All That Husk and Bark
Must a voice be smooth to be appealing? Record sales prove that we easily fall under the spell of raspy growls and husky barks. A catch in the throat can reveal a poignant vulnerability, evoke smoky cocktail lounges of bygone times or cue us to a tough guy’s soft side. Rough voices can be edgy and gruff, but above all—even when they come from the mouths of Muppets—they are touchingly human.
In a 2004 episode of Sesame Street, Cookie Monster and Hoots the Owl, a feathered jazz musician whose voice is based on Louis Armstrong’s, join to sing “A Cookie Is a Sometime Food.” This jazzy exultation of the virtues of healthful snacking riffs on “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing,” which Armstrong sang on the 1957 album he and Ella Fitzgerald made of the musical Porgy and Bess. “A cookie can be scrumptious, crunchy, sweet or yumptious,” Hoots quips, “but a cookie is a sometime food.” Cookie Monster’s gravelly voice—“Me so hungry, yeah, yeah, yeah”—charmingly echoes Satchmo’s too.
The Muppet troupe had shown its Armstrong affinity before, when throaty Carol Channing reprised (with new lyrics) the title song of her 1964 Broadway hit musical Hello, Dolly!, crooning, “Sammy, I swear my love is true / The only snake for me is you,” to a snake puppet. The reptile rejoins, “It’s me, Sammy. / That’s the name Mammy / gave me many years ago when I was hatched.” Hisses and all, Sammy’s voice recalls that of Armstrong, who had a hit record with “Hello, Dolly!” in 1964 and performed the song with Barbra Streisand in the 1969 film version.
On New York City streets, a gruff manner can be advantageous. Cookie Monster, of Sesame Street, employs a brusque mien backed by a matching voice to get what he wants (“Me want cookie,” usually). In The Godfather movie (1972), Vito Corleone, the head of a powerful crime family, emigrates from Sicily to New York’s Lower East Side, a teeming melting pot rife with gang warfare, in the early 20th century. Like Cookie, Vito uses a husky voice to put some menace behind his lines, including, “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
Marlon Brando’s interpretation of Corleone’s voice (appropriated by Robert De Niro for his scenes as the younger Vito in the movie’s 1974 sequel) has become emblematic of the ruthless crime boss. Besides its raspy tone, its most salient quality is its quietness (and there the comparisons to Cookie Monster end). Vito doesn’t speak up for anyone, issuing a hissing whisper when he really wants someone to listen. Former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani tried a Don Corleone impersonation on a campaign stop during his 2008 presidency bid. Many fellow Italian Americans, eager to dispel the connection between the Mob and Italian heritage, were not amused.
Marlon Brando supposedly modeled the slow, throaty undertone he adopted for Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather (directed by Francis Ford Coppola) after the voice of real-life mobster Frank Costello. Famous for nuanced portrayals in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On the Waterfront (1954) and other films, Brando uses the voice to devastating dramatic effect, making “A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man” sound more like a threat than an observation.
The young Bob Dylan crafted his persona as carefully as Brando did his roles and styled a voice just as unforgettable. Dylan’s raspy intonation disarmed critics and fans the moment he began appearing in New York City coffeehouses in the early 1960s. A 1961 New York Times review remarked that he keeps “all the ‘husk and bark’” on his notes. Novelist Joyce Carol Oates recalled the “dramatic and electrifying” effect of the “seemingly untrained voice, frankly nasal, as if sandpaper could sing.” Dylan’s 2012 album, Tempest, proved age hadn’t mellowed his edge: While one critic thought he sounded “less like a cow stuck in an electric fence,” another speculated that “he’s been eating nuts and bolts for the past half-century.”
Bob Dylan came on the folk music scene burgeoning in New York’s Greenwich Village clubs in 1961. Nearly a decade younger than Dylan, Tom Waits began performing in California bars in 1969. In their youth, both singers affected a James Dean look, acted like characters in a Jack Kerouac novel and stood out from the crowd with their rough and raspy voices. With “Blowin’ in the Wind” and other protest songs, Dylan became the voice of the 1960s postbeatnik generation. His voice has grown croakier with age, but Dylan remains relevant to the American music scene, releasing the album Tempest at age 71.
Waits, once dubbed “one of the last beatniks of contemporary music,” was obsessed with Dylan when he was a teenager, and he broke into the music business singing Dylan songs at a Los Angeles club. He was soon performing his own compositions, including “The Piano Has Been Drinking,” in a voice that has been admiringly called a “sandpaper baritone” and a “deep, pitted bark—part carnival hustler, part crackling furnace.” Nowadays Waits’s vocal style has become the troubadour standard; Dylan was lately described as sounding “like Tom Waits gargling with crushed glass.”
Bob Dylan received high praise for his album Tempest, but 50 years after his 1962 recording debut, Bob Dylan, critics were still hung up on his voice. One newspaper wrote that he “sounds like a cross between Louis Armstrong, Kurt Cobain and a lawnmower that refuses to start,” while another took a kinder view: “Dylan pushes so much wind through his throat that his voice starts to resemble the affectionate roar of Louis Armstrong.” It’s only natural to compare Dylan and Armstrong, two of America’s greatest song stylists. An exhibition at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (both men are inductees) credited Dylan with creating a “distinctly American body of work to match the legacies of Walt Whitman, Louis Armstrong…and Woody Guthrie.” Both musicians earned high praise from peers as well. Bandleader Eddie Condon said of Armstrong, “He could play a trumpet like nobody else, then put it down and sing a song like no one else could.” Singer-songwriter David Crosby says when he first heard Dylan sing, he thought, “‘F--k, I can sing better than that. Why are they making all that fuss about him?’ Then I started really listening. And I almost quit, right there.”
Tom Waits has said, “You kind of evolve into your voice. Or maybe your voice is out there, waiting for you to grow up.” Waits released his first album, Closing Time (1973), when he was 23, and even then he was described as having the “broken-down voice of a survivor of all that life and love might throw at him.” Fifteen albums followed, and critics continue trying to pinpoint Waits’s voice, one claiming it sounds as if it has been “soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.”
Macy Gray also grew into her vocal style. “I always had a kind of funny voice, and it never occurred to me that I could sing,” she explains. At age 29 she released her first album, On How Life Is, which became a hit worldwide. Gray found a voice uniquely hers that, like Waits’s, seems to send critics right to the thesaurus. One called it “high-pitched and girlish, with a subtle rasp that hits you like the tail end of a tequila slammer,” while another espoused it as a “smoky, husky instrument of pleasure.”
Macy Gray has never cared for her voice. She says that while she was growing up in Ohio, “Everybody thought I was shy, but really I was self-conscious of my voice.” Other children teased her when she talked, but critics have likened her voice to that of Billie Holiday, among other jazz greats. “When I hear myself talk, I always cringe,” Gray claims. “It’s kind of a trip that everyone finds it so interesting.”
Back in the 1930s Louis Armstrong had throat surgery, presumably to remove nodules from his vocal cords so he could sing in the smoother, sweeter style of popular crooners like Bing Crosby. The surgery was unsuccessful, and Armstrong’s gravelly voice, which got rougher as he grew older, became legendary. Singer and bandleader Billy Eckstine once commented, “I forget who it was that once said that Louie Armstrong was the greatest singer in the world without a voice. And he was, because what Louie did to a song, nobody else could do.” Armstrong influenced Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and many other pop and jazz singers—including Crosby. It’s high praise for a singer to be compared to Louis Armstrong, as Macy Gray often is.