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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Now, many great vocal performances, year after year, might get onto our list of 50 Great Voices. Thats the new series were launching this morning. Over the next year, youll hear profiles of 50 singers whove made their mark internationally and across recorded history.

To get started, Elizabeth Blair, who's producing this series, explains how we came up with the list.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: First, you probably just want to know who they are. Some of them are icons.

(Soundbite of song, "(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66")

Mr. NAT KING COLE (Singer): (Singing) If you ever plan to motor west...

(Soundbite of song, "Someone To Watch Over Me")

Ms. ELLA FITZGERALD (Singer): (Singing) Looking everywhere, havent found him yet...

(Soundbite of Song, "Take Another Little Piece of My Heart")

Ms. JANIS JOPLIN: (singing) And each time I tell myself when I think I've had enough...

(Soundbite of song, "Only the Lonely")

Mr. ROY ORBISON (Singer): (Singing) Only the lonely, dum-dum-dum-dumdy-doo-wah...

(Soundbite of song "Human Behaviour")

BJORK: (singing) Uncertain...

BLAIR: Coming up with 50 Great Voices wasnt easy. Step one was an on-air solicitation to the NPR audience.

FRANNIE KELLEY: People went crazy.

BLAIR: Frannie Kelley is an editor at NPR music who kept track of the submissions to the NPR Web site.

KELLEY: Over a hundred thousand people said this person, this person, dont forget about this person.

BLAIR: Among the most nominated among the audience were superstars like Josh Groban.

(Soundbite of song, "Believe")

Mr. JOSH GROBAN (Singer): (Singing) Children sleeping, snow is softly falling...

BLAIR: And superstars of another era.

(Soundbite of song, "Fly Me to the Moon")

Mr. FRANK SINATRA (Singer): (Singing) Fly me to the moon, let me play among the stars...

BLAIR: But - and heres where you might start screaming at us - neither Sinatra nor Groban are among the 50 great voices we selected.

Mr. OLIVER WANG (Music Writer): No one really needs to make a case that Frank Sinatra has a great voice.

BLAIR: Oliver Wang is a music writer who was on a panel of experts who were part of the selection process.

Mr. WANG: If you asked me who are sort of the Top 10 voices in American history, I mean, Frank is automatic. I mean, you just know it impulsively, because thats been so hammered into us. And I think part of what the project should do is look at artists who are great, but not necessarily as recognizable or as such an obvious choice as someone like Frank.

BLAIR: In other words, discovery is a major part of 50 Great Voices. Note, were not calling these the greatest voices, just great. But this might still disappoint some people. The music we love is so important to us that when our favorites arent recognized we get upset - myself included. Even the president of NPR, Vivian Schiller, came by my desk and asked - is k.d. lang on the list?

(Soundbite of song, "Constant Craving")

Ms. K.D. LANG (Singer): (Singing) Even through the darkest phase, be it thick or thin...

BLAIR: She looked a little crestfallen when I said no. Now, of course k.d. lang is a great singer, beloved by millions. But for the sake of discovery, we decided to spotlight Kitty Wells, considered the first female to become a country music star. Keep in mind, back then, recording technology wasnt what it is today.

(Soundbite of song, "Release Me")

Ms. KITTY WELLS (Singer): (Singing) To live together is a sin, release me, and let me love again.

BLAIR: In the very big world of music, discovery is a tricky thing. Included in the 50 great voices are singers who are powerhouses within a genre, but not in the mainstream. Take classical. NPRs Tom Huizenga was on the panel.

TOM HUIZENGA: I take the idea that even though people like a Maria Callas are on the list for opera singers - certainly a superstar - means she is still going to be a discovery for most people.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. MARIA CALLAS (Opera Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

BLAIR: The bedrock of 50 Great Voices is the emphasis on singers from around the world. We wanted to find out who are the Frank Sinatras and Aretha Franklins in other countries. And many of those well hear about were nominated by both panelists and the NPR audience.

Mr. ALEX PAMFILIO: My name is Alex Pamfilio, and I live in New York City. I nominated Elis Regina because Elis Regina was technically perfect.

(Soundbite of song)

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

Mr. MARC MEISNERE: My name is Mark Meisnere. Im from Washington D.C.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MEISNERE: I nominated Dennis Brown because I think his tone and his ability to combine kind of American R&B with Jamaican singing deserves to be recognized.

(Soundbite of song, "Simply Red: Money in My Pocket")

Mr. DENNIS BROWN (Singer): (singing) Money in my pocket, but I just cant get no love...

Mr. JAMES JOHNSON: My name is James Johnson and I live in Oldsmar, Florida. I nominated Fairuz.

(Soundbite of song)

FAIRUZ (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

Mr. JOHNSON: I think shes the most important singer in the Arab world still singing and she has an extraordinary voice.

(Soundbite of song)

FAIRUZ (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

BLAIR: Matters of taste vary, to say the least. And the 50 Great Voices panel did not agree on everything. After coming up with a pretty massive list of singers, the elimination round began with a feisty conference call. Heres one of the exchanges between panelists Tim Page, Tom Huizenga, Tom Moon and Murray Horwitz - over Freddie Mercury, lead singer of Queen.

Unidentified Man #1: Queen is the single worst group of the '70s.

Unidentified Man #2: Hmm.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #3: I think Freddie Mercury has got to stay.

Unidentified Man #4: But he could sing.

Unidentified Man #1: I think the phrase, but he could sing, does not qualify him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song, "Somebody to Love")

Mr. FREDDIE MERCURY (Lead singer, Queen): (Singing) Every day, every day, I try and I try and I try, but everybody wants to put me down, they say I'm goin' crazy...

BLAIR: Whenever you come up with any kind of list, whether its great athletes or great artists, there will be controversy. As one panelist put it, the 50 Great Voices series is bound to both please and infuriate - and thats partly the point.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Somebody to Love")

Mr. MERCURY: (Singing) Anybody, find me someone to love...

MONTAGNE: And its MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And Im Steve Inskeep.

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