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John Lennon (1940-1980) - Rock Singer, Songwriter, Record Producer, Artist, Writer, Activist

The Hersch

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I've sort of run out of steam with the 20th-century chanteuses I was highlighting. Lots and lots of recordings to listen to, of course, but not a lot of my favorite female jazz singers I haven't posted about at least once.

So what about the great rock-n-roll singers? I find that almost all of them were men. I'm setting aside R&B and soul singers, like Aretha Franklin, one of the greatest singers of the 20th century (to anyone with any discernment), and ditto James Brown, say, or Otis Redding. It's not a matter of race: Little Richard and Chuck Berry, along with Jimi Hendrix and others, certainly inhabited the world of rock-n-roll, but it became more and more dominated by white artists as time went by in the 50s and into the 60s, and the only black rock-n-roll singer whose star shines in the highest firmament to me is Little Richard, of whom more later.

The prominent female rock singers, like Grace Slick and Janis Joplin, are largely over-rated, in my view. Joplin might have become a really great singer, but her career was so terribly short. Probably my favorite female rocker is Marianne Faithfull, but it's hard to put her in the same category as the greatest male r-n-r singers, such as John Lennon.

Charlie Pierce famously maintains that the only wrong answer to "what's your favorite Beatles song?" is "Revolution Number 9", a point of view I'm in sympathy with, but can't agree with in the detail. "Revolution Number 9" isn't a song, but there are songs from the white album that are wrong answers: "Piggies" and "Oh-bla-di", for example. But the white album also includes much of John Lennon's best work with the Beatles. Not just his best writing, but his best singing. Take as an extravagantly great example one of my very favorite Beatles songs, probably not well known to generations younger than mine, but which features one of John's most wonderful vocal performances, among other things - "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey" (1968):

I loved him as if I knew him.

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It's a very heavy song, but I've always loved his vocals on Mother.

"Mama don't gooooooooooooooooooooooo!, Daddy come home"

Vocals drenched in pain.  I'm getting goose bumps right now just thinking about it.

"Mother" was the first track on John's John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band album from 1970, which I have always considered the only truly great album by a former Beatle. Lennon and Ono were deep into Primal Scream therapy, which was expressed more fully in this song than any of John's others. I find it intensely painful and almost impossible to listen to, which is not to say that it isn't a brilliant piece. I love everything on this album, which used very spare instrumentation (just Lennon on guitar and vocal, Klaus Voormann on bass, and Ringo on drums) and a weird production technique that often had separately recorded unison lines (or so it sounds to me) playing on the right and left channels in stereo. It also featured some of John's very best and most affecting singing. Among my favorite tracks is "I Found Out," which means it's one of my favorite tracks in all of recorded music:

This album was one of those that I ran to the record store to buy on the day of release, and I've never wavered in my admiration.

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Couldn't agree more. And his Rock & Roll album too.

Marianne Faithful was/is incredible. Pick up her live concert album, done at St. Ann's in Brooklyn, 2 blocks from where I live (& where my wife & I were married... & where the Tim Buckley tribute concert was held). Incredible church acoustics, great back up players.

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