Rolling Stone’s list of 200 greatest singers stirs criticism, but little praise

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Aretha Franklin

When Rolling Stone published its list of greatest singers earlier this month, one of the things that immediately caught the writer’s attention was the fact that the first 11 people on the list were African American – Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Sam Cooke, Billie Holiday, Mariah Carey, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Beyoncé, Otis Redding, Al Green, and Little Richard. While Aretha Franklin is the writer’s favorite of all time, he does not consider her the greatest singer of all time. He would have juggled the list somewhat, removing several people. At the same time, he realizes that such a list cannot and should not be based upon one person’s preferences. Furthermore, given today’s demographics, it is easy to see how Beyoncé could pole-vault ahead of many other singers.

Rolling Stone explained that the list was not based upon voice quality and did not include singers in the category of Opera. Apparently, the same was true regarding Gospel music. On the other hand, the magazine indicated that it made its list based upon the singers’ (1) originality, (2) influence in the field of music, (3) depth of catalog, and (4) the breadth of their musical legacy. Those clarifications are important to consider, but they may also suggest some other title than “greatest singers” should have been used.

To return to the fact that African Americans held the first 11 positions on the list, it was impressive to also note that approximately 40% of the individuals on the total list are African Americans. This large percentage indicates at least two things. (1) Singing is apparently an area wherein African people are blessed with the genius and ability or that it has long been valued and promoted in that community. W.E.B. DuBois was one of the scholars who documented that fact early on. Recognition of that talent is reflected in a different context as slave owners often called upon them to serve as entertainment on the plantations and that many white audiences gathered to hear the Black singing groups from the likes of Fisk University, Utica Institute, and Piney Woods Country Life School. (2) The abundance of great singers on Rolling Stone’s list also reflects the fact that many African Americans have long viewed and still consider singing to be an area that they could utilize to improve their status in the community and in society as a whole.

On the other hand, there are more than 20 Black singers who were passed over, but could easily earn a spot on a more objective list. Among them are Ma Rainey, who was perhaps overlooked because she performed prior to the 100-year span of the list and the fact that there was not much exposure via radio and recordings for her work. In addition to Rainey, there is no mention of Dinah Washington, Candi Staton, Nat King Cole, Natalie Cole, Joe Simon, B.B. King, Betty Everett, Leadbelly, Brook Benton, Shirley Caesar (because of her solely Gospel output), Eddie Levert, R. Kelly, James Ingram, Little Willie John, James “Pookie” Hudson, Bill Kenny of the Ink Spots, Dionne Warwick, Sly and the Family Stone, Bobby Brown, Little Esther Phillips, and Louis Jordan. If these individuals are added to the list, African Americans would constitute half of the list.

As the list was published, one of the loudest cries came from fans who resented the fact that Celine Dion was omitted. The outcries became so loud and broad until we decided to take a look into the list. 

Part of the problem was the decision to rank the singers. It just looks odd to see Bob Marley ranked below several other Reggae/Calypso artists who had far less influence and who were far less productive. It is strange to see Mississippi John Hurt miles ahead of Solomon Burke, Odetta, and Kelly Clarkson. It is weird to see Hank Williams squeezed in between Luther Vandross and Chaka Khan.

Based upon its own explanations, one wonders how Louis Jordan – who sold so prolifically in terms of records and concerts for years – could be completely omitted from the list. How does that compare to Mississippi John Hurt or Dion in terms of influence, longevity, and productivity? Why is Michael Jackson only number 86 when one considers his longevity, productivity, originality, and voice quality? There are too many such questions that can be asked as the list is circulated. 

It is almost amazing that the list includes only two individuals who made their marks singing Gospel music – Mavis Staples and Mahalia Jackson. This seems to suggest several things. (1) Mavis Staples could have been included because of her Soul output rather than the Gospel music. (2) Mahalia Jackson, like Shirley Caesar, adamantly refused to sing anything other than Gospel, but was widely appreciated by white audiences. (3) With that being the case, however, it greatly weakens the argument that Gospel music in general was omitted because it was not considered to have popular appeal. 

Based upon the criticisms, one person suggested that it would have been more honest and helpful to have separated the singers chronologically. In that case, singers in the 1920s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and 2000s would be evaluated and ranked in comparison to their contemporaries and the people who experienced and appreciated their music the most. Otherwise, how does one fairly compare and rank Bessie Smith and Beyoncé. Jimmie Rodgers cannot be easily compared to Dolly Parton. The music, in each case, became so different over time based upon composition as well as accompaniment, lyrics, and spirit. In this scenario, the top twenty or so singers in each decade could be more easily determined. And compared.

Another critic suggested that the singers be evaluated and ranked by genre. In this case, the top twenty or so Country and Western singers could be ranked and the development of the genre perhaps be understood more clearly. The same would apply to the top twenty or so Rhythm and Blues singers, the top twenty or so Latin and Caribbean singers, and so on across the face of popular American music. This type of breakdown might also help to do justice to international music, when there are noted singers in Egypt, India, and other areas who have become widely known and appreciated in America. There would be a category for such, rather than trying to fit them into a ranking with other singers whose music may be totally different. 

Rolling Stone, nevertheless, comes up a winner despite the flaws and the criticisms mentioned regarding its 200 singers list. Apparently, the publication has a large number of readers. The controversy generated by the list is more than likely prompting even more people to read the publication. 

It is fair to say that there are people who consider such publications and their lists as “legitimate,” if not official. They want to see such lists in order to see where their favorite singers stand.

It is for that reason that there has been such criticism of the list of 200 greatest singers. The magazine clearly states that its ranking is not about voice quality. We thus take the list with a grain of salt, realizing that many superior singers will be omitted and that the last is not “the gospel.” Meanwhile, Rolling Stone keeps publishing its list and engaging its readers. 

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Rolling Stone’s list of 200 greatest singers stirs criticism, but little praise

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
January 16, 2023