Yesterday, NPR posted another fun challenge: 50 Great Voices. Between now and the end of next week they ask the following: “Tell us who in the whole world possesses the most beautiful, singular voice you have ever heard.” They’ll compile the public nominations with those of experts, academics and critics, then winnow the list to 50. Starting in January, as they put it, “we're hoping [we will] discover and re-discover awe-inspiring vocalists from around the world and across time. Through archival material, interviews and music, NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered will spend the year delving into the lives and legacies of these voices.”
NPR’s page on the nominations is here. They ask that submissions, with a sentence defending each choice, be made on that page or emailed to GreatVoices@npr.org . I’ve compiled a list of 25 voices to send. On my list, some are jazz, some are blues, some are pop, one is country. Only a few are KC-connected. They’re listed alphabetically.
And they're here:
Louis Armstrong - Nobody else ever had a voice like this and nobody will. Louis’ voice was as much an instrument in the band as was his trumpet, and whether it was playing Mack the Knife or Basin Street Blues, Louis’ vocal instrument made every interpretation his alone.
Johnny Cash - I’m not a country fan, but I’m a Johnny Cash fan, particularly his American Series albums. By then his is an often tired voice, but it’s a voice echoing decades of life and emotion, a voice that’s lived and tells you how.
Shemekia Copeland - This lady’s blues are fun. She owns a song when she shouts it out to you with sass, sway and swagger. There’s attitude in her delivery that you gotta love.
Ella Fitzgerald - Jazz and swing just don’t get any better than this. Actually, music, period, doesn’t get any better than Ella. If the dictionary adds a listing for “the best music can possibly be” and that listing includes a photo, the photo will be of Ella.
Roberta Flack - A story-teller’s mix of smoothness and force, and a mix that happens to hit every note just right.
Aretha Franklin - The power of gospel, soul, blues and hard-blowin’ pop, a voice that could drive a man to do anything she cares to drive him to, and I mean anything.
Melody Gardot - Her voice is whispery with a dash of salt. Melody has a compelling personal story but, more importantly, a unique voice and a way of telling a story in song that sets her apart and pulls me back for more.
Billie Holiday - A voice that can make me cry, make gasp in awe, draw me in so I tilt my head to get my ear just that much closer to the stereo’s speaker. There’s one Billie Holiday with delivery more like some magical instrument in the ensemble than a voice. If I need to pick a number one favorite, this is it. Oh man, this is it.
Janis Ian - Simultaneously sensitive and bold, sweet when that’s right and demanding when that’s required, her voice tells a tale I want to hear.
Mahalia Jackson - Deeply soulful, she visits every valley then boldly pulls me from each with inspired joy.
Etta James - Ain’t nobody hollerin’ the blues like Etta, with such force and swing that I just can’t sit still.
Janis Joplin - Gravel and sugar, whether she’s molding a tune to shout it hard or to tell a story, she delivers every song as uniquely Janis.
B.B. King - You wanna hear a story and hear it now and hear it bad, ‘cause, baby, here are the blues and B.B.’s gonna tell it as only B.B. can.
Peggy Lee - Now this is the definition of sultry. There’s a near-sarcasm to Peggy Lee’s style which comes across as mighty sexy and mighty appealing.
Stevie Nicks - Delivering a song exactly right yet slightly off-kilter, her voice adds a dimension to draw me in and make me want to stay to see how it ends.
Jimmy Rushing - Swingin’ the blues Kansas City style, Jimmy’s voice propels a song off the bandstand and into your lap. I dare you to listen to a Jimmy Rushing album and not swing, and not listen happy. I dare you.
Nina Simone - Powerful in a way that pushes me back while intriguing me to the point that I cannot go away, Nina Simone is a never to be repeated vocalist whose voice challenges me to think.
Frank Sinatra - Sinatra delivers every song exactly as it should be delivered, with a lift in his voice when the song requires a lift, or a smokey edge when the song needs a smokey edge. Every song, he gets it.
Bessie Smith - Mama’s got the blues and if you don’t feel why after hearing Bessie tell you as only Bessie can, then you ain’t human.
Mavis Staples - A voice which uniquely molds itself around life lived hard and is here to tell us about the experience, and thank God it is.
Koko Taylor - Blues done the Chicago way, Koko’s rough edge puts you in the middle of her troubles and leaves you there to find your own way out, and as soon as you do you want more.
Big Joe Turner - Big Joe was born in Kansas City and tended bar while shouting the blues at 12th and Vine. During his rhythm and blues years his songs turned extremely popular and extremely silly. But when he shouted the blues, he sang with the swing, the force, the soul and the clearly stated deep experiences that no other voice captures and that surely no other voice will ever match.
Sarah Vaughan - When I think Sarah I think ideal tone, ideal pitch, ideal pace, ideal interpretation, a song recorded as magnificently as you’ll ever hear it.
Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson - Eddie played the alto sax and sang the blues with the same inflections, but his were playful, happy blues peppered with a jump beat that makes me smile.
Dinah Washington - Dinah’s singing to me, just to me, I know she is, and I want to hear every story, because I hear her telling me her version of the story each time she sings.