Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Eric Burdon, Steve Winwood, Long John Baldry - where did all the great British rock voices go?

I was watching a BBC 4 documentary about Stevie Winwood the other night when a thought struck me: whatever happened to the Great British Rock Voice? I don’t really listen to modern music, so I may be unfairly maligning a whole generation of mind-bogglingly great contemporary performers – but I doubt it

I think the advent of Punk marked the change – I enjoyed a lot of the music, but most of the singers sounded like whining fourteen-year olds complaining about having to do their homework (which is exactly what a lot of them were, I suppose). Next thing you know, we were supposed to listen with pleasure to the ghastly, unmusical,  tuneless drone employed by Morrisey to spoil Johnny Marr’s superb guitar playing. 

It was the same in the late ‘50s – how were we supposed to take British pop seriously when the best voices it could produce belonged to the likes of Cliff Richard, Adam Faith and Tommy Steele? (The other residents of Larry Parnes’s stable of talentless teenage herberts were uniformly abysmal.) Even traditional snooze-music managed to produce two brilliant vocalists in Matt Monro and Shirley Bassey – Rock ‘n’ Roll, forget it. 

Then John Lennon shrieked his way through “Twist and Shout” and Mick Jagger sneered his way through “I Wanna Be Your Man” and that seemed to open the floodgates: we were suddenly awash with singers every bit as good as Lennon and Jagger (if less charismatic) – and often far more accomplished.

First, Eric Burdon – a squat Geordie with a faceful of acne (he really did look about 14) and a voice that wouldn’t have disgraced a 50-year old Chicago blues belter. I’ve always loved his version of “Bring It On Home to Me”:

One of the delightful things about Sixties British music was the frequent mismatch between the singer’s face and the sound issuing from it. But
Tom Jones looked the part as well as sounding it. Unfortunately, he rapidly veered towards bouncy pop rubbish and overblown country ballads (an exception was his astonishingly great performance of“I (Who Have Nothing)” – but he had possibly the best voice of any 1960s British singer: immensely powerful, gravelly, soulful, complex and in tune – and it was all there from his first record, a cover of the American hit, “Chills and Fever”. The old chap has returned to his blues roots over the years – but I personally wish he’d never left them (getting his schnoz bobbed early on was, I suppose, an indication that he’d eventually be lost to Showbiz).

Stevie Winwood was a 17-year old Brummagen with an odd, tightly-stretched Pixie face (part elf, part burns victim) when “Keep on Running”hit No. 1. He credits hearing a Ray Charles LP for his emergence as a singer – the influence is even more marked on the stupendous “Gimme Some Loving”:

But how did a skinny Brummie schoolkid manage to even get close to sounding like a blind, black junkie genius twice his age? Bizarre! I’d put Winwood at No. 2 on the list, just behind Tom Jones (and that’s the only reason I’m inclined to forgive him for the awful - and awfully successful – MOR synth-pop rubbish he produced in the 1980s).

Chris Farlowe had two hits – and a positively Jonesian voice, both powerful and husky. But he looked weird (and he sold Nazi memorabilia). Still, we’ll always have “Out of Time” and “Handbags and Gladrags” to remind us of what might have been.

Long John Baldry, a lanky, 6ft 7inch, hard-drinking pink oboist was another who never quite received his just desserts. There were hits (including a number one) but he developed a penchant for wearing a crooner’s DJ and using a silly pencil-mike the size of a tooth-pick. A mystery. (He is credited with talking Elton John out of committing suicide, so his struggles may be seen as just punishment.) Here, he’s appearing in a Beatles TV special, singing “I’ve Got My Mojo Working” (and, no, I have no idea why he insists on holding onto his lapels like a prosecuting barrister).

That grumpy little Ulsterman Van Morrison was another revelation. 1965’s  “Baby Please Don’t Go”/”Gloria” is one of the greatest double-sided singles in history, and while his voice hadn’t yet fully matured (he was 19) it’s already distinctive. It had matured by the time “Brown Eyed Girl” was released in 1967. I know Astral Weeks and Moondance are generally reckoned to be his early masterpiece albums, but I preferred His Band & The Street Choir (1970), which I played to death: all the tracks are magnificent, but “Crazy Face”,  the haunting ‘I’ll Be Your Lover Too” and the soulful "I've Been Working" show his unique voice off to perfection:

Peter Green wasn’t just one of the greatest guitar players of his generation – he was one of its best singers. His voice wasn’t powerful, and his range was limited, but it had a smoky, soulful quality that worked brilliantly on slow-tempo classics such as “Black Magic Woman”and “Need Your Love So Bad”. (What a pity he had to go and fry his brain with acid.)

Look behind the cock-rock posturing of Free and you realise that little, bestubbled, leather-jacketed Paul Rodgers had (and still has) one of the greatest voices in rock. The band’s first album, Fire and Water, is still my favourite. I have always loved the tracks,“Mr. Big” and “Fire and Water” in particular.

Dave Edmunds is another guitarist whose voice hasn’t been sufficiently lauded. It’s in a much higher register than the others on this list, but that merely helps the piercing, electrified quality that allows it to cut through the 12-bar stomps, Spectorish walls of sound and up-tempo rockabilly/country backings it invariably accompanies. It was all there in his 1970 chart-topper, “I Hear You Knockin’” – “Standing at the Crossroads” is another favourite of mine:

I’ll end with Rod Stewart. Yes, I know! But just because he turned into the ultimate meaningless, white-trash Beverley Hills super-prat, waggling his scrawny, leopard-spotted botty at the audience before going on to murder The Great American Songbook, it doesn’t mean he didn’t have a superb voice – it just means he chose to waste it. The proof of the pudding is in his first three LPs: I’m particularly partial to “Gasoline Alley”, off his first album:

And I've always liked this Faces number as well:

So, why did Britain suddenly produce a host of great white rock singers – and why did the supply run out?

Probably because every performer on this list started their musical careers singing Rhythm ‘n’ Blues: they were consciously trying to sound like their black American heroes (for Rod Stewart, for instance, it was the great Sam Cooke). Black singers generally had deeper, raunchier, richer, more powerful voices than their white counterparts. Something in the process of imitation seems to have released power and emotion that would probably have remained dormant if they’d been trying to sound like Andy Williams or Dean Martin. As with Sun-era Elvis, the result is an intriguing synthesis of white and black – which now appears to have been lost. I suspect it’s because modern singers aren’t trying to sound black any more: from what I hear of modern music, it has become divorced from its R&B roots – which strikes me as a shame. 

Those extraordinary voices are undoubtedly still there – there’s just no reason for white British singers to discover what they’re capable of.


  1. You fail to mention Freddie Garrity [of Freddie and the Dreamers] - a 5ft 2 inch bundle of talent and wacky fun [his catch-phrase "I'm mad, me" still makes me chortle]. And then there was Dickie Valentine and Peter Noon of Hermann's Hermits and Gilbert O'Sullivan. Great British singers, all. You talk about Dave Edmunds, but what of "Mr Guitar" himself, Bert Weedon. He had a mighty "twang" as well.
    Thursday, March 17, 2011 - 06:53 AM

  2. The great British voice of the last 10 years or so in this writer's view was Lewis Taylor, a white North London soul singer who released three or four great albums, none of which sold in any quantity, and eventually gave up music altogether. His voice is equally impressive in tenor or falsetto, he has quite astonishing vocal control and sounds like Marvin Gaye might have with an edgy band behind him.

    Since retiring, he has apparently gone round all the download sites to remove any record of his career. You can still find him on Spotify and You Tube. Start with "Damn I'm In Love".
    Thursday, March 17, 2011 - 12:26 PM

  3. Pop Fan. We are normal and we want our freedom. We are normal and we dig Bert Weedon.

    You are clearly a man of taste, so why no Jess Conrad? "This Pullover" set new standards for woollen knitwear-based 60's British vocal thrills from people called Jess, with the added bonus of over 50% of the notes being in tune. Or Brian Poole, the singing butcher's shop assistant from Dagenham with a voice not quite as meaty as the produce he served up, ho ho! Wayne Fontana was also in a field of his own for singers named after now defunct record labels, except for Percy Parlophone's version of The Chimes of Freedom on washboard.

    Have you thought of writing a book?
    Thursday, March 17, 2011 - 05:54 PM

  4. See my book "Terry Dene. Pop Colossus." [Currently out of print]. Terry's career was cut short when he was conscripted into the army and he suffered a breakdown. At the same time, Yves St Laurent suffered the same fate in spite of the attractions of serving in Algeria.

    In terms of instrumentalists, I give you Russ Conway and Bobby Crush.
    Friday, March 18, 2011 - 06:08 PM

  5. Stan Shall. It took me a while. Untill the middle of the night. "...and Charles de Gaulle on French Horn.{squeeck, squeeck}. Great honour, General". I'd forgotten about the Bonzo Dog Dodaah Band. This blog is proving to be very useful.l
    Saturday, March 19, 2011 - 02:06 PM

  6. Yes, Pop Fan, “You Were Made for Me” and “I’m Telling You Now” were undoubtedly two of the highpoints of 1960s British. They were both big hits and I’ve always wondered who exactly went out and bought them at the time, or who thought the late Mr. Garrity was funny (the same people who laughed at Ted Rogers and Ilie Nastase, I suppose). As for Bert Weedon, I think one of the defining things about him was that he didn’t sing, so I don’t feel that guilty about omitting him from my list of great voices – no matter how enormous his twang might have been (probably still is – he’s alive!).

    Ex-KCS – I’d never heard of Lewis Taylor and checked him out on Spotify: an excellent voice, indeed, but too definitely not my kind of music for me to genuinely appreciate him. Never been good with soft soul (if that’s what it is) apart from Al Green. To be honest, I went off Marvin Gaye when he started doing coke and went environmental – loved all his early stuff and the Tamnmi Terrell duets, though. Anyway, where do you get to hear of these acts? Are you a Mojo reader?

    Stan Shall, I’ve always admired Jess Conrad for once attacking Heinz backstage and trying to bite his nose off. “This Pullover” is distinguished by the worst lyrics in the history of popular music – take “This pullover I find very smart, for it tells me we will never part” as an example. It also pinches the Buddy Holly “Everyday” backing, which sounds like someone rhythmically slapping a fat man’s wobbling buttocks – not my all-time favourite percussive effect, I’ll admit.

    SDG, apparently Terry Dene landed on his feet – he is currently married to an Italian countess 21 years his junior! As for Brian Poole – I’ll admit to buying the Tremeloes version of The Contours’ “Do You Love Me”. Actually, he had quite a good voice, but lacked charisma. I was glad he had a proper trade to return to, and didn’t have to end up digging graves like P.J. Proby. As for “The Intro and the Outro”, who will ever forget: “Looking very relaxed – Adolf Hitler on vibes… Nice!... On my left, Sir Kenneth Clark, bass sax – a great honour, sir… Hearing from you later, Casanova on the horn”?
    Saturday, March 19, 2011 - 06:29 PM