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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Broken Voices

[The red links in this post take you to Youtube posts. Enjoy]

We sometimes listen to a radio station out of Grand Rapids called “The River: 100.5” It’s a mix of light pop and older hits that have survived the recent decades. Believe it or not, when our three daughters (ages 11 to 22) are with us, they actually listen right along without complaint.

Friday, the morning after some folks got voted off “American Idol,” we were listening to Joe Cocker singing “You are So Beautiful to me." After the last note--you know the one when Joe’s voice completely fades and the word “me” doesn't even come out? Right after that, my daughter in the back seat asks me...

"Who was that singing and what happened at the end? I mean, why did they record that guy? His voice is all scratchy. He’d get blasted right off ‘American Idol’ if he sang like that on TV.”

“You’re right. He’d never make it past the first audition…and yet all that scratchy brokenness is what makes that simple song work."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, it conveys a man who is tearfully speechless about the woman he loves. If Julio Iglesias were singing it, the song would be about him, his voice, and all the women wishing he were singing it to them. But when a voice like that sings it, the song seems to be about one guy and one lady. It's about enduring love and beauty that is in the eyes of the beholder. The lady in his mind is probably not “Miss America” gorgeous and his voice is for sure not ‘American Idol’ quality…but they are beautiful ‘‘to each other’—and that makes it truly beautiful. Does that make sense?”

“Yeah, I guess, but how does a guy with a scratchy voice that can’t even reach some notes walk into a studio and say, 'I want to make this recording. Trust me. People will like it.'”

“Oh, I see what you’re asking. That’s not how it happened. Joe Cocker was a famous hard-rocker--I'm talkin' really HARD rocker--back in the 70’s. His voice was always raspy but after screaming for a couple decades, it was just shot. On top of that, he "burned himself out" on drugs and alcohol. [Caution: Drug abuse is so obvious in that last link that it's sad to watch.] He barely survived all that, and then with what was left of himself, he created what became his signature song with that tired, warn-out, broken voice." [This most recent "live" performance shows the toll of a hard life, but still the rendition is very moving.]
My daughter's question got me thinking about other "broken voices," the kind that in and of themselves may not survive a talent search like "American Idol." Take Rod Stewart. His version of "Have I Told You Lately That I Love You" has that same broken, sincere sound described above. To be honest, I never listened to Stewart back when he was a "rock star," but he released a softer album two years ago with songs that are given new texture by his unique "broken" voice.

I'm going to really date myself here, but I can't write about broken voices without going back a generation (or two). The fact that these names and voices are remembered by this generation, however, may very well prove my point.

On July 7, 1971, I was doing my friend's Detroit Free Press route early in the morning.
[My own route was The Macomb Daily.] When I cut the wire around the bundle of papers to load the bags on my bike, the headline jumped out at me: "Satchmo Gone." There was a picture of Louis Armstrong playing his trumpet, but I remembered him more as a singer. I read the story about 60 times that morning as I walked up to front porches in the early light. Later I learned that they called him "Satchmo" (short for satchel mouth) because of his full but "broken voice." We've all heard "A Kiss to Build a Dream on," but we probably know him best for "What a Wonderful World."


Another favorite personality and "broken voice" from the same era is Jimmy Durante. He always reminded me of my Grandpa Collinge (the one I got the feather pillow from). They were about the same age. Durante's signature song was probably "Young at Heart," but I couldn't find that one. I also like "Make Someone Happy." He was truly one-of-a-kind. I think you'll see what I mean about his voice with this rendition of "Yesterday." He kind of "talked" his songs in a way that few others could get away with.

Another personality who kept active late in life by talk-singing with a "broken voice" was Walter Brennan. Here's a Youtube clip of him in a western (but not singing). He is the only man to have earned three Oscars for best supporting actor. To hear him "sing," go here and scroll down for some sample audio clips. Here's another one. One of my favorites was Old Rivers" about a boy who made friends with a share cropper and his mule. It was a very touching story song--especially in Brennan's unforgettable "broken voice."

One last example of a "broken voice," though some may disagree, is Brian Adams. He's still relatively young (48) so some may say that's just his normal voice (rather than warn out or damaged). But if you listen to him singing his hit "Everything I Do" with Celine Dion (both Canadians) you'll see that the song is rendered less memorable by the diva's voice hitting every note with hollow perfection. Brian's voice is throaty, harsh, strident--and unique. Celine's gifted voice will probably stay in good form for a lifetime, but I venture to say that if Adams remains active or makes a comeback in his "golden years" after age 60 (around 2020+) his may be one of those rare voices defined by their brokenness.

I think it's safe to say that none of these performers (without the name recognition they eventually earned) would have made it past that first audition on "American Idol." Don't get me wrong... there will always be a market for the Sinatra-Connick-Bublé crooners and Whitney Houston-Josh Groban talent, but there's something to be said for those uniquely broken voices adding meaning to a song.
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13 Comments:

Blogger Lone Grey Squirrel said...

Jimmy Durante rocks. I have always felt he was under-appreciated. You are absolutely right about the appeal of broken voices - there is a raw honesty to them. Jimmy Durante songs can make me cry, even the happy ones. He always reminds me of tears of a clown.

Ahem. Just for the record, I ain't tha old. Just have an interest in the music of the 50's. Enjoyed your post.

12/3/07 2:43 AM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

LGS,
You're right. Jimmy Durante's personality still has appeal to all ages, but there is a sort of sad, nostalgic "ghost" in his voice even though he always smiled. It's hard to believe he died 33 years ago (1974, just a few years after Louis Armstrong). His showbiz career went from Vaudeville, to early silver screen, to radio, to color film, to television. That's pretty amazing.

12/3/07 9:12 PM  
Blogger JR's Thumbprints said...

Nowadays you are hearing less and less imperfect voices on the radio. With technology, we have people who can't sing sounding good to the masses. Remember Bonnie Tyler's "It's a Heartache"--another song that works because of her strained vocal chords.

12/3/07 10:47 PM  
Blogger Jody said...

I was thinking the same sort of thoughts as jr's. It's hard to know what's real and what's not sometimes. I remember the whole "Millie-Vanillie" (is that how you spell that?) lip-sync scandal. It's the same in prints media- everything is touched up and airbrushed that we really aren't getting a 'true picture' most of the time. I think that's one of the appeals of American Idol. It's real and "untouched"...at least for most of the shows. =) For me I enjoy the 'imperfect' music...and it does have it's following, because I've been to severeal wedding receptions in the past two years while working as event coordinator...and most of the time you hear a lot of the same songs. They are endearing and definitely a part of the "memories" people want to cherish for years to come. As always, thought-provoking, Tom. Thanks for the links too!

13/3/07 1:06 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

JR,
I found BT's "It's a Heartache" on Youtube:
http://youtube.com/watch?v=h8VGQTtENSs
She was young to have done that to her voice. Not all of her songs were like that ("Turn Around"), but yes that is definitely a broken voice in that song--ouch! That clip looks about 20 years old. Is she still active?

I've kept up casually with it last season and this. Not well enough to know names, but well enough to say--wow! that guy's got a unique talent (I'm thinking of the one who "scats" in the middle of his songs.) And of course, our girl from Flint is doing well so far. There are a couple others that seem to be on their way to a career with or without America's vote.

13/3/07 6:41 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Jody,
Ah, yes, "Millie-Vanillie." Wasn't that about the same time MC Hammer was telling us "You Can't Touch Dis"? Don't you love his "Life comes at you fast" commercial?

"Idol" is definitely a phenomenon, but like my daughter said, many famous artists connected to the most classic version of a song would not have survived the AI gauntlet.

The talent search aspect of the show is interesting. I think it’s great to nurture creativity, talent, and expressions, but the "idol" concept is no lie--it so vividly reflects the human need to either become an "idol" or to clamor at one's feet.
We were clearly created to "worship;" the question is "what or who?"

13/3/07 6:43 PM  
Blogger Josie said...

Great post. You know, the same can apply to women. How about Janis Joplin and "Piece of My Heart". I would much rather listen to that than anything Celine Dion would sing. Incidentally, Canadians can't stand Celine Dion.

I saw Rod Stewart on Saturday night, and he sang "Have I Told You Lately That I Love You" and brought the house down. His voice is really gravelly and suits his craggy face (as does Joe Cocker's voice and face). Could it be that's why the music isn't as good these days, because it all sounds so artificial?

13/3/07 11:16 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

Josie,
I read that you had been to the concert and that Rod Stewart showed slides of his parents, etc. Funny how we all mellow with time and our thoughts turn toward home and those we love.
I hope you didn't mind my pointing out that both Adams and Dion were Canadian. I knew she was but I didn't know he was.
Does Canada have a "Canadian Idol" show? I somehow suspect that America has an ignoble edge when it comes to "idols" of the self-made sort.

14/3/07 10:17 PM  
Blogger SusieQ said...

Jimmy Durante singing As Time Goes By. A classic! You can find it on the Sleepless In Seattle soundtrack.

Nat King Cole may not have had a broken voice, but it was an unusual voice.

I haven't been active blogging due to pressing family concerns. But I drop by here and there now and then for a look.

15/3/07 3:47 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

SQ,
Hope things are getting better. Glad you stopped by. BTW, you share names with a well-know artist in the south (and in the snowy creek, but she was not from a "small town" in Illinois).

16/3/07 6:25 PM  
Blogger Nancy said...

I love your descriptive words on "broken voices". I had never thought about their voices like that but how accurate you are. You did a great job with the links. I haven't figured it out yet. I have to put the whole "https" in my posts because I don't know how to do it. Have a great weekend.

16/3/07 6:39 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

SQ,
I forgot to say that Nat King Cole is probably my all-time favorite male vocalist. I have everything he recorded (I think). Not broken, as you said, just "unforgettable."

Nancy,
There's a big game tomorrow between NC and Michigan State. Will the Spartans pull an upset? A co-worker of mine is a huge MSU fan. He taught me how to do links. It's really easy. (1) I open two separate "Explorer" windows one to find links and one open to my new post. (2) cut the address from link you want to post. (3) highlight the word(s) that will be your "link" in the text of your post. (4) click on the "chain link" icon up in your blogger menu, (5) "paste" the address you cut from your link into the slot. (6) hit OK. The text word should now be a link. (It won't function until you "post" your text. Hope that helps.

16/3/07 9:33 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

SQ,
I forgot to say that Nat King Cole is probably my all-time favorite male vocalist. I have everything he recorded (I think). Not broken, as you said, just "unforgettable."
Nancy,
There's a big game tomorrow between NC and Michigan State. Will the Spartans pull an upset? A co-worker of mine is a huge MSU fan. He taught me how to do links. It's really easy. (1) I open two separate "Explorer" windows one to find links and one open to my new post. (2) cut the address from link you want to post. (3) highlight the word(s) that will be your "link" in the text of your post. (4) click on the "chain link" icon up in your blogger menu, (5) "paste" the address you cut from your link into the slot. (6) hit OK. The text word should now be a link. (It won't function until you "post" your text. Hope that helps.

16/3/07 9:33 PM  

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