27 September 2023
On the Trail of the Contemporary Singing Voice
Diane Hughes is a Professor in Vocal Studies and Music at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia, and was a 2022 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.
My research as an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow was undertaken at the British Library during April to May, 2023. I arrived with a long list of sources to examine - recordings, historical references, and a range of interviews. I am passionate about music and singing. The aim of my current project is to document the evolution of the contemporary singing voice and its intersection with, and the influences of, American and British popular singing. This includes the conceptualisation and contexts of contemporary singing that centre around questions of voice and identity and sociocultural perspectives of song and of singing. It also involves diverse perspectives of contemporary voice and related technologies.
At the British Library, I discovered and listened to first-hand accounts related to crooning and orchestrated singing, along with more contemporary types of singing.1 This furthered my understanding of the historical significance of the musical arranger, of different recording technologies, and of various creative intents and interests. As recording technologies adapted to enable singers to be isolated from surrounding musicians, or in recording sound booths, more nuanced styles of singing emerged.2 Such nuanced audibility is often attributed to the communicative capabilities of “the microphone”, however, my research identified that this equally related to artistic objectives and to modes of audience engagement.
Several reflective accounts by touring and established singers, and by musical arrangers, provided detailed information on specific career trajectories.3 These accounts also contained commentary on changing musical styles, vocal delivery and on individual artistry. They assisted in contributing to a timeline of why and where transition points in contemporary singing occurred–broadly involving the strident sounds of vaudeville, the smoother crooning styles, the resonant singing of orchestrated standards, the personally expressive singer-songwriters, the stylistic influenced revival of skiffle, the innovative vocalisms of jazz, and the contemporary characteristics of rock ‘n’ roll, rock, and pop. I found it exciting to further explore these transitions through “captured” singing in broadcasts and recordings, through to singing in “live” performances.
During my research, I uncovered several unexpected sources. These related to mid-20th century definitions of popular music,4 and pedagogical publications on contemporary singing.5 In 1950, a renowned pedagogue of her time, Miriam Spier, offered aspiring singers the salient advice to use “the best artists as your guides, analyze and experiment; do not merely imitate”.6 This exploratory approach is still relevant today and has much to do with the evolutionary nature of contemporary singing styles and sounds. Other sources alluded to the progression and succession of popular styles, where rock ‘n’ roll/rock was hypothesised as having “the characteristics of a temporary craze”7 or where the development of contemporary jazz singing followed an exploration of vocal sounds and words.8 Many sources referenced the popularity of singing in relation to individual or communal listening and, as such, the value of singing clearly extended beyond the performer to their audience.
The evolution of the jazz and popular singing voice in Britain and the USA is complex and multilayered. Each is highly influenced by creativity, technologies, sounds, styles, and people, and will adapt and evolve as vocal exploration continues.
My sincere thanks to the Eccles Centre at the British Library for the opportunity to conduct this research and to the librarians at the Sound Archive for their assistance during my visit.
1. Stan Britt Collection. Sound and Moving Image Catalogue. This is a collection of interviews with a range of jazz and popular music performers undertaken by Stan Britt during the latter part of the 20th century.
2. See, for example, Peggy Lee interviewed by Stan Britt (23/07/1977). Stan Britt Collection. Sound and Moving Image Catalogue. C1645/238.
3. Stan Britt Collection.
4. Peter Gammond and Peter Clayton, A Guide to Popular Music. London: Phoenix House, 1960. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection 2737.c.3. Music Collections REF M.R.Ref. 781.63.
5. Frank Sinatra in collaboration with John Quinlan, (c1946), Tips on Popular Singing. For the British Empire (excluding Canada and Australasia) and the whole of Europe, the property of Peter Maurice Music Co. Limited. Music Collections VOC/1946/SINATRA; Miriam Spier, (1950), The Why and How of Popular Singing: A Modern Guide for Vocalists. New York: Edward. B. Marks Music Corporation, . British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection 7889.b.43.
6. Spier, p.41
7. Gammond and Clayton, p.177.
8. Norma Winstone [interview] (1994). Oral History of Jazz in Britain. C122/206-C122/207.