That Distinctive Voice

 

Most modern music is wasted on me. To my ear, too many singers are interchangeable and too often their talents are fine-tuned by computers. The best of the lot have always been those whose voices are so distinct that you recognize them instantly. These are the people who defined eras: Jolson, Crosby, Sinatra, Presley, and Cash. On the female side, Peggy Lee, Rosemary Clooney, Dolly, and Reba.

When Columbia Pictures decided to make a biopic of Al Jolson in 1945, Jolson was too old (59) to play himself, but there was no doubt he had to sing for himself; the same for Sinatra. When his daughter Tina produced a two-part biopic of her father for CBS in 1992, the soundtrack was pure Frank with the exception of a few early tracks that were damaged from the 78rpm masters. (They were recreated by Canadian actor Tom Burlinson.)

This brings me to two recently released movies, I Am Woman and The United States vs Billie Holiday. Forget all the political aspects of these two projects and concentrate on the talents involved.

Helen Reddy was a real star in the 1970s. She placed eight singles in the number one slot on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart, six of them consecutively. Her voice, though, is not heard in the Netflix production, nor is that of the actress that plays her. Instead, it belongs to another Australian, Chelsea Cullen.

Billie Holiday is an altogether different story. She has been portrayed on both film and stage by women with much more vocal talent than she had. Whether it’s Diana Ross, Audra McDonald or the star of the current flick, Andra Day, their voices are much more pleasant than “Lady Day’s.” Don’t get me wrong, Holiday’s voice was distinctive. But in the same way dragging an injured cat on a rope down a gravel road is distinctive. She remains, for me, an unacquired taste.

Still, there are quality recordings of both women so why not use them? If the talent is worth bringing their story to the screen, why not bring as much of the real thing with them?

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  1. OldPhil Coolidge
    OldPhil
    @OldPhil

    https://youtu.be/8eLl84iMsrQ

    their voices are much more pleasant than “Lady Day’s.” Don’t get me wrong, Holiday’s voice was distinctive. But in the same way dragging an injured cat on a rope down a gravel road is distinctive. She remains, for me, an unacquired taste.

    Distinctive, oh yes. But the cat thing is a bit too far. Her phrasing and Sinatra’s were the tops.

    • #1
  2. Caryn Thatcher
    Caryn
    @Caryn

    This is odd and I agree with you.  On all counts.

    For that matter, why not use recordings of Bobby Darin in “Beyond the Sea?”  Or was that about the actor showing off his singing as well as acting chops?  He certainly did a good job.  And Darin was dead and the old recordings perhaps not up to snuff.  Perhaps it’s the same with Helen Reddy and even more likely with Billie Holiday.  Sure seems like there should be good recordings of Helen Reddy.

    BTW, I didn’t realize she’d died this past awful year.  

    • #2
  3. Gossamer Cat Coolidge
    Gossamer Cat
    @GossamerCat

    My brother and I have kept a long running list of voices we put in the “Pantheon”, those voices that are so distinct and so good that they are in a class by themselves.  We also have honorable mentions.  But, alas, I cannot find it at this moment.  We definitely had Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash in the Pantheon.  For the females, we had Judy Garland, but also Marilyn McCoo and Ella Fitzgerald. But as for the others, I will have to look harder. 

    • #3
  4. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    I have a soft spot for many distinctive voices that are appealing though objectively flawed. Louis Armstrong is a clear example. But there are songs I prefer to hear from Jimmy Durante too. Plenty of rockers from the 1980s and ’90s have similarly raspy voices that have become part of the appeal for fans. 

    Biopics should stick with original recordings whenever possible. Modern AI-assisted digital remastering techniques might enable film makers to adequately clean up old recordings. 

    As for song covers, too many are made for sale without merit. But it’s good that new voices are frequently applied to old songs, just as old instrumentals can be colored in compelling ways by different instrumentation. Some covers are just pleasant alternatives and not improvements. But many songwriters would prefer their songs were performed by someone else. Bob Dylan was thankful for Jimi Hendrix. Dozens of singers could perform my music better than I could.

    • #4
  5. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Aaron Miller: But many songwriters would prefer their songs were performed by someone else.

    The singer-songwriter wasn’t much of a thing in the pop era of the Great American Songbook. While it was prevalent in country music, few of the greats in pop had singing careers.

    Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Noel Coward tried but none could truly sing. Only Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer succeeded. Rogers and Hart  (and Hammerstein), the Gershwins, etc. never tried. 

    • #5
  6. Southern Pessimist Member
    Southern Pessimist
    @SouthernPessimist

    It is funny that I posted a thread above yours without seeing it a few minutes later where I mentioned Janis Joplin. If you don’t appreciate Billie Holliday you will never understand Joplin.

    • #6
  7. Columbo Member
    Columbo
    @Columbo

    Gossamer Cat (View Comment):

    My brother and I have kept a long running list of voices we put in the “Pantheon”, those voices that are so distinct and so good that they are in a class by themselves. We also have honorable mentions. But, alas, I cannot find it at this moment. We definitely had Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash in the Pantheon. For the females, we had Judy Garland, but also Marilyn McCoo and Ella Fitzgerald. But as for the others, I will have to look harder.

    The Four Seasons, aka Jersey Boys, had Frankie Valli.

    • #7
  8. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Southern Pessimist: If you don’t appreciate Billie Holliday you will never understand Joplin.

    I am totally comfortable with that. 

    • #8
  9. 9thDistrictNeighbor Member
    9thDistrictNeighbor
    @9thDistrictNeighbor

    Gossamer Cat (View Comment):
    My brother and I have kept a long running list of voices we put in the “Pantheon”, those voices that are so distinct and so good that they are in a class by themselves. We also have honorable mentions. But, alas, I cannot find it at this moment. We definitely had Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash in the Pantheon. For the females, we had Judy Garland, but also Marilyn McCoo….

    We saw Marilyn McCoo in Showboat way back when they brought the Livent revival to Chicago.  Here is a clip of her singing, accompanied by a terribly out of tune piano.  She was wonderful in Showboat.

     

     

    • #9
  10. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    All five of the Traveling Wilburys.  First time I heard it, a guy at work was serving up clips of a couple of their songs, and I was picking out the voices, trying to figure out what the hell I was listening to.

    “George Harrison, no doubt about it.”

    “Sounds like Tom Petty.  And Dylan?!?!?”

    “That’s the guy from ELO, what was his name again?” 

    • #10
  11. Southern Pessimist Member
    Southern Pessimist
    @SouthernPessimist

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Southern Pessimist: If you don’t appreciate Billie Holliday you will never understand Joplin.

    I am totally comfortable with that.

    Joplin live was the closest thing to injecting cocaine directly into your veins. Vicariously speaking.

    • #11
  12. Jim Beck Member
    Jim Beck
    @JimBeck

    Evening EJHill,

    Billy was super popular, all the top guys wanted to accompany her.  She may have been a great friend, may have been wonderfully charming, may have been a genius with understanding music, but I think she is the most overrated singer in history.  Dorthy Parker said, “let’s all go see Miss Hepburn and hear her run the gamut of emotion from A to B.”  That quote is even more fitting to Billy.  Just as Miss Hepburn is more interested in portraying Miss Hepburn, Billy is selling her identity not the song.  Can you imagine Billy smiling, compare her to Pops, you can see Louis smile in happy songs.  Billy has one emotional story and see tells you it ain’t nobody’s business if I do.  Of course there is Ella, but not just her,  Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughan, Anita O’Day not only have better instruments but they join their voices to a song to make a partnership making that magic that good singers produce.

    Southern, I love Janis, went to see her 54 years ago, best concert in my life.  She had just released “Piece of My Heart” and was singing with “Big Bros. And The Holding Co.”. Janis sings bluesy songs, and also high energy songs like “Try” https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=7gsqBEPSrd0 and others like “Combination of the Two” At Monterey, https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=yxdTnLL2fec.

    • #12
  13. thelonious Member
    thelonious
    @thelonious

    I’m moved to tears whenever I hear Billy Holliday sing “Strange Fruit”. Greatest vocal performance ever.  Of course she didn’t have great pipes but you don’t need em when you have the type of vocal feel and humanity she always displayed.

    • #13
  14. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    I will miss the inimitable Maddy Prior, of Steeleye Span.  The band has been around, in many different configurations, for over 50 years.  This is from 1974.  More recent recordings are available.  Since they do medieval and Renaissance English folk songs, there are lots of recordings by others, but no one can match Maddy, in my opinion.

    And 1989:

     

    • #14
  15. Headedwest Coolidge
    Headedwest
    @Headedwest

    I would put Judith Durham on my list.

    • #15
  16. Gossamer Cat Coolidge
    Gossamer Cat
    @GossamerCat

    RushBabe49 (View Comment):

    I will miss the inimitable Maddy Prior, of Steeleye Span. The band has been around, in many different configurations, for over 50 years. This is from 1974. More recent recordings are available. Since they do medieval and Renaissance English folk songs, there are lots of recordings by others, but no one can match Maddy, in my opinion.

    And 1989:

    Yes, we had her on our list along with Sandy Denny.

    • #16
  17. JennaStocker Member
    JennaStocker
    @JennaStocker

    Excellent thoughts! I have this running debate with my mom about Bob Dylan. I love his songs sung by him. There is a certain emotion to an artist’s voice as he brings the words he wrote to life – and with them the secrets only known to him woven in the narrative. My mom hates it. Give her The Byrd’s sing-songy fluff any day. I imagine Carole King might be a similar situation (though her voice is more smooth). As for Ms. Holliday and using her voice in the presentation, I agree – if one wants a full picture of the allure, the unique, singular instrument that transcended race and class, the legend, one must understand that voice.

    • #17
  18. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Aaron Miller: But many songwriters would prefer their songs were performed by someone else.

    The singer-songwriter wasn’t much of a thing in the pop era of the Great American Songbook. While it was prevalent in country music, few of the greats in pop had singing careers.

    Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Noel Coward tried but none could truly sing. Only Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer succeeded. Rogers and Hart (and Hammerstein), the Gershwins, etc. never tried.

    It is worth noting that the division in labor produces better products nearly every time. 

    • #18
  19. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    Jim Beck (View Comment):

    Evening EJHill,

    Billy was super popular, all the top guys wanted to accompany her. She may have been a great friend, may have been wonderfully charming, may have been a genius with understanding music, but I think she is the most overrated singer in history. Dorthy Parker said, “let’s all go see Miss Hepburn and hear her run the gamut of emotion from A to B.” That quote is even more fitting to Billy. Just as Miss Hepburn is more interested in portraying Miss Hepburn, Billy is selling her identity not the song. Can you imagine Billy smiling, compare her to Pops, you can see Louis smile in happy songs. Billy has one emotional story and see tells you it ain’t nobody’s business if I do. Of course there is Ella, but not just her, Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughan, Anita O’Day not only have better instruments but they join their voices to a song to make a partnership making that magic that good singers produce.

    Southern, I love Janis, went to see her 54 years ago, best concert in my life. She had just released “Piece of My Heart” and was singing with “Big Bros. And The Holding Co.”. Janis sings bluesy songs, and also high energy songs like “Try” https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=7gsqBEPSrd0 and others like “Combination of the Two” At Monterey, https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=yxdTnLL2fec.

    What I love about Billie Holiday is the way her singing has a conversational style – phrasing, if you will. This means that the thrust of the lyrics come off as a different variety of genuine in exactly the way a news reader’s reading doesn’t. 

    • #19
  20. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    thelonious (View Comment):

    I’m moved to tears whenever I hear Billy Holliday sing “Strange Fruit”. Greatest vocal performance ever. Of course she didn’t have great pipes but you don’t need em when you have the type of vocal feel and humanity she always displayed.

    That song, and performance are so good that I avoid them. 

    • #20
  21. EHerring Coolidge
    EHerring
    @EHerring

    Unless something changes, the only recent pop music that will survive will be those made into stadium anthems and memes.

    • #21
  22. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Strange Fruit was a poem and then a song written in 1939 by a dedicated communist school teacher in New York, Albert Meeropol. He was so dedicated to the cause that he and his wife, Anne, ended up adopting the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after their execution for spying for the Soviet Union.

    Unusual that the song was written by a white Jew? Hardly. Six years before Meeropol wrote his poem Irving Berlin collaborated with playwright Moss Hart on a Broadway revue called As Thousands Cheer, a lighthearted musical romp through a newspaper. Berlin decided it also needed a serious piece. In the second act a curtain descended with the headline “UNKNOWN NEGRO LYNCHED BY FRENZIED MOB.” As the music began to play the curtain lifted to reveal a dilapidated shanty in the South, and there stood Ethel Waters, becoming the first black woman to perform in white theater.

    Here she is recreating that moment on The Hollywood Palace (ABC, March 8, 1969) and introduced by Diana Ross:

    On opening night of the out-of-town tryouts her white co-stars, Clifton Webb, Marilyn Miller and Helen Broderick refused to be on stage with Waters when she took her curtain call. Afterwards, Berlin told them he would respect their wishes and that from then on no one would take a bow at the end of the show. That is like oxygen to a performer and things changed in a hurry.

    Berlin is often derided because of his great affection for minstrel shows. But he was also the man who insisted that his 1918 all-soldier Army revue, Yip Yip Yahank, also run on Broadway with an integrated cast.

    • #22
  23. Mark Alexander Coolidge
    Mark Alexander
    @MarkAlexander

    The only current voice that really stands out for me is Adele. She is one of the few who can sing onstage with a single instrumentalist and carry a show.

    Her best album is still her first, before the producers got a hold of her. There is one song, Best for Last, that’s just her and a bass guitar.

    You have to wonder how does she sing to that bass and keep it together. Then you realize, she’s playing it herself.

    Check it out.

     

    • #23
  24. Caryn Thatcher
    Caryn
    @Caryn

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Strange Fruit was a poem and then a song written in 1939 by a dedicated communist school teacher in New York, Albert Meeropol. He was so dedicated to the cause that he and his wife, Anne, ended up adopting the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after their execution for spying for the Soviet Union.

    Unusual that the song was written by a white Jew? Hardly. Six years before Meeropol wrote his poem Irving Berlin collaborated with playwright Moss Hart on a Broadway revue called As Thousands Cheer, a lighthearted musical romp through a newspaper. Berlin decided it also needed a serious piece. In the second act a curtain descended with the headline “UNKNOWN NEGRO LYNCHED BY FRENZIED MOB.” As the music began to play the curtain lifted to reveal a dilapidated shanty in the South, and there stood Ethel Waters, becoming the first black woman to perform in white theater.

    Here she is recreating that moment on The Hollywood Palace (ABC, March 8, 1969) and introduced by Diana Ross:

    On opening night of the out-of-town tryouts her white co-stars, Clifton Webb, Marilyn Miller and Helen Broderick refused to be on stage with Waters when she took her curtain call. Afterwards, Berlin told them he would respect their wishes and that from then on no one would take a bow at the end of the show. That is like oxygen to a performer and things changed in a hurry.

    Berlin is often derided because of his great affection for minstrel shows. But he was also the man who insisted that his 1918 all-soldier Army revue, Yip Yip Yahank, also run on Broadway with an integrated cast.

    And, of course, the Gershwins’  Porgy and Bess with DuBose Heyward.  Hey, I wonder when that one is going to get cancelled, to pick up the topic of another post.

    • #24
  25. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Strange Fruit was a poem and then a song written in 1939 by a dedicated communist school teacher in New York, Albert Meeropol. He was so dedicated to the cause that he and his wife, Anne, ended up adopting the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after their execution for spying for the Soviet Union.

    Unusual that the song was written by a white Jew? Hardly. Six years before Meeropol wrote his poem Irving Berlin collaborated with playwright Moss Hart on a Broadway revue called As Thousands Cheer, a lighthearted musical romp through a newspaper. Berlin decided it also needed a serious piece. In the second act a curtain descended with the headline “UNKNOWN NEGRO LYNCHED BY FRENZIED MOB.” As the music began to play the curtain lifted to reveal a dilapidated shanty in the South, and there stood Ethel Waters, becoming the first black woman to perform in white theater.

    Here she is recreating that moment on The Hollywood Palace (ABC, March 8, 1969) and introduced by Diana Ross:

    On opening night of the out-of-town tryouts her white co-stars, Clifton Webb, Marilyn Miller and Helen Broderick refused to be on stage with Waters when she took her curtain call. Afterwards, Berlin told them he would respect their wishes and that from then on no one would take a bow at the end of the show. That is like oxygen to a performer and things changed in a hurry.

    Berlin is often derided because of his great affection for minstrel shows. But he was also the man who insisted that his 1918 all-soldier Army revue, Yip Yip Yahank, also run on Broadway with an integrated cast.

    Partway through that I was thinking it was kind of mawkish and that it shortchanged black people as ‘simple’ but then the rest happened and that was amazing! 

    • #25
  26. Southern Pessimist Member
    Southern Pessimist
    @SouthernPessimist

    Mark Alexander (View Comment):

    The only current voice that really stands out for me is Adele. She is one of the few who can sing onstage with a single instrumentalist and carry a show.

    Her best album is still her first, before the producers got a hold of her. There is one song, Best for Last, that’s just her and a bass guitar.

    You have to wonder how does she sing to that bass and keep it together. Then you realize, she’s playing it herself.

    Check it out.

     

    Check out Lauren Daigle. I suppose she sounds like an imitation of Adele but like Adele she uses her voice for a purpose.

    • #26
  27. notmarx Member
    notmarx
    @notmarx

    From NY Times Style (10.19.2015):

    Sinatra made no secret of his debt to Holiday: ‘‘It is Billie Holiday … who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me,’’ he said in 1958. . . .

    Sinatra visited Holiday in her New York City hospital room in July 1959, shortly before her death from drug and alcohol-related liver and heart disease. When Holiday died, Sinatra holed up in his penthouse for two days, weeping, drinking and playing her records.

     

    • #27