In the entertainment business, talent and fame often have as much to do with each other as nuclear physics and chocolate ice cream. That’s why Gary Oldman is a character actor who gets steady work and Tom Cruise is Tom Cruise.
In the music world, the disparity can be even more notable. Whether it’s timing, connections, dumb luck, mass hypnosis, or simply a vast, evil conspiracy I’m too simpleminded to understand, people with minimal-to-no singing talent frequently (and predictably) become bigger stars than their more skilled colleagues. Otherwise, how could a soulless, monotone twinkie like Britney Spears sell millions of albums while the five people on my list below, all stupendous vocalists in their own ways, languish in relative obscurity?
Music either moves you or it doesn’t, so it’s hard to apply a set of “rules” to good singing, but I’m going to try anyway: A passable singer has to have, obviously, the technical ability to hit the correct notes and stay in control. A good singer should have a pleasing vocal timbre and the dynamics to sing different types of songs. A great singer has passion and soul, and, in the end, owns the song.
I hope you have eclectic taste in music (and good calf muscles), because we’re genre hopping today. My 5 fantastic frontpeople, in no particular order:
Justine “Baby” Washington (active late 1950s to mid 1970s, though she still performs live)
Why she’s awesome: After careful consideration, I declare Baby Washington the best female soul singer of them all. What?! Yes, Whitney, Aretha, Gladys, etc. are all legends and deservedly so. But nobody does pure soul like Baby. She makes you the empath, whether she’s singing a lonely ballad, a yearning blues lament, or a lightweight pop track. It’s like a Vulcan mind meld. Warning: You might cry when you find out how many guys have dumped you.
Soul singers often play with vocal scales (think of those annoying, I mean dazzling, vocal runs for which Mariah Carey is famous). But instead of executing technique like a figure skater doing a triple axel, Baby Washington drops notes like a cascading waterfall. She dances around beats, dips in and around the instrumental arrangements, and shows the youngins how it’s done. If only they would listen.
Why she’s obscure: Baby Washington never had the luck to sign with an R&B label that broke big, like Motown or Stax. Rather, most of her recording were done for Sue Records and Veep. Never heard of those companies? Neither has anyone else. She also suffered, at times, from mediocre songwriting and overloaded arrangements. The great songs are great, but some of them were unworthy of her talent.
Here’s a jaunty little number, the self-penned Hush Heart, from 1962:
Oliver Hartmann (active late 1990s to present)
Why he’s awesome: Hartmann is a versatile vocalist with a powerful, resonant voice and a mind-blowing range. You’ll never guess from the clip below that he got his start singing speed metal. He can give any set of lyrics gravitas, never more so than when he played the Pope (!) in the heavy metal opera Avantasia.
Why he’s obscure: Singing speed metal isn’t much of a resume builder once you leave the genre, especially if you switch to acoustic pop. Plus, Hartmann is from Germany and speaks English with an accent, which limits potential for crossover success outside his home country. I hear California is having a gubernatorial election in a year or two, though. Just a thought.
Oliver Hartmann performing My Everything, with more people on stage than in the audience:
Jeffrey Gaines (active 1992 to present)
Why he’s awesome: Gaines’ raspy, soulful voice jams so much emotion into every word that you need therapy listening to him. His 1992 self-titled debut is a masterpiece of introspective folk/pop that continues to hold me in thrall today and would unquestionably go on my “desert island disk” list. Except if I had the foresight to bring my ten favorite albums, a CD player, and a generator to a deserted island, I would bring a GPS locator too. Come to think of it, I might not even get on that boat in the first pl… Hey! Where are you going?
Why he’s obscure: The record label didn’t know what to do with him or how to market him, and his second album (for which they placed him a leather jacket and inexplicably gave him heavy metal hair in the MTV video) bombed. Good luck getting career momentum once you’ve been dropped by your label.
This is from Gaines’ first record, the haunting Hero in me:
Edna Wright (lead singer of Honey Cone, active late 1960s to mid 1970s, though she still performs live)
Why she’s awesome: Edna Wright can sing anything from soul ballads to hard rock, delivering each note with diamond precision. Her voice is also melodic and powerful, and few can convey lyrics with more honesty. Honey Cone was one of the most diverse pop-soul bands of the 1970s (maybe too much so for their own good, since they had trouble finding a niche), and Wright was brilliant in adapting her vocal style to the flavor of each track over their four albums.
Why she’s obscure: Because music buyers are shitfuck morons? Honey Cone was supposed to be the flagship act on the then newly formed Hot Wax label, but their singles kept sinking without a trace. They finally had a hit with Want Ads in 1971, but it didn’t translate into album sales. For some reason, people didn’t want to buy their records, which is a loss for everyone, since Honey Cone put out some terrific rock-n-soul.
Here’s a jamming cover of Dusty Springfield’s Son of a Preacher Man. Wright is on the, uh, right:
Jorn Lande (mid 1990s to present)
Why he’s awesome: It’s hard enough to sing metal, what with having to be heard over 27 amps, and with the high vocal range required, and with the fact that music critics refuse to acknowledge your talent. You’ve got to be able to belt it out, and with grit. Of course, the Norwegian-born Lande can do all that or I wouldn’t be talking about him, but what puts him on this list is the emotion and tonal quality that few of his headbanging colleagues possess. He can also sing straight-up rock and acoustic ballads with equal passion and finesse.
Why he’s obscure: To be fair, he’s sold a decent number of albums in Europe, but not in quantities that qualify him for stardom. A bigger problem may be his own talent. I’ve never met the guy, but I have met a number of really good metal singers, and they tend to be arrogant douchebags who can’t work well with others. The fact that Lande’s already been in six bands during his 18-year career tells me he’s not super easy to be around.
Here he is fronting the ridiculously skilled Masterplan, which also included one of Europe’s top drummers, Uli Kusch, and neoclassical guitar wizard Roland Grapow: