Previously, (in the Guess Who posts) I stated that I believe Burton Cummings was the greatest rock vocalist of all time. How can I say that? Well, that’s just how I see (hear?) it. Remember, this is greatest vocalist, not most successful, most popular, or in the best band, etc., but the best rock singer. For me, there are 3 essential criteria that must be evaluated to even be considered as the greatest:
# 1) They must have a great voice, not just a passable voice. Now, with rock singers, there really are very few that have what could be called great voices. That is, not just a good voice for rock n roll, but a great singing voice. Now, I know that you can be a great rock vocalist without having a great voice (such as many of the legends, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, John Fogerty, Robert Plant, etc.), but to be considered the BEST, well you just have to have a GREAT voice. I will accept no arguments on this point. So, this in itself narrows the field considerably.
# 2), the vocalist must be equally strong on hard-rockin, raucous, screamin’ tracks as they are on soft, melodic, or soaring ballads (again, this eliminates most of the hard-rock acts, they just can’t cut it on ‘sweet’ songs).
# 3), they must have their own particular style, quirkiness, coolness that makes the songs uniquely theirs and nobody else’s (Now, I admit that there are many that qualify here). This shows that it is not enough to just have a great voice, they must really know how to use it most effectively.
Using these criteria, Burton was just the best. No one had a better voice, was as strong on growling rockers and tender love songs alike, and always brought his unique vocal style (loved his scatting and ad libs during the extended versions and fade outs of songs). There just was no one else like him. He could be surly and mean one minute, and graceful and soaring another (very often within the same song). Check out his hard-rockin style on tracks such as Bus Rider, Hang On To Your Life, Heartbroken Bopper, Guns Guns Guns, and, of course, American Woman, then listen to the sweet beautiful vocals of These Eyes, Undun, Share The Land, Do You Miss Me Darlin?, Sour Suite, Smoke Big Factory, and countless others. Mostly, though, he alternates between silky smooth and rockin’ within the same track (such as on Laughing, No Time, Hand Me Down World, Albert Flasher, Runnin Back To Saskatoon, Show Biz Shoes, Orly, etc.).
Now, I say was, because, unfortunately the years have not been kind to Burton’s voice. After leaving the Guess Who, his solo career went much more in the direction of soft-rock and ballads than rock n roll, and although he still produced some great pop-rock songs (check out his 2-Cd solo compilation, The Burton Cummings Collection (1994), he denied us of further expressions of his gutsy, harder-rockin vocals in subsequent years (Unfortunately, there aren’t any bootlegs available from his prime solo years). I saw him live with Ringo’s All-Starr Band in 1992, and he still had his great voice then. But, by the time of the extended Guess Who Reunion Tour in 2000-2001, his voice had changed dramatically. Although he still had the same inimitable vocal style, his voice was much more shrill and thin, not having the full rich sound of previous years (for proof, check out ‘Runnin’ Back Through Canada (2001), the live album from the 2000 tour), and, to me, was almost unlistenable in comparison to his prime years. However, in his most recent solo album, Above the Ground (2008, his first solo album in 18 years), his voice is stronger than it has been in years (and a very strong album). He also still performs and tours with the Bachman-Cummings Band (w/Randy Bachman, doing many of the old Guess Who songs). So, it’s good to hear that Burton is still going strong today.
OK, so Burton was the best. But who else ranks high on my list? After Burton, I would probably say Roger Daltrey and Paul Rodgers rank the next highest (both have great, strong rock voices). After that would probably be Paul McCartney (Paul has more of a pop voice than a rock voice, but he’s still up there). Also in the top ten or so would probably be people like Freddie Mercury, Gary Brooker (Procol Harum), Peter Gabriel, Sting, Van Morrison, Greg Lake, Elvis Costello, and, yes, maybe even that other Elvis guy. But who is definitely NOT up there? Robert Plant, Ozzie Ozborne, Mick Jagger, Bon Scott, Axl Rose, Steven Tyler, etc. They may be popular, they may be effective for the music they sing, but they are not great singers. Disagree? Who do you think is the greatest rock vocalist?
Disclaimer: I hereby state that I am not from Canada, have never lived in Canada, and that my high regard for The Guess Who and Burton Cummings is not biased by any Canadian nationalistic pride, influence, or any such nonsense. They are just damn good.