“Everybody let’s sing, sing, sing
Everybody let’s sing, sing, sing
Let’s all pitch in to do our thing,
Make a better world to live in”-Earl King, “Sing, Sing, Sing”
After over 50 years of practicing, performing and composing music, I remain a devout musician and a devoted fan. That devotion extends to my guitar playing and to my singing voice.
When I started playing guitar at the age of 10, that was the focus, to become a guitar player. But when you think about it most instruments are merely broader imitations of the human voice. So in the eternal process of learning the guitar I became more adept as a guitar player when I started to progress beyond imitating other guitar players.
I listened hard to and played along with horn players like John Coltrane, in particular when he played with Duke Ellington, and Charlie Parker. I also played along with records of great singers. I was bending strings to chase the phrasing of singers such as Aretha Franklin, Etta James and Bessie Smith. Trying to match the phrasing of singers, such as these, broadened my guitar playing. That training also came in handy when I played behind or was jamming with such singers as Sandy Brown Veale, Beth Jarock, Robin Rogers, Jill Dineen, Joy Almond and Sheila Carlisle, among several. All the aforementioned ladies are, and in some unfortunate cases were, great singers who taught me a lot about phrasing a lyric in a song.
Those early sessions listening to Etta, Aretha and Bessie paid off in my understanding of the sonorous quality of the female voice. After all, the first Blues recordings in America, starting with Mamie Smith in 1920 with “Crazy Blues,” were by women. Without a doubt, some of my favorite singers are women such as Nina Simone, Esther Phillips, Ma Rainey, Bonnie Raitt, Elkie Brooks, Maggie Bell and Irma Thomas, to name a few. Etta James deserves additional special mention because I consider her to be one of the greatest vocalists in American music. Etta was able to leap across genres of music with impeccable dexterity and soul.
As we go along, when you see names you do not recognize, do as my Mother advised, “Look them up.” Check them out on Spotify or YouTube or at your local Library.
Ultimately, my early main influences in music came primarily from the Blues, but also from Southern Soul, Rock and Roll with a black beat, some Reggae, some Country, some Jazz. The music of New Orleans continues to be broad ranging in its influence on both my own and the world’s music. The Crescent City’s Tan Canary, the late Johnny Adams, remains a continual favorite of mine for his incredible range and passion.
I discovered early to be an effective Blues guitarist you need to be an effective Blues singer also. Ultimately, the Blues is a vocal music. Delta Blues singer, Robert Johnson, was my greatest early influence. I have studied his great guitar work and that haunting, captivating voice for decades now.
Meeting later on with contemporaries of Robert Johnson, such as mentor Johnny Shines, Robert Lockwood and Honeyboy Edwards, I found out many details of Johnson’s life.
Despite the myths about Robert Johnson, one thing became clear from my conversations with his disciples; Robert Johnson worked hard at his music and was able to absorb a song from listening to it once. Robert Johnson had a very strong work ethic that I try to emulate. There was no satanic pact at the Crossroads for Robert Johnson.
For all his youth, Robert Johnson was one of American music’s greatest assimilators. If he had lived beyond the age of 27, his possibilities could have been endless. As I moved into electric Blues, the voices of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Magic Sam and, in particular, Otis Rush framed my imagination and are part of my inspiration.
All these referenced voices are distinct, easily recognizable. As much as I have loved the Blues from the City of Chicago, I have also been captivated by the Windy City Gospel Soul of Mavis and Pops Staples with the Staples Singers. Pop Staples guitar work continues to be a profound influence on my own playing. The romantic pinnings of my youth were framed by Chicago’s The Impressions, with the great soaring voice of Jerry Butler telling us that “he don’t love you like I love you.” Angelic voiced Impression, Curtis Mayfield, was another guitar influence. The work of The Impressions, with their sometimes socio-political slant, was a huge influence on Reggae King, Bob Marley.
I loved the edgy end of the Motown Sound, in particular Marvin Gaye and the Whitfield-era Temptations, but it was Southern Soul that captured my heart. Otis Redding was the first, but we have to include O.V. Wright, James Carr, Bobby Womack, Ann Pebbles, Johnny Taylor, William Bell, Bettye LaVette and Otis Clay in that list. Playing briefly behind Soul man and a half, Wilson Pickett, taught me that the musician’s backing should serve to elevate the voice they back. On a lighter note, Wilson Pickett taught me, when angry at me or the other musicians in his band, that a holy madman can scream in tune.
Southern Blue eyed Soul Singers such as Dan Penn and Eddie Hinton are particular favorites of mine. Dan Penn also wrote classic songs, such as “ Dark End of the Street and Do Right Woman, Do Right Man.” Eddie Hinton, also a songwriter, most famously for “Breakfast in Bed,” was a singer, musician and songwriter of rare distinction. A member of the Muscle Shoals studio scene, Duane Allman asked Eddie, before Gregg, to be the singer in what became the Allman Brothers. Before that, when Otis Redding died, Otis’s widow Zelma asked Eddie to teach Otis’s sons how to sing. An artist well worth seeking out.
The Band’s Richard Manuel’s voice continues to haunt me. A plaintive, Ray Charles-influenced singer, Richard stands tall in my book of singers. So do Little Feat’s Lowell George, Tim Buckley, Dr. Mac Arnold, Van Morrison and Gregg Allman. They all deserve their own articles, if not books
In regards to today, Alabama Shakes Singer Brittany Howard and Ray LaMontagne help to fulfill my need for passion and soul in the human voice. However, most contemporary singers leave me cold. Many sing through the same boxes and devices, therefore sounding the same.
What is happening in American music? Why is it missing the sweep and soul of the so many singers previously mentioned and so many more? Simple answer is that there is more of an aspiration towards quickly becoming a “star” and not enough time is paid in learning the craft. Great voices who paid dues in practice, in churches, in bars and concerts are not supported or promoted as they once were.
But I have hope for the future. There is always a strata of both the young and musicians, of all ages, that do not buy what is being sold as the “next big thing.”
Recently, I discovered a seasoned singer named Kelly Zirbes, of Kelly’s Lot, who is occupying my listening space. Check out their great song, “Alyssa,” out there on YouTube.
Ultimately, a great voice is never stilled. Whether singing for one or many, these singers still sing for the ages and for the open human heart. I will continue to listen for the best the human voice has to offer.