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February 09, 2006


Elvis Costello, Virtuoso Vocalist
A few months ago I wrote an article proposing that Norah Jones should record an album of Elvis Costello compositions, Norah Jones Sings the Elvis Costello Songbook or some such.

Recently though, MoreThings correspondent, Elvis fan, and jazz singer Valerie Tachecek wrote me an interesting rebuttal:

Dear Al,

As a female jazz singer and a die-hard Elvis fan for 24 years, let me tell you the reason why I think the "Jones Sings Costello" proposal won't work.

Elvis' vocal range is 3 octaves. That is really remarkable for a singer of any style. Norah Jones range is probably not much better than an octave, maybe an octave and a half. She has, at best, one half of his range.

His best songs are extremely rangy; i.e., "God Give Me Strength," "Kid About It," too many to list.

I have tried countless times over the years to incorporate some of his songs into my repertoire. So far I haven't come up with one song that I feel comfortable singing, or that I think works with my range. I have a 2 octave range, a little more than Ms. Jones, but it still isn't enough to handle the vocal acrobatics required to do these tunes.

Aside from the range, they are just really hard tunes to sing! I suspect that is why we haven't seen ANY albums like "So-and-So Sings Elvis Costello" in all of these years. There is something about the way that he writes his tunes that truly only seem to work for his own voice. I'm sure this is completely unintentional on his part.

So, that is my theory, for all it is worth. I'd like to point out that even though he is best known and loved for his song writing skills, the voice on this man is truly incredible. His range, his breath control, his power, the beauty ... he is really a remarkable vocalist.

Then again, maybe I'm such an Elvis "purist" that hearing anyone else do his tunes will never sound right to me. I had hoped when he and his wife, Ms. Krall, started collaborating that some great "female friendly" Elvis tunes would emerge, but it hasn't happened yet. But, I'll keep my fingers crossed and wait.
Miss Tachecek makes an interesting point. I hadn't thought about it that way, but "God Give Me Strength" in particular jumps out to me now as requiring some fairly fancy singing to put it across. It'd be a bit like singing "The Star Spangled Banner."

Seems like Elvis has improved very much over time as a vocalist. He was perfectly effective in putting across "Alison" and "Watching the Detectives" lo those many years ago, but he's well past that now. Not that the song is better than "Alison," but listen to his vocal performance of "Either Side of the Same Town" on The Delivery Man from 2004. It's hard to quantify it, but that's some really good singing.

It's kind of a ghost-in-the-machine thing to try to measure it, but Elvis couldn't have given that vocal performance 25 years ago. He might could have written that song for, say, King of America, but he didn't have quite that skill as a singer.

This also comes out to me seeing him live. He's ended a lot of shows in recent years going not simply acapella, but a-amplification. I've watched him sing to an audience of several thousand people with no amplification, able to project his voice at a level audible to the back. Not only that, but he's actually properly singing and emoting "Couldn't Call It Unexpected #4," not just shouting a couple of verses of some two-note rock song.

So maybe Norah Jones just isn't quite good enough to do Elvis justice - though it still seems like she should be able to handle something on the simpler end of his catalogue, such as "Almost Blue." Perhaps we'd have to break out the big guns, though, for particularly his later work. How about KD Lang Sings the Elvis Costello Songbook? Maybe my beloved Macy Gray. Imagine what she could do with "I Want You."
Al, I think you may have come up with something in K.D. Lang. I'm not positive about the length of her range, although it is certainly substantial. What she lacks in range I am sure she would make up in bravado however.

On the male end of the venture, I think it's possible that young Michael Bubble might also be a qualified candidate. This kid has a great voice, range and sings REALLY velvety! I'm not crazy about his choices of material up to this point, I think they sugar-coat his true abilities. But he is young and as he matures let's hope that his tastes move towards our dear Elvis and he gives it a shot.

Regarding the improvement of Elvis' vocals over the course of his career, I have to point out that it was his voice that first won me over. Yes, I agree, it has become more controlled over the years and his writing certainly reflects that, but let me tell you this little story ....

I first saw Elvis in 1981 in Kansas City. My husband, then boyfriend, was the Elvis fan and I bought our tickets as his birthday gift. I vaguely knew who Elvis was, had heard bits of "Clubland" and liked it, but wasn't "bitten" yet. Matter of fact, my musical tastes at that time were really bland and very "disco-y."

The tour I saw was to promote Imperial Bedroom, which had just been released. He launches into "Long Honeymoon" and I was in awe. I didn't realize what a pretty voice he had. Having always been a "crooner" fan, it caught my attention. He immediately followed it with "Kid About It." That was it, I was infatuated and I have never gotten over it after all of these years.

The thing is, that night, he did not sing "Kid About It" the way that it was presented on the album. Everytime he sang the refrain, "Say you wouldn't Kid About It!" he sang the entire thing up an octave in his now familiar dramatic way. It was spine tingling and added so much angst to the lyric. It absolutely devastated me, I can still remember it vividly.

Imagine my disappointment when I bought my album, threw on that cut and heard him doing his "low" version. Still a good song, but it lacked the impact of the live performance I had just heard.

What's my point? Well first off I think that Elvis has always had the right equipment for his singing strength. Maybe youth and a "punker" attitude in the early days kept him from really showing it off. Also, a singer's voice doesn't fully mature until the singer is in his/her mid 30's. But if you'll remember, even in the earliest days he would have a way of throwing his voice WAY UP at the end of a song, like a scream or a shreik that was super high, only it seemed to be a chosen pitch rather than a random squeek emerging.

And also, keep in mind that Daddy MacManus was a professional singer who, it is said, was quite good for his time. I have never heard his father, but I often wonder how similar they are and if young Declan got a lot of tips just from hearing and watching his Dad.

You mentioned how Elvis will now in concert stand alone on the stage and sing without amplification or accompaniament. I saw him do this a few years ago and again, he killed me. It was as powerful as watching Pavarotti singing an aria. Incredible control!!!!

We'll have to see what happens to Elvis in coming years. He is about 52 now, a point in time where the vibrato starts getting wider and harder to control and the range starts to shrink. Statistically speaking, he may not have many years left to produce new vocal masterpieces. But, knowing him, his writing will change with it and he will still continue to be the only one capable of singing his songs.

posted by Al at 2/09/2006 07:02:00 PM

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