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Iconic voices in music

A voice in music is not always vocal. For centuries, musicians with intimate understandings of their instruments have used it to express emotion like you would a voice. As many jazz musicians have said, what they play, is their voice. 

While John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, or Mary Lou Williams demonstrate technical ability and a distinguishable flair, the minimal can sometimes have greater appeal. During lockdown, Count Basie has been one of my more frequently played artists. While working, I tend to shy away from lyrical work, so Basie’s ‘voice’ has been a welcome asset. It has always been conservative; the twinkling touches of Basie boasts a certain flick and swing that adds a wealth of personality to his orchestra. 

On ‘I’m Beginning To See The Light’ in duet with Ella Fitzgerald, Basie creates the most wonderful sparkle and glamour which completely elevates the piece. On ‘Lil’ Darlin’,’ Basie’s piano opens front and centre. Throughout, he fills the gaps before the swinging pendulum reaches its apex with flourishes. While the vocalisation of instruments in jazz can be overwhelming, with dynamic force-of-nature style delivery, Basie’s doesn’t. It’s minimal, it’s full of character, and most of all, it is comforting.

Robert Plant: a name that echoes through the ages, conjuring up images of a powerful classic-rock vocalist who’s raw, blues-flecked vocals inspired generations of musicians. His tenure as the lead singer of Led Zeppelin through the late 1960s and 1970s solidified him as one of the greatest rock musicians to ever grace the stage. Following his time with the band, he has also enjoyed a successful solo career, and appeared alongside Jimmy Page in the duo ‘Page and Plant’.

His charisma and confidence helped create the ‘rock god’ persona, similar to contemporaries Jim Morrison of the Doors, and Freddie Mercury of Queen, amongst others. Along with the other members of Led Zeppelin, his flamboyant style has come to be recognised as essential to the 1970s zeitgeist. 

Plant’s lyricism is also widely praised, incorporating elements of folklore and mythology in such songs as the renowned epic ballad ‘Stairway to Heaven’, and ‘Ramble On’, a song which features Plant’s widespread references to the works of Tolkien. 

Plant joined Led Zeppelin in 1968 when it was still ‘The New Yardbirds’, after his powerful vocals impressed Jimmy Page so much that he thought something must be wrong with him, because he wasn’t famous already.

Popular music has always held an interesting relationship with death, the entertainment industry’s long-term marriage with party culture leaving behind a series of artists who ‘died too young.’ Amongst the list is Otis Redding; the soul man’s death was not a product of drugs or alcohol, but a plane crash. The shocking accident left behind Redding’s wife, child, and an astonishing legacy, with the 26-year-old still widely heralded as the ‘king of soul.’

When revisiting Redding’s work, his youth is surprising, his sorrowful, husky vocals easily mistakable as those of a much older man. The iconic ‘(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay’ is clear example of Redding’s ability to convey emotion, the despairing lyrics ‘I’ve got nothing to live for, looks like nothing’s gonna come my way,’ displaying an introspective sadness that embodies soul music.

Despite ‘Dock of the Bay’s’ esteem as Redding’s most successful song, its brooding nature is a departure from the rest of his work, he is famous for his doting love songs. ‘Try a Little Tenderness’ is a clear example, the song a soft spoken build-up to a powerful climax, the piano, drums and Otis’ roaring voice exploding as he snaps orders to the listener, “Squeeze her, don’t tease her, never leave her” followed by the songs overarching piece of loving advice, “try a little tenderness.” Redding’s voice has been sampled, referenced and praised countless times, his short-lived career cementing himself as one of the best singers of all time, his legacy carried on the back of one iconic voice.

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Callum Gray James Ward and Dan Clark

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September 2021
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