I have never been a big fan of vocalists generally and female vocalists in particular. Far too many of them tend to be of the view that it is 'The Singer not the Song' (to borrow the title of a Roy Ward Baker sixties Western), regardless of musical genre. The worst offenders are, to my mind, operatic singers, with pop performers running them a close second, and any singer that achieves 'Diva' status tends to be an ego on a stick.
OK, having got that out of the way - who do I like and why do I like them? Ella Fitzgerald was probably the first singer to catch my attention when I saw and heard her singing 'Summertime' on the TV programme Sunday Night at the London Palladium, around 1963. If ever there was a song that gets regularly slaughtered, the George and Ira Gershwin/Dubose Heyward classic is it. I have heard more truly appalling versions of this song than I care to remember: the worse the singer, the more convinced she (and it is generally a 'she') is that this song was created to showcase her. Ella was not like this - for her it was, as it should be, all about the music and she was one hell of a musician. In due course I bought several of her albums, with 'Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Rogers and Hart Songbook being a particular favourite.
I had heard Billy Holiday a couple of years earlier, on a recording of a live performance that was made towards the end of her life, but I was not impressed. The voice was raddled and cracked and I was too musically unsophisticated to be able to hear beneath the surface. Now, when I hear those late recordings I am frequently moved to tears by the truth of her singing. When Lady Sings The Blues, the 'biopic' of her life was released in 1972, Diana Ross played the lead and released an album of Billie Holiday songs. In my opinion the performances do not hold a candle to the originals. They are all about the singer and not the song - definitely the work of a 'diva'.
A number of singers from the folk world also grabbed my attention around this time. I loved the Waterson Family but particularly enjoyed the female voices in that group - Lal and Norma Waterson. Their singing always had a total honesty about it and a sense of joy in the music. I also liked the singing of Anne Briggs, who had a similar quality. For these performers it seemed always that it was the song that was the important thing. At the opposite end of the spectrum was Joan Baez, who may have been 'right on' politically but whose singing irritated me intensely and which, to my great dismay, was badly copied by a thousand aspiring female vocalists around the folk clubs of England.
And that was pretty much it for me and singers for a long time. Anita O'Day (You'll have to do your own search here. Blogger's link option doesn't seem to be able to cope with names that contain apostrophes) was acceptable, Peggy Lee was OK but a bit given to schmaltz. Sarah Vaughan did nothing for me and Cleo Laine did even less. Astrud Gilberto's recordings only got interesting when she wasn't singing and Judy Garland was inclined to induce violent regurgitation, as was Barbra Streisand. Of the operatic singers, the only ones I could ever listen to were Kathleen Ferrier and Janet Baker. From the popular music world I didn't mind Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield and Aretha Franklin.
The early seventies produced some interesting stuff. I was impressed by Joni Mitchell, Maria Muldaur and the McGarrigle sisters, but developed a particular fondness for the less well known Wendy Waldman. I was also very taken with the vocal sound of Sergio Mendes' Brazil 66 and 77 groups. The lead female vocalist was Lani Hall and she had a voice that intrigued me, even though I didn't like a lot of the material that the group was doing at that time. When she left she was replaced by another fine singer, Gracinha Leporace, whose voice enhances one of my favourite records of all time - the 1971 album, 'Primal Roots'.
At the beginning of the eighties I came across an album called Little Jazz Bird by one Meredith d'Ambrosio. I had never heard of her so, being intrigued by the name and by the presence of Phil Woods on the album, decided to give it a whirl. What a find that was. It had a Gershwin song that I had never heard before and a whole bunch of songs by writers that were new to me, with the exception of Dave Frishberg, some of whose quirky songs I was already familiar with. It also had Hank Jones playing piano where Ms d'Ambrosio wasn't. It had some very fine string quartet arrangements, some excellent Phil Woods solos and, best of all, Meredith d'Ambrosio's singing, which was true, clear and musical, full of expression but without a hint of melodrama or artifice.
Again, there was a long gap before another singer came along to grab my attention. A combination of my growing obsession with Brazilian music and my son's move to São Paulo led to me visiting Brazil for the first time in January 1994. I returned to England seven weeks later with a welter of CDs and a passion for the country that still shows no sign of diminishing. One of the CDs was by a singer called Zizi Possi and entitled Valsa Brasiliera. It's one of those albums that I describe as 'perfect', in that as each successive track starts I think "Ah - this is my favourite one..." until the next track, when I think "Oh. No, it's this one.." and so ad infinitum through the album. (There's another possible posting there - my list of 'perfect' records. They're not necessarily my favourite records of all time but they don't have a duff track between them.) I sent cassette copies of this record to many of my musician friends and they were greeted with universal approval.
Subsequent visits to Brazil led me to the wonderful Leila Pinheiro, Joyce, Gal Costa, Ná Ozzetti, Maria Rita (see previous postings), Simone Guimarães and the sublime Mônica Salmaso. I had purchased an album by Elis Regina (reckoned by many to be the finest female Brazilian singer) before visiting Brazil and had been extremely unimpressed. As a consequence I resisted all suggestions that I might like to check out her material until about a year ago when 'Woody' (he of the blog) bought me a DVD of a TV performance of hers from 1973. I was instantly converted and regretted the stubbornness that had prevented me reappraising her work much earlier. It just goes to show what one release of substandard material can do. As so often happens in such cases, when she died every record company scoured the vaults for material that they could reissue, regardless of quality. I was unfortunate (and stupid) enough to base an opinion of the artist on one such release. Believe me, I've learnt my lesson! Incidentally, don't be put off these singers because you don't understand the language. The sheer musicality of the artist should carry you through. Treat the voice as another musical instrument and let it wash over you. I eventually began to wonder what they were singing about and started to learn some Portuguese. With the aid of a dictionary I slowly started to unravel some of the lyrics, only to discover that I was listening to poetry of the highest order, so if your curiosity does take you in to learning the language then you are in for a treat.
Meanwhile, back in England, I was involved in the running of yet another jazz club and one of my fellow organisers suggested we nip up to Exeter to see a singer that was appearing there, with a view to booking her for our organisation. The singer was Stacey Kent. We met her before the first set and had a brief chat about her availability for gigs, the likely fee and so forth. She was dressed very simply, wore little or no makeup and was very modest and unassuming. A few minutes later when she took to the stage it was as if someone had switched a light on inside her. Without ever being flash or flamboyant she totally mesmerised the audience. She has the ability to make you feel as if she is singing the song to you personally. Her reading of a lyric is impeccable and her musicianship faultless. She sings with total authority and to my mind leads the field in interpretation of The Great American Songbook.
More recently, Diana Krall has become an international success. She sings well and truthfully and plays piano to a fairly high standard. Also Eliane Elias has been recording more vocal albums. I was first aware of her as the pianist with Steps Ahead and became a fan before I even realised that she was Brazilian. Her piano playing is superb - she has made an album of duets with Herbie Hancock - but she also has a fine voice and can sing well.
Finally, I can't write about female singers without mentioning Kirsty MacColl. She had an excellent voice and a tremendous musicality which she deployed in the pop world. She was also a damn fine songwriter. Her ability to multi track her voice into what she, somewhat tongue in cheek, called her 'angel choir made her a sought-after and frequently anonymous contributor to many hit records. Her contribution to The Pogues' Fairy Tale of New York made me take Shane McGowan seriously for the first time and her final album before her untimely death -Tropical Brainstorm - just continues to grow on me every time I hear it. It's gone from 'hmmm, not bad' to 'perfect album' in the last few years. Yet she was a most reluctant performer in public and did not care for the pop lifestyle. In common with the other singers I've listed here, it's her musicianship which is the biggest factor. For these performers I'm sure, the song has always been more important than the singer - and that's what has made them such great singers.
Given the number of links involved I thought I'd give you the YouTube ones separately, so:-
Ella Fitzgerald - Angel Eyes
Billy Holiday - Good Morning Heartache
Lal Waterson - Child Among the Weeds
Norma Waterson - Aint No Sweet Man Worth the Salt of My Tears
Anne Briggs - Blackwaterside
Joni Mitchell - Free Man in Paris
Maria Muldaur - You Made Your Move Too Soon
Kate and Anna McGarrigle - Heart Like a Wheel
Wendy Waldman - My Last Thought
Lani Hall (singing lead vocal with Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66) - Mas Que Nada
Gracinha Leporace - Horizonte Aberto
Meredith D'Ambrosio - The Christmas Waltz
Zizi Possi - Lamentos
Leila Pinhero - Catavento e Girassol
Joyce - Feminina
Gal Costa - Brigas Nunca Mais
Ná Ozzetti - Felicidade
Simone Guimarães - Tamanduá
Mônica Salmaso - O Velho Francisco
Elis Regina - Corcovado
Stacey Kent - The Best is Yet to Come
Kirsty MacColl - Mambo de la Luna