[To read an introduction to The Great Voices Project, click here.]
Honesty time: Roy Orbison is my favorite pop/rock singer of all time. Charting 22 songs in Billboard’s Top 40, Orbison is one of the most popular singers of all time. Able to sing crooning ballads (“Crying”) or pop classics (“Oh, Pretty Woman”), Orbison’s emotional voice has been idolized by nearly every male pop singer since.
Don Was, a producer who worked with Orbison on occasion, stated that Roy’s voice was as close as one could come to “hearing pure emotion.” Simple, straightforward, and powerful, the singer could be comfortable in nearly any range required by pop songs. Naturally a baritone, Roy Orbison was still able to sing soaring tenor when ballads called for it, and could also control his falsetto range if necessary.
“Oh, Pretty Woman” is easily Orbison’s most famous and most important single. My favorite Orbison song is “I Drove All Night,” but for a song to showcase Orbison’s amazing emotion and range, I selected “Crying.” Sit back and be amazed by the 15th voice on our list.
Etta James has one of the greatest voices I’ve ever heard (obviously), but she might make this list if she only sang two words in her entire career. The opening two words to her classic work “At Last” have become iconic in music history, and a standard for nearly every alto since.
Amazingly, at the age of 71, Etta James went back into the studio and recorded another album in 2009. She continues to sing today, and her voice still holds up well as she sings standards and jazz classics. Starting as a gospel singer, James has sung doo-wop, jazz, and other genres over her years as a vocalist, winning four Grammy Awards in her career.
Since it is the song that is most associated with Etta’s voice, here is “At Last.”
With the most #1 songs by any solo artist in history, including being the first artist to have their first five singles all top the charts, Mariah Carey’s voice is an undeniable blend of range and power. From her early days of “Vision of Love,” Carey has developed into a singer more well known for concentrating on power and emotion, instead of her extremely high notes which got her noticed early on.
While she is most famous for her high notes (usually called “whistle tones”), Carey states that she is most naturally a lower singer, but has been trained to use the entire length of her vocal chords–something very few people actually do. What really sets Mariah Carey apart, though, is her amazing control. Whether notes are long or short, high or low, call for straightforward singing or trill; she hits them all with perfection.
One of the most telling signs of real talent is if an artist can do live what they do in the recording studio. To show Mariah’s talent shine through, here is live version of her cover of “Without You.”
Maybe the greatest voice to, for the greatest part of a career, stay within the Gospel genre, David Phelps has released both solo albums and is more well known as the soaring tenor for the Gaither Vocal Band.
Blessed with range that seems to be unlimited in its upper register, Phelps has, in full voice, regularly sung notes that are above the treble clef. Many men can sing these notes with some ability, but Phelps holds his position on this list for the incredible power with which he regularly attacks these amazing notes.
In the many Gaither Homecoming Friends albums and videos, Phelps is a regular solo singer, usually used to end a particularly powerful song. It is amazing to watch the other recording artists nearly stop in admiration for David’s singing. David lives just south of Nashville with his wife and four children. He and his wife, interestingly, were born on exactly the same day.
As we near the top of this list, you will notice some songs repeated, because they are classic songs that have come to be known as songs that display powerful voices. One of those is “O Holy Night.” Here is David Phelps belting out the song live.
She was first on stage at the age of two, and would perform until her death at age 47. To many, Judy Garland was an actress, but her vocal skills were also first class.
Of course, Garland is most remembered is Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz,” a role which made the song “Over the Rainbow” a timeless classic. Garland’s show stopping voice took her from Vaudeville acts to Hollywood and beyond, making her an international superstar. To this day, young female singers try to emulate her simple, innocent sounding voice.
When the American Film Institute released its list of the 100 greatest songs from American films, an incredible five of the songs were by Judy Garland. But it is the number one song on that list that sets her apart from so many other film singers. Here she is, singing “Over the Rainbow” at the tender age of 16.