Back to the future


Every mainstream singer we hear today has either been influenced by or has mimicked a singer who came before them. So who are you listening to? Which singers influence you? How far back does your singing legacy go?

In my experience, singers don’t ‘listen’ closely enough. This means they often miss out on the unique vocal distinctions acquired as a result of spending time really listening to the kind of singers that pioneered ‘game-changing’ vocal diversities and singing styles. Whilst I am a huge fan of some of the current singers out today, it seems a kind of homogenised vocal sound is now popular within mainstream music, a sort of ‘one style fits all’ sound. I celebrate the singers of old that worked so hard to make the kind of music that would stand the test of time.

These singers stumbled upon and produced the daring sounds that inspired many vocal pioneers, and in turn they influenced the countless vocalists who followed. For example, when you hear Beyoncé, you can hear a bit of Tina Turner, when you listen to Tina Turner you can hear a bit of Etta James and the Rolling Stones.

Developing vocal style is something that takes time; it also takes patience, determination, dedication, practice, willingness to explore sound by mimicking, and trial and error. Ultimately this means a whole lot of listening.

Fortunately for us, and with thanks to sites like YouTube, we don’t have to dig through granny’s dusty old vinyl’s to find the ‘real music’. Those old recordings lacked the sophistication of today’s digitalised technology. Things could not always be smoothed over or pitch- perfect..… Or as I like to say “T’Pained” to the point where you cannot hear the gentle subtleties of a voice or the beautiful imperfections. Rather, we get painfully, over- produced sounds that no longer have any tonal substance. I will admit there is a ‘place’ for that, but please note I said, A PLACE not ALL OVER THE PLACE!

In her book “Popular Singing and Style”, Donna Soto Morettini references Lessley Anderson’s Seduced by Perfect Pitch: How Auto Tune Conquered Pop Music.

“Will a generation of singers raised on Auto-Tuned pitch not only have unrealistic expectations of vocal performance, but might they also fail to appreciate the sound of ‘natural’ voices, which often sail just the wrong side of pitch perfection?”

Donna goes on to ask,

“ Are we in danger of no longer valuing the ways in which a certain generosity of pitch or a slightly wayward time can add life, uniqueness and excitement to a vocal performance?”.

I hope that we are not in danger of losing the appreciation for the raw sound of the ‘natural’ human voice.

[tweet_box design=”default” float=”none” inject=”#iSingDoYou @joshuaalamu”]Vocal style is not about achieving perfection, but rather it is about unleashing individual expression. [/tweet_box]Expression is something that is often passed down, it is learned, it is intuitive, it evolves and it develops. It requires an open-mindedness to mimic and learn the sounds made by other singers, whose expressions have been captured in their raw, ‘un-tampered’ form.

We are going to take a step back in time; listen to some vocal gold mines and check out early recordings (pre-auto tune!) so you too can hear, learn, and appreciate.

Following are 7 clips. The recordings are pretty raw and ‘natural’. They haven’t been auto- tuned to perfection! This was also a time when the accompanying music supported and enhanced the vocals; the voice had first priority.

Challenge yourself to see if you can learn anything from the bold and subtle vocal choices that these singers made.

Listening Guidelines

Consider the following:

1. Listen for: The sounds, tones, nuances, colours, and musicalities. Write up to 3 nuances/sounds that grabbed your attention. What emotions do you think those nuances/sounds are alluding to or relaying?

2. Mimic : Certain nuances and sounds will appeal to you more than others, explore those sounds with your own voice, try it out and assess how it feels for you.

3. Record it: This will give you an audible measuring stick as to whether you feel it is useful or workable for you or not. Remember there is no right or wrong here. .

4. If it works, Try it out in a song that you have sung before. Assess how you can use it or how it fits. Can you add anything different to it?

Important note:

Please note if your voice does not have the capability to cope with a particular sound right now, do not force it or you could do something injurious to your voice. If you are concerned or experience voice issues, seek the guidance and help of an experienced vocal coach or specialist.

Enjoy, listen, and learn.

  • Etta James: Was hailed as the queen of blues. Her style influenced the way R&B and Jazz singing progressed.
  • Sam Cooke: A lot of rock bands mention Sam Cooke as one of their musical inspirations, with his signature soulful sound and industry savvy.(References taken from
  • Little Walter: Pioneered the sound produced by combining the use of a guitar amp, microphone, and a harmonica. (References taken from
  • The Yardbirds: Influenced musicians like Jimmy Hendrix and bands like Led Zeppelin. If you listen to these guys, how may other modern bands can you hear traces of?
  • Billie Holiday: Did you know that Billie Holiday influenced Etta James, who influenced both Alicia Keys and Beyoncé? Take a listen to those artists and see if you can hear their vocal influence in Billie’s voice.
  • Doris Day: her voice is simply sublime.
  • Nina Simone: an incredible musician as well as singer.
    Take the time to listen closely to all their vocal subtleties, qualities, and nuances. The bold, the beautiful, the subtle, the seductive choices, and tones used to express each phrase or lyric.

Check Out the Playlist below to hear all these artists 

In Conclusion

In your quest to discover your vocal style keep exploring, stay open, and play, but play safely now!!!

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Joshua Alamu is a professional voice coach with over 15 years experience as a singing teacher in the music and television industry. He has been a voice coach for the TV talent show The Voice UK and is currently vocal coach stars such as Fleur East, Little Mix and JP Cooper. Joshua’s video-enhanced vocal style course Mad About Vocal Style part 1 was launched in 2014 to rave reviews. Joshua is also the co-founder of Ultimate Artists, the UK’s most in-demand artist development camp (eight days of music industry mentorship and artist development).