Even in a divided world, most people can still bond over a mutual endearment of Patti Smith. The original punk poet has ferociously stamped her footprints on the history of popular culture, and you don’t get heralded as ‘The Godmother of Punk’ without righteous grounds.
Smith has lived through the grimy world of rock ‘n’ roll, and she has witnessed it at its unvarnished best. In contrast, she’s also seen it in the cold light of day and lost friends who have been seduced and strangled by the darker untold side of the industry. Despite living through unspeakable tragedies, Smith has never let anything dampen her spirits. Her love of music is what dragged her to New York as a teenager, and it is what keeps her artistic desire ticking over half a century later.
Remarking about her transcendent songwriting technique, Smith once said: “As a writer, I’ll get as dark as I have to be – you can be a pacifist or a murderer in your work. But as a mother, a grandmother, an aunt, I try to stay upbeat and practical and responsible. I try to live by my parents’ work ethic and I plug away, and do what I have to do to make things as good as they can be.”
Back in 2008, Smith participated in a Rolling Stone survey which attempted to uncover the greatest singer of all time. Her 20 selections cultivate an image of a true rock ‘n’ roller, and her list is drowning in pazazz.
Smith, who has been a guiding light for R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe throughout his career, somewhat unsurprisingly included the singer in at number 19. Her inspiration has been on both a professional level as Smith helped Stipe carve out his sound and, additionally, a personal one too.
Their friendship blossomed in the 1990s, and the duo has shared the stage a glut of times. Famously, they immortalised their relationship when the pair brought their magnetic talents together on R.E.M.’s ‘E-Bow The Letter’. It would have been remiss for Smith to leave off Stipe, not only because of his elastic talent, but he possesses a soul she cherishes with every fibre of her being.
Surprisingly, Bob Dylan is only placed in at number 12 by Smith. One would have expected him to have been right at the top, especially given the supreme impact the freewheelin’ troubadour has had on Smith’s life. He’s another artist that she shares a deep connection with and even performed ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall’ in his absence at the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony in 2016.
Smith later explained her choice of cover in a heartfelt essay, writing: “In his absence, was I qualified for this task? Would this displease Bob Dylan, whom I would never desire to displease? But, having committed myself and weighing everything, I chose to sing ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,’ a song I have loved since I was a teenager, and a favourite of my late husband.”
Last year in a podcast appearance, Smith boldly declared: “Jimi Hendrix, who is probably my favourite singer, songwriter and performer in the history of rock and roll.” Her love of Hendrix has swelled over the last decade since she took part in the survey because the guitar wizard had to settle for fourth place, sneaking in ahead of Grace Slick.
The Animals and War frontman Eric Burden was handed a bronze medal by Smith, with the ethereal James Brown taking second place. The top spot in Smith’s list is reserved for royalty and is a throne only fit for The King.
Elvis is perhaps someone you wouldn’t think Smith would hold on such a high pedestal, but her admiration for him is endless. She’s covered, ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’ by Presley over 50 times in her concerts over the years. He exuded an intangible quality that asserted Elvis into his own league for Smith.
“To me, Dylan always represented rock’n’roll—I never thought of him as a folk singer or poet or nothing. I just thought he was the sexiest person since Elvis Presley—sex in the brain, y’know?” she once commented. “Sex at its most ultimate is being totally illuminated, and he was that he was the King. And he still has it. I don’t think his true power has been unleashed.”
See the full list of Smith’s favourite 20 singers below.
Patti Smith’s 20 favourite singers of all time
- Elvis Presley
- James Brown
- Eric Burden
- Jimi Hendrix
- Grace Slick
- Tina Turner
- Mick Jagger
- John Lennon
- Jim Morrison
- Marvin Gaye
- Smokey Robinson
- Bob Dylan
- Bo Diddley
- Jerry Garcia
- Neil Young
- Little Richard
- Janis Joplin
- Sly Stone
- Michael Stipe
- Arthur Lee