What makes a great singer?

What makes a great vocalist? Bob Dylan has been called many things: legend, icon, troubadour, singer of protest songs, surrealist, Christian rocker, amazing vocalist.

Wait. What? Amazing vocalist?

I’m actually being serious. I think Dylan is an incredible singer — but he’s also been the butt of a billion jokes about bad vocals. (If you had a dollar for every Bob Dylan impression you ever heard…)

Yep, Dylan’s pipes have been quite divisive over the past 55 years, and he talked about it — somewhat defensively — last week in his speech at the MusiCares event honoring his career and music:

Critics have always been on my tail since day one. Seems like they’ve always given me special treatment. Some of the music critics say I can’t sing. I croak. Sound like a frog. Why don’t these same critics say similar things about Tom Waits? They say my voice is shot. That I have no voice. Why don’t they say those things about  Leonard  Cohen? Why do I get special treatment?

Critics say I can’t carry a tune and I talk  my way through a song. Really? I’ve never heard that said about Lou Reed. Why does he get  to go scot-free? What have I done to deserve this special treatment? Why  me  lord?

No vocal range? When’s the last time you’ve read that about Dr. John? You’ve never read that  about Dr John. Why  don’t they say that about him? Slur my words, got no diction. You have  to wonder if these critics have ever heard Charley  Patton  or Son  House or Wolf.  Talk  about  slurred  words  and  no  diction. Why  don’t  they  say  those  same  things about  them. “Why  me,  Lord?”

Critics  say  I  mangle  my  melodies,  render  my  songs  unrecognizable.  Oh,  really?  Let  me tell  you  something.  I  was  at  a  boxing  match  a  few  years  ago  seeing  Floyd  Mayweather fight  a  Puerto  Rican  guy.  And  the  Puerto  Rican  national  anthem,  somebody  sang  it  and  it was  beautiful.  It  was  heartfelt  and  it  was  moving. After  that  it  was  time  for  our  national anthem.  And  a  very  popular  soul-singing  sister  was  chosen  to  sing.  She  sang  every  note that  exists,  and  some  that  don’t  exist.  Talk  about  mangling  a  melody.  You  take  a  one syllable  word  and  make  it  last  for  15  minutes?  She  was  doing  vocal  gymnastics like  she was  a  trapeze  act.  But  to  me  it  was  not  funny.

Where  were  the  critics?  Mangling  lyrics?  Mangling  a  melody?  Mangling  a  treasured song?  No,  I  get the  blame.  But  I  don’t  really  think  I  do  that.  I  just  think  critics say I do.

Sam  Cooke  said  this  when told  he  had  a  beautiful  voice:  He  said,  “Well  that’s  very  kind  of  you,  but  voices  ought  not  to  be  measured  by  how  pretty  they  are.  Instead  they  matter  only  if  they  convince  you  that  they  are  telling  the  truth.”  Think  about  that  the next  time  you  are  listening  to  a  singer.

That last part is what really rang true (PUN!) for me. I don’t care how skillful, rich, controlled, or dexterous your voice. It’s all for nothing if I don’t BELIEVE you.

That being said, plenty of people out there still don’t “believe” Dylan or think he has a tolerable voice. What is it about a voice that turns you on or off? What do you think makes a good singer?

Range? Timbre? Conviction? Let us know in the comments below.

Oh, and check out the transcript to Dylan’s full speech HERE.

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