Narendra Kusnur's music musings …

Goodbye, Etta James


A FEW people have defined the art of female singing in English. Etta James was one of them. Following her demise on January 20, an entire generation of singers has lost an idol, as she inspired many from Janis Joplin to Diana Krall to Beyonce to Joss Stone.

Some tend to classify Etta as a blues singer. Others describe her as the queen of soul. But that was her speciality. Whether it was blues, jazz, soul, RnB, country, rock or pop, she gave each tune her own touch, her own twist, her own tangent. Many music buffs may identify her most with the mega-hit ‘At Last’, but she did songs as brilliant as ‘Roll With Me Henry’, ‘Tell Mama’, ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’, ‘Pushover’ and ‘Something’s Got A Hold On Me’ in her own immaculate way.

This brings us to an interesting topic: who have been the most influential singers in western vocals? Thinking of the subject while reading through a series of touching obituaries dedicated to Etta James, I thought I’d come up with a ‘Top 10’ list. The problem was: it wasn’t easy to stop at 10. ‘Top 15’? ‘Top 20’? Well, I was still missing some names. So I came up with my personal ‘Top 25’.

I’ve probably missed some names, but all the singers mentioned below have had a major impact on the way an earlier generation of female singers sang or how this generation sings. Each one has shaped the way songs are rendered today.

While choosing this list, I kept in mind a few things. One, as a cut-off point, I chose singers who had been around between the 1950s and 1980s — and who still are a huge influence on the current generation, though some of them are no more. Two, though most of these singers have sung in English, I have included three who sang in other western languages, as their influence on English singers has been immense. Three, this list has been prepared in no particular order.

  1. Ella Fitzgerald: The primary influence on most singers, the ‘First Lady Of Song’ was an outstanding jazz improvisationist. Her style of ‘scat’ singing — using nonsensical syllables — was path-breaking.
  2. Billie Holiday: The queen of the jazz standard, ‘Lady Day’ had an astounding  way of using phrasing and tempo.
  3. Janis Joplin:  The ultimate female rock vocalist, she is still an icon for thousands, even 41 years after her untimely death. ‘Mercedes Benz’ and ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ are anthems of a generation.
  4. Nina Simone: One of the most versatile singers ever, as she rendered jazz, blues, soul, gospel, pop, soft rock, folk, RnB, classical, the works. Her song ‘Sinnerman’ is an institution by itself.
  5. Aretha Franklin: The Queen Of Soul, and the first female artist to be inducted into the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame. Need I say more?
  6. Betty Carter: Another great jazz improvisationist. One still remembers her show at Mumbai’s Rang Bhavan around 15 years ago. It was a goose-flesh moment in time.
  7. Etta James: Versatility personified, she leaves behind a legacy of treasures.
  8. Sarah Vaughan: Another legend from the American jazz scene, she had a stunning voice which many tried to copy.
  9. Maria Callas: One of the greatest classical singers, this Greek-born soprano sang Italian opera with a passion and purity that was unmatchable.
  10. Karen Carpenter: The singer from the Carpenters, Karen defined the art of singing easy-going, melodic songs. ‘Top of the World’, ‘Yesterday Once More’ and ‘Only Just Begun’ are among her all-time greats. Incredible talent cut short by an early death at 33.
  11. Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Agnetha Faltskog: The singers from Swedish super-group ABBA were a huge influence for pop singers from the 70s onwards. Backed by the brilliant song-writing pair of Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, they churned out super-hit after super-hit.
  12. Madonna: The world’s top-selling female recording artist, and arguably the single-biggest influence on today’s generation. Extremely versatile too.
  13. Whitney Houston:  A total of 415 career awards, and another major influence on today’s generation. Despite her personal struggles and an alleged drug history, her popularity remains unparalleled.
  14. Sandy Denny: Lead singer of the British folk-rock band Fairport Convention, who also had a number of solo songs. Again, an early tragic death. Her song ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes?’ is an out-and-out classic.
  15. Grace Slick: Lead singer of American rock band Jefferson Airplane, she was one of the first female rock singers at a time when most rock stars were male. Her vocals on ‘White Rabbit’ and ‘Somebody To Love’ prove her class.
  16. Joan Baez: As a songwriter, she had a style of her own. And as a folk singer, she produced some gems, including the magnificent ‘Diamonds and Rust’
  17. Carole King: Singer-songwriter par excellence. Her 1971 album ‘Tapestry’ is one of the greatest recordings of all time, and her song ‘You’ve Got A Friend’ — both her original version and the cover by James Taylor — is a masterpiece.
  18. Flora Purim: Brazilian jazz singer who was a major influence on bossa-nova and jazz fusion.
  19. Bonnie Raitt: Besides being a blues singer and songwriter, Bonnie’s advantage was that she played excellent guitar, and was thus an inspiration for many budding female singer-songwriter-guitarists
  20. Annie Lennox: The singer of the group Eurythmics who later pursued a solo career, Annie’s role may be somewhat under-rated compared to some of the names mentioned above. But for those who were serious about their singing, she was an icon.
  21. Dionne Warwick: American singer who has not only been a great influence on the younger generation, but has also had a huge number of songs on the charts. Check out her song ‘Heartbreaker’.
  22. Joni Mitchell: More known for her songwriting skills, thanks to songs like ‘Chelsea Morning’ and ‘Both Sides Now’. She also penned the Crosby, Still, Nash & Young hit ‘Woodstock’, which became an anthem for an entire generation.
  23. Donna Summer: The queen of disco, who set new standards with songs like ‘Love To Love You Baby’, ‘Hot Stuff’, ‘I Feel Love’ and ‘Last Dance’. A trendsetter when it came to dance music.
  24. Barbra Srreisand: Another singer who was constantly on top of the pops. What’s special is she also had regular stints in Hollywood, with films like ‘A Star Is Born’, ‘Funny Girl’, ‘Hello Dolly’ and ‘The Way We Were’.
  25. Astrud Gilberto: Brazilian samba and bossa nova singer best known for her rendition of ‘The Girl From Ipanema’, which was also made famous by Ella Fitzgerald. Astrud has been an inspiration for many jazz singers.

Okay, okay. That was my ‘Top 25’. Some of you may quickly come up with a list of omissions — that usually happens with these ‘Top 10’ or ‘Top 25’ lists. “Where’s my favourite singer? What does this dude know about music?” some may ask.

Well, I know I’ve missed some great people.  Among the evergreen singers, we have Patti Page, Connie Francis, Doris Day, Helen Shapiro and for that one super-hit, Mary Hopkin (‘Those WereThe Days’). From the ’70s and ’80s, there are Carly Simon, Diana Ross, Sade, Stevie Nicks, Cher, Tania Turner, Anne Murray, Suzi Quatro, Rick Springfield, opera singer Montserrat Caballe and Gloria Gaynor (if only for ‘I Will Survive’). From the ’90s, the names of Alanis Morisette, Bjork, Celine Dion, Shania Twain, Sheryl Crow, Melissa Etheridge and Dolores O’Riordan of the Cranberries come to mind. Tori Amos, Sarah Maclachlan, Natalie Merchant and Loreena McKennitt have had a cult following. And from the more recent singers, the Rihanna, Shakira, Beyonce, the late Amy Winehouse, Norah Jones, Susan Boyle and Adele are already having an impact on the current and next generation.

As such, it’s tough stopping at 25. But then, of the 25 people mentioned above, none could have missed the list.

Once again, Etta James, thank you for the music.

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