Voices in Blues: Stylistic Approaches to a Blues Standard

When we deal with such an ethereal and subjective concept like "what makes this music beautiful," "why is this music so emotionally charged," and "what drives me to keep listening," it becomes difficult to establish any concrete forms of data to make a case for or against whether or not a voice or song is captivating. Blues can be especially tricky. One of the biggest draws to the genre is the raw emotion that comes through a soulful wail or an expressive guitar lick. 

A standard is what we call any works that are famous to a particular genre and, when discussing standards in terms of the music industry, usually have a large amount of artists recording their own version of the piece. For example "Jingle Bells" could be considered a Christmas standard and "Big Yellow Taxi" could be considered a folk rock standard. For this entry, we'll examine a Blues standard called "I Can't Quit You Baby," written by Willie Dixon almost 60 years ago and covered by Otis Rush and Led Zeppelin, as well as a cover Tori Diggs and I did for the purpose of this project.

What makes standards particularly useful to use in this scenario is the fact that we have a constant piece of work with many different musicians bringing their own changes and twists; in other words, if we have multiple samples of a piece, then we have a control variable (the unchanged structures and features of the original song) and a handful of independent variables (what each cover changes about the original song). By isolating the techniques an artist implements, we can begin to get an understanding of what makes a voice captivating.

Due to the limited length of the sound entries, here is a link to the cover my friend and I did to provide some musical context of what you'll be listening to. Links to the full performances to the other three artists are in the descriptions, which can be found by clicking on the title of the tracks.

The following entries are excerpts from the four different groups recording the song "I Can't Quit You Baby." Each has been trimmed to highlight a particular aspect or technique of the singer's voice that, despite being different than the other recordings, keeps that elusive quality we associate with a captivating voice.

A final note is that, while I'll be discussing many technical aspects about Tori's vocal, I did not instruct her to sing in any particular way. The way the cover was done was I had her listen a couple versions of the song, and she sung it in her own style. So while her vocals may sound very similar or very distinct from the other versions of the song, we didn't sit down and say "alright, now try to copy Robert Plant exactly on this phrase" or "Willie Dixon uses a very smooth rasp for this part, so you sing breathy and personal." What was sung was Tori's own interprettation of the song.