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August 24, 2006

If I Only Had a Voice

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Have you ever wondered what it must be like to have an impressive and eloquent speaking or singing voice? The power that James Earl Jones must feel as he rumbles and enunciates! Having a tight little monotone of a voice myself, I'm afraid that in this lifetime I'll never be experiencing that kind of thrill.

Here's another example of vocal prowess: Eric Burdon, the lead singer of the gritty, thrillingly-overblown (IMHO, of course) '60s British pop band The Animals.

Ain't it a hoot the way that -- his voice aside -- Burdon looks like such a trollish, pimply little punk? He even moves badly. Yet watch how, when he opens his mouth, he morphs into a living megaphone-in-an-echo-chamber. He really revels in the spooky grandeur that his voice projects:

To be honest, what he really makes me imagine is a particular kind of high school classmate. He's small, he's awkward, he's nothing special, he lives in the shadows. Yet there's always an annoying little glint of "I'm special" amusement in his eye -- a glint that helps explain why he gets beaten up on a regular basis. What is it that's so irksome about the little creep? Finally you learn what it is that explains that little edge of ego: Your nondescript, loser acquaintance has the biggest dick in class.

Interesting to find out from some web-surfing that The Animals had only two good years; that they were cheated out of royalties and earnings even more flagrantly than most pop groups are; that Eric Burdon turned into a psychedelia-era flower-power type; and that, these days, one re-grouping of The Animals sometimes performs on a Color Line cruise ship. Here's Eric Burdon's own website.

How's your own voice? Weak? Passable? A magnificent instrument of persuasion and seduction?



posted by Michael at August 24, 2006


Heh, that's a good description of Burdon.

My voice is fairly deep and resonant. An Irish baritone, my mom calls it.

Posted by: the patriarch on August 24, 2006 9:48 AM

Eric Burdon is a study in the strange politics and mythology of the blues.

The Animals were, of course, best known for "House of the Rising Sun."

My late wife, Myrna, sang this song, and we studied it very closely. She was Filipina.

The notion, widely held, that blues is "black music" when viewed against "House" will take you on a merry-go-round. The Animals chose to sing it as if they were black men from South Chicago. The gave it the full "nigger" treatment. Look at the chordal and melodic structure of this song for a while, and you will discover that it is a pure Irish lament. And, I believe that Burdon is Irish.

If this isn't confusing enough, take a long look at the words. My wife and I came to the conclusion that this song was written to be sung by an Asian whore in a New Orleans bordello. These types of songs were quite popular in the lounges of whorehouses. The "House" referred to in the song is a cathouse. Whorehouses specializing in Asian prostitutes routinely flew a Japanese flag outside in the cowboy era of New Orleans and the Old West.

So, the most widely known blues song in the world was resurrected by an Irish group pretending to sound like south Chicago blacks, and the song itself was meant to be sung by an Asian whore.

How did the blues come to be identified as "black music?" The answer to that lies in the race record era... which centered around recordings made prior to 1920. The blues developed as a sort of vaudeville, with performers competing to see who could "nigger it up" best for a white audience that ate up the act. Bessie Smith is probably the best known performer of this era.

I was instructed by iron willed professors at the University of Illinois in the 1960s in the doctrine that blues was solely a black invention. When I asked how the 1-4-5 chord structure, which does not exist in African music, found its way into the blues, I got steely stares and condemnation in return. The chordal and melodic structures of the blues originate in Irish and Scotch hymns and folk music.

In my travels in the music biz, I constantly run into white musicians who profess amazement and, sometimes, anger that I play the blues. "You're not a nigger," they say in so many words. "And white people don't feel as deeply as black people do." Black musicians are well aware of this dynamic and will play it for all its worth.

I remember well walking into one of the most important blues clubs in New York City to ask for a gig. The owner pointed to the wall and said: "The leader of every band here is black."

My wife, who was part black as are most Filipinas, shot back:

"OK, hire me. He may not be a nigger, but I am."

The story becomes even more convoluted when you talk with young people about the blues. The last real blues club in NYC closed over a decade ago. Many of the young folk now think of blues as a didactic form that is best avoided. All they've heard is the school teacher telling them that it's the music of the Civil Rights era and that it must be segregated forever, because it is owned by blacks. This has been the death sentence for blues among kids, particularly black kids.

In Chicago, where Myrna and I played several times a year, blues is still viewed as dance and party music. The audience gets down. I sometimes feel as if I'm suffocating in the Northeast where blues has virtually died.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on August 24, 2006 10:46 AM

Of course blacks didn't invent every aspect of the blues by themselves. No legitimate genre is plucked from the sky. However, they took those Scotch/Irish chord and lyric structures, married them with African rythmic patterns, and basically came up with a new form of music. Put it this way, without blacks, there would be no blues.

Your experiences as a musician are foreign to me here in California. I've played at many black clubs and while I wouldn't say they accepted me wholly, I've also never been met with any real resistance. In the East Bay Area particularly, there's a long history of white rythm sections in predominantly black blues and funk bands. Think Sly & the Family Stone, Tower of Power, Herbie Hancocks's 70s bands, Robert Cray, etc.

Posted by: the patriarch on August 24, 2006 11:51 AM

I don't disagree with anything you say, the patriarch.

The East Bay music scene, which I was a part of in the early 70s, is a very different scene from the New York City scene. White and blacks have always mixed very easily along the border of Oakland and Berkeley. I played at a couple of clubs along San Pablo Avenue.

The mythology of the West Coast, particularly the Bay Area is dramatically opposed to the East Coast, particularly NYC. People are drawn to the Bay Area, to some degree, by the promise of racial intermixing. NYC is obsessed with class and money. The interracial mode of NYC is more one of "slumming."

I didn't mean to deny the achievements of the great black blues artists. Hell, I grew up worshipping Muddy Waters and Elmore James. Also grew up worshipping Paul Butterfield, the great Jewish bluesman, who was a childhood friend.

What I intended to say is that the blues, if you really look at it, is a sort of hidden history of racial intermixing. This is taboo in many circles, because political folks like us to believe that racial conflict and violence is all that has ever existed. Understanding that blacks, white and Asians partied together and slept together, way back before the Civil War... that's doesn't fit in the received wisdom.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on August 24, 2006 12:38 PM

Pardon my pedantism, and I may be wrong, but I'm pretty sure that's Alan Price playing the organ in the second still, not Eric Burdon. Alan Price makes a wonderful drunken cameo appearance in Dylan's "Don't Look Back," filmed just after he had left the Animals.
But I quite agree, Burdon's is a brilliant voice: "When I Was Young" - terrific delivery of punk-assed song.
My own voice, if it be compared to an instrument, is an out-of-tune violin with two strings missing and a crack body. I use it sparingly.

Posted by: stephenesque on August 24, 2006 1:45 PM

The anomalous voice of Eric Burdon reminds me that young Sinatra had a voice bigger than his scrawny frame.

My speaking voice is pretty good and solid. Singing voice: don’t ask.

Don’t know if Burdon was Irish. He was born in Northumberland, England.

Not sure if you can really dismiss Burdon’s post Animals career as “psychedelia-era flower-power type” stuff. Some of his strongest work was done with the multi-ethnic group War. Burdon and War were easily accepted by blacks and Latinos, in addition to whites, and War’s “Low Rider” is still an anthem for many Latino youth.

It is curious how many musicians (Burdon, John Fogerty, numerous black musicians) had royalties stolen from them. This seems worse than in book publishing, although the movie business also has a number of outrageous instances of theft and fraud against artists.

Shouting Thomas’ music history is odd and wrong, but interesting. Musical influence is not linear. The banjo is an African instrument that is almost exclusively played by white musicians in America. Some of the instrument’s tuning is still African even though it is used in country music. Conversely, some of the most beautiful pedal steel guitar (country music instrument) can be heard on The Wailer’s song, “Concrete Jungle.” And Taj Mahal’s “Blackjack Davey” reinvents a traditional Scottish ballad as a reggae/ska tune.

Country music has obvious, if unacknowledged black influence (otherwise it would still sound like Irish and Scottish balladry), and black music from blues to R&B to reggae has obvious white influence (largely Scot and Irish). Bob Marley’s father was a white Jamaican whose own parents came from Sussex, and who married a black Jamaican woman. The mix was a particularized example of the mix and black, white and Indian culture within the island itself.

Liverpool was important to the slave trade in the 18th century. Ironic that in the 1920s through 1950s, Liverpool sailors, workers and passengers would bring back records by black artists, ultimately helping to form the musical tastes of those Liverpool lads John Paul, George, and Ringo. Later, Paul would acknowledge another musical influence by making sure that Buddy Holly’s wife and family were generously compensated when he acquired Holly’s music publishing catalog (also a noteworthy example of a musician fighting back against the fraud and theft that sometimes occurs in the industry).

Many (not most) Filipinos are black because of the admixture of non-African black indigenous peoples, and some African genes from the Spanish invaders much later.

The presence of white session musicians during blues, R&B and rock and roll recording sessions is well documented, and easily negates Shouting Thomas’ crabby view of music history. On the other hand, the sad example of some black musicians being unfriendly toward white musicians was in part of residue of racism and segregation, and a hard, but rational attempt to protect their music since black musicians had almost no legal recourse if their music was stolen or mis-appropriated. Another irony is that often black and white musicians were often better compensated by mobsters who controlled many East and Mid-west nightclubs than they were by supposedly legitimate music publishers.

Posted by: Alec on August 24, 2006 3:46 PM

I consider my voice pretty decent, but sometimes it doesn't sound as cool in recordings (audioblogs especially since I do them via phone). My radio voice from back in the day, however, probably sounds better than me in daily life. It's all what you put into it, y'know?

This actually makes me think of this Nip/Tuck promo I keep seeing. Kathleen Turner guest stars as a sex phone artist who wants a voice lift.

Posted by: claire on August 24, 2006 4:44 PM

I've been complimented on my voice by musicians. I'm a tenor with a decent range. Namely, I can sing bass when I put an effort into it.

Speaking voice is pleasant, but I sound a lot younger than I am.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on August 24, 2006 4:46 PM

Alec, I think that you agreed with me more than you disagreed.

Theft and underhanded dealing are legendary in the music biz, and that crap knows no racial boundaries.

You are only partly correct about Filipinos and their racial origins. As my wife told me many times, she had black blood not only as a result of intermarriage in her family with American blacks, but also as a result of the migration of black pygmy tribes from Malaysia into the Philippines in pre-Western occupation times. These people were, indeed, very black.

One of your statements is right on. Gigs in mob controlled clubs remain to this day the most sought after gigs for mid-level local bands. This has not changed. Just before Myrna's death, we were signed up to play at a resort in the Catskills that is a notorious cocaine and money laundering venue.

Musicians love these clubs because (1) mob guys know and love good music, and (2) the musicians get paid no matter whether an audience shows up or not. Since the club is being used as a facade for the gang activities, the mob boys gladly pay top dollar, ask you to play your two or three sets whether the club is empty or full, and pay you at the end of the night without a quarrel. Getting paid can never be taken for granted in the music biz.

You'll pardon my "crabby" viewpoint. The music business is a crabby business. When I was a kid, I admired the hard bitten appearance and attitudes of veterans, without really knowing how they got that way. At this point in my life, I know all too well how they got that way.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on August 24, 2006 5:57 PM

Judging by that YouTube clip, Eric Burdon's trollish, pimply little-punk appearance seems to be at least in part a consequence of his oh-so-60's hair style and suit.

Anyway, I've noticed that one characteristic shared by many Alpha males is a powerful, resonant speaking voice, the sort of commanding voice that's easily heard even when they are not speaking loudly. The flip side, as you might guess, is that many non-Alphas have weak voices that don't project well. I attribute this to different manners of speaking rather than physiological differences in the larynx. If you're an Alpha male, your take-charge personality is reflected in your voice, even if you've never taken speech or acting lessons. It's the sort of thing that just happens.

I'll bet that if you listened to the voices of Alpha and non-Alpha men reciting the same passage, it would be relatively easy to tell the two groups apart. Especially if the groups were highly Alpha and highly non-Alpha, for instance NFL skybox owners and attendees at a science fiction convention, respectively.

Posted by: Peter on August 24, 2006 6:40 PM

Interests declared: My voice is lousy. I can occasionally fake it if I croon, but otherwise, I can't sing.

But on Burdon: I've long been a fan. It's interesting how people frequently assume the Animals' songs are Rolling Stones tunes. When you think about it, the Animals' three or four most popular songs are bigger than Jumpin' Jack Flash or Angie, or what have you. (Only Satisfaction qualifies as a truly memorable hit for the Stones.)

The point is, the Animals should be playing the arena tours today, not the Stones. The personae of the Stones entertain me, but the Animals provded the truly memorable songs, the ones that show up in movie soundtracks.

Oh, and the Burdon-War combo - don't get me started. Great fun! "Whiskey in your water, sugar in your tea..." Oscar night aside, the Boogie Nights soundtrack beats out the Magnolia soundtrack any day, and the latter is still worth owning.

Also, thanks to Shouting Thomas for his comments - interesting stuff.

Posted by: Ned on August 24, 2006 7:06 PM

On the classical front, I've known bunches of people with operatic-type voices, male and female, who sound as resonant and hi-falutin' when they speak in every day conversation as when they sing - in fact it often sounds as if they're trying to do some sort of sing-speak thing, to show the world the magnificence of their instruments even when they're off-duty. (Yeah, I'd like to have got a look at Eric Burdon's "instrument.") It's usually due to a lifetime of rigorous attention to diction (at least, there should be that) that just spills over with some singers. Then there are those who speak like Elmer Fudd or Fran Drescher and sing like Bjoerling or Flagstad. The latter situation always amazes me -- both that they drop the pretense in conversation, and that when they sing they suck it up and out comes this enormous blast of sound.

About the big-dicked, punky guys in class -- Wow! You mean that obnoxious little termite who swarmed around and made life miserable with his armpit farting and shit-eating smirk was sporting this gargantuan tackle, all the time? That explains so much.

Posted by: Flutist on August 24, 2006 7:18 PM

My singing voice is excellent when I keep it in practice - James Taylorish - but my speaking voice is thin and nasal. So if I want to persuade or seduce I need to find excuses to sing. Or, better yet, sing AND play guitar.

Like Burdon or that hypothetical highschooler, I have very little stage presence and can therefore catch people by surprise. I gather record companies nowadays send musicians to a sort of charm school to teach how to come across well on stage or on video.

Even if you don't have the pipes, modern technology can make almost anybody sound good on stage, up to and including fixing notes that are out of tune. Michael, you should try doing Karaoke sometime - you might be surprised at how much better you sound with some reverb/chorus/eq/amplification!

Just for fun, here's something I slapped together in Garageband the other day - a Flying Spaghetti Monster Hymn.

Posted by: Glen Raphael on August 24, 2006 7:20 PM

I suspect people who can sing don't esteem that ability as much as those who can't. I tend to naturally assume everybody can sing. Get some "classical training", sing in a chorus for a while, or just hang out with friends who like to sing, and pretty soon you start to regard singing - even singing powerfully - as no big deal.

Which doesn't mean I didn't find the girl with the million-dollar voice impressive...

Posted by: Glen Raphael on August 24, 2006 7:27 PM

Michael Blowhard's blog is very amusing and oh so true. One thing though, how do you know he has the biggest dick in the classroom. Personal knowledge or just another of those myths spread about by Eric Burdon

Posted by: Freddie on August 24, 2006 7:51 PM

Michael Blowhard's blog is very funny and oh so true. One thing though, how do you know Burdon has the biggest dick in the playground. Personal knowledge or just another of those myths put about by Eric Burdon.

Posted by: Freddie on August 24, 2006 7:55 PM

Oh - forgot to say - contralto, here. And a totally frustrated singer. My speaking voice is very low -- in my early twenties I did some time as a telephone operator and got called "sir" quite a lot. Years of imitating Etta James and Dinah Washington and Tom Jones, in the kitchen, using a wooden pepper grinder for a microphone, have added a gravelly quality (non-smoker, though) to my singing but not speaking voice. Odd.

Posted by: Flutist on August 24, 2006 9:50 PM

I’m a bit incongruous, in that I’m a very large man, but have a relatively ‘thin’, i.e. reedy/non-resonant, speaking voice -- I sound pretty whiny in recordings/broadcasts. My vocal selling point here in Hong Kong is that I’ve been told my upper-midwestern-but-not-Fargoesque diction is unusually clear and therefore easy for English-as-a-second-language people to understand.

And although my speaking voice is baritone-pitched, I’ve always sung tenor, albeit in a mediocre way. I’ve got quite good singing range, though – two octaves or maybe a bit more.

Speaking of great voices in unpleasant packages, the most enjoyable study of this phenomenon, at least for me, is The Commitments. I love the disquisition the smarmy little trumpeter (can't recall his name) gives to one of the girls in the band on how mysterious are the ways the Lord, placing Great Voices in obnoxious packages . . . no offense intended to any of you here who are so gifted, df course!

Posted by: mr tall on August 24, 2006 10:12 PM

LOL - I want to adopt you as my "Blogfaddah".

This post struck inspiration, pure inspiration in me.

No podcast of Pattie singing, just an example of her warped sense of humor...

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on August 24, 2006 10:47 PM

I have a voice capable of bringing down 747s at an altitude of 30,000 feet.

It's really true. My singing voice can knock down walls. My speaking voice rings with that old fashioned male authority that convinces people that I can do all sorts of things that are totally beyond my ability.

This is both a good and a bad thing. If I tone it down a bit when I sing, people feel as if I'm talking directly to them. However, that stentorian authority has gotten me all sorts of jobs that I really should never have received, and I've suffered untold agony when my employer discovered that I was just really good at sounding convincing.

So, I try to really mute this in job interviews and situations, but that doesn't always work. People can still hear the authority in the voice, and they think that I might be holding out on them.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on August 25, 2006 9:48 AM

I've loved the Animals since I don't remember when, and it never occurred to me that Burdon's looks and manners should matter a single bit. (BTW, Roy Orbison would have looked like a computer geek if there had been PCs back then.) "The House of the Rising Sun" is not a blues thing because its harmonic progression has nothing to do with the blues but the Animals did play quite a few blues standards -- "Worried Life Blues" and "How You've Changed" to name just two. Burdon's accent is wonderful -- I even wrote about it a while ago.

Posted by: Alexei on August 29, 2006 4:53 AM

I've loved the Animals since I don't remember when, and it never occurred to me that Burdon's looks and manners should matter a single bit. (BTW, Roy Orbison would have looked like a computer geek if there had been PCs back then.) "The House of the Rising Sun" is not a blues thing because its harmonic progression has nothing to do with the blues but the Animals did play quite a few blues standards -- "Worried Life Blues" and "How You've Changed" to name just two. Burdon's accent is wonderful -- I even wrote about it a while ago.

My own voice leaves much to be desired, nothing special at all. Just a voice.

Posted by: Alexei on August 29, 2006 4:59 AM

The lower picture is indeed Alan Price. He entertained me and my friends in our common room for a couple of hours, playing the piano and singing the blues, while we brought him the occasional beer. This was after the band had played their set at a ball we were holding, and mostly cleared off. But Mr Price was a good egg who just liked playing, so he came to the common room and played on. January or February '65, I think. He later had hits of his own, including a very fine "I put a spell on you" and the jolly "Simon Smith and his amazing dancing bear".

Posted by: dearieme on September 1, 2006 4:52 PM

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