Singing is an odd art form in that training and education don’t always guarantee proficiency. While a person may never become a Rembrandt or Baryshnikov, anyone can be taught to paint or perform ballet if they are willing to invest the time and effort necessary – not so with singing: some people can receive all the instruction the world and still sound like a two cats in heat; while a blessed few never set foot in a classroom and still sing like angels. If a talent for singing is there, training can almost always yield positive results, but if no propensity can be found Caruso himself couldn’t help.
Training and education aren’t a prerequisite for success: there are plenty of successful singers with little to no training and atrocious technique making money hand over fist. Taylor Swift is a perfect example: no breath control, lousy phrasing – huge success. Bono is another: U2’s first decade of work is filled with recordings of Bono basically screaming out the high notes – biggest band in the world. Now, to give credit where credit is due, Ms. Swift is an amazing lyricist, and her voice is perfectly suited for her own material; and Bono is not only blessed with Gabriel’s horn for a voice, he performs with a passion mere mortals cannot match; but speaking strictly from a technical standpoint, Swift and Bono are just not the best vocal technicians.
On the flip side, though, the best technicians are not guaranteed fame and fortune: for every Barbara Streisand and Robert Goulet there are hundreds of almost-rans and wannabees littering the music industry countryside. Some wonderful singers never make it past a certain point in their career despite having all the right tools at their disposal. Success doesn’t always go to the most talented or highly trained – sometimes it goes to whoever wanted it the most, whoever worked for it the hardest… or to the luckiest piece of doggie-doo in the room. “Better lucky than good.” You bet your sweet ass.
I’m lucky – I was born able to sing. From the time I realized that was me looking back in a mirror, I knew I could sing. Like an idiot, I kept that knowledge to myself for years, so I missed out on a lot of opportunities; but like a genius, as soon as I made the determination to stop hiding my light under a bushel, I got myself a voice coach, Kathleen Turbeek. Lovely lady, soprano, sang with the Dallas Opera in her younger years, Ms. Turbeek was dispensing wisdom part-time to West Mesquite choir geeks during my high school days, wisdom I paid for out of my own pocket, wisdom that took me from fair singer to good-potentially-great singer in nothing flat (with less than two years training, I went to the State finals in UIL Solo-Ensemble – Lord only knows how much better I could have done if I’d just started training earlier). Nature gave me a pleasing sound and good range; training gave me useable breath support and decent phrasing.
So there are singers and then there are singers; one of my problems with my band is I’ve spent more time studying one than the other, and the music we’re performing is geared more towards growlers than crooners. My guitarist and band leader, Paul would really like it if I didn’t sing so clean all the time; it doesn’t help that I spent my formative years listening to my mom’s radio station, KVIL, rather than my brother’s, KZEW – it had an impact.
My first love and best man-crush is the one, the only, often imitated but never duplicated, Roy Orbison. As far as I’m concerned, Roy Orbison is the greatest male rock ‘n roll vocalist ever: better than Elvis, better than Little Richard, better than Jerry Lee Lewis, better than any of The Beatles, better than Jimi Hendrix, better than Jim Morrison, better than any of The Eagles, even better than Steve Perry – THE greatest male voice in rock history. His voice and his technique are unmistakable and always recognizable – no one else sounds like Roy and no one else will. That he wrote or co-wrote most of his greatest hits makes him just that much more impressive and worthy of hero-worship. Roy didn’t just write love songs, he wrote broken-hearted lost-love songs, and from a decidedly male point of view. “Golden days before they end whisper secrets to the wind: your baby won’t be near you anymore. Tender nights before they fly, and falling stars that seem to cry, ‘Your baby doesn’t want you anymore.’ It’s over.” THAT is how a man feels heartbreak. And “Oh, Pretty Woman” is still the best rock song written EVER.
What Roy Orbison is to the rock tenor, Neil Diamond is to the rock baritone. Grumble all you want about him not being a real, honest-to-goodness rock star, Diamond is the MAN. Not the greatest range in the world, but smart enough to stay inside his comfort zone and milk that amazing tone of his, that earthy rumble that just resonates in the female nether regions. And complain all you want about his tunes all being too freakin’ overblown and melodramatic -DAMN do you feel like a warrior poet crooning that stuff! I mean, come on, even the King of Rock himself, Elvis Presley covered “Sweet Caroline.” And not many male vocalists have the cajones to not only perform a duet with Barbara Streisand but a song that’s mainly just you, her and a solo piano – “You Don’t Bring Flowers” is a Grammy-winning classic of epic proportions. Diamond hasn’t had a hit song in years, but his concerts still sell-out time and time again. Once, I didn’t understand why my lovely Lady Fair was so adamant about making his show every time he was in town – then I went. I get it now: in concert, Neil Diamond is a GOD.
One listen to the original version of “Barbara Ann,” and you can hear where I got my ear for harmonies. Surf music is some of the most fun stuff you can play and listen to, and The Beach Boys are the undisputed kings of Surf. Yes, every song is either about surfing, fast cars or pretty girls (sometimes all three); yes, the lyrics can sometimes be simplistic to the point of ridiculousness – dear sweet baby Jesus, just listen to those harmonies: soaring falsettos over the baritone leads with a tenor harmony nestled between the two and a second, lower baritone anchoring what should be a utter cacophony of voices. “Surfer Girl” is still one of the prettiest songs ever written, and anyone who doubts the genius of Brian Wilson need only try and dissect the awesomeness that is “Good Vibrations,” a freakin’ masterpiece.
There’s a bit of Broadway in my voice and I’m not going to apologize for that – to the folks who keep telling me I can’t front a kick-ass in-your-face rock band sounding like that, though, I’m going to start pointing to Styx and founding member Dennis DeYoung. While rocking one awesome moustache, DeYoung wailed some Broadway-esque vocals over some classic hits: just try and imagine “Come Sail Away” without DeYoung’s clean diction or “Don’t Let It End” without his vibrato; for years, I couldn’t DJ a wedding reception without playing “Lady;” and yes, the damn song is stupid as hell and the rest of the band should have their collective heads examined for giving DeYoung the free reign for the damn concept album, but no one can deny “Mr. Roboto” is a permanent fixture in pop culture. DeYoung fronted one incredibly talented, successful and influential band while sounding like the male lead in “A Chorus Line” and looking like a Seventies porn star.
So I’ve got clean diction and strong vibrato; I’ve also got a love of harmonies and enough breath support to hold a note until the cows come home – as a singer, there are worse things. Just got to convince my band of that.