You Got A Lotta Nerve: Dylan Named One of The Greatest Singers of All Time
"So don't fear if you hear
A foreign sound to your ear"
- Bob Dylan, "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)"
"Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while"
- Bob Dylan, "Visions Of Johanna"
Bob Dylan as one of the greatest singers ever? I know from many a heated discussion that this confuses, confounds and perplexes a lot of people. And even enrages a few others. But, as I've argued for years now, particularly in my earlier piece The BOB ON BOB Rave ("This Old Man"), there's just no denying the greatness of Dylan as a singer. That's right, contrary to popular perception, Bob is indeed one of the greatest singers of all time. And now I've got a major music magazine backing me up on this.
Rolling Stone, that is, which just came out with an issue dedicated to The 100 Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Singers of All Time, featuring Dylan at #7. That's right, number seven, right behind Aretha Franklin (#1), Ray Charles (#2), Elvis Presley (#3), Sam Cooke (#4), John Lennon (#5) and Marvin Gaye (#6).
You can argue that such lists are perhaps a bit silly, but, the fact of the matter is, people like lists and since this list now exists I'd say the only question is whether Bob should have actually appeared a bit closer to the top.
Truly Great Singing
And to those who don't think Dylan belongs on this list at all, due to some misguided, and completely cliched, idea about him being "a great songwriter but not a very good singer", I say that you simply don't get what singing is all about.
Great singing isn't about hitting all the notes perfectly. Any kid in any high school choir can do that. No, great singing is about being expressive and making every phrase your own... and almost no one does that better than Bob. Not only did he revolutionize popular singing from the mid-sixties onward, he also showed the world just how to bite into every last phrase; every last word; even, sometimes, every last syllable. It's not a voice for the opera, nor is it a voice for jazz, and it's certainly not a voice for whispering sweet nothings, but it is, unquestionably, a voice of rock 'n' roll brilliance.
Now, I fully admit, when you're used to crooners and balladeers your first encounter with Bob's unique - and rather nasal - vocalizing may seem somewhat strange. And it's true that live in concert these days it may not always be the sweetest instrument. But on album, particularly his classic recordings from the '60s and '70s, the man is one of the all-time great vocalists. Period.
Try imaging someone else singing the songs on Highway 61 Revisited or Blood On The Tracks, two of the greatest albums of all time. "Like A Rolling Stone", "Desolation Row", "Tangled Up In Blue", these aren't some of the greatest songs ever performed despite the vocals. No, these are some of the greatest songs of all time largely because of the vocals!
As Bono so perfectly puts it in his write-up in the new issue of Rolling Stone:
Dylan did with singing what Brando did with acting. He busted through the artifice to get to the art. Both of them tore down the prissy rules laid down by the schoolmarms of their craft, broke through the fourth wall, got in the audience's face and said, "I dare you to think I'm kidding."
In other words, those who think Dylan can't sing are akin to those who thought Marlon Brando, possibly the greatest actor of all time, "mumbled" and "sulked" on screen. I'm talking about the people who longed for the "brilliance" of the unintentionally-comical, completely-unrealistic over-acting of the 1930s and '40s (think Jimmy Stewart before he became James).
Or, to put it another way, Dylan detractors probably think Julie Andrews, Doris Day, Celine Dion and Jessica Simpson are all amazing singers.
Again, my only problem with Rolling Stone's list is that I'd have to insist on placing Bob even higher. Certainly above John Lennon. And I'd also say that Otis Redding most definitely deserves to be in the top 5, along with Bob, and not right behind him in the eighth spot.
There's lots more to argue about concerning this list, such as the bizarre exclusion of Eddie Vedder, even more bizarre inclusion of Karen Carpenter (at 94), not to mention the ridiculous order that many others appear (John Fogerty way back at 72??!!).
I won't get into all of that, however. Instead I'm just going to leave you with my own personal list of the Top 20 Greatest Singers of All Time, excluding all the jazz greats, such as Billie Holliday, Nina Simone, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, since jazz, like opera, is a whole other medium. Likewise, I'm leaving all the great rappers, from Chuck D to Eminem to Tupac to Jay-Z to Andre 3000, for a future list of their own.
My list would include (in no particular order) the following people. Because when it comes to beautiful, expressive, wholly original and extraordinarily distinctive rock/soul/R&B singing straight from the heart, no one does it better for me than these 20 musical geniuses:
My List of The Top 20 Greatest Singers of All Time:
- Bob Dylan
- Otis Redding
- Aretha Franklin
- Neil Young
- Stevie Wonder
- Sam Cooke
- John Fogerty
- Marvin Gaye
- Van Morrison
- Joni Mitchell
- Al Green
- Ray Charles
- Johnny Cash
- Rod Stewart (first four albums, as well as with The Faces)
- John Lennon
- Bob Marley
- Elvis Presley
- Roy Orbison
- Joe Strummer
Honorable mentions: Little Richard, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Lucinda Williams, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, James Brown, Etta James, Sinead O'Connor, Willie Nelson, Mick Jagger, Levi Stubbs, Smokey Robinson, Jeff Buckley, Janis Joplin, Aaron Neville, Solomon Burke, Michael Stipe, Bono, Hank Williams, Toots Hibbert, Paul McCartney, Roger Daltrey, Levon Helm and Rick Danko.
And if I was forced to declare a Top Four I'd have to go with Bob, Otis, Aretha and Marvin. Yeah, that's right, one skinny white Jewish kid and 3 of the most powerful black vocalists to have ever recorded. And, damn right, the skinny white guy 100% belongs there.
Mike Cowie (Oredakedo)
Monday, November 17th, 2008
Now that you've read what I have to say on this matter, check out what Bruce Springsteen had to say back in 1988:
“The first time I heard Bob Dylan I was in the car with my mother listening to WMCA, and on came that snare shot that sounded like somebody had kicked open the door to your mind: “Like A Rolling Stone.” My Mother — she was no stiff with rock and roll, she liked the music–sat there for a minute, and then looked at me and said, ‘that guy can’t sing.’ But I knew she was wrong. I sat there and I didn’t say nothing but I knew I was listening to the toughest voice that I had ever heard. It was lean and it sounded simultaneously young and adult.”
Here's the link to the write-up by Bono in Rolling Stone: #7: Bob Dylan, by Bono
To read my two - yes two - recent rave reviews of Bob's new album, Tell Tale Signs, click here: Bob's Back: Tell Tale Signs of Joy... and A Complete Lack of Judgement
Or check out this piece about another musical icon: The Neil Young Rave: A Film, Two Albums and Incarnations For Everyone
And to read my piece on Bob, Neil and Joni click here: Talkin' Prairie Triangle of Inspiration (A.K.A. Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell Make Their Great Escape)
And for much more on all things Dylan click here: The Bob (as in Dylan)
Or for more on other artists and albums click here: Music Homepage
Or here: Music: Album and Concert Raves