Artists who can sing anything – in bishbosh’s book anyway

Mitch’s Four Tops doo-wop earworm this week made me realise that Levi Stubbs could sing anything and I would want to listen to it. This got me thinking about other artists of whom I could say the same. I put together a little list: Levi himself (natch), Francis Reader of the Trashcan Sinatras, Dusty Springfield, kd lang, Kevin Rowland, Tracey Thorn, Sinead O’Connor, Kirsty MacColl, Billy Mackenzie, Elizabeth Fraser… I thought I would make a playlist comprising covers (or at least songs they didn’t write) that they have each recorded – often covers I prefer to the originals – to try and work out what it is I particularly love about their voices. Is it a warmth? Or a vulnerability? Or an honesty? Or just all-round humanity? I’m not sure. Probably all of the above. Anyway, here’s that playlist.


The songs are, respectively: Do What You Gotta Do, To Sir With Love, Goin’ Back, After The Gold Rush, Rag Doll, Tougher Than The Rest, Damn Your Eyes, Miss Otis Regrets, Wild Is The Wind and Song To The Siren.

So, are there any artists whose voices you unreservedly love? Artists whose every piece of work you seek out avidly? If so, whom? And why? Answers on a postcard to the usual address…

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36 thoughts on “Artists who can sing anything – in bishbosh’s book anyway

  1. I always thought Lenny Cohen could sing anything and I’d be happy. But having re – listened to Jazz Police during my trawl through this weeks nominations I was instantly reminded of my dislike of that particular track – but to be honest it’s the music and the lyrics (dated music – sloppy chuck away lyrics by his standards) that grate, not his singing… this is only a criticism in comparison to other Lenny tracks, not mere mortal songwriters.

    It was not my fault,
    I had no choice,
    I was born with the gift of this golden voice…

    funny, deep, beautiful (and unintentionally generous to his female managers!)

    millions would disagree but I love those vocals.

  2. Think we may be mixing people who could sing the phone book (Levi), with distinctive voices (Roland, Cocteau Liz, Billy, Kirsty, Coen). Think I prefer the distinctive, myself. Here’s a few more:

    Beth Orton
    Nina Nastasia
    Jonsi
    Stuart Staples
    Mark E
    Laura Cantrell
    Thom Yorke

    You’ll either take em (a lot) or leave em.

    One to add to the sing the book list is Sharon Jones. Saw her on Monday & it’s like James Brown got reincarnated as a hobbit in drag.

  3. Shoot me, but i love Rod Stewart’s voice. I don’t seek out everything he sings thought, because he’s sung a lot of garbage too. I’ve always loved Linda Ronstadt’s voice, and Emmylou Harris, Joan Baez, but again not everything that they sing. I love Al Green’s voice. And Stevie Marriott’s.

    I also love Kurt Cobain’s voice. I think a big reason why Hendrix covers worked so well, but covers of his songs didn’t, was because he had such a rich, strong, sexy voice that was tough to better.

  4. February 21, 2008 at 11:35 pm | ReplyDarceysDad
    And the nominations for ‘Sing Me The Phonebook’ sponsored by DarceysDad are:# Bonnie Raitt (circa 1990),# Harriet Wheeler,# Margo Timmins,# Elizabeth Fraser, and# Sinead O’Connor (in tears’n’wobbly-lip mode).The award goes to … Margo Timmins.

    edit this on February 21, 2008 at 11:39 pm | ReplyBlimpy McFlah
    I can, and do, listen to her Sweet Jane on repeat.

    February 21, 2008 at 11:47 pm | ReplyDarceysDad
    Meanwhile, the nominations for Male ‘Sing Me The Phonebook’, sponsored by DD’s AtOneWithHisSexuality International Division are:# Phil Oakey,# Robert Fisher,# Colin Vearncombe, # Jon Thor Birgisson, and# Mark Lanegan (the more recent the better).The award goes to … [scribble, scribble] Mike Cooley?! What??

  5. If the question is someone who , if they actually sang the phone book, you’ld be delighted I’ll take Emmy Lou Harris thanks. Here she is doing a great turn on a song by some British composer guys. From a benefit concert for Lowell George back in ’79, a very pregnant Emmy Lou pulls off an immaculate version.

  6. I forgot that i probably need to add Ella Fitzgerald too. Even though, again, i don’t like everything that she sings. And Janis Joplin too.

  7. Johnny Cash and George Jones for me , closely followed by Joseph Hill ( from Culture) and Cheb Khaled ( when he was still “Cheb” and before he moved to Paris and got all “sophisticated”. He still sounds good but not AS good).

  8. Mind you, I don’t speak Arabic so Cheb Khaled could have been actually singing the Oran phone book for all I know.

  9. I’m glad my earworm opened this up. I once saw kd lang and Rod Stewart on a TV show dedicated to Elvis’ songs. I recall kd doing “All Shook Up” which was brilliant.
    “Going Back” is one of my favourites by Dusty, but she was a superb singer – I venture to say one of the best the British Isles have ever produced. Saying that, I want to give a shout for Lulu. She recorded some, shall we say, less than brilliant songs, but always gave them her all.However, when the material was good, she excelled. Her version of “I Can’t Hear You No More” was equally as good as Betty Everett
    I’ve said all the above first because, as most people know, I think Gene Vincent could do no wrong when it came to recording. Even a crap song like “Humpity Dumpity”, which he recorded in the UK for Columbia, sounds better when Gene did it. Of all the original rockers, I do think he was the most versatile.

  10. By the way, they used to say of the comedy actor, Terry-Thomas, that he could read the phone book and make it funny.

  11. Morning all! Deffo with those who vote for Emmylou. I reckon Linda Thompson and Sandy Denny are also in with a shot… I agree on Lulu too, Mitch. Her Atco Sessions stuff is fab.

    • Linda Thomson has a beautiful voice. So does Sandy Denny, but i may be the only one who prefers Maddy Pryor’s voice to Sandy’s.

  12. Aretha
    Annie Lennox
    Lou Rawls
    Jackie Wilson
    Paul Rodgers has an ace voice, but I do get distracted by the crapness of some of the stuff he goes for (or inappropriateness, in the case of Queen)

    There may well be more….

  13. Think Shoey’s right that there’s a distinction between an unadulterated love for a particular voice and a feeling that the singer could do justice to the phone book (how do we feel about the Thomson’s Local Twins?). Many many of the former but one example of the latter would be Chaka Khan. I’d submit her version of Castles Made Of Sand as evidence if I was tooled up to post it.

  14. Al – Bobby Womack was another I had in mind, though Ray Charles might be the template for that type of voice encompassing jazz, blues, country, soul, funk, showtunes and pop.

  15. I know what you are getting at, but I don’t think that there are any singers who can sing everything.

    Some of my all time favourite singers have recorded absolute turkeys when they have strayed too far away from their comfort zones.

    I love what Peter Hammill does, for example, but he would make a terrible soul singer.

    • I guess you’re right, Carole. Maybe it’s more about some artists knowing how to play to their strengths better! I guess Dusty wouldn’t sound great fronting Metallica… But I do think some singers are amazingly versatile – and never seem to put a foot wrong, whatever style of music they attempt.

      There are plenty of singers whose voices I love but who have made some shocking choices of material. Alison Moyet springs to mind: love her work with Yazoo, love a lot of her self-penned solo material, can’t hack her “Voice” covers album. Her voice is amazing, but only (to my ears) if the material suits it. Whereas, eg, Liz Fraser sounds amazingly different on Song to the Siren, Iceblink Luck, Strange Fruit, Teardrop… but always amazing.

    • I agree with your perspective on this, Carole. There are artists who’s voices I love to distraction, but I still find some of their output difficult to listen to, I’ll always give it a listen, but I may not want to hear it more than once.

      In this category for me are Anthony Reynolds (formerly of Jack), Patrick Duff (formerly of Strangelove), Sandy Denny, Jim Morrison and David Sylvian. If they released the phone book I’d buy it, but listen with trepidation.

  16. Laura Marling, so far, though I am basing this on only 25-30ish songs. She can come over to mine and sing the ingredients of a ready meal, any time she wants.

  17. Fine playlist. Not ready to be a KD, Kirsty or Tracey completist, though they all have their moments. Am completely immune to the charms of Dusty. It is interesting how some voices work for you or not, n’est pas?

  18. Late to this, but greatly enjoyed the playlist.

    Donds for Emmylou, Ella, Margo Timmins and Stuart Staples.

    The first names that come to mind for me are Vanessa Williams and Billie Holliday – which is a bit odd, as I don’t own much by either of them – but can’t imagine listening to them and not finding myself in a state of melancholic bliss, or blissful melancholy. Gillian Welch, also.

    Jeff Buckley did attempt to sing almost everything, and maybe overstretched himself once or twice, but is always worth a listen. I can’t imagine disliking anything Michael Stipe sings either. And I think Terry Callier would make the Phone Book sound sensual and spiritual.

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