Your 50 Favorite Singing Voices

NPR has launched a project that lists the fifty greatest singers of our time. Oliver Wang, musician and pop music and cultural expert, and listeners talk about what great singers from around the world have moved them most.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

You may already be familiar with an NPR project called 50 Great Voices. We mentioned it last week and asked you to nominate your favorite singer from around the world, not necessarily the most celebrated, but the voice that gives you the shivers or makes you smile. We received hundreds of emails; we'll read some of them shortly. If you haven't weighed in yet, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

The NPR music desk has been gathering submissions from the public, too, and collecting opinions from a panel of music enthusiasts. One of them is Oliver Wang. He's a writer, musician and sociologist, and joins us from a studio at NPR West.

Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Mr. OLIVER WANG (Writer, musician, sociologist): Thanks for having me, Neal.

CONAN: And how does this project work?

Mr. WANG: Well, this - I think two mains tiers. Right now we're taking submissions, as you just mentioned, through the Web site and through other means. And then, they're also going to convene a panel of folks who are going to put in their own input on which voices, especially those outside of, you know, perhaps the Western canon, to decide on adding that in. And then sometime around Thanksgiving or so, the folks at NPR are going to create the final list. And starting in January, we're going to start doing segments on each of these selections.

CONAN: So this is not strictly a popularity contest?

Mr. WANG: No. No. And I think one of things just to kindly correct you, you said the 50 greatest voices and I think we're really being very clear to say this is not about ranking. It's not about a canon…

CONAN: Okay.

Mr. WANG: …we're really trying to highlight 50 great voices. And, again, going beyond perhaps just validating what would be the - the most obvious choices on that.

CONAN: And what's your criteria for a great voice?

Mr. WANG: Well, you know, I think it's - you know, maybe making the obvious point is inherently subjective. I think there are qualities that can come through viscerally, the first time you hear someone's voice - their power, their pitch, their range, the clarity, their ability to convey emotion. But I think a lot of the differences between what makes a technically good voice and a great voice are inherently subjective. And a lot of it falls onto the ear of the beholder.

You know, I was thinking about it on the drive in today, about how much - not just the artists' biography plays a role in terms of what we know about their lives and their careers, but how our own autobiography plays into it - who we are or where we are when we first hear a singer. What do we associate with our childhood, with our teenage years, with our adulthood, and what's - how singers mark those passages in our lives.

So I guess what I'm trying to say is that while most voices may be recorded in a studio booth, they're never heard in a vacuum. And I think this process is going to highlight a lot of how that happens.

CONAN: Well, we've got a number of your choices that we've squirreled out of you already, and this is just by description. One, for example, the great Al Green.

Mr. WANG: Yeah. I mean, I think like a lot of those gospel-trained R&B kings of the falsetto…

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WANG: …what you find with Green is his ability to make the sensual feel like something that's also sacred. And there's a really sublime combination that comes out of that.

CONAN: Let's listen just a little bit.

(Soundbite of song, "Let's Stay Together")

Mr. AL GREEN (Singer): (singing) whether, whether times are good or bad, happy or sad...

CONAN: Al Green, among the people who will be considered for our 50 great voices. But you have to be careful, I guess, not to be overwhelmed by votes for familiar voices like his.

Mr. WANG: Yeah. And I mean, I think what we've seen so far - and we've gotten in thousands of submissions through the Web site. We expect to get thousands more before this process is finalized. I mean, a lot of the names you would expect, you know, on first-name basis with these singers like Frank, Billy Ray, Johnny and Aretha, Al and Nina. And then, there's other artists that make sense that are - that you would expect to find as well: Tom Waits, Freddie Mercury, Nat King Cole, Karen Carpenter. And because we are in the Internet age, there's been some lobbying and spamming that's been done on behalf of a few other submitters who keep popping - seem to be popping up on our list a lot.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And well, let's go first to - this is Doris(ph). Doris with us from Baton Rouge.

DORIS (Caller): Hi there.

CONAN: Hi, Doris.

DORIS: Yeah. John Jacob Niles was an amazing singer. He wrote "Black Is the Color (Of My True Love's Hair)."

CONAN: Yes.

DORIS: And one more tune that's right on the tip of my tongue that I can't remember.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: But he was - his popularity, such as it was, was back in the '50s and '60s.

DORIS: Exactly. Yeah.

CONAN: And what about his voice rather than his songs appeal to you?

DORIS: Very strange, strange, eerie voice.

CONAN: I could testify to that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DORIS: A great range. Yeah.

CONAN: Oliver Wang, are you familiar with John Jacob Niles?

Mr. WANG: I am not so this is, you know, this is an education process for me as well.

CONAN: Well, isn't that part of this whole thing? We're going to hear a lot of voices we're not familiar with.

Mr. WANG: Oh, I hope so. I think that's part of the whole reason to do it. Again, and we don't need to validate the voices that we already know. It's really about exposing people to other great voices from around the world.

CONAN: Doris, thanks very much for the suggestion.

DORIS: Oh, you're so welcome. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email from Stephanie(ph). The texture of Janis Joplin's voice always stirs me because beyond the amazing power of her voice, from her range to her heart-stopping wails, what makes Janis stand out from the rest is her enormous capacity to make you feel the song. Janis did not hold back. When she sang, she sang with every fiber of her soul, and she makes you feel that song with every fiber of your soul as well.

And, well, I think there would be a lot of people in our audience who would testify to that. But there's - this is going to be such a difficult process, Oliver.

Mr. WANG: It really will.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WANG: ...I'm looking forward to see how this all kind of plays itself out. And there's going to be - I think definitely a mix between, you know, populism as well as some curatorial aspects of coming up with that final list. But no one knows how this is going to pan out yet.

CONAN: Chula(ph) in Seattle says Sarah Vaughan. There's no one whose silky voice inspires and warms me the way hers does, and she brings such wonderful expression into her songs. I remember when I learned she was a heavy smoker, being incredulous because it didn't seem to have had an effect on her wonderful voice. Sassy, again, is going to be one of those voices a lot of people are going to talk about.

Mr. WANG: Yeah, absolutely.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation. Let's go to Bryan(ph). Bryan with us from Lewes in Delaware.

BRYAN (Caller): Yeah, it's got to be Tom Waits. You already mentioned earlier, but I remember being introduced to him in college and just being blown away by, I mean, how easily he connected to depression, to addiction and, you know, heartbreak. I mean, just truly blew me away. Still does to this day.

CONAN: And Tom Waits - you mentioned him earlier, Oliver.

Mr. WANG: Yeah.

CONAN: But a unique voice - not necessarily what somebody would call a great singer.

Mr. WANG: No, but I think the vocal quality is not just about - I mean, there are so many ways of evaluating what goes into a great voice. And I think, I mean, what the caller is pointing out here is - also issues of subject matter, how Waits is able to sing about something says a lot about, you know, how he can use his instrument rather than just a technical breakdown of, again, you know, what his timbre is, how clear his tone is, those kinds of measurements.

CONAN: Bryan, thanks very much.

BRYAN: Thanks a lot.

CONAN: And we have this tweet from Jerry(ph). Eva Cassidy, hands down. There's a note added onto it. My producer agrees 100 percent. And another tweet from Mindley(ph) - or Mind Lee(ph) perhaps. Judy Garland. And, oh, boy, Judy is going to get a lot of votes on this.

Mr. WANG: Yeah. Yeah. I couldn't agree more. I can see that one coming, too.

CONAN: This email from Elis Regina Rodrigo(ph) from Cincinnati - or nominating Elis Regina.

Mr. WANG: Yeah.

CONAN: Rodrigo from Cincinnati, Ohio, wanted us to know about her. She says -he says her powerful voice, allied to her strong personality, helped many of my fellow citizens endure the tough times of the military regime that endured Brazil - ruled Brazil - from the 1960s to the 1980s. Her legacy affects not only Brazil but many people in the U.S. and France who were especially touched by her voice.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ELLIS REGINA (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

CONAN: And I would not have any trouble identifying that as Brazilian; I would never have been able to identify the singer.

Mr. WANG: You know, it's interesting, I've asked a lot of friends who they would recommend, especially those artists from outside the U.S., and her name has come up consistently. So I think anyone who's familiar with Brazilian music with both bossa nova and tropicalia, the movements, well, really can identify with her and her voice in particular as being the voice of these particular movements.

CONAN: Let's go next to Andy(ph). Andy with us from Birmingham.

ANDY (Caller): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi.

ANDY: I'm just calling because I would have to recommend Otis Redding.

CONAN: Oh, you took my nominee.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ANDY: I mean, just when he sings, you can just hear the elation in his voice of being with the one he loves, or you can just hear the heart-wrenching pain that he feels when she's left him.

CONAN: And strangely, I think - this is difficult. I still think my favorite of his was his version of "Try A Little Tenderness." It still gets me every single time.

ANDY: And it's - yeah. His ability to sing that, particularly the performance from the Monterey Pop Festival, moves me every time I hear it.

CONAN: It's great stuff; it really is great stuff. Thanks very much.

ANDY: Thank you.

CONAN: And this is going to be a nomination for Souad Massi. Jamie(ph) at Brandeis University wrote us an email to tell her story about her time as a Peace Corp activist when she was in Morocco - Peace Corp volunteer in Morocco.

She says: I was awakened in the middle of the night by a powerful, sorrowful female voice echoing through the deserted alleyways. I went up to the roof to see it from there. I could detect where the voice was coming from. I peered over the side of the hotel rooftop and saw one lone shop open, a small shop where the owners sat alone between walls lined with CDs, lit only by the yellow globe of the street light. The next morning, she found the shop, which had been playing the music, and asked the singer's name, and it was Souad Massi, an Algerian singer.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. SOUAD MASSI (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

CONAN: Souad Massi from Algeria. Again, this is somebody I'm so delighted to learn about.

Mr. WANG: Yeah. And I've had the same experience, too, in terms of again, having conversations with friends about this project and their nomination. It's really pushing me to expand the people that I have listened to and learning about all these new incredible, incredible vocalists from around the world.

CONAN: Here's a tweet from Greenpeace5(ph), Jackie Wilson. He must be thinking of "Higher and Higher." And tweet from X(ph), Neko, or perhaps Neko - I'm not sure how to pronounce it.

Mr. WANG: Neko Case.

CONAN: Neko Case, all right. We're taking with Oliver Wang about 50 great voices. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Lindsey(ph) wrote in to - this is, excuse me, this is - Lindsey wrote in to recommend Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso. She writes, not only is he a great singer, but a great thinker. His voice is soothing, boyish, and it makes people of all ages swoon.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CAETANO VELOSO (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

CONAN: And I guess the swoon factor has to be weighed in. People can make people swoon. That's powerful stuff, Oliver.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WANG: Yeah. I mean, I think the reason why we're attracted, why we're into voices is the kind of emotion that they bring out of us. And so I think the swoon factor, the crying factor, the happiness factor, which are all things that people have mentioned so far, are all sort of these indelible qualities to a voice that can invoke these compassionate responses from us.

CONAN: And that singer in particular, do you know him?

Mr. WANG: I do. I mean, there's been quite a few Brazilian recommendations that have come through. I think part of it is that Brazilian music has had such a - an impact on what we hear in the U.S. over the years, and they have such a long tradition, these incredible singers, not just the ones we've mentioned already but other artists as well.

CONAN: And here's an email we have, this - it's actually a tweet, I think - no it's Laurie(ph) in Davis, California. I would recommend Julie Andrews as being a classic, lovely singer to listen to. I just melt when I hear her sing "The Sound of Music." And, boy, that's a nominee that I'm not sure a lot of people -she's very popular, but you don't tend to think of her as a great voice.

Mr. WANG: But I think a lot of it connects back to, again, when and where you hear these people. I mean, my daughter knows her voice from "Mary Poppins," and she's 4 and a half.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WANG: And so she can sing her songs by heart. And I feel like as she gets older, she's going to have some awareness of Julie Andrews just because of having that exposure.

CONAN: And it speaks to a kind of American pop star. Well, among them, a lot of people are going to be talking about, well, Barbra Streisand.

(Soundbite of song, "Happy Days are Here Again")

Ms. BARBRA STREISAND (Singer): (Singing) Shout it now. There's no one who can doubt it now. So let's tell the world about it now. Happy days are here again.

CONAN: And that's a voice - I find some similarities to Judy Garland. My personal preference would be for Judy, but a lot of people would say: That is the voice of my life.

Mr. WANG: And I think it's very generational. When people hadmentioned that Barbra's name kept coming up, I was thinking, well, when I was growing up in the '80s, I always thought of her as an actress, as an activist, as a caricature on "Saturday Night Live." I didn't realize she was a singer until later on. And so sometimes, it's hard for me to reconcile that she actually had a great voice…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WANG: …you know, back when she was actively singing, before she moved on to other things in her career.

CONAN: Here's a tweet from Willie Allusion(ph): Aretha Franklin. I'm not sure any list of 50 great voices would be complete without Aretha Franklin. But you're going to have the problems here because it's going to be hard squeezing 50 in there.

Mr. WANG: Yeah. I mean, if we went with the sort of obvious choices, that would fill up probably a hundred before we could get to sort of people that are outside of the box or outside of the - off the beaten path. But I mean, I love Aretha, so I would have a hard time arguing against her for that reason.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's go to Michael(ph). Michael with us from Gainesville.

MICHAEL (Caller): Yes. Yes. Greetings, gentlemen. My two nominees for the 50 greatest voices would have to be Hugh Mundell and Peter Tosh.

CONAN: I know the second but not the first.

MICHAEL: Well, Hugh Mundell is not widely known. He - Augustus Pablo produced some of his music. But when I'm out here weeding the roads and the sun is lashing on my back, nothing soothes me and keeps me going like Hugh Mundell and Peter Tosh.

CONAN: Is he a reggae singer like Peter Tosh?

MICHAEL: Oh, yes, he is. And he has a very sweet voice, and I highly recommend that you check him out - Hugh Mundell.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much, Michael. Well, in a lot of ways, reggae did so much to popularize world music.

Mr. WANG: It did. And there's such a long and remarkable tradition of Jamaican soul singers, in particular. I mean my - one of my - on my personal list, I had Alton Ellis, who is one of - sort of the godfathers of Jamaican rocksteady and had theis incredible, incredible voice that he brought to sort of this pre-reggae style of merging Jamaican music with U.S. - with American R&B.

CONAN: And you want this list - obviously there's going to have to be, you know, well-known names but surprising names, too, I think.

Mr. WANG: I would hope so. I would hope so. You know, if we just wanted to talk about the 50 greatest voices, it would be all the names that we know…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WANG: …I think the point of the project, again, is to expose people to voices they haven't heard. And hopefully, that's what's going to come out of this in the end.

CONAN: Well, we're going to end by listening to six great voices. This is "Sweet Honey in the Rock."

Mr. WANG: Hmm.

(Soundbite of song, "On Children")

SWEET HONEY IN THE ROCK (A Capella Ensemble): (Singing) Your children are not your children. They are the sons and the daughters of life's longing for itself. They come through you…

CONAN: Oliver Wang, thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. WANG: Thank you so much for having me.

CONAN: Oliver Wang is one of the panel of experts for 50 Great Voices project here at NPR, and he joined us from NPR West. You can find out more about that project at NPR Music, at npr.org.

Tomorrow, the balloon boy's flight, or lack of it, a hoax. Why do we believe them? That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION.

I'm Neal Conan, NPR News in Washington.

(Soundbite of song, "On Children")

SWEET HONEY IN THE ROCK: (Singing) …for their souls dwell in a place of tomorrow which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

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