49. Wistful voices
Female singers are the best for wistful voices. In historical terms women were often not ‘treated right’. But maybe even in days of nearer equality it will still be so. Carly Simon’s ‘Your so vain’ sums up the sorts of reasons for which that is liable to be so. There are beautifully wistful male voices (Jeff Buckley’s ‘Lilac Wine’ for instance) but they are the minority.
But my concern is to hightlight the beauty of wistful voices.The leading example is Lady Day: Billie Holiday. Edith Piaf also had that characteristic. Billie Holiday’s voice now comes out of all sort of easy listening speakers. But she was not easy listening in her day.
She had a tragic and short life, like Piaf. Unlike Piaf she did not sing songs directly about her life, but it was reflected in the wistfulness in her voice. ‘Fine and Mellow’ is a film of her sining (ignore the appalling lip sync) and captures some of her personality.
After she sings for the first verse, Ben Webster solos (he also has that wistful quality) but the second soloist is Lester Young. Billie can be seen smiling and nodding her head in appreciation. Lester Young’s saxophone was the model for her singing when she started out in the 1930’s. A whole galaxy of famous soloists adorn the song, but her voice is the haunting core of it. And all about a no-good lover!
You cannot beat Billie for genuine heartbreak.
But in modern times Madeleine Peyroux (still in her early forties), has the right timbre to evoke that feeling. She was born in the romantically named Athens, Georgia (probably not as romantic in reality), though her upbringing included travelling quite widely. Her ‘hippie’ parents divorced when she was 13, an impressionable age. Luckily it did not in her case lead to a tragic life.
It probably did propel her towards performing though. She clearly selects her songs with an awareness of her capacity to project wistfulness, as witness the following:
Even more so on Careless Love, below. This was one of her big early hits.
But unlike Piaf and Holiday, who died around the age Peyroux has now reached, Peyroux appears to be quite happy. ‘Everything I do gonh be funky’ illustrates this.
She does sound good on sad songs, though. ‘Bye bye love’ is an Everly Brothers song that sounds much sadder when she sings it than when the stylish Everlys did it.
There are still plenty of tragically shortlived singers about (Amy Winehouse for instance) but with any luck Peyroux will go on being charmingly wistful for many decades yet!