Archive for mezzo-soprano

Who sang “And I Am Telling You…” the best?

Posted in Female Vocalists, Songs, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on May 4, 2017 by Ain't No Other Tan

Since its debut production in 1981, Dreamgirls has gone on to become one of the most iconic musicals of all time since due to its progressive story about racial division and the music industry of the time, dynamic characters based on real life Motown and soul singers of the eras and of course, its incredible soundtrack. “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” is the pivotal song that is considered one of the most vocally demanding songs from a musical – in fact, in contemporary music. The grit, range, power, resonance, breath control, stamina and agility as well as emotion to inject into the song and act it out are an extremely rare combination of requirements that a singer must meet in order to pull it off successfully…

And many have tried. Those who play Effie White, needless to say, have to have a BIG voice. A dramatic soprano or mezzo or spinto soprano are probably the voice types best suited to the song due to its intensity, climactic middle and ending and elongated sustained belted notes in the fifth octave at full volume. And let’s not forget this comes after an hour of singing already (for those who performed in the actual musical), with enough voice left to keep going for another hour. However, some with smaller voices have also attempted the difficult challenge, though unless they have a decent enough technique to at least support and hold the big notes easily, they may find it pretty suicidal for their vocal cords.

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Below is a rundown of some of the most prominent performances of the song and my ratings on their vocals to see who is the Queen of all Effie Whites and this song.

Jennifer Holliday (1981)

The original Effie White, Jennifer is a veteran of theatrical performances and she really always gives it her all when she sings this song – even in her later years. However, her voice is very marmite – it’s full of grit and she loves to grunt and growl, which makes her timbre sound ugly and even demonic at times when she constantly switches. So you either love the energy she puts into it or you are cringing badly at how rough she sounds – either way, it’s a marvel she can still pull it off in the same way as she did way back then.

Rating: 2.5/5

Lillias White (1982)

Effie 2.0, Lillias performed in the first US tour of the production. Lillias has a slightly more pleasant voice than Jennifer but her voice is quite light and a bit nasal, which if you didn’t know who she was you’d probably think she was Fantasia Barino. Vocally though, she was quite decent.

Rating: 3/5

Gladys Knight (1985)

Gladys certainly has a beautifully rich, smooth and soulful voice, but has never been considered a powerhouse vocalist so it was quite a surprise to know she had taken on this song. However, ever the consummate musician, she is able to cleverly mould the song to fit her voice for a restrained vocal delivery that retains the emotion and shows that she is in fact a versatile and talented singer.

Rating: 3.5/5

Whitney Houston (1994)

Whitney performed this as part of a medley so unfortunately we never got to hear her full version of the song. She cuts parts of it out – coincidentally the higher parts – but does extremely well in showing off her best assets, which are breath control to sustain the big mid-belts, soulful conviction and maintaining her full and rich tonal quality throughout, without sounding thin, shrill, growly or husky in parts, unlike many of the other singers who’ve sung this. It would have been great to hear her sing this when she a bit younger and her voice wasn’t as tired, as she does chop her phrases up a bit during the verses. On top of that, Whitney displayed her musical creativity with the arrangement and her tasteful addition of runs, which didn’t detract from the song or melody.

Rating: 4/5

Jennifer Hudson (2006)

Jennifer Hudson’s performance is probably considered the gold standard version of this song due to its immense popularity. She always puts 100% into singing it and has sometimes shown that the song is too hard even for her live, usually struggling to hit the high notes on pitch. However, over the years she’s definitely improved and what she nails the best is the sustained notes, holding them incredible ease. Only her shrillness on the top notes at times and enunciation are what often holds her back, though this may simply be due to her southern twang.

Later, both Jennifers performed this as a duet and did really well – of course Holliday still brought her strange facial expressions, grunts and overused “ha” to the table while Hudson didn’t sound great in the upper range but it definitely started off nice and smoothly and they vibed off each other well for a duet that surprisngly, didn’t result in them trying to out-scream one another.

Rating: 4.5/5

Amber Riley (2009 and 2016-2017)

Amber has a much lighter voice than most other women who have done this song, but she a good enough technique to hold her own. She sounds a bit nasal on the top notes but does add a bit of grit when needed, which is a contrast to her normal smoother vocal delivery. Overall, not the biggest fan of her rendition only because she sounds so youthful and girly, but at least she doesn’t sing outside of her ability or force her voice to sound different.

Rating: 3.5/5

Jessica Sanchez (2012)

Jessica gave quite a subdued version of this song on American Idol (particularly at the beginning and end of it). However, she did add quite a few growls when she has such a naturally light voice which didn’t sound too healthy. She later performed it with Jennifer Holliday, which basically resulted in Jessica awkwardly trying to mimic Jennifer’s mannerisms (see below).

Rating: 2/5

Tituss Burgess (2013)

The fact that this man manages to sing this song better than a lot of ladies says it all really. Thanks to his high tenor voice he is able to reach for the higher notes with ease and really gets into the performance as well. Of course, to some his upper range may be very impressive, though to others it might be a bit off-putting as it is not common to hear a male attempting to belt that high, often sounding a bit pushed and unnatural.

Rating: 4/5

Sam Bailey and Nicole Scherzinger (2013)

Unfortunately this rendition was quite jarred. Nicole really stole the limelight from Sam here and outsang her – and Sam had the biggest voice on the show that year. She didn’t do too badly though, but all emotion was lost in what was more like a battle to be heard than a proper duet. Nicole has some very surprisingly impressive chops on her though and really went for those high notes – just at the expense of feeling the song.

Rating: 3/5 (Sam) and 3.5/5 (Nicole)

Melanie Amaro (2014)

Although Melanie was paraded about on the first season of the US X Factor as a Whitney/Mariah wannabe, she really had a great voice to pull of songs only others on the show could dream of. She slayed with this performance in the comfort of her own home, showing why she was won the talent contest in the first place – great phrasing and precision.

Rating: 4.5/5

Cynthia Erivo (2015)

Cynthia is respected musical actress who has performed in The Color Purple but could most definitely get herself a part in Dreamgirls should she so want it, I’m sure. She gave a great rendition of this song in 2015 with very clear and well executed vocals.

Rating: 4/5

Marisha Wallace (2016-2017)

Probably the best of them all that I’ve heard perform this song, Marisha has pretty much everything that is required as mentioned above to do this song justice – her nuances and inflections as well as tonal and dynamic changes throughout the song were on point without a technical flaw or pitch issue in sight (as it were).

Rating: 5/5

Sarah Ikumu (2017)

For a 15 year old girl, this rendition is certainly impressive. Simon correctly says it’s one of the biggest songs in the world, but her confidence is what really makes this performance. Her overall vocal shows great potential – she has good breath control – but she is often off pitch and strained the higher notes, something that for a young voice can be damaging. Also, it sounds like she’s thickening her voice to sound deeper and heavier than normal.

Rating: 2.5/5

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WINNER: Beating off stiff competition from Jennifer Hudson and the legendary Whitney Houston, Marisha Wallace IS the Queen of Effies!

So those are some of the ladies who have put their vocal abilities to the test with this song – some doing very well, others not so much. But there are definitely others I’d love to hear attempt this song as I have faith they’d do great renditions:

Patti Labelle – a true dramatic soprano of pop music with some of the most extraordinary lungs of all time. I have absolutely no doubt Patti would be able to smash this song out of the park – even now – and I’m surprised she’s never performed it before.

Anika Noni Rose – she played Lorrell Robinson in the film version of Dreamgirls and has proved that she is a very capable vocalist with a rich, warm voice and great range and technique. It’d be very interesting to hear her tackle the song.

Beverley Knight – Bev is one hell of a vocalist who could undoubtedly take this song and do it more than justice. I can imagine her leaping up and down the song’s range with complete ease and adding carefully thought out and beautiful runs to it, as well as tasteful growls.

Beyoncé – She may not quite have the breath control to sing the sustained notes or the upper belting register to hit the higher notes but Bey has a very proficient technique and is a clever enough singer to be able to make this song her own, so can I imagine she’d give it her best shot.

Jessie J – Ok, not a huge fan of Jessie’s style and I don’t have faith she’d give a great rendition to be honest, but it would definitely be intriguing to hear her bring her own sound to this.

5 reasons why you shouldn’t sleep on JoJo

Posted in Female Vocalists with tags , on August 21, 2015 by Ain't No Other Tan

JoJo first impressed us all way back when in 2004 when she was just 13 years old with her hit song “Leave (Get Out)” and her first two albums sold pretty well. However, she’s kept herself on the down low since then, having only released two mixtapes and an EP and doing a few gigs here and there in the last few years. She had the potential to be a big star but perhaps didn’t want the celebrity life that comes with fame growing up as a teenager, who knows. But now she’s back (she’s signed with a big label again) to release a third album and has created a bit of hype around it with the release of a “tringle” (three singles at the same time), which you can listen to here.

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Now I’m not going to review them or talk about them as you can make your own mind up about them but I’m sure many big media outlets will get on that. Instead, I’m going to give you all 5 reasons why I feel JoJo is an underrated singer and artist and why, if you don’t know much about her or what she can do, you shouldn’t be sleeping on her.

1) She has an impressive range.

With a vocal range that spans approximately just over 3 octaves, JoJo’s voice easily puts many others to shame: she can support and resonate notes down into the upper 2nd and lower 3rd octave with relative ease – far better than the average female singer can AND do so all the way into the 6th octave using a connected head voice or a nice falsetto. And being a mezzo-soprano, she can even rival some sopranos in the upper register.

Ridiculously comfortable in the lower register and great clarity in the belting range and head voice/falsetto.

Jump to 6:22 onwards for notes above C6 (Soprano C).

2) Her runs are SICK.

Clearly influenced by R&B, soul and gospel singers such as the great Mariah and Whitney, JoJo has learnt to be able to execute some very nice riffs and runs that are fast, agile and musical, such as in the first video below of her sliding between two octaves in a matter of seconds.

3) Her voice has improved ten-fold since she was 13 years old.

When she first started out, JoJo had an impressive voice for such a young girl with little to no training, though she was often a little pitchy or strained on the higher notes. However, she’s clearly taken her voice seriously since then and worked hard to keep her lower register solid (it was already pretty good at a young age) and worked on making her belts fuller and more consistent, as well as improved her head voice, use of runs and overall technique. There is literally no other young singer her age that has come so far in terms of vocal growth, so if you compare her between then and now you’ll surely be really surprised.

See how in the first clips she is awfully flat, thin and strained but since 2010 her execution of the note has gradually improved in technique, pitch and resonance, with the best ones being in the 2013 onwards timeframe. NB: Being a mezzo, F5 is pretty much the limit of her voice type when it comes to consistent belting, so this is pretty good.

Special mention for this song. Her technique is flawless! She sings with a semi-classical placement to resonate and project her voice in the upper registers, her vocal and breath control is lovely as is her smooth vibrato and her runs are agile and complementary to the music. And her head voice is DIVINE. Ariana BLANDe could never.

4) She’s a good songwriter.

In her first two albums JoJo didn’t really have much input into her material, only contributing to one or two songs overall. However, she has shown on her mixtapes that she is in fact a good songwriter and either single-handedly wrote or co-wrote every song that wasn’t a cover on both. And although writing credits for her new singles hasn’t been released, we can expect she did co-write them too. Her songwriting skills from her mixtapes show she has a pretty good theoretical knowledge of music, as well as a creative mind when it comes to harmonies, melodies and lyrics/themes/genres. Check out her mixtapes where all bar one song was written by her in full below:

5) Her covers of other artists’ songs are amazing.

While gigging over the past few years JoJo has covered a number of songs that she loves and it’s interesting to see how eclectic her music taste is and how she strays away from typical artists that most young divas like to cover, like Mariah/Whitney/Celine/Xtina/Beyonce songs. With all her covers she keeps them tasteful so they are not overdone and over-filled with vocal acrobatics, nor are they changed drastically to a point where you have no idea what the song is. Here are a select few of many great covers she’s done:

She first recorded a cover of SWV’s “Weak” on her debut album and has continued to perform it since, sounding even better with age and a more refined voice.

Putting Sam Smith to shame.

Aretha vs. Adele: Rolling in the Deep

Posted in Female Vocalists, Songs with tags , , , , on October 8, 2014 by Ain't No Other Tan

Aretha Franklin, a.k.a. the Queen of Soul is back! Her new album, “Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics”, will be out soon and the first single is her cover of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”. Though I’m not quite sure why she’s covering it because I wouldn’t class it as a “diva classic”, especially when it is among songs by true legends such as Etta James, Chaka Khan, Gladys Knight, Barbra Streisand and Dinah Washington. I guess it was mainly for commercial purposes as most of the other songs are quite old or not well known. Anyway, since the audio was released it has garnered mixed reviews from a lot of people. But who did it better and who is better overall?

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Now, don’t get me wrong, I like Adele’s version (even though I find her to be boring and overrated) and of course being the songwriter she does it well and connects with it, but you cannot deny Aretha’s genius musicianship when it comes to recreating other people’s songs. The fact that Adele’s version is still so fresh in people’s minds and was such a big hit, may be part of people’s problem – it’s already been covered so many times, and usually not particularly well or to the same level. Most comments I’ve seen from people on the internet are along the lines of “Adele wins hands down” or that “I love Aretha, but this is Adele’s song” and that “Aretha is just screaming” or “there’s too much auto-tune”. So, which version is better? Can Aretha still sing? Is Adele better than her? Here I’m going to break down my personal thoughts on the two different versions and the two singers so we can better understand the differences between them.

1) Use of auto-tune

Unfortunately, for some reason, there is quite a bit of auto-tune on Aretha’s version, which could have been to give it a more contemporary feel or cleaner sound – to me, I don’t see that as a huge problem. Whether the auto-tune was used for pitch correction however, is another thing. Aretha is rarely that flat, sharp or out of tune, so I highly doubt whoever did the vocal production thought she was off so corrected it – it’s just that it wasn’t done particularly well, and is sadly, all too obvious in parts. I agree with many who say she doesn’t need auto-tune what with being one of the greatest voices of all time and that her using it could diminish her reputation as a vocalist as some would say she can’t sing like she used to… Well, duh. So in terms of the production/mixing of her version, no it wasn’t as brilliant as Adele’s.

2) Emotion/connection to the song

A completely subjective aspect of singing, which does not necessarily relate to how good a singer or a vocal is. Of course, Adele wrote the song so her connection to it would be greater, but not necessarily glaringly obvious since it’s down to opinion. Then you have Aretha, who may not have a connection to the song’s lyrics but being the Queen of Soul and coming from a strong gospel background where they learn to connect with and understand the meaning of songs that they perform, surely you can presume she sat down and studied it enough to want to take it on and not just did it for the sake of it?

3) Musicianship

Both these women are good musicians and both are great songwriters but Aretha’s iconic interpretations of other people’s songs have sometimes overshadowed even her own material as well as the originals themselves (see “Respect”, “Son of a Preacher Man”, “I Say a Little Prayer”, “Bridge Over Troubled Water”) and while I have not heard many of Adele’s live or studio covers, the ones I have heard (“Fool That I Am” and “I Just Wanna Make Love to You” by Etta James, “Make You Feel My Love” by Bob Dylan and “Lovesong” by The Cure) have been pleasant to listen to but not exactly overly different, exciting nor musically groundbreaking. Adele may be one of very few true artists and musicians out there today, but Aretha still stands as one of the best of all time.

4) Vocals

First off, it should obviously be noted that they have completely different voices and styles – Aretha is a dramatic mezzo with a naturally larger, more powerful and voluminous voice that can reach low notes with solidity and resonance and also hit higher notes with great power and ease. Adele is a typical lyric mezzo with a smaller voice and a more lachrymose quality to her singing compared to the metallic, sometimes unyielding sound of a dramatic voice. Thus, comparing them can be open to debate. However, check out the videos below of Aretha’s range, use of runs and basically show-stopping vocal moments:

Adele is a good singer, but is she a phenomenal singer? No, I don’t think so. Aretha is and always has been the superior vocalist when you look at skill and technique – when it comes to range (both low and high notes), use of intricate and complex melisma, vocal delivery and lyrical phrasing, power, resonance and overall technique (breath support/control, larynx position, vocal placement), Aretha is better and there is no debate about it. Even at 72, after decades of smoking, ageing and natural wear and tear, her voice is still rather impressive. The clarity and timbre of her voice may have declined and she may be more nasal these days (an easier placement to sing in to hit higher notes), but the rest of it is pretty much there and in tact. Adele on the other hand, is limited in range, technical skill and isn’t the most technically proficient singer – her arsenal is simply the sultry, rich and husky tone in her voice and her delivery, which some may prefer over the more “dramatic” sounding and powerhouse voice of Aretha and that’s fine but to say Aretha can no longer sing or that Adele is an “amazing” singer or better than Aretha? Blasphemous!

5) Live

Aretha recently performed the song live for the first time on Letterman, and I kept saying that we should not judge her based purely on the studio version until she does it live – where there would undoubtedly be NO auto-tune, reverb or lipping. Of course, as mentioned before, Aretha is about three times older than Adele and both have very different voices as well as their voices being in different states, so you can’t expect a fair comparison between the two. However, Aretha certainly does a good job considering her age and way out of prime voice. The beginning is slightly wobbly and not particularly great when she tries to scale between multiple octaves in just one phrase, and yes some of the belts are rather wheezy and nasal, but the power and resonance is still there. As she gets more into it halfway through though, her voice picks up and becomes a bit stronger and she starts to shine when she creatively mixes in “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” towards the end and pulls off a classic church-style Aretha performance with quite surprisingly nice and well-executed belts.

Here’s a “nasal version” by Adele who isn’t 100% well here, just to make it a fairer comparison… Hehe:

In conclusion, Aretha’s voice may not be as stable as Adele’s but we shouldn’t disregard Aretha just because she’s so much older now and not as amazing or as practically unparalleled as she once used to be 30-40 or even just 20 years ago. I’m sure Adele still has a lot more to give and she definitely shouldn’t be overlooked as one of today’s great young talent (though I don’t hold high expectations from her on her next album, both lyrically or musically) but the Queen of Soul’s voice and musicality and is not one to ever be underestimated and I for one am definitely interested in hearing how she has recreated other “diva classics” for her new album.

What do you think? Which version do you prefer and do you think Aretha has still got it in her or is Adele the new Queen of Soul?

5 reasons why Beverley Knight is awesome

Posted in Female Vocalists with tags , , , , , , , on January 4, 2014 by Ain't No Other Tan

Adele, Amy, Leona, Joss, Duffy… Just a handful of the UK’s most famous neo-soul singers who have all achieved international recognition and success. And while they’re all good in their own way and to an extent, there’s one woman who blows them all out of the water when it comes to a combination of soul, technique, power, range, versatility and musicality – Beverley Knight. Bev hasn’t had a whole lot of mainstream success, even in the UK, but has received critical acclaim by many and while Bev herself may not mind or want it, it is a shame that she doesn’t have it and so many people love these other ladies so much more and believe because they’re so popular, they must be amazing. Well, here are 5 simple reasons as to why I believe Beverley is better (in my opinion but I’m also using facts and provide evidence, in case you still remain delusional) and shouldn’t be as underrated as an artist as she is:

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5) Gurl got SOUL.

Soul, like tone, is subjective – some people believe some singers have it and can connect emotionally to a song, and others could think the same person doesn’t. However, surely you can’t argue that Beverley, who grew up listening to and singing soul music and gospel all her life, doesn’t have soul? She can connect to practically every song she performs, both her own and others.

4) Gurl has RANGE!

People argue that Leona has a huge range and must therefore be better than Beverley, but here’s the truth – both their ranges span about 3 octaves but Bev has a strong, even and well-connected range from bottom to top and throughout all registers (Leona’s lower register is like breathy air whereas Bev’s is solid and well-supported, and she can go lower) and she can belt a lot higher – with consistency and ease (up to Bb5 or B5, taking on a more dramatic timbre) and even though her head voice hasn’t gone above a C#6 from what we’ve heard from her, it’s all pretty impressive.

3) She has practically perfect technique

Very few pop singers have perfect technique, but there are a handful who do have practically perfect techniques – and Bev is one of them. From her low notes to her upper belting and into her head voice her voice is strong, powerful, resonant and healthy. Adele, Amy and Leona have quite good techniques, but they have bad vocal habits and the former two were well-known to have had smoking and/or drug or alcohol addictions, meaning the more they sang while smoking and doing drugs, the more they damaged their voices.

2) She can sing Whitney songs – and sing them brilliantly

She was recently cast in the lead of “The Bodyguard Musical” as Rachel Marron and is the perfect person to sing Whitney Houston songs. She once said she wasn’t worried about singing the songs but more so about the acting – and she doesn’t have anything to worry about due to her amazing voice and her ability to sing them just as well as Whitney did – something hardly anyone can do. While her tone isn’t the same and might not be to everyone’s taste, she is in fact a superior technical vocalist, enabling her to have no trouble whatsoever with these songs.

1) She is a consummate musician

Beverley writes or co-writes 90% of the music she records, with only a handful being covers or written by other people, and she is an accomplished pianist (though doesn’t play it live that often). Check the video above of her performing the song “Gold” that she wrote and playing the piano with flawless vocals – even while clearly tired and slightly out of breath at the beginning when talking. Her technical skills of lyrical phrasing, riffs and runs and interpretative abilities when singing other people’s songs (which she usually injects with a bluesy, soulful or gospel twist – see second video below) is second to none, making her vocal ability and musicianship right up there with Annie Lennox as one of the top two female musical virtuosos in Britain.

Whitney Houston: the rise, the fall and the legacy of The Voice

Posted in Whitney Houston with tags , , , , on December 24, 2013 by Ain't No Other Tan

Screen Shot 2013-12-11 at 20.32.56Whitney Houston was undeniably one of the greatest and most influential vocalists – if not the greatest – of all time, but was unfortunately yet another highly successful and well-respected musician who fell victim to the pressures of fame and drug addiction to eventually suffer a very tragic – yet also sadly predictable – fall from grace. We’re all aware of the achievements Whitney, a.k.a. “The Voice” accomplished throughout her lifetime: she sold an estimated 200 million records, had a string of worldwide and record-breaking number one albums and singles, won well over 400 awards, was a talented actress as well as singer, helped bring African-American artists (especially females) to the fore in a formerly white-dominated music industry (particularly on MTV) and influenced a legion of other vocalists who came after her by setting a standard in pop singing. She was well-known for critically-acclaimed performances – many of which she did with no dancing (or even any moving from the spot whatsoever) or no backup dancers, no visual effects and backed by a full orchestra that her powerful voice could be heard above (first video) – and her ability to memorise audiences, as well as take other people’s songs to make them her own with her unique vocal stylings (second video).

But what happened? Why did she allow her once spectacular voice to worsen so much and so quickly? In this blog post I will not only look at the background to Whitney’s career and analyse the varying reasons behind her stark vocal decline, but I will also explain why I will and do defend – with my own subjective opinions, as well as facts and evidence – against those who ignorantly claim she had “lost her star quality, voice or talent”.

1985-1991

whitney-houston-sing_400While I could ramble on forever about what was so brilliant and seemingly flawless about Whitney’s voice, I’ll try and keep this short. She was the perfect combination of a vocalist with an incomparable timbre (yes, that’s subjective but I have yet to come across someone who didn’t like it) – rich and velvety with a slightly metallic and at times almost operatic-like sound to it; a large, even, well-supported and connected range; heaps of emotion and soul; a lot of power and a huge volume output; incredible vocal stamina; a well-controlled vibrato; strong and resonant belts and a full, piercing head register; and she had a host of technical skills and great musicianship that allowed her to do almost anything with her voice. And when she sang live, she was – unlike many others – able to replicate or surpass the same tone, power and range she displayed on record on stage as well. It’s no wonder she earned the simple yet self-explanatory nickname “The Voice”. From 1985 to 1991, Whitney was a force to be reckoned with, with very little in the way of a worthy contemporary rival – even Mariah Carey and Céline Dion, as brilliant as they are in their own right – could not match her in terms of power, the purity of tone, fluidity of lyrical phrasing or consistent live performances.

1992-1994

imageHowever, just like a musical instrument and one’s body or a muscle, if you don’t look after the voice properly, it will start to weaken and decrease in quality. For the first few years of her career Whitney seemed to take good care of herself and her voice (even with smoking and drugs she reportedly began doing in her mid to late 20s) and despite her busy schedule she was able to maintain it well with very few below par performances. But she was often still performing even when she wasn’t 100% well, and when most singers would cancel, she would continue with the show – a factor that would also eventually play a part in her vocal decline.

Then there is the questionable debate as to how technically perfect she was as a vocalist, for she was never formally trained, having only learnt what she knew from gospel church and listening to and imitating her idols (including her mother). Many vocal coaches say that from a vocal pedagogy standpoint, her signature belts were often produced with an unhealthily and incorrectly placed or tense larynx – yet they were (surprisingly) still executed with little to no obvious strain and with so much power, volume and clarity. She was also known for pushing her chest voice dangerously high, where trained singers would mix their voice, but Whitney never learnt how to do this properly and constantly singing like that for so long and particularly during The Bodyguard world tour with very little rest, and of course coupled with smoking and drug use, meant her voice was undoubtedly going to experience problems. She had begun smoking from quite a young age and passed off the outrage by arguing that her mother, cousin Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin all smoked as well, and it was revealed not long after her death that Whitney had initially started doing drugs in the 80s – introduced to them by her own brother who said that while he was guilty for getting her into drugs, he claimed that during that time it was “acceptable in society because everyone was doing it”. It was soon to become apparent that the once seemingly perfect athlete of the singing world was not as flawless or innocent as many thought she was.

Even though for the most part of 92-94 her voice was at its peak and probably strongest (it had matured, was richer than a few years earlier and her lower register was more solid too), Whitney’s rigorous schedule took a gradual toll on her health and voice and by 1994 she had developed nodules on her vocal cords – she was unable to take time off to recover and the last thing she probably wanted to do was risk losing her voice completely if she had them surgically removed (like Julie Andrews). It was a double-edged sword and she seemed to choose the more predictable, and maybe even the best option of keeping them (though it must be noted it has never been confirmed whether she did actually keep them or not). She was stressed out – trying to find ways of relaxing and escaping her hectic life, while at the same time was torn between having to live up to the clean-cut, pop princess image that she was marketed as being and branching away from it (this was the same time she had just married notorious bad boy Bobby Brown). The world saw her as nothing less than a superhuman with an otherworldly voice – another huge amount of pressure she had to deal with as many expected her to keep her voice in peak condition and always sound great. And as bad as it might sound, one can almost sympathise with her as to why she turned to smoking and drugs to relieve that stress (though I don’t actually condone it).

1996-2000

whitney1999_2145768i.jpgWhitney’s voice began to show signs of deterioration since recording songs for Waiting to Exhale in 1995; her tone was slightly more gravelly and when singing live there was the odd time when she sounded more and more out of breath or would dodge or crack on higher belts or head voice notes (see video above). However, on The Preacher’s Wife soundtrack (1996) she still seemed to be in great condition – in spite of rumours that she was doing drugs every day around this time – and when she duetted with Mariah Carey in 1998 and released her My Love Is Your Love album her voice, though a bit deeper than it was only a few years before, was largely still in tact and her power was still there even if her performances were not as consistently good (see the performance from 1999 below). Around this time she was definitely more of a mezzo, whereas before she was a darker-voiced soprano.

2001-2008

VH1 Divas Duets: A Concert to Benefit the VH1 Save the Music Foundation - ShowFrom 2001 until 2008, Whitney’s voice was in its most inconsistent and probably worst state – up until 2004 there were times when she still had lots of power and volume and was able to unleash it, despite a much rougher and more strained sound on the higher belts and a limited, diminished head voice range that was once effortless, beautiful and expansive (check out the first video below of her at the 2004 World Music Awards). Rumours were rife about her personal life and her “bitchy” and “volatile” personality yet she was still the star of the show at the World Music Awards. But then between 2005 and 2008, she barely made any public appearances – let alone performances – and that seems to be when the main decline really began as her drug-fuelled life began to engulf her, with there being reports that she completely lost her voice and could barely utter a sound. During this time it was sad and at times, painful to watch or listen to her, especially if you think back to how her voice was just five to ten years before, however that is not to say she could no longer sing at all. In 2008, she performed “I Will Always Love You” (second video below) and while it’s obvious her voice was not in top shape, there are still hints of power, some spine-tingling moments and a nice little bit of head voice in there too.

2009-2012

In 2009, Whitney returned to the big time with I Look To You – it was probably the biggest comeback by a living legend the popular music world had seen (though would have been topped by Michael Jackson if he had survived) – and it seemed her voice had started to recover in parts; her lower register was husky yet stronger than before and some of her mid-range belts still had quite a bit of richness in them – but above all, the self-confidence and passion for singing and music that we knew she had in her was back and obvious to see after the past few years of trying to clean up and get back on track.

Prior to this, hardly anyone seemed to believe she could make a comeback (either to the music scene or just get her life back on track after hitting rock bottom) but she did and the fact that the album sold 5 million copies worldwide, hit No.1 in the US and No.3 in the UK and “Million Dollar Bill” was a Top 5 single in the UK showed that although figures and sales were not on the same scale as material she released 15 years before, she was still able to stir up interest and make an impact. Whitney was certainly no longer a “has-been” and could still draw crowds and sell records purely based on her name and legacy, whether or not people truly enjoyed her new music or whether they were simply interested in listening to and watching her just to see how she now looked and sounded, knowing full well she wasn’t the same person or had the same voice as she used to. And despite mixed reviews of her Nothing but Love World Tour and reports of fans angrily leaving her concerts, nearly all shows were sold out and it grossed US$36 million without doing a leg in America, which would surely have pushed it further up the rankings if she had done one.

2009-ama-awards-showBefore she began touring at the end of 2009, most of Whitney’s public appearances and performances were strong and well-received but when the tour started, her voice began to show more inconsistencies again; on some occasions she was still good despite the circumstances, but her overall physical health was not. So what made her carry on? In my opinion – one name, two words: Clive Davis. Even though I know he should be commended for discovering and mentoring Whitney and helping her to reach international superstardom, as well as for bringing her back to form, I do believe her overly trusting attitude towards him meant it was easier for him to instil his own confidence in her and convince her that she was well enough to keep going even though it was obvious she couldn’t and shouldn’t have. Did he really believe in her that much or was the chance of banking in on what was a potentially big fortune for him just too tempting? And was her love of singing, performing and wanting to entertain her lifelong fans too much for her to keep up with and fulfil? Whatever the reason, Whitney toured until June 2010 – with some forced cancellations – whether she truly wanted to or not, and though she her strength and courage to do so is surprising, it was another factor that aided her second swift downward spiral from her return to the top. And of course, with the backlash from so-called “fans” and critics added to her stress and poor health, it is no wonder she once again couldn’t resist escaping the harshness of reality by unfortunately getting back into drugs as she reportedly did.

However, whether she could “still sing” has always been a debate; nobody’s talent for singing and ear for music disappears just like that. Sure she struggled and her once glorious tone was gone and had changed drastically but when she didn’t attempt to belt or sing too high Whitney was still, for the most part, able to sing in tune, in time and in the right key – and with a vocal range that spanned around 2.5 octaves, this was not a huge loss from her original range of 3 octaves 10 years or more before. While it’s true and needless to say that she was no longer able to sing in the same way she could 15 years before, to say she couldn’t sing at all or any more is a gross over-exaggeration but it was astonishing and good to see and hear how well she could still pull it off after years of abuse. Check out the videos below where her voice sounded more robust and as powerful than it had in recent years for proof.

It should be noted that singing is an art – and while there are of course correct or “healthy” ways in which one should sing, each and every person is entitled to express their art in their own way – and Whitney was always a master of this art. In her final years, from a technical level she was to put it bluntly, really bad, but from an artistic level her lyrical phrasing (even with now limited breath control and stamina), vibrato, use of dynamics and melisma were still skills she could employ and did so very well. And if she wasn’t able to perform a song like the original, she would do something different with it – change the arrangement, key, tempo and play around with the phrasing – like the true and adventurous musician that she was. Other examples of her musicality in her later years include clips of her singing “I Have Nothing” with a fan in Australia and immediately being able to tell the girl was singing in the wrong key after just a few notes, and her helping to mentor the X Factor contestants in 2009 by giving them tips on expressing themselves, melodies and harmonies.

sparkle-whitney-houstonIn 2011 and 2012, Whitney made few appearances in public and didn’t do any major performances but she did get back into acting again by co-starring in Sparkle, released in 2012 after her death (she died only a few months after filming finished). When the film and soundtrack was released, although lead actress Jordin Sparks recorded more songs and was obviously in better voice, it was Whitney’s heart-stirring yet bittersweet version of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” that was the main scene stealer – though her voice was raspy and a fraction of what it used to be, she could still sing with soul and her distinctive vocal style of phrasing and runs were still there. Her duet “Celebrate” with Jordin also saw Whitney still managing to shine through in spite of the younger singer’s higher and clearer voice, proving that even this older and less vocally capable Whitney cannot be overshadowed. Even her final live performance, where she got on stage with her friend, R&B and gospel singer Kelly Price (with whom she worked with several times) for an impromptu duet to sing a few lines of “Jesus Loves Me”, Whitney’s star power and stage presence prompted the crowd to go wild even though her voice was very coarse and barely audible in the video.

“I rise and fall, yet through it all, this much remains…”

whitneyhoustonilooktoyoupromoIt seems that whenever immensely talented people like Whitney and others fall apart, people are quick to call it “a waste of their talent” and point fingers directly at the superstars themselves, and while most of the time they are partly or mainly to blame for their own downward spiral, we must remember that as soon as they share their wondrous gifts with us they are immediately subject to the pressures of having to live up to their seemingly perfect images. Whitney never seemed to catch a break from touring, performing or recording and though smoking and drugs most certainly played a huge part of her decline, the stress she suffered, the pressure she faced, the hounding media and even her not-so flawless voice in itself was in fact to blame as well. For example Aretha Franklin – a self-confessed chain smoker for many decades – and Chaka Khan, who also battled with drug abuse and alcoholism for many years, are still fantastic singers today despite their past lifestyle choices because their techniques are better and they eventually managed to find the strength to quit their bad habits completely.

At the end of the day, though the quality of Whitney’s voice deteriorated significantly, she was still a great singer and musician. Within 10 years of arriving on the music scene she had created her legacy of numerous timeless pop, R&B and soul tunes with her larger than life voice that quickly went on to become one of the most influential voices of both her time and of all-time. Up until today I have yet to have heard a singer – both professional and amateur – who has sung the likes of “I Will Always Love You” or “I Have Nothing” and displayed the same amount of power and vocal control or the had a quintessential timbre that was as beautiful, soulful and retained the same quality throughout their entire range. Even in her later years there were few singers out there who could match Whitney’s combined mix of both all-round vocal abilities and star quality – including her rivals on the charts from the 90s (Mariah and Céline); Mariah’s voice began to show signs of deterioration in the 2000s and was on and off-point a lot, while Céline’s nasality has always been an acquired taste for most people.

Anyway, thank you for reading this incredibly long post and I hope it helped open your eyes and ears to the many factors that not only made Whitney Houston “The Voice” that she was, but also aided her decline and will also understand or agree with me on why, even after she began to fall, she was still talented and may have squandered or neglected her gift but never lost it.

Vocal Spotlight: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas by Christina Aguilera

Posted in Christina Aguilera, Songs, Vocal Spotlight with tags , , , , , , on December 18, 2013 by Ain't No Other Tan

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To celebrate both Christina Aguilera’s 33rd birthday and Christmas next week, this Vocal Spotlight focuses on her blues-inspired version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” which she recorded for her “My Kind of Christmas” album in 2000. Christina performed this holiday standard – written by Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin and first introduced by Judy Garland in 1944 – a lot during her time promoting her Christmas album. On the majority of the album she shows off her vocal ability a great deal more than she did on her début and her tone throughout is light and pure and it is very much so on this song, in which we hear her voice span 3 octaves (Eb3-Eb6).

A lot of people criticised Christina for oversinging a lot on this album (or just in general really) but her vocals here are relatively restrained and controlled with minimal unnecessary inflections or runs. In 2000, she performed the song live with R&B singer-songwriter Brian McKnight, which made for a very beautiful and soulful duet between the both (though perhaps vocals are quite a bit more over-the-top than in the recorded version).

Christina also performed the song again just over a decade later in 2011 at Disneyland where her vocals are back to being more restrained and controlled than before (she was reportedly having vocal coach lessons around this time) and singing techniques showed signs of improvement, making it one of her best live vocal performances in recent years.

Whitney’s 50th birthday: her 15 best live performances (cover songs)

Posted in Live Performances, Whitney Houston with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 9, 2013 by Ain't No Other Tan

Today would have been Whitney Houston’s 50th birthday, so to mark this date and to commemorate not only the fact that she was such a flawless and consistent live vocalist and performer but also the number of artists she looked up to and was influenced by, I have compiled 15 of her best cover versions of other people’s songs that she performed live (not ones she recorded and/or re-released, except for “A Song For You”, which she performed long before recording it). Whitney was amazing at taking other people’s songs, paying tribute to them and making the song her own with her own vocal styling that was usually always at least just as good as the original, as she proved many a time in her cover versions that she recorded over the years. I’ve just put them all here alphabetically rather than trying to order them according to how good they are and instead of me going on about each one individually, you can just sit and watch them in awe for yourself.

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A Song For You

Whitney sings her version of this classic song, originally by Leon Russell (1991).

And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going (from “Dreamgirls”)

Whitney sings one of the most vocally challenging songs she’s attempted (1994).

Aretha Franklin medley

Whitney singing a medley of songs popularised by her godmother, Aretha Franklin (1997).

Diana Ross medley

Whitney singing a medley of songs popularised by one of her friends, idols and contemporaries, Diana Ross (1997).

Dionne Warwick medley

Whitney singing a medley of songs popularised by her cousin, Dionne Warwick (1997).

Gonna Be Startin’ Somethin’

Whitney singing one of her favourite Michael Jackson songs (1986).

Home (from “The Wiz”)

Whitney singing this song on her first televised appearance in 1983 (above) and again just over a decade later in 1994 (below) – pay attention to the vast difference, maturity and improvement in her overall voice and style in the two versions.

How Long Has This Been Going On

Whitney sings this jazz standard, written by George Gershwin and popularised by Ella Fitzgerald (1995).

I Am Changing (from “Dreamgirls”)

Whitney singing this vocally demanding song at the age of 21 in 1984 (above) and again in 1986 (below) – take note of the maturity of her voice, the improvement in her technique and her trademark style of playing with the notes and melody that had blossomed within those two years.

I Loves You Porgy/Summertime

Whitney sings these classics popularised by Nina Simone (1997).

Love’s in Need of Love Today

Whitey sings her version of this Stevie Wonder song (1994).

Lover Man

Whitney covers this jazz classic popularised by Billie Holiday (1991).

Never Too Much

Whitney mashes the lyrics to this Luther Vandross classic with the melody to “For the Love of You” by the Isley Brothers (1987).

Sweet Thing

Whitney singing (rehearsals) this Chaka Khan classic (1987/88).

(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman

Whitney sings this classic Aretha Franklin song (1994).