- by Gitabushi
Every once in a while, I encounter someone talking about “the Great Voices of Rock” or ‘the great singers of rock”, and my usual reaction is a mild puzzlement.
I don’t like many of the iconic voices of rock music. I don’t like Tom Petty, I don’t like Robert Plant, I don’t like Rod Stewart, I don’t like Bob Dylan, I don’t like Bono.
But even the bands I *do* like, I’m not sure I can say I really love the singers. I love Styx, but I can’t say I love Dennis DeYoung’s, Tommy Shaw’s, or James Young’s singing. I can find flaws or aspects I don’t like much in any of them. Same with Heart, Night Ranger, Loudness, Kansas, Foreigner, Queen (yes, I’m not a huge fan of Freddie Mercury), Survivor, Alice in Chains, etc., etc., etc.
But I realized the other day there *is* one singer I like:
I’m not going to include a picture, because I don’t think he’s famous enough for anyone to recognize him by his photo. His “most famous” time was with Bad Company, but I don’t think he’s even close to actually being famous.
If I said, “Brian Howe”, everyone except for a fairly hard core Bad Company or Ted Nugent fan wuold say “Who?”
I really like his voice. But have I looked up his solo albums? I have not. I do not even listen to two of his albums with Bad Company. I love his voice on “Dangerous Age“, and that’s it.
I think that highlights my relationship with music: I like a song if I like the guitar, and possibly the drums. If I like those, I will learn to enjoy the bass, the voices, and the lyrics. But I won’t like a song for the voice.
As in all things, however, there is a probable exception:
I’m digging into Steely Dan’s catalog right now. Unlike Blue Oyster Cult and Jethro Tull, it is resulting in increased respect and affection for the band. Although Donald Fagen is not an objectively good singer, his voice is perfect for the songs. I feel so strongly about this, I simply don’t like the songs he doesn’t sing on. I hate “Dirty Work,” for example. But Fagen’s singing voice is, if I can believe what I’m saying next, both cynical and introspective. It is so expressive, and it adds the sardonic note necessary to make the lyrics work; which, in turn, add depth to the music.
Steely Dan has good music, but this is the one band that I listen to for the lyrics.
Of course, I wouldn’t be listening to them for the lyrics if they didn’t *first* grab me with good guitar and drum work on the hits that made it to the radio.
And Donald Fagen highlights *another* aspect of my relationship with music: a good voice is immaterial; what I want is a voice that adds emotion. I think no one would say that Stevie Ray Vaughn is a good singer. But his voice has the emotion necessary to sell his songs.
So that’s true for the bands listed above. I don’t necessarily love Dennis DeYoung’s voice, but it has the emotional impact necessarily to sell the song.
Still, aside from that, there are two more singers I like:
Dann Huff of Giant. “I’ll See You In My Dreams” was not the sort of song that should make me interested in a band. But the raw emotion of his singing did. I ended up loving the guitar and compositions of the band enough that they are one of my favorite bands, and I think “Last of the Runaways” should be considered one of the most important albums in guitar rock pedagogy (but it’s not; it’s not even on the radar. smdh).
I’d put his voice on par with Brian Howe’s for just plain my favorite rock voice.
Using the Donald Fagen metric of “fitting the style of music” would seem to open up lots of names to be listed as favorite, but I won’t. Robert Plant may be perfect for Led Zeppelin; Freddie Mercury may be perfect for Queen; Steve Perry may be perfect for Journey; I don’t care. There is only one other voice I would list as iconic, and good enough to *make* the band the way Fagen makes Steely Dan work:
David Lee Roth, with Van Halen.
I know some people prefer Van Hagar. I don’t deny that lineup had some good songs. But there is no band, no singer, no experience quite like early Van Halen. David Lee Roth made that band what it was.
So those are my Mount Rushmore of Rock Singers:
David Lee Roth
One other final point that may interest only me:
I listen to a bunch of Chinese rock music. I have the same pattern there: I like a song if I like the guitar part, and in some cases, the drums. In fact, it was my analysis of my Chinese music preferences that allowed me to separate my tastes from what was spoon-fed to me by the corporate music machine (the radio & MTV). It confirms that:
If I like enough of the songs, I like the singer. Some of my favorite Chinese singers are objectively not good singers, but add the perfect emotional flavor to the song itself, bridging any gaps between composition and lyrics, and adding depth to both.