A task as daunting as choosing ten singers who had an impact on me is about as difficult as choosing 5 desert island albums, or narrowing down a mixtape to 45 minutes. I tried to determine who and how and why the following ten were chosen, and I essentially broke it down to a few criteria. The first was that the singer had to be fluid as a writer and as a performer. In other words, it couldn’t be splintered.
There are singers who influenced me as writers, for example Jeff Atta of the Middle Class and Patti Smith are singers who were more important to me as poets and for their poetic style. In fact it was Jeff Atta and his friend Norma who taught me that lyrics didn’t need to be stupid.They just needed to be good.
There are singers who had a specific vocal style was a bigger influence on me than their performance or lyrics. Darby Crash, for example, had a vocal style that I really loved when I was younger. I still do, actually. I liked his lyrics, but they weren’t always consistent. While the nihilism and hedonism intrigued me as a young man, it didn’t stay with me long after that. Rik L. Rik had an incredible voice, but the body of work was limited and sparse, often released after the bands were disbanded, or songs reworked so many times that they weren’t the blistering sonic booms that they were when first recorded. Did I love his voice and performance? Absolutely. Lou Reed, who had a distinctive voice and style, and many times wrote the greatest songs on Earth. As a performer I always found him to be way too relaxed. HR, once an amazing and engaging performer, has over time become more of a favorite of mine due to his truly amazing voice over all else.
Then there are the performers, those singers who put on a great show. Here I would include Jonathan Richman who can dance and tell stories that bring joy and tears, Iggy Pop who is the greatest performer in rock and roll hands down. Jack Grisham has an imposing smile and a mischievous glint in his eyes that is both disarming and dangerous. Jeff Dahl who has flair and style and bravado, and Keith Morris who has always been a firecracker armed with a microphone. That isn’t to say they lack writing or vocal style, it’s just that their performance is what captured and held me.
So. With all of that nonsense as a set up, I narrowed the field down to these ten singers. I chose them based on their recorded works whether film or audio, as well as performances based on the same, and live shows if I was lucky enough to catch them. Finally, it was based on influence and longevity of influence.
There is no way to do any justice to these people, so I will try to keep it brief. which is highly unlikely….
Before I Joined a Band
Long before I ever dreamed of being in a band I discovered the love for music and loved to listen to the radio. I was especially fond of KRLA and KHJ in Los Angeles, both of them provided a rich diversity of oldies rock and roll in the late 1960’s well into the 1970’s at which point I started to gravitate toward album rock and Dr. Demento. Singers drew me in, and it was stuff that my mom introduced me to such as Buddy Holly and the Beatles, as well as accidental self discoveries like the Kinks, the Stones, and the Pink Floyd that first got me interested in songs, and structures, and patterns, and the pure joy and exhilaration of it all.
1. Little Richard- From the moment I heard the wail of Little Richard and saw that crazy hair, I was in. Little Richard’s voice, the catchiness and double entendres, and the wild, over the top performances appealed to me as much when I first heard him as it does right now. I think he’s one of the greatest rock and roll singers of all time.
Little Richard- Long Tall Sally
Little Richard- Lucille
2. Jim Morrison- While I like the poetry and cadence of Jim Morrison’s delivery, what drew me in was his dreamy drift-away speaks and ad-libs. This was compliments of a great band of course. I loved that Morrison would just close his eyes and groove; and he’d just let go. There is something very appealing to me about the laissez faire of it all. As much as I love Mick Jaggers swing and sing, Jim Morrison took it to a much darker place.
The Doors- The End
3. Janis Joplin- Janis Joplin has a voice that is so crystal clear on an emotional high and low that she makes me laugh, enjoy, and cry. She’s like the soundtrack of life. So much soul, beauty and charisma. High crescendos, devastating heartbreak and dissolution. I suppose that Janis brought the blues to singers the way Cream and the Yardbirds brought them to guitarists. To be honest, i think it is because of my love for Janis Joplin that I love Dinosaur Jr.
Big Brother & the Holding Company- Ball and Chain
Janis Joplin- Cry Baby
4. Bon Scott- The AC/DC frontman on the first five or so albums had a distinctive voice and a bark/snarl that I couldn’t- and still can’t- resist. He was awesome live, funny, and engaging. I loved the denim, what-the-fuck-ever attitude as much as I loved his voice. The lyrics were catchy, anthemic, witty, crass, and simple. All of the longevity qualities I seek in a song, also apply to the singer.
AC/DC- Whole Lotta Rosie
AC/DC- Sin City
Early on in my Music Experience
In the late seventies there was a rush of great stuff that didn’t quite mesh with the slop that was played on local radio. Bands like Cheap Trick, Runaways, Ramones, Elvis Costello, Rick Derringer, and AC/DC were all releasing great music that even FM bands wouldn’t touch. In fact, the early releases of these bands made their way into my hands via a kid that lived near me who got all of the promostuff. I would buy or trade them with him. KROQ was still being run out of a pasadena hotel room and later out of some non descript building off of Los Robles, and college radio? What’s that?
Punk Rock came along and offered me my first attempts at making legitimate noise. I started by using a cheap bass, Optigan Organ, and pots and pans- running it all through a stereo amplifier and recording it on cheap cassettes. Eventually I was invited to join a band, and started making noise for people instead of for my pets. I had already begun going to see bands and was buying records from independent imprints. From 1979 to 1982 I began to absorb a different kind of rock and roll singer, and found a few that have remained favorites all of these years later.
5. Chris D.- Chris D was the first singer I saw that could scream in a way that I thought his throat was bleeding. He wasn’t yelling some goofy lyrics, either, but wailing about life, drugs, heartbreak, and death He was a writer and a great poet as much as a singer, and his relaxed performance style could break out into cold sweat at any minute. As much as I loved John Doe/Exene, Jeff Atta, and Darby Crash, I thought he was the best lyricists around. His songs have withstood the test of time, and are every bit as engaging as they were the first time I heard them.
Flesheaters- No Questions Asked
Flesheaters- Live 1981
6. Jimmy Trash Decker- Jimmy Trash brought an accidental aura of trouble along with his great dayglo shirts and imposing size (I was under five feet tall the first time I saw him). Being within a few miles of the beach, Decker brought something unique and comfortable to me- he was from a similar place. I could relate to the experiences. He had charisma and was approachable. Over the years everything I first loved about Decker is still there- his nasal twang, his obvious beach drawl, his tan, and his incredible and unique vocals.
The Crowd- Suzy is a Surf Rocker
The Crowd- Max Got Hit by a Car
7. Robert Omlit- Robert Logan Omlit makes the list because I saw him as one of the people in music that showed not only how easy it was too be in a band, but made me understand that this was anyone’s game who wanted to play. A relatively small, prematurely thinning hair, big coke bottle lenses in his specs, and quite possibly the most dangerous person I knew at the time, he would crumple on the floor and literally scream until the veins in his head bulged and passed out. A truly amazing vocalist.
Several Pamelas- I Know I’m Lovely
8. Ricky Williams- The singer of the Sleepers and later Toiling Midgets had all of the vocal mystique that I admired in singers like Joplin and Morrison, but with even more enigmatic qualities. Detached, spontaneous, and unpredictable. Lyrically heavy and disillusioned. An incredible voice that I would marvel at; Rik L. Rik and I spent many late nights in the mid-eighties dissecting the appeal and the lyrics of Ricky Williams
Sleepers- Sister Little
Sleepers- Title Unknown
Toiling Midgets- Before Trusting Ricky
Later In My Music Experience
By the time the 1990’s were upon us I was already a veteran singer, if you can call what I do singing. I still went to participate in live music, and still enjoyed hearing what my peers had to say. I guess I still do. Unlike many people who had drifted away, I found that the music was still as exciting and urgent as it was when I was sixteen. I also found that there were singers that could belt out a song with such force and power and conviction that I would leave some shows wondering what had just taken place was even real.
9. Jon Wahl- Though I had known John peripherally since we were in high school, and though I had heard him play that far back, there was absolutely nothing on earth that prepared me for hearing him sing when he was in Clawhammer. Both live and on wax, John’s voice gave me pain in my throat every time I heard it. A desperate howl trying to cut through the mayhem of a band who rocked so over the top that on a good night you knew you had just witnessed something so important and personal that it felt like you were reading someone’s sonic diary. A magnificent voice, and incredible lyricist.
Clawhammer- on Oddville
Clawhammer- Malthusian Blues
10. Scott Drake- The younger brother of Joneses singer/songwriter Jeff Drake took a similar, but unique direction with his bands the Suicide Kings and then the Humpers. A charismatic frontman, he has a voice that drips with ironic humor, bitter observation, and perseverance. Eyes rolling back in his head one minute, and breaking into a carefree dance the next moment, Scott Drake is a showman and a singer’s singer. He still consistently releases great music, and his voice has all of the qualities it always had.
Humpers- Space Station Love
Lovesores- Fast Friends
There you have it. A perfect ten.