Soul Singer


“…And now for an old soul song.”

– Anthony Keidis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers introducing his band’s cover of ‘Gimme Gimme’ by Black Flag during their Melbourne tour, 1992.

As I understand, singers like Aretha Franklin, in her time, were labeled screamers. Their tone tended towards a shout and, in comparison with the rich, creamy sound of a classical voice, were considered coarse and unsophisticated. An interesting demonstration of the paradox is Franklin’s performance of ‘Nessun Dorma’, when she filled in for Luciano Pavarotti at an awards ceremony in New York in 1988.

I read something interesting recently about a thing referred to in Chinese culture as the dantien, and in Spanish as the duende. Some cultures conceive of it as being an actual locality that sits inside you like a ghost organ. It’s also called the ‘pit of passion’, the storehouse of emotional injury that an artist has experienced in the course of their lifetime. During performance, they tap into the energy stored within it.

Beth Ditto is a true soul singer in the traditional mold, working in a specific range which is predominantly sung. The Gossip are essentially a punk band, and the obese Ditto performing in lingerie is a clear expression of anger and rebellion.


While their lyrics are pretty simple and unsophisticated, Ditto is the real sophistication, both in her persona and the way she expresses it vocally. The song ‘Yr Mangled Heart’ where her emotion becomes so intense her voice briefly unravels into a shout, is reminiscent of a spotlight becoming white glare as it hits you in the eye for the second you’re at its center as it’s scanning the crowd.

The Gossip: ‘Yr Mangled Heart’

I have felt for a long time that there is a link between singers like Aretha Franklin and singers like Bon Scott, Ozzy Osbourne and at the extreme end, Henry Rollins and Phil Anselmo. These singers, to a greater or lesser extent, scream and shout. That shouting is powerfully symbolic; in a simple way, their emotion is so great it overloads the vocal chords and comes out raw.


I remember hearing End of Silence by the Rollins Band when I was in high school and not being able to tolerate it; it was all alcohol (active ingredient). Alcohol is a solvent and eats the flavor and subtlety. All you get is the burn and the intoxication.

Rollins Band: ‘Low Self Opinion’.

While not the sharpest tool in the shed (and certainly not the best lyricist), Phil Anselmo is arguably the best metal singer of his generation. His voice is long-since destroyed; decades of drug abuse has ensured that. A friend and I made the pilgrimage to see his band Down as part of the Soundwave host of side-shows at the start of the year.

Down: ‘We Knew Him Well’.

Anselmo sounded like he had run from the hotel to the venue and was out of breath on arrival, so that he couldn’t manage any more than the occasional word per line. But once in a while you’d get a full phrase and this enormous voice welled up under the instrumental like a leviathan; his enormous, muscular diaphragm not only driving but modulating the sound that twisted and wove through the sludge of heavy, distorted guitars like an anaconda.


My mother used to say that ‘taste is in your mouth’. I have a feeling that’s true of the ears, as well.

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