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.
This excerpt comes from the first verse of Tori's and my cover. The line in focus is "I said you messed up my happy home." Tori slides up to the A4 pitch in "messed" rather than just start on the note. This creates a more informal tone and a more personal atmosphere, especially when pitted against more classical genres where crisp and precise is the gold standard on how a note is played.
Another incidiental trait of this excerpt is the call and response between the guitar and vocals. The blues genre is famous for heavy use of call and response in a hefty majority of all works from the genre, and it is an extreme rarity to have a vocalist not joined in the limelight by a guitar or harmonic, let alone for that same vocalist not to be playing another instrument. This form of the song style establishes a much freer and welcoming atmosphere to the listener, regardless on whether or not the instrument part is completely improvisational or heavily practiced beforehand.
This is the first of four versions of the opening lyric that the singer preforms solo.
Here, Tori's voice starts strong like a classic blues, complete with cry break and vibrato on the top note. However, by the time we arrive at "...can't quit you baby," her voice has faded in both pitch and intensity, until we're left with a breathy end note a full octave lower than the top pitch. This technique establishes an emotionally charged atmosphere, but then let's the listener in by lowering the instensity enough for a closer connection.
This intimacy between singer and listener is a definitive element of a captivating voice, and can be seen spanning many genres such as rock ballads and fado.
Here is Willie Dixon, the original artist, singing the opening nearly 15 years after first writing the song. Most notable about his track are two seemingly contradictory characteristic of his voice: rasp and smoothness. Next to none of the early blues muscians were classically trained in voice or instrument; artists more often than not grew up in extreme poverty and under oppressive conditions. Vocals were learnt simply by singing in communities and in church, and instruments were usually inherited from a relative or close friend.
That beautiful smoky quality to Willie Dixon's voice does not come from years of honing though formal training; it came from years practice, strengthening his vocal muscles though song after song. Vocal qualities like this tell a story all by themselves, and are so captivating that countless other artist emulate this captivating quality.
Here is Otis Rush singing the intro. Until Led Zeppelin recorded their version in 1969, he was the one most people associated with the song, even having the album featuring "I Can't Quit You Baby" produced by Willie Dixon.
What's in the spotlight here is the sheer intensity of the voice. Belting is a vocal technique that involves pushing the notes at the top of your chest register with signifcant force rather than transition into a head register. The resulting effect is a powerfully sung note with a higher pitch than would normally be in a person's range. Belting also conveys a distinct emotional power to a sung note that is not found through singing the note in a different way. The raw power is the draw to listeners here, and the belting characteristic of the blues genre is one of the single most important links between blues and rock.
Finally we have the famous Led Zeppelin version. Here we have Robert Plant demonstrating his uniquely high range and smoky voice in this cover.
What's at focus here is the cry break in the middle of the opening lyric. A cry break is the very short and temporary shift during a note from a chest register to a head register, and it's speech equivalent is a voice crack. Humans are highly empathetic creatures, and are finely tuned to hear emotional undertones in language and song that are not present in written word alone. Putting vocal elements in songs that mirror natural emotional displays (cry breaks and creaky voices for crying, softly sung lyrics for comforting coos, belting and cacaphonic rasp for anger, etc) is one way to heighten a piece of music's appeal to an audience.