bob Seger. What about the guy from Kansas, Steve Walsh? Now I'm going to have to go through my ipod to find more names.

But your list is very good, it has the big names. The only bg argument someone could make is that Little Richard is MIA.

tdunbar said...

Dylan is more expressive than any of those listed. His voice will be remembered longer, by more people.

Michael said...

I'll never read Grace in Galatia the same again.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Marc: You are right about Greg Allman, in the early days when he was O.D.ed all the time. And yes, if you want to count early folks that were pioneers of rock, Roy Orbison has to be counted, though I would disagree about Little Richard's voice. Remember I am listing hard rock voices (not to be confused with heavy metal voices like Ozzy). Bob Seger was very good, and still is. And yes Kelly Livgren and the other vocalist from Kansas should be mentioned, I quite agree.

Sam Cooke did not sing rock and roll as here defined, but I dearly love his voice, especially doing Gospel.

Christian vocalists with great voices? From the U.K. Cliff Richard comes to mind. Amy Grant as well.



Ben Witherington said...

Oops. I meant wasn't overdosed in regard to Greg Allman.

Jeff said...

Someone already mentioned Bob Seger. In my opinion, he belongs on the list. He has a great Rock & Roll voice -- and although he's lost some range, he can still belt out the songs. I saw him 3 times on his 2006-2007 tour, and he put on a terrific show -- at 61 years old!

What about Springsteen?

I agree with you about Paul Carrack -- he would be one of the greats if he had been with a good band.

Jake said...

Awesome list, but what about Jim Morrison from The Doors or Grace Slick from Jefferson Airplane?

Ben Witherington said...

I knew I was forgetting someone--- Jim Morrison absolutely belongs on the list, in contrast to say Jimi Hendrix who did not have a great voice at all.....

Ben Witherington said...

Grace Slick? Well I thought about her, and I even heard her in person with Jefferson Airplane at Fillmore East in NY in 1969, and she was pretty good, but not top ten material really. I would put her in the same category as say Blondie. A pretty good voice, but not the best. The Wilson sisters are another matter.


Crossroads ABF said...

Ben, very solid list. I would add for consideration Eddie Van Halen. I'd say at least as much as those from Journey or Foreigner are concerned (at least in my opinion). 1984 is one of my all-time favorite albums--this coming from a fan of mostly bluegrass & jam bands. I think, however, that Plant, Daltrey, & Jagger are on a separate, higher level from the rest.

So how about the '90s? I look back on this decade of "rock" with both high & low regard. Eddie Vedder might have shaped rock vocals for the entire decade and beyond with his brand of singing. I like Eddie Vedder's vocals, but the number of wannabees that came after mostly resemble bad cliches. Of course, one could argue that Kurt Cobain shaped the alternative rock landscape even more, but I guess he wasn't around long enough for me to give him mention above Vedder.

Another late-'80-early-'90s voice that is truly unique & incredible is Perry Farrell's from Jane's Addiction.

Bob Dylan is one of my all-time favorites, but even a Dylan partisan like myself can't place him on a list of great vocalists. His songwriting will never be questioned, but I'd much rather listen to Jerry Garcia sing "Visions of Johanna" or John Duffey sing "It's All Over Now Baby Blue" than Bob.

Great topic!

Marc Axelrod said...

What about Pat Benatar? She is at least as good as Ann Wilson, right? She even had training as an opera singer! I would put her ahead of Hall and Oates.

Eric Clapton has an underrated voice, but definitely not top 12. The same could be said for Brad Delp of Boston (who recently passed away) and Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen.

Lindsay Buckingham had a great voice. Henley and Frey together with the Eagles were great, though I wouldn't call them hard rock.

Where does Stevie Wonder fit? Some of his 70s output could be considered rock.

Elton John was one of the best singers in pop rock history, in my opinion. He's got to be in the top 20, if not the top 12.

José Solano said...

“And Aretha would be at the top of the list of soul singers, but she is in no way a rock and roller.” Dr. Witherington

Ah, but though “Aretha Franklin is the undisputed ‘Queen of Soul’” she is also “the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” (1987)

To date Aretha has been just about the only “rock and roller” that I let my children listen to as I fear that regardless of their talents, which I find to be comparatively minimal, what they convey for the most part is rather base. I much rather expose them to great music from throughout the world including the huge range of world folk music.

The comparison I make for my kids and students is that of a stick figure drawing compared with a work of Botticelli or Pietro Annigoni. And there is everything in between. Talent is a question of degrees and we can spend our time enjoying stick drawings or great works of art. Of course, little kids would begin with stick-like drawings but as with reading and writing there should be growth. Talent and study would take you so far but one’s appreciation and understanding of art just continue to increase.

It is not that I actually have not enjoyed listening to someone like Janis Joplin but that I must be conscious of what her music often evokes and the circle of influences they draw youth into. Gregorian chant evokes something entirely different. Of course people like Joni Mitchel and Joan Baez have fine voices and more folksy sound which I find less harmful. I confess that many of the people you name I do not know and I turned the station when I’ve heard their sounds.

In that Filmore East era that you mention it was Ravi Shankar whom I went to see as my circle of friends was more interested buying standing room tickets at the top balcony of the Old Metropolitan Opera House for $1.50.

Have fun.

Bob Hunter said...

Glad to see a few Canadians in that list. I would add Gordon Lightfoot (best known in the US for "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" and "If You Could Read My Mind."

wabbott said...

It's all very subjective, of course, but to my ears, the omission of Steve Walsh from Kansas was a sin ;-)

Crossroads ABF said...

Jose, we're just comparing vocals--not morality. Even then, I've heard Joan Baez interviewed, and she's got the mouth of a sailor.

On another note, I also would submit Frank Black of the Pixies & David Byrne from the Talking Heads. For someone who isn't a big fan of alternative rock, I may have a lot explaining to do with some of my choices. Oh well ;>)

Daniel said...

Definitely John Fogerty of CCR.

Marc Axelrod said...

Here's an alternative hard rock list:
1. Elvis
2. Little Richard
3. John Lennon
4. Paul Mccartney
5. Robert Plant
6. John Fogerty
7. Elton John
8. Pat Benatar
9. Freddie Mercury
10. Ann Wilson (she's the main singer I think)
11. Lou Gramm
12. Roger Daltrey

hon. mention: Eric Clapton, Greg Allman, Bob Seger, Livgren and Walsh, Delp, Jeff Lynn of ELO, and others.

I don't know if Gino Vanelli and Hall and Oates and Sting qualify for the hard rock category, but they are indisputably great singers.

Marc Axelrod said...


I think you probably meant Eddie Vedder, because Eddie Van Halen is not known for his vocals (I should also mention David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar, who can both sing very well. And what about Paul Stanley and Gene Simmon)

Oh, gee, this can go on forever. It's all in fun. God bless.

robert said...

man, i am so glad you included richie furay. he is an incredible singer, in face he has two new c.d.'s out "the heartbeat of love" and a live one he recorded in boulder last december. both excellant


Crossroads ABF said...

Marc, you are absolutely correct. David Lee Roth is who I meant to say. Doh! Thanks for setting me straight.

yuckabuck said...


Nuff said.

Ben Witherington said...

Whilst I like Bruce Springsteen a lot (dubbed the poor man's Bob Dylan), a great voice he does not have, as he himself acknowledges, for example when he inducted Jackson Browne into the Rock Hall of Fame. And while we are at it--- the Rock and Roll Hall of fame uses the term 'Rock and Roll' in a ridiculously broad fashion to cover every imaginable form of popular music, with about the only exception being the polka! So, of course we have people like Aretha Franklin and various blues artists in there that deserve their own hall of fame.


José Solano said...

Hi Crossroads abf,

You have misread me. I indeed compared vocals and cannot say that Maria Callas, for instance, is in any way morally superior to Joan Baez. But I do add that rock and roll music in general brings out a baser element in youth than say Gregorian Chant. It is not the people’s moral character that I judged but the actual medium. I don’t imagine I’m going to convince any of the rock and roll fans here. If you are fascinated by stick figure drawings I should say no more.


CP said...

Jose, chill out and have a little fun with this post, does everything have to turn into moral critique? on lets turn it up loud and enjoy! We may not agree with the theology of 'buying' a stairway to heaven, but as a guitar player i and many others can enjoy the 'heavenly' solo....lighten up. Peace.
Dr Ben, that new pic is crazy! What has possed

Matt said...

I'm sure I speak for most Canadians in saying Burton Cummings (and the Guess Who) deserves more credit than given here -- perhaps our American friends are still angry about "American Woman?":-). The late Brad Delp was also more worthy than the above commenter implied (listen to "More than a feeling" or "Smokin'" and get back to me.) Rock or not, Brian, Dennis, Carl, Mike, Al, and Bruce (the Beach Boys) are IMHO the best GROUP of singers in rock/pop music history (e.g., the Pet Sounds and Sunflower albums).

Ben Witherington said...

I like Brad Delp as well. Its too bad we don't have more of a sampling of his work, and also too bad that the first album so eclipsed all the subsequent material, which took painfully long to appear....


Marc Axelrod said...

I think the delay with the Boston stuff was all legal red tape. Same thing happened to Springsteen after Born to Run. It took a painfully long time for Darkness On the Edge of Town to come out because he was in court for three years.

david b mclaughlin said...

i intentionally have not read any other comments though i did see the first one.

yeah, add steven tyler


brad delp
sammy hagar
david lee roth

but seriously, how do you leave off elvis?

ok now i'll go read the comments.

fun list.

Ben Witherington said...

Elvis was a great showman, but he had nothing much to do with hard rock, which is the topic here. He sang a bunch of show tunes, he made a bunch of bad movies, and yes he sang a lot of great early pop and rockabilly songs. Not the same thing as hard rock. I did love his voice though...

David Lee Roth was o.k. but doesn't hold a candle to the top of that list I gave. The same applies to Sammy Hagar, though he does have a stronger voice with more depth. But if we are going to mention voices like that, we might as well add folks like the lead singer of A.C. D.C.


José Solano said...

Hi Ag,

I’m having a lot of fun and at the same time trying to offer a very different perspective on a blog in which Christians regularly participate. I do believe that just about everything needs to be morally critiqued. You should consider the moral or immoral ramifications of what you are promoting.

By the way, I’m a concert guitarist myself and have performed with singers and dance companies for decades. I have been on numerous boards of art organizations and I’m presently board chairman of an important art association in our area. I’m also a bit of playwright and an actor. I’ve spent the major part of my life in the theater so I know something about art. We are in the process of contracting performers for our fall and winter seasons. We have no plans for rock and rollers but we will have everything from chamber music to Gregorian chant, from flamenco to gamelan. I in no way wish to “lighten up.” Indeed, I’m helping others gain weight.


CP said...

Thanks for your post, i guess you must play the trumpet as well do you? It must be hard being above everyone else.

CP said...

ooops....forgot to put at bottom of my last post
....Bon Scot of ACDC, great i think a must add...a good aussie hard rocking voice...shame he passed on, however, they still replaced him with an even harder i must say a yes to ACDC

Ben Witherington said...

O.K. So it has become apparent we need to have a top 25, not a top 10, and yes Pat Benatar deserves to be in there. And in the Greg Allman school of smokey voices so does Michael McDonald and Stevie Winwood, and for that matter Jon Kay of Steppenwolf fame. What made those latter two singers was the interplay between their voices and the Hammond B3 organ, which could also be said for McDonald and Allman as well.

Peace Out,


Marc Axelrod said...

Last winter, I read Eric Clapton's autobiography and Patti Boyd's autobiography. Eric's book was gripping, the other book was so-so.

But they both cover the history of the Beatles and of Cream and of Blind Faith and Delaney and Bonnie and Clapton's solo career, so you get a nice slice of rock history in these books. Unfortunately, Patti's book is worth a library rental at best.

Albion Band has a great song you should download off of iTunes called The Devil in Me. It's the best anti-alcoholism song I have ever heard.

BTW, John Hiatt in my estimation was a great throaty rock singer, though probably not in the top 25.

José Solano said...

Well ag,

It is clear you have nothing intelligent to say and just wish to be sarcastic and insulting. Grow up.

Although all others have been courteous in their communications here yours is the low mindset that the rock and roll milieu all too frequently attracts. If it were a conversation among non-Christian rock and rollers the communication would sink even further. This would never happen if we were talking about the ten or twenty-five truly greatest singers in the world. It’s when we humor the low life world that the giggle-giggle minds are attracted.

You may recall Dr. Witherington that you had a posting on the greatest boxers and I had a similar position, producing a parody on a boxing match between Peter and Paul to see how you thought that would be received by the Christian community.

Although some of the singers you have mentioned are somewhat wholesome, too many produce an energy and a culture that brings down society and I do believe that Christ does wish us to strive to be better, to do much better. Just consider that a person who produces an album called Highway to Hell in 1979 dies of acute alcohol poisoning after a night of partying in London in 1980.

That’s my offering for those that have ears to hear.


Ben Witherington said...

Err, Jose, I have never done a post on boxers (either the apparel or the persons) or boxing, so you are mis-remembering.


Bjørn Are said...

Great post, though one person is suspiciously missing.

Where on earth is Greg Lake?!

As he had a heavenly voice, of all blogs yours should have been mentioned him;-)

Not the least as he both sung English hymns (Jerusalem on Brain Salad Surgery) and atheistic ones (The Only Way on Tarkus).

Shame on you!

Ben Witherington said...

You are right-- Greg Lake deserves to be in not only for his ELP work but his King Crimson early days. And I wonder why no one has mentioned Jon Anderson of Yes if ethereal tenors is what you like?

david b mclaughlin said...

AAgghhh! Blogger dumped my message!

OK-short version.

1. Missed where you said it was a hard rock post. Still cant find it.

2. Elvis doesnt qualify as hard rock but Michael McDonald does? Huh?

3. Pat Benatar rocks.

4. I might could let you skate on DLR but not on Sammy.

5. It's your list. Do as you please.


José Solano said...

Hmm. I may be mistaken about a boxing post. Perhaps it was another Christian blog. I'll look into it. My apologies.

Bjørn Are said...

Tenors or not, I love a good voice - and of course bands who play like ELP and Crimson.

So Anderson also deserves a hearing on such lists. Not to mention Ian Gillan.

Bjørn Are said...

And the elephant in the room: Larry Norman.

Gary said...

Ian Anderson

Also, thanks for mentioning Jon Anderson already. You should look up the YouTube videos of him playing with the kids from Paul Green's School of Rock. You should also see the "School of Rock" documentary if you haven't yet. It is tremendous.

José Solano said...

Err, Dr. Witherington,

A little research on your posts shows that I did not “mis-remember” about your boxing post.

On Dec. 22, 2006 you wrote a review: “Rocky Balboa — A Christmas Movie to Grow Old To.” It was here that I wrote my rather humorous little parody, not on a boxing match between Peter and Paul but rather between Peter and John the Evangelist with Jesus Christ was the referee.


Ben Witherington said...

Larry Norman was wonderful. I saw him in mid-career in Massachusetts, but a great rock voice, not really, and especially not live. As for Ian Anderson, its an interesting voice, but not one that gets you into the rock heaven choir.


P.S. Jose, you were right. I had forgotten about the Rocky review.

Bjørn Are said...

Larris is (or was) wonderfull, Ben.

Though, having seen him half a dozen times from the late 70's an up to four years ago (and owning twice as many live albums) I would say he in general had a great voice also live, despite some less than mint concerts.

Unknown said...

Rock isn't really *about* the vocals. It's about the entire vocals/rhythm/harmony thing coming at you at once. Which is why very few great rock vocalists could really be considered great singers per se, Elvis being an exception. So i would be more interested in who you think are the greatest bands of all time, or the greatest albums. But speaking of Elvis, how could you leave him off?

Also, the Eagles were not hard rock, but they rocked too hard to be "folk rock." They were the leading exponents of "country rock" back in the seventies, until they morphed into more mainstream rock later on. So Don Henley et al. deserve consideration here too.