At the age of 72, Tom Jones appeared on television last night, singing a superb set of songs; the show was followed by a retrospective of previous appearances and concerts, back to a 1964 BBC Wales interview with the very young man, fresh off the construction site. Whatever one thinks of him, there can be no doubt that he has a wonderful voice. Even seeing him pumping out the early hits with a full-throated, unreserved roar was truly exciting. Which makes me contribute to a running debate about pop voices.
The point is that the quality of the voice has little to do with the merit of the artist. There are people who are gifted with a great voice and deliver great material – Nat King Cole, Joni Mitchell, Paul McCartney, Amy Winehouse. Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra worked their wonderful way through the American songbook. However, there is no necessary connect. Michael Bolton has a much better vocal technique than Bob Dylan, but other comparisons would be ridiculous. Mick Jagger and David Bowie have made a massive contribution to popular culture, but judged on vocal terms alone, they get by, but not a lot more. If you look on YouTube at the Stones performing Gimme Shelter, the delivery of Lisa Fisher is much stronger than the man with the child-bearing lips. In fact anyone who has attended a few concerts knows that the backing singers are usually wonderful, but few of them make it to the top (though some crawl onto the lower divisions, like Valerie Carter or Jennifer Warnes). Some superb singers – Celine Dion, Dusty Springfield, Brook Benton – deliver a lot of mediocre material that the A&R man seems to have picked for them alongside the classics. And then there are iconic pop singers with more interesting material that have voices that are distinctive rather than magnificent – Van Morrison, Dionne Warwick, Diana Ross, Dolly Parton. Madonna, Chrissie Hynde and Debbie Harry are OK, but in terms of sheer voice, not a patch on Linda Ronstadt at full throttle (beg, borrow or steal a copy of her 1976 album Hasten Down the Wind – and she was just as good live).
Not sure where this leaves the debate, apart from showing how few contemporary voices I know. I am sure the issue will go on, the important thing being getting pleasure from lots of aspects of a performance, not just the perceived importance of the act. When I was young and trendy I went to see the Flying Burrito Brothers, who were a big thing at the time. I didn’t rate them, but the warm-up artist was an unknown Barbara Dickson, who was as uncool then as she is now, and she was wonderful.