Pop music has always centered around vocalists, and we can go back to the earliest opera from the 1400’s to see that audiences love good singing, tale telling, and a charismatic person to deliver the goods and entertain. Rock and roll music was and is one of those styles that along with blues and country and western music allowed hopeful vocalists to sing naturally. This meant getting away from opera and more proper influences that dominated radio in its heyday. The crooners and pop singers all had their own voices, but arrangements were very simple when compared to jazz and rural styles that were making waves in rural areas and showing up on “Race Record” charts. Bing Crosby for example, was the biggest singer in the early to mid 1930s, but Al Jolson, Rudy Vallee and others also enjoyed enormous success as the record labels controlled the material for them to sing. It would be after a strike in the early ’40’s from practically every signed musician and their accompanying bands that finally released a little of the record companies iron fists and paved the way for some performers to begin composing and performing their own material.
Frank Sinatra was the king, Nat King Cole was hot on his heels, Judy Garland was hugely popular, as were tons of others. But when singers who were definitely not trained like the crooners started gaining ground, rock and roll began to flourish.
Country artists like Hank Snow, Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, albeit from 20 years earlier in the late ’20’s, and bluegrass from especially Bill Monroe and Flatts and Scruggs along with early r&b from Louis Jordan, Ike Turner, who recorded “Rocket 88”, regarded by many as the first rock and roll song were gaining ground quickly. Kids liked a more danceable beat. They liked the guitars and drums and a much more spare attack. And they liked how singers began to truly come into their own voices and add that much more individuality to their music. Elvis and Hank Williams were instantly recognizable, but Johnny Cash, Little Richard, Muddy Waters, Ray Charles, and others were all paving the way for new and exciting ways of self musical expression.
What this list is attempting is not to list ten “favorites” the legends and icons we all know about. This is instead a visit to singers who simply sound like nobody else ever, and nobody sounds quite like them, either. This is a list of the truly unique.
# 10 – Frankie Valli
The Four Seasons leader and lead singer was pretty serious competition for other U.S. bands, particularly The Beach Boys, whom, during their song “Surfers Rule,” actually name dropped The Four Seasons, and assured Frankie that surfers do indeed rule, and “The Four Seasons better believe it.” How effective that warning was considering The Four Seasons were really a New Jersey/NYC area band where surfing wasn’t nearly as popular is unknown. What is known is that Frankie Valli possessed a falsetto of incredible range on hits like “Sherry” and “Walk Like A Man.” It was so catchy everybody noticed. They were featured in a movie-bio The Jersey Boys that is highly recommended.
# 9 – Roger Daltrey
Roger gets on this list because of two things. He has never had any singer at any time come remotely close to sounding like him. His range is incredible, and he is the possessor of the greatest scream in the history of rock and roll music. You know what I’m talking about, that almost inhuman scream at the end of “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” How he managed not to totally rip his vocal cords to shreds beats me, but that scream is unbeatable.
# 8 – Dan McCafferty of Nazareth
In the ’70’s, Nazareth was a top heavy rock act. Guitarist Manny Charlton wrote great riffs and hooks, and the band was totally unafraid to explore just about any style of music, and did quite a bit of covering songs but giving them such different workovers it was almost impossible to not think the band themselves wrote them. At the helm however, was Dan McCafferty, who was absolutely the rawest shrieking wounded puma voiced singer out there. Rod Stewart was gritty but McCafferty sounded like he ate sand at every meal. Nonetheless, he hit the notes, not just hiding behind that voice as an excuse not to actually sing, and could do more quiet material as well. However, his most caustic vocals are on Hair Of The Dog with the title track, “Love Hurts” and a version of Nils Lofgren’s “Beggars Day” that will have your eardrums bleeding just listening to it.
# 7 – John “Johnny Rotten” Lydon
Punk woke some bands up. The AOR style, the sometimes really sappy balladeering, and disco saw bands trying to cash in, and the punkers would have none of it. Most can agree The Ramones started the ball rolling at least in the US, but as far as universal impact, The Sex Pistols and their only album Never Mind The Bollocks was a landmine that featured what today is actually fairly safe guitar sounds and simple song structures, not that they aren’t great as such. Johnny Rotten, with the rotted teeth, snarl, bizarre barking voice and a loathing for authority that made him quit when he realized he was just a product himself, had enough brains though and talent to survive with Public Image Ltd. and solo work. His high pitched yip is still with us.
# 6 – Chrissie Hynde
I don’t know if The Pretenders leader is the greatest female rock and roller of all time, but she is on my list. Chrissie Hynde assembled The Pretenders in London and released the self titled debut that quickly established them as a rock and roll force to be reckoned with. Her unusual vocal delivery with a slow vibrato but extremely intelligent lyrics and brilliant music set her apart from all the competition. It was indeed a terrible tragedy that guitarist extraordinaire James Honeyman-Scott would die from a heroin overdose, after recording solos of astonishing brilliance, especially on “Kid” only to be followed about four months later by bassist Pete Farndon by overdose as well. She and drummer Martin Chambers remained however and she has been very successful with that alto vibrato and great songwriting ability.
# 5 – Lemmy Kilmister
If ever there was a loud eardrum splitting gnarly band that could deliver the most punishing rock and roll ever, it was Motorhead. The band Motorhead got their name from Lemmy’s last album by the same name on a Hawkwind album. The self titled debut sounded like rolling fully loaded trash cans down steep hills into a pile of shopping carts. But there was something that worked, the band actually had real chops, real blues swing, Fast Eddie Clarke’s guitar abuse that was actually again, very steeped in blues, and real good, too, and Lemmy’s patented uh, growl, gurgle, animal sounds or whatever guiding the band with his distorted bass, really tongue in cheek lyrics I won’t go anywhere near, and a fury and delivery that would have stopped a Panzer tank division dead.
So it’s real rock and roll. The real McCoy and as Lemmy growled one time in an interview, “if you think you’re too old to rock and roll, you probably are.” The band recorded tons of albums, had several line up changes, but with Lemmy in charge, it was always Motorhead.
# 4 – Tiny Tim
We mentioned Tiny, aka Herb Khoury, in an article previously, but while that article was dealing with the weird and wonderful, it deserves mention that Tiny Tim was of course like nobody else sound wise, either. We think obviously of “Tiptoe Through The Tulips” and his high pitched vibrato/falsetto, but he actually had a tremendous vocal range, and did metal tunes by AC/DC as well as covering Led Zeppelin and The Beatles. How well is a matter of taste.
# 3 – Robin Zander
Cheap Trick has been around since the mid-’70’s, and by the fourth album At Budokan, a live album recorded in japan, hit it big finally in the U.S. with their live version of “I Want You To Want Me.” On this and other more pop songs like “How Are You?”, “Voices” or “The Flame,” Zander croons with the best of them, or chirps along to the beat. It’s the heavier stuff that reveals the man of 1000 voices. It took my buying Dream Police and then seeing Cheap Trick live shortly after that to see just how unbelievable Zander is. Not particularly tall or husky, he has the chore of being poppy, edgy, or in the case of “Gonna Raise Hell,” “The House Is Rockin’ (With Domestic Problems),” “High Priest of Rhythmic Noise” and others, of roaring like a full grown Siberian tiger whose 10 pound steak dinner (raw) is being delivered late to his enclave. It is like listening almost to an impersonator, so varied is Zander’s delivery without being a silly impersonator himself. Of all those on this list, he is the most powerful by far and will astonish you.
# 2 – Stevie Nicks
Between 1975 and 1977, the entire world fell in love with Stevie Nicks, with the exception of some very jealous girlfriends. Stevie Nicks was that rare talent that had it all and was still able to separate from the crowd. Stevie Nicks had such a unique voice that straddled the line so tenderly newteen the sound of an angel and a witch. Between her beauty, her talent, her artistry and that unique vibrato and resonance, Stevie Nicks may just as well be the most unique female vocalist of all time.
# 1 – David Bowie
When it comes to uniqueness, David Bowie broke the mold. At least the rock and roll mold – I don’t know about Tiny Tim. People can try with all their might to adequately describe his overall music style, but only rock and roll with all its variety fits. It would take pages to even try to express his contributions and influence on the world. Nobody ever came close to sounding like David Bowie, many tried to look like him but failed, and nobody ever came close to copping his music. Like the others on this list, he was not about to be manipulated, pressured or threatened into being anything but himself, and his loss was truly a great one.
10 Unique Rock And Roll Singers That Sounded Like No One Else article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
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