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Hittin' Those Low Notes
When listening to female singers, it's often the sopranos that get all the attention! Well, not really... but although even Lady Gaga has been known to hit some deep notes, many low-voiced lady singers are sometimes forgotten when it comes to the media spotlight. So here's my humble attempt to give contraltos some of the accolades they deserve.
One of the common assumptions about these singers is that they excel in the realm of dreamy, otherworldly music. This is certainly true when you experience the haunting voice of Nico, a stunning model who was part of legendary New York City band The Velvet Underground for their first album. For "All Tomorrow's Parties," Nico's singing, almost devoid of tremolo, somehow manages to be both sad and emotionally distant.
As an obsessive radio listener growing up in the 1980s, a turn to the left end of the dial (the college radio stations) often brought me to the distinctive and compelling sound of Siouxsie Sioux along with her band The Banshees. With a nod to The Doors, Siouxsie was part of the British new wave movement and one of the first queens of the Goth genre both in her music and her incredibly cool attire. The band displays some keenly perceptive lyrics propelled by Siouxsie's singing in the song "Christine." You can find this song and many more Siouxsie classics on the compilation Once Upon a Time.
But much more playful music has been graced by the charms of contralto singing. June Tabor is another British vocalist but unlike the previous singers, is one who draws inspiration from the folk realm. As part of a trend of women singers who rose to prominence during the 1960s English folk revival, Tabor provided beautiful interpretations of many traditional tunes. She employs her mellifluous vocal talents much to the benefit of the song "Bonny May." Her album Airs and Graces, released in 1976, shows Tabor at one of the full expressions of her vocal powers.
There are those gifted singers who are able to plumb the emotional "depths" and linger awhile to reveal their many truths, and few can do this more effectively than Nina Simone. Simone was a Julliard-trained pianist who sang the popular version of "Feelin' Good"—a song you can hear widely online, since it is now sampled in pop dance songs and used in commercials. She was also heavily involved in the civil rights movement, but here on this moving version of "Black is the Color," she accompanies herself on piano on this spare but beautiful folk tune. Check out the NYPL's collection of this influential performer.
Gale Garnett, multitalented singer, actress (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) and acclaimed writer had a hit with the flighty folk tune, "We'll Sing in the Sunshine" which defeated contender Bob Dylan by winning a Grammy in 1964. But later on during the height of the psychedelic movement, she moved into the mystical with her band Gentle Reign. In the Eastern-tinged "Breaking Through" her deep, lovely voice fits right in with the aura of the song, which comes from the album An Audience with the King of Wands.
Before Led Zeppelin was a twinkle in the eye of Jimmy Page, listeners were graced with a powerful 1957 version of the traditional song "Gallows Pole" by operatically-trained singer turned folk icon Odetta. Born in the deep South during the Depression, she was moved by the work songs and prison songs of her region. Dylan acknowledged Odetta as his first inspiration for performing folk music, even before he was influenced by Woody Guthrie. Odetta at The Gate of Horn is one of her early accomplishments, from which you can hear this song.
Of course, we have just touched the surface of the contralto phenomenon, unless you, the reader, would like to add some of your own favorites in the comments!