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A vanished female vocal style

November 21, 2018

Just as fashions in accent and pronunciation change over time, so do fashions in the vocal styles of singers. I’ve been thinking about a particular female vocal style which was very popular in the 1960s and 1970s and which has now disappeared. I mean the very pure, thin, clear, melodic style of singers like Petula Clarke (Downtown); or Mary Hopkin (Those Were the Days); or Julie Andrews (Anything from The Sound of Music or Mary Poppins). The voice was always very prominent in the mix, standing proud from the accompaniment, absolutely on the note, and the diction was crystal clear with every consonant sounded and every vowel pure and clean. This style was also used by a lot of female folk singers, such as Judith Durham of The Seekers (The Carnival is Over) or Maddy Prior of Steeleye Span (All Around my Hat). It is, I suppose, rather a white style, but not exclusively: Dionne Warwick was an exponent (Walk On By).

No woman sings like that any more. And perhaps it would sound affected and old-fashioned if she did. But I have feelings of nostalgia for that vanished style. I liked the clarity of it, the tunefulness, the way it was all about the song rather than the singer. Much contemporary female vocalising seems to me histrionic in comparison – breathy, emotional, full of sighs and groans and swoops and shrieks.

I know, shall we all have a listen to the Seekers? Go on, you know you want to…

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  1. Mark Brafield permalink

    Couldn’t agree more Brandon. I really am sure it is not simply a fact of my becoming middle – aged, but I find it hard to think of any female singers today who can match the musicality of that former generation. My personal favourites were (and still are) Karen Carpenter, Eva Cassidy and the one and only Barbra Streisand, who I saw live in London 6 or 7 years ago, the voice still miraculously youthful and controlled. They had the ability simply to sing and respect the song (OK then, perhaps not La Streisand), admitting their personality but leaving their ego at the door. That for me is one of the definitions of real musicality.

    One reason I gave up on X Factor was the string of wannabes who would bawl their way through a song, quite unable to respect the wishes of the composer and feeling that they had the right to embellish the song with their own riffs and vocal gymnastics. The panel of judges would then inevitably compliment the singer on ‘making the song their own’, when in fact all they had done was massacre the song by their own arrogance. This all reaches a high point when you hear a singer perform the American national anthem before some ceremony or sports event such as the Superbowl (and I witnessed this at a basketball game in New York last year). The singer adds so many layers of their own ornamentation that the poor tune is suffocated beneath them while the crowd, thinking that these circus acrobatics somehow equate to musicianship, stands and cheers .

    In just over a month’s time we will hear the choir of King’s College, Cambridge sing the Nine Lessons and Carols. They are trained that they should never sing louder than beautiful, and that when singing a descant, the descant is a decoration and not the tune itself. Every musician would do well to remember that advice.

  2. Simon Carter permalink

    Wonderful singers. I’ll split my vote between Petula Clark and Mama Cass.

  3. David permalink

    Very interesting post, but as one of her compatriots, I feel I ought to point out that Mary is no more a ‘Hopkins’ than Cliff is a ‘Richards’ 😉 Another Karen Carpenter fan here.

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