Friday, March 21, 2014

Older Singing Voices and Their Heartbreaking Beauty

As we have discovered first hand, everything changes with age. This generally is true of singing voices as well. Our favorite singers can no longer hit the same range of notes they once did and/or their voice has taken on raspier, hoarser shadings. It is no longer that crystal clear soaring sound that it once was. Is this a bad thing?Not necessarily. It depends on what you are looking for when you listen to music.  If purity of tone and accuracy of pitch is everything to you, then maybe aged voices aren't for you. For the rest of us though, such singers can bring a whole new range of emotional shadings into singing their songs.

One song and artist instantly comes to mind in this discussion. This is Joni Mitchell. One of the first times we heard the emerging Mitchell was with her fast paced, purely and truly sung Both Sides Now. Decades later she rearranged the song and sang it as a very slow, very sad ballad with her older voice. All of the songs in this later album are similarly wonderful.


This second version of Both Sides Now played over the scene in Love, Actually where Emma Thompson's heart is breaking because she discovers her husband, Alan Rickman, is cheating on her. I liked her original version when I first heard it in the '70s. After hearing its second incarnation, I absolutely loved it. The emotional, smokier quality she brought to that version smashed her youthful rendition to smithereens.


It is no coincidence that Mitchell shows herself with cigarettes and whiskey. Most singers attribute hard living as the cause of most of their vocal damage over the years. Perhaps no one experienced deterioration due to bodily abuse more acutely than singer and trumpet player Chet Baker. Here he is pictured in the 1950s at the zenith of his career.

Baker made it to age 58 when he fell off the roof of a hotel (or was pushed). Most speculated that he once again had crossed the wrong drug dealer. For if ever someone had overdone it with drink, drugs and women, it was Chet. His jaw and teeth had been torn apart in a fight so that he had to come back singing and playing with false teeth.

Although I really, really like the young, perfect Chet Baker, it is when you listen to the older Chet Baker that you feel your heart come undone.  His singing voice is truly broken but he makes it work. His rendition of Almost Blue at the end of his life, both singing and playing it, is magnificent. Bruce Weber made a fantastic film of the life of Chet Baker called Let's Get Lost.  It is a documentary and holds # 1 position in documentaries for me. I own the film and almost all of his albums.  He recorded so much that it is quite a feat to track them all down.

Chet Baker's female counterpart in self destruction was Billie Holiday. Although her voice was ravaged by the same vices as Chet had, she too produced some of her very best work leading into her death at age 44. Perhaps it was the very emotional fragility she conveyed at the end that made the music work.


Frank Sinatra had vices but they never took over his life, especially his singing life. He had first been a singing sensation throughout the 1940s. He was then known for a lot of jitterbug music and fast dance tempos of that era. This was when the girls screamed for him. By the time he staged a comeback in the 1950s, it was as a more mature man who had seen the sad sides of life. It was this singing voice, which kept on for decade after decade, which is the one best remembered now. He kept recording and performing right until the end of his life. When he finally lost his voice due to extreme old age, he died. Young people kept discovering Sinatra and were some of his most faithful fans right up to the end. It was the emotion in his singing which they loved. If I were to go to my Sinatra recordings right now, and I also have almost all of them, I believe the chances are nine out of ten that it would be the Sinatra pictured on the left I picked instead of the one on the right.

I loved Barbra Streisand when I was a teenager.  I listened to her albums all of the time. As she aged as a singer, I began to lose interest in her. She kept herself in the best physical condition of any singer.  She has no bad habits and is known for her rigorous self control. She is around 70 and still has close to her same remarkable voice. I think my problem with her is that she is pretty much the same singer she was when I first listened to her. Age has neither added nor subtracted anything to the package. She is still a powerhouse of a singer but the last adjectives you would use to describe her music are fragile, emotional or vulnerable. Maybe I need those qualities in a singing voice in this stage of my life. If you are going to buy Streisand, she is the only one who I will say is at her very best at the start of her career.  Get her first three albums as you can't do any better.

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