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Music

ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons lists the 20 greatest singers of all time

Some time ago Rolling Stone listed the 100 best singers of all time. The publication whittled the longlist down with the help of several famous musicians to make their decision just a little easier. ZZ Top vocalist and guitarist Billy Gibbons was one such star who listed what he believes to be the 20 best singers of all time, according to his thoughts at the time.

Gibbons has a pretty mean voice himself, so anyone selected by him ought to consider themselves worthy. Known not only for his chest-length beard, but his bass-baritone voice and bluesy guitar skills too, Gibbons formed ZZ Top in late 1969, after a stint in the Moving Sidewalks (where he opened four dates for the Jimi Hendrix Experience).

Gibbons’ list features quite a few names that we would expect to find there, especially considering his own musical taste and background. There are indeed many blues and rock singers from across the decades that without a doubt provided inspiration for Gibbons and ZZ Top. But there are also moments of quiet and softness on there too, with soul and folk aplenty, perhaps hinting at a more personal side to Gibbons. The big question is whether Gibbons will make it onto his own list…

So without further ado:

Billy Gibbons’ favourite singers:

20. Bill Medley

Born in 1940 in Santa Ana, California, William Medley is famously known as one half of The Righteous Brothers. Like Gibbons, he possessed a gravelly bass-baritone voice, which is expertly laid down on tracks such as ‘You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’’.

Medley actually produced several of The Righteous Brothers’ tracks including ‘Unchained Melody’ and ‘Soul and Inspiration’. He also had a number one hit single duet with Jennifer Warnes, ‘(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life’.

19. Johnny Cash

A man who needs no introduction. He was a singer, songwriter and all-round legend of America, whose songs dealt with themes of despair and redemption. His rich, bass-baritone voice could work inside your limbs and stay with you for days on end.

On meeting Cash, Gibbons said this on his website: “Johnny Cash and I met quite by a planned surprise arranged by our pal, producer Rick Rubin. Rick was in the process of producing one of his the great return to the studio albums and asked if I would write a special song aimed directly with Johnny Cash in mind. Johnny heard the song and immediately set about working up an arrangement which was on hand during our surprise encounter. The entire affair remains a standout! Needless to say, a moment not soon forgotten. The song, ‘I Witnessed A Crime’ sometimes appears on YouTube. Check it out…!”

18. James Brown

The ‘Godfather of Soul’, James Brown was the central figurehead and maestro of funk and soul in the 1960s. One of the first ten inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at its inaugural induction in 1986. Gibbons and Brown both performed at the 1997 Superbowl halftime show together.

Brown started out as a gospel singer, before coming into the public eye in the 1950s as the lead vocalist of the Famous Flames. He had a reputation as a rambunctious live performer as well as a later penchant for drug misuse. This was despite remaining drug and alcohol-free for most of his early career. Early members of the Famous Flames were fired by Brown for their drug and alcohol use.

17. Howlin’ Wolf

Chicago blues singer Howlin’ Wolf developed a professional rivalry with fellow bluesman Muddy Waters. Booming in both voice and stature, many of his songs went on to become blues standards, including ‘Smokestack Lightning’ and ‘Killing Floor’.

Noted for his disciplined approach to personal finances, Howlin’ Wolf once described himself as “the onliest one to drive himself up from the Delta”. His ability to take care of his own money was to the benefit of his band members, who not only received a salary but also benefits like health insurance.

16. Hank Williams

Born and raised in Alabama, Hank Williams was taught to play the guitar by blues musician Rufus Payne in exchange for food. He began his music career in 1937, playing a 15-minute set on a local radio station. He helped to turn country music into a significant cultural force in America.

On Hank Williams’ grandson, Hank Williams III, Gibbons said, “He’s another talent. He’s frighteningly the ghost of his grandfather. Good grief. He sounds like his grandad and he’s a living example to back up the idea of genetics skipping a generation. His old man is really quite different from his dad. But come around to the generation after and it returns right to his granddad.”

15. Mavis Staples

Rhythm and blues and gospel. One of the finest voices you ever will hear. Mavis Staples primarily performed and recorded as part of her family band, The Staple Singers and is, in fact, the last surviving member of that band.

Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, Staples initially sang in local churches and made frequent appearances on a local radio station in Chicago. In 1957 the Staples family band took their music on the road led by Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples. They were known as “God’s Greatest Hitmakers”.

14. Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell is a Canadian legend with ten Grammy Awards and a 1997 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Writing folk, rock, pop, classical and jazz, her songs deal with themes of womanhood and disillusionment. A voice so piercingly beautiful and with such poignant lyrics, she is one you just can’t forget.

Mitchell has produced or co-produced several of her albums, as well as designed most of her album covers, once describing herself as “a painter derailed by circumstance”. A champion of open guitar tunings, she quit touring in 2007 and released her last album of original songs Shine.

13. Robert Plant

Lead singer and primary lyricist of one of the biggest rock bands of all time Led Zeppelin. Typically seen in the light of the ‘rock god’ persona, his mane of long blond hair and bare-chested appearance set him apart from his contemporaries.

Born in the Black Country town of West Bromwich in 1948, Plant formed Lez Zeppelin with Jimmy Page in 1968 when Page sought a singer for his new band. Their first album, Led Zeppelin is often credited for helping to birth the metal genre, although Plant has said this is unfair as a third of the band’s music is performed acoustically.

12. B.B. King

As proficient (if not more so) a guitarist as a singer, B.B. King earned the nickname ‘The King of Blues’. Born on a cotton plantation in Mississippi, he became drawn to the guitar and to music in general in church. A deep, beautiful and genuinely soulful voice.

On B.B. King, Gibbons had this to say: “BB King left me with probably the strongest statements you could ask for. Firstly, you should learn to play what you want to hear. Not what someone is trying to teach you. Follow what’s in your head. I was in the dressing room and BB said to me, ‘Can I play your guitar?’ I said, ‘Sure man.’ He strummed it a few times and handed it back to me. He looked at me rather quizzically and said, ‘Why you working so hard?’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Those strings. You got real heavy, heavy strings.’ I said, ‘Well, isn’t that how to get the heavy, heavy sound?’ He said, ‘No! Don’t be working so hard!’”

11. Sheryl Crow

Somewhat of a surprise inclusion it on this list it may feel, especially so given the other company present. The Missouri-born musician’s work incorporates elements of pop, rock and country. One gets the feeling that perhaps Gibbon’s hots for her contributed to her inclusion…

Crow was born in Kennett, Missouri and had a taste for music from birth; her mother was a piano teacher and her father was a lawyer who played the trumpet. Crow holds a degree in music education and also toured with Michael Jackson on his Bad Tour as a backing singer.

10. Samar Hagar

This, technically, is two entries in one as Gibbons lumped in entry number nine in the same effort so he could cheekily squeeze in an extra. For the sake of our article, however, no rules are in place.

Sammy Hagar had quite a career. Firstly with the hard rock band Montrose in the early 1970s, he followed up with a successful solo career and later replaced David Lee Roth as the second lead vocalist of Van Halen. Recently performed with Gibbons on Hagar’s AXS TV show Rock and Roll Roadtrip with Sammy Hagar.

Hagar is also a keen entrepreneur and alcohol enthusiast. He founded the Cabo Wabo tequila brand and chain of restaurants in 1990 and has since founded Sammy’s Beach bar rum.

9. Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley is another on this list who needs no introduction. The ‘King of Rock and Roll’ is widely heralded as one of the primary cultural figures of the 20th Century. His sexualised performances and wide-ranging mix of influences have immortalised him in music’s rich tapestry. Gibbons managed to see Elvis perform live, which undoubtedly led him to inspiration.

Presley’s first single, ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ was released in January 1956 on RCA Victor. It was a number one hit in the States and just a year later, Elvis had gone on to sell ten million singles for RCA. He soon went on to become the spearhead of the new rock and roll sound emerging in America.

8. Billy Gibbons

He just couldn’t help but chuck himself on there, could he? Post Moving Sidewalks, Gibbons released ZZ Top’s first album in 1969. Its name? ZZ Top’s First Album. It contained their trademark blues-rock style, a sound they would become renowned for.

Famously known for his trademark Stetson hat, he has in recent years been spotted adorning a braided-cloth cap. The story goes that he traded his hat with the chief of the Bamileke people of Cameroon, during a trip to Vienna.

7. Ray Charles

Heralded as one of the most influential singers of all time, Ray Charles was sometimes referred to by his contemporaries as ‘The Genius’. Blinded during his childhood, possibly from glaucoma, Charles combined jazz, blues and gospel to deliver his signature sound. Gibbons figured out the intro to Charles’ track ‘What’d I Say’ on his first guitar, a Gibson Melody Maker.

Charles was portrayed with great poise by Jamie Foxx in the 2004 biopic Ray. Charles had planned to attend the screening of the film but sadly passed away a few months before the premiere. He was also a keen chess player and once called Willie Nelson “my chess partner”.

6. Paul Di’anno

One of only a handful of Brits on Gibbons’ list, Paul Di’anno was the original lead vocalist for Iron Maiden from 1977 to 1981. Post Maiden, he has released several solo albums as well as efforts with Gogmagog and Praying Mantis.

Something of a guttural punk voice, especially when compared to the Maiden singers that came after him. He began his singing career in a punk band called The Paedophiles, which laid the groundwork for his signature rough and rasped vocal style, although he was also capable of adaptability and singing in a purer, cleaner style too.

5. Gregg Allman

He was known for his role in the Allman Brothers Band, which formed in 1969 and found initial success with the release of their 1971 live album At Fillmore East. Found further fame due to his marriage to pop star Cher throughout the 1970s. A genuinely soulful voice, he was a Southern rock champion.

Allman was impressively and somewhat troublingly, married seven times, writing in his biography My Cross to Bear, “Every woman I’ve ever had a relationship with had loved me for who they thought I was.”

Following his death in 2017, Gibbons of Allman, “We were fortunate enough to have been touched by him and those moments remain treasured encounters.”

4. Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland

Sometimes referred to as ‘the Sinatra of Blues’, Bobby Bland was an American blues singer whose voice managed to mix blues with gospel. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, he also received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997.

Dropping out of school in the third grade, Bland cut his teeth singing in local gospel groups in Memphis in the late 1940s. Wishing to expand his interests, he started visiting the city’s famous Beale Street, where a new blues movement was taking shape. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame said that Bland “was second in stature only to B.B. King as a product of Memphis’ blues scene.”

3. Brian Wilson

Wilson was an absolute genius in his approach to the composition of music. A master of recording techniques and pioneer of novel and innovative ideas, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys is one of the most significant songwriters of the 20th Century. He was a composer of the most beautiful vocal harmonies you will hear.

Wilson also struggled with mental health issues for most of his life. In 1964, he had a nervous breakdown and pulled out from regular touring duties with the rest of the band. The result of this was a different kind of music coming out of the studio, with a more refined and carefully considered edge, most notably 1966’s Pet Sounds. Paul Dano expertly portrayed Wilson in the 2014 biopic Love & Mercy.

2. Steve Winwood

A journeyman of blues, rock, soul and pop. He is a vocalist known for his unmistakable and soulful high tenor voice, as well as being an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, playing primarily keyboard, but also guitar, drums and saxophone. Winwood was introduced to music by his father Lawrence, who, while a foundryman by trade, was also a semi-professional saxophone and clarinet player.

Winwood became a vital member of a number of ensemble groups in the 1960s and ’70s, including Blind Faith (with Eric Clapton) and Traffic. His solo career took off in the 1980s with the hit singles ‘While You See a Chance’ and ‘Valerie’.

1. Little Richard

‘The Architect of Rock and Roll’. Praised everywhere by everyone, nowhere more so than by David Bowie, Little Richard’s frantic piano playing and rasped shouty vocals took the American music scene by storm in the 1950s and set the stage for several musical genres to take form, including rock, blues, soul, funk and hip hop. He was one of the first crossover black artists and reached audiences of all races— a true legend and progenitor.

On his best singer of all time, Gibbons had this to say: “We had three saxophone players because Little Richard was our hero. His singing, I don’t think there’s been another rock and roll singer that can eclipse his singing.”

So there we have it, Gibbons picked Little Richard as his best singer of all time, which may be seen as somewhat unsurprising, considering just how many fellow musicians the Georgia-born singing, piano-playing, pioneer went on to inspire.