Most aspiring and even well-known singers today have idols that have inspired them; voices they’d like to imitate, or singers whose sound they love. These singers are especially influential. In the same token, many of these iconic singers also come from very humble beginnings. Here we will focus on four very distinct and well-known singers in a range of genres, and how they found their distinguished sound, making them unique and one-of-a-kind. It shouldn’t be too surprising to find out one thing they all have in common!
Whitney Houston (1963-2012)
The late Whitney is probably one of the most recognized iconic singers, with a voice never to be imitated, and remains even now to be one of the best-selling music artists of all time. On shows we see today that feature incredibly talented singers like The Voice, American Idol, or even America’s Got Talent, most of the singers that attempt a Whitney song are told that they are the HARDEST songs to tackle because of how unique Whitney made them! She possessed a distinguished balance, intonation, and control over her sound. Whitney got her start as a part of a musical family and singing in church where she was more formally (classically) trained – but in the beginning, her voice was young, and needed additional training. Whitney’s voice was at its absolute best during the mid to late 1990’s, after extensive voice training from her coach(es) to help her find her true sound. The normal “break” in a singer’s voice you hear when going from a low range to a higher range was practically unnoticeable! You can hear amazing breath control, anchoring, and range in this live performance from the 1994 Music Awards.
Freddie Mercury (1946-1991)
Freddie Mercury, the singer-songwriter well known for his impressive 4-octave range and leader of the band “Queen,” got his start in an entirely different way. He found his music and sound style while in boarding school in India. He was able to pick up songs on the piano easily, having started learning it at the age of 7, and soon began to create his own songs. It was in India that he formed his first band called “The Hectics,” and started using his voice and forming his sound to be that well-known and unmatched rock-style of singing. His voice was trained much differently than how most singers’ would be. Though the details aren’t entirely clear, his voice has been studied by scientists and researchers, and it has been speculated that he utilized certain techniques, most likely through his training, because of the way that he was able to jump his range. Even though he was actually labeled a baritone in range, he was able to move to tenor and did this with little effort. He also sang the majority of his songs in this range. His sound was so unique because his vocal chords moved faster than the majority of people, and he applied what is called subharmonics, a singing style where the ventricular folds vibrate along with the vocal folds, something most people never use.
Mariah Carey (1969-)
The “Songbird Supreme” as she is known, Ms. Mariah Carey has an unparalleled and special voice. She is noted well for her 5-octave range and use of what is called the whistle register (those high ‘screaming’ pitches – yes, that’s actually singing!), which allows her the ability to reach beyond the 7th octave. From childhood, she had nodules in her vocal chords, and they allowed her to sing in those higher registers. Her mother Patricia was her first vocal influence, being an opera singer and voice coach. Through her mother and others later in her career who gave her extensive vocal training & coaching, Mariah found her own true, unique sound. She began to write songs in high school, creating a demo that she sent to music labels, and she was signed onto Columbia Records after many rejections. The rest, as we all know, is history – Grammy Awards and Music Awards, Billboard #1 hits, and established success as a truly iconic singer. Her voice not only has the impressive range, but also a very controlled, breathy and sultry sound, that she established more in the 1990’s, giving her a soulful and more distinct appeal. Sadly, she was unable to keep her full range, and she is unable to reach those higher registers as she used to now. But Mariah is still known as an incredible vocal talent, and her style of singing will be admired for years to come.
Michael Jackson (1958-2009)
Michael Jackson wasn’t just well-known for his iconic dance moves. He also had an amazing voice and range that allowed him to be given the title “The King of Pop” and one of the most influential singers of all time. One can never forget his inspirational “tee-hee” that was part of the signature for his vocal style. Singing from childhood, his voice also changed noticeably over time since he could attain a higher-register soprano. As he got older, it changed to a tenor range. This did not diminish his ability to convey great emotion through his voice. Some of his sound was contributed to hormone injections that he received at 13, which allowed him to keep his higher-register voice. But mostly and more importantly, he worked extensively with voice coaches, even while on tour, to keep his voice from being fatigued and in shape. He was the very first singer to utilize the “vocal hiccup” technique, which sounds similar to gasping for air, and he was unmatched in his way of moving into his falsetto smoothly, a task very difficult for any singer. He could even fluidly move through a series of notes at an incredibly fast pace, but at the same time sing slow ballads, which gave him amazing versatility. In a video from his last movie, This is It, you can see how he was able to mimic instruments and how he wanted them to sound, a tribute to his legendary talent.
As you can see, all of these amazing and talented voices found their true and distinguished sound through the help of vocal training & coaching. Most singers have to start somewhere and do contain some raw talent, but until it is nurtured and practiced, a singers’ voice does not just “come to be.” So for all aspiring singers out there, it is essential to find a vocal coach or trainer in your area to help you continue to hone in and excel in your singing and to help you find your own truly unique sound.