You Got A Lotta Nerve: Dylan Named One of The Greatest Singers of All Time

"So don't fear if you hear
A foreign sound to your ear"

       - Bob Dylan, "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)"

"Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while"

       - Bob Dylan, "Visions Of Johanna"

Bob Dylan as one of the greatest singers ever? I know from many a heated discussion that this confuses, confounds and perplexes a lot of people. And even enrages a few others. But, as I've argued for years now, particularly in my earlier piece The BOB ON BOB Rave ("This Old Man"), there's just no denying the greatness of Dylan as a singer. That's right, contrary to popular perception, Bob is indeed one of the greatest singers of all time. And now I've got a major music magazine backing me up on this.

Rolling Stone, that is, which just came out with an issue dedicated to The 100 Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Singers of All Time, featuring Dylan at #7. That's right, number seven, right behind Aretha Franklin (#1), Ray Charles (#2), Elvis Presley (#3), Sam Cooke (#4), John Lennon (#5) and Marvin Gaye (#6).

You can argue that such lists are perhaps a bit silly, but, the fact of the matter is, people like lists and since this list now exists I'd say the only question is whether Bob should have actually appeared a bit closer to the top.

Truly Great Singing

And to those who don't think Dylan belongs on this list at all, due to some misguided, and completely cliched, idea about him being "a great songwriter but not a very good singer", I say that you simply don't get what singing is all about.

Great singing isn't about hitting all the notes perfectly. Any kid in any high school choir can do that. No, great singing is about being expressive and making every phrase your own... and almost no one does that better than Bob. Not only did he revolutionize popular singing from the mid-sixties onward, he also showed the world just how to bite into every last phrase; every last word; even, sometimes, every last syllable. It's not a voice for the opera, nor is it a voice for jazz, and it's certainly not a voice for whispering sweet nothings, but it is, unquestionably, a voice of rock 'n' roll brilliance.

Somewhat Nasal

Now, I fully admit, when you're used to crooners and balladeers your first encounter with Bob's unique - and rather nasal - vocalizing may seem somewhat strange. And it's true that live in concert these days it may not always be the sweetest instrument. But on album, particularly his classic recordings from the '60s and '70s, the man is one of the all-time great vocalists. Period.

Try imaging someone else singing the songs on Highway 61 Revisited or Blood On The Tracks, two of the greatest albums of all time. "Like A Rolling Stone", "Desolation Row", "Tangled Up In Blue", these aren't some of the greatest songs ever performed despite the vocals. No, these are some of the greatest songs of all time largely because of the vocals!

Perfectly Put

As Bono so perfectly puts it in his write-up in the new issue of Rolling Stone:

Dylan did with singing what Brando did with acting. He busted through the artifice to get to the art. Both of them tore down the prissy rules laid down by the schoolmarms of their craft, broke through the fourth wall, got in the audience's face and said, "I dare you to think I'm kidding."

In other words, those who think Dylan can't sing are akin to those who thought Marlon Brando, possibly the greatest actor of all time, "mumbled" and "sulked" on screen. I'm talking about the people who longed for the "brilliance" of the unintentionally-comical, completely-unrealistic over-acting of the 1930s and '40s (think Jimmy Stewart before he became James).

Or, to put it another way, Dylan detractors probably think Julie Andrews, Doris Day, Celine Dion and Jessica Simpson are all amazing singers.

Again, my only problem with Rolling Stone's list is that I'd have to insist on placing Bob even higher. Certainly above John Lennon. And I'd also say that Otis Redding most definitely deserves to be in the top 5, along with Bob, and not right behind him in the eighth spot.

There's lots more to argue about concerning this list, such as the bizarre exclusion of Eddie Vedder, even more bizarre inclusion of Karen Carpenter (at 94), not to mention the ridiculous order that many others appear (John Fogerty way back at 72??!!).

I won't get into all of that, however. Instead I'm just going to leave you with my own personal list of the Top 20 Greatest Singers of All Time, excluding all the jazz greats, such as Billie Holliday, Nina Simone, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, since jazz, like opera, is a whole other medium. Likewise, I'm leaving all the great rappers, from Chuck D to Eminem to Tupac to Jay-Z to Andre 3000, for a future list of their own.

My list would include (in no particular order) the following people. Because when it comes to beautiful, expressive, wholly original and extraordinarily distinctive rock/soul/R&B singing straight from the heart, no one does it better for me than these 20 musical geniuses:

My List of The Top 20 Greatest Singers of All Time:

- Bob Dylan
- Otis Redding
- Aretha Franklin
- Neil Young
- Stevie Wonder
- Sam Cooke
- John Fogerty
- Marvin Gaye
- Prince
- Van Morrison
- Joni Mitchell
- Al Green
- Ray Charles
- Johnny Cash
- Rod Stewart (first four albums, as well as with The Faces)
- John Lennon
- Bob Marley
- Elvis Presley
- Roy Orbison
- Joe Strummer

Honorable mentions: Little Richard, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Lucinda Williams, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, James Brown, Etta James, Sinead O'Connor, Willie Nelson, Mick Jagger, Levi Stubbs, Smokey Robinson, Jeff Buckley, Janis Joplin, Aaron Neville, Solomon Burke, Michael Stipe, Bono, Hank Williams, Toots Hibbert, Paul McCartney, Roger Daltrey, Levon Helm and Rick Danko.

And if I was forced to declare a Top Four I'd have to go with Bob, Otis, Aretha and Marvin. Yeah, that's right, one skinny white Jewish kid and 3 of the most powerful black vocalists to have ever recorded. And, damn right, the skinny white guy 100% belongs there.

Mike Cowie (Oredakedo)
Monday, November 17th, 2008


Now that you've read what I have to say on this matter, check out what Bruce Springsteen had to say back in 1988:

“The first time I heard Bob Dylan I was in the car with my mother listening to WMCA, and on came that snare shot that sounded like somebody had kicked open the door to your mind: “Like A Rolling Stone.” My Mother — she was no stiff with rock and roll, she liked the music–sat there for a minute, and then looked at me and said, ‘that guy can’t sing.’ But I knew she was wrong. I sat there and I didn’t say nothing but I knew I was listening to the toughest voice that I had ever heard. It was lean and it sounded simultaneously young and adult.”

Here's the link to the write-up by Bono in Rolling Stone: #7: Bob Dylan, by Bono


To read my two - yes two - recent rave reviews of Bob's new album, Tell Tale Signs, click here: Bob's Back: Tell Tale Signs of Joy... and A Complete Lack of Judgement


And here: Tell Tale Signs of Genius: Dylan's Best Album of The Past 20 Years? (Rave #2)


Or check out this piece about another musical icon: The Neil Young Rave: A Film, Two Albums and Incarnations For Everyone


And to read my piece on Bob, Neil and Joni click here: Talkin' Prairie Triangle of Inspiration (A.K.A. Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell Make Their Great Escape)


And for much more on all things Dylan click here: The Bob (as in Dylan)


Or for more on other artists and albums click here: Music Homepage


Or here: Music: Album and Concert Raves


MikesAndDislikes Home

Shane, Bono

Nice piece, which I mostly agree with, but: 1. Bono even in honorable mention? yuch. The anti-Bob 2. Where's Shane MacGowan in your list?

Julie Andrews

Oh, please don't put Ms. Andrews in the same category as Celine Dion and Jessica Simpson. She has a beautiful voice and has brought so much joy to so many. Try to look at it like this: Julie is champagne. Great now and then for special occasions. The others are wine coolers (or Boone's Farm if you were a teen in the 70's). Really great if your goal is to get a splitting headache and puke. Bob is either scotch, beer, cabernet, and I'd say water and tea, too . And I want him most of the time. Truly.

dylan as singer

you should have mentioned that the list was a result of voting by musical artists and industry insiders and not just the opinion of rolling stone editors. the same can be said of a mojo magazine list in which dylan finished eleventh.

I would like to see more women in the top 20

I would like to see more women in the top 20, including Janis Joplin, Joan Baez, and K.D. Lang. Good rave though. D. in Toronto

Voice Vs. Singing

I completely agree with ranking Dylan high up on the Greatest Singers list. My take on it is that one's voice is just another instrument. And singing is just how that instrument is used. You can have a crappy guitar and, with the right talent and ability, transcend its limitations and make it expressive. Think Jack White's guitar, for example, which is not a great axe, but he can coax some incredible sounds out of it. Having a great voice-instrument that can hit notes, like Jessica Simpson or a zillion other "good" singers, does not automatically make one a "good singer", I believe. It might help a little bit, but in the end, if the musician doesn't know how to play the instrument, he fails. And that's why Dylan rocks- there's nobody as expressive a singer as he.

Top 100 singers

FWIW, I don't really see how you can leave McCartney off your personal list (even if it is a personal list!). Also, and more to the point, I was amazed that Billy Joel was not included on the Rolling Stone top 100 list. While I'm hardly a fan, he clearly tops at least 10 of the more marginal artists that were included.

Dylan's singing

Simply put, Dylan's is the greatest voice of the last half-century of popular music.


Hello from Italy! I apologise for my poor english, hope you understand... Well, I agree about Dylan being a really good singer, and I would add that he doesn't simply sings, he litterally lives inside a song, as a man in his own land. No technique fireworks, only the right feeling at the right place. In my opinion, Dylan is the DEFINITIVE voice of all time, but, you know, it's only my opinion...lucky those who found him along their life... Dear Mike, I read your list, and...well...You got the same problem as mine. It's to say that we both still miss a lot of great songwriters, there are hundreds of beautiful voices that only waits for us to discover them, or even reconsider them after a long time. My personal list would include, for instance, Robert Plant, Nick Drake, Tori Amos, Mina (the best ever from Italy, take a listen and then tell me...), Mark Lanegan (you said something about Vedder? Mark overtakes him...), and of course the great, great, great John Martyn, whose artistic journey resembles Dylan's, because he tried to do everything his voice could do, he changed the rules of his art in the blink of an eye, never feared about the commercial risk about those changes, he's got an aesthetic idea of being a songwriter very similar to his bobness... There would be many to name, too many, but, again, I consider myself very lucky and I thank God for the day a friend of mine passed me a dusty musicassette "pat garret and billy the kid"...a strange way to step into Dylan's world, no? But that is, the rest went on and on and I am tangled up in dylan since then...really lucky... Best wishes Cristiano

bob dylan no 1

you are absolutely right

Bob Dylan

Here, Here!! I keep saying the same things about Dylan myself. I agree with you man. You know where it's at. sanQ

Hear Hear

It is what it is Homes You might not like what it be but it do