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.
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.