Another guest blog by Ruddy Adam. Enjoy!
Voice Comparison: Elvis the Baritone/Tenor with the Great Baritone, Billy Walker
Written by Willie Nelson, who wrote perhaps 200 staccato country songs, “How Time Slips Away” was sung by practically every decent singer in the 1955 to 1977 time span, that is, the Elvis era in which we are comparing singers to Elvis. As noted earlier, one of the best ways to measure a singer’s voice and talent is to compare them to other singers in their era.
Back 55-years ago or more, the baritone Billy Walker’s natural voice was often compared to Elvis’ when Elvis sang baritone. Yet Elvis did not always sing baritone; when he wanted to he also sang tenor. And at times sang tenor and baritone in the same song, which is really unheard of, for few singers have ever had such a talent.
Walker surely does have a good natural voice, and is one of the extremely rare country singers (especially of his day) to sing intone, though he at times pops back and forth from about a 7 on the intone quality scale to a 3. Elvis, on the other hand, stayed at the astonishingly high level of 9, and often drifted upward toward a perfect tone of ten. When Elvis wanted to he would tap out a perfect 10 on certain notes, as he does in this song. (which I point out below)
Miss Buck, to whom I’ve mentioned to so many of you (and some of you met before her death in `87), under whom I studied trumpet, piano, and music appreciation for years, said that Elvis sang at a perfect intone 10 on notes that his ear told him he needed to do so. In other words, Elvis had such an incredible ear that he could slice his voice into those tiny pieces, by singing at a steady 9 on the intone scale and then when he wished to sing at a 10 level, that is, perfect pitch, he could do it.
Elvis also at times would drop entirely out-of-tone for one word or sometimes an entire line, for the purpose of emphasizing that word or line, then fire right back up to that incredible 9 intone level where he normally sang. You can search the earth from sand dune to rock pile, and you can’t find anyone who can do that. Opera soloists can sing entire pieces at a 10 intone level — true — but they can’t drop out-of-tone and then come back; and if they did, they would not be singing opera very long. The beauty of Elvis doing it is that most people never had any idea what he was doing; they just liked his singing. Professionals like Miss Buck were astonished, however.
Although a lot of musicologists use a tone scale that has the perfect 10 in the middle, because one direction away from perfect tone would be toward flat and the other toward sharp, but Miss Buck used a scale of 1 to 10, ten being perfect, because rarely is anyone sharp, and so it’s simpler to understand. One is still intone, but at the lowest level, ten being perfect tone. The average pop singer sang at about a 4 ½ level during Elvis’ day. The average country singer from 2 to 6 degrees out-of-tone, which can really grind at your ears if you’ve been listening to (or understand) intone singing. Country singers are not a lot better today, but you do have some of them who can sing intone, and do so at times, though most of them at not a very high quality level.
“How Time Slips Away” is an utterly boring staccato song, and would remain so were it not for the delivery (and a nice, simple melody) that singers have used to present it to their audiences. Yes, back those many years ago, sitting there with Miss Buck, we listened to oodles of singers sing this song boringly staccato (when compared to Elvis’ later version), and each one from the country singer George Jones to the pop singer Ricky Nelson (who had an outstanding natural voice) — and with the exception of one singer — copied almost exactly Billy’s Walker’s original delivery and phrasing, from 1961. Walker was the singer Willie Nelson chose to sing the song first.
Willie Nelson wrote all those songs for himself, and with no vocal range, no decibel range, he had to write them staccato, because that’s the only way he could sing. Others who came along and sang his songs did the same; but not Elvis.
Staccato is left-brained music; Elvis makes this song a right-brained one, with the tiny bits of inflections he puts into the song with his voice. Really smart and confident people can do things subtly to dress them up so they’re more beautiful, but not showy. This Elvis did extremely well throughout his career. I can’t recall a song in which he overdid the dressing or that he over-sang.
Here we have Billy Walker, who was indeed a natural and beautiful baritone, singing the song exactly as Willie Nelson expected it to be delivered: staccato. Next, we have the one person who put his own, personal voice-print on every song he sang, whether it was written specifically for him, or he was covering someone else’s song. That was Elvis Presley.
Walker first, staying fairly steady at a 6 intone level, where he could easily stay when he was talk-singing, as he is here. Yet when he had to sing out on a song, he would bounce from a 3 or sometimes lower back up to 6, and sometimes sang 1-2 degrees out-of-tone, which is mandatory if you want to please a country-listening audience, because they talk flat and often with a nasal twang, and that’s what sounds good to their ears.
What Walker’s doing here is called straight-tone talk-singing.
Be sure to notice the lap-steel the man is sitting down playing. That is what is commonly used to produce that damnable out-of-tone string twang you hear in the introduction to so many country songs and throughout in the background. Though it’s not too bad here, what that loblolly can do to your ears is a cursed thing indeed. Twang! Twang! Twang! Arrgh!
“How Time Slips Away,” by Billy Walker
Elvis also has a wonderful natural voice. Every singer has a natural voice, which has nothing to do with vocal range, decibel range, vibrato, or voice manipulation; those are very objective qualities. The natural voice every singer has is just that: the natural sound of their voice. Whether and how much you like a person’s natural voice is purely subjective. One that E. and I love, along with a couple more of our music-loving friends, is Ricky Nelson’s; but Ricky Nelson, who sang at almost a 9 intone level, could not come even close to doing with his voice what Elvis could do. This is truly what made Elvis great. It was never his so-called swiveling hips (something he really did not do) or his sex appeal, though his physical beauty is a quality in itself — his voice is what made him.
Elvis uses innovative vibrato and voice manipulation, slight inflections to large ones in voice decibel and tone quality, and holds notes as few others could do, and baby you get it all with this song, yet in a very subtle but perfectly noticeable manner. By so doing, Elvis raises this song to an entirely new level.
In charge of his accompaniment, Elvis did away with the out-of-tone twang in the background. The straight-tone talk-singing he tossed in the trash dump. Why not? This man could do anything with his voice, and shows it in this song, especially when you compare others to his version. Elvis could sing at a 1 decibel level, then ease up the scale to five or less (one being lowest and five the loudest), or he could fly from 1 to five, all the while at his typically high intone level of 9, and is the only singer of his era with that ability, especially in pop music.
Right off you get classical vibrato on the last word of the first clause as Elvis works his larynx, “Well hello there (errrrr).” Notice the second clause where Elvis lets his voice break by shuttering the flaps on his larynx (on the word, “long”) something he did better than anybody I’ve ever heard. Who can let their voice break that subtly and beautifully?
Then, notice how much longer he holds out “now” than Walker, and pay close attention to that note, because you’ll hear a perfect intone 10 on that word including some fine classical vibrato. He also taps out a perfect 10 on “yesterday.” What other non-classical singer could do that? Then the voice manipulation, when he begins the hook line with this: “Ummmmm, ain’t it funny how time slips away.” No one else singing this song did anything like that, which really makes the hook line stand out — and that’s the purpose. (what amazing ability he had to do such things in his songs!) Another voice break on “love” at the end of “How’s your new love.”
This man gives you classical vibrato on one ending, and then on the next lets his voice break like a child’s. That’s masterful delivery, folks, which you rarely find in this old world. It seems simple, but it’s truly masterful.
There are two things to note in your mind about Elvis’ singing delivery: 1) Elvis never had a singing/voice lesson in his life; everything he did with his voice he either invented himself or heard someone else do it, and copied them with his own timing of when to use them; 2) Oftentimes in a studio the producer will tell a singer how to deliver and/or sing a song; Elvis was in total charge of how he sang a song and the accompaniment that played with him. No one ever told this man what to do with delivery, phrasing, or anything else. Elvis’ great ear told him what to do, and he was able to do it.
That’s enough breakdown, though there’s plenty more. Elvis had a lot of confidence in his voice, because he had such a wonderful ear. See if you can find the phrase he added to Willie’s lyrics in his own version. Of course, all of us here think it’s a perfect addition, especially for pop listeners.
“How Time Slips Away,” by Elvis
Another really wonderful natural voice, here is Ricky Nelson singing “How Time Slips Away.” Thank God without any of the out-of-tone twanging in the background. Ricky is singing at the high intone level of 8 ½ (a rarity in his period), but his beautiful natural high-intone voice is pretty much all you get with him, because he had little vocal range, very little decibel range, no ability to use vibrato, and very little ability to manipulate his voice. But nevertheless, he has a beautiful voice, one that brings a lot of pleasure to your ears and thus your brain. Underrated, too. As El says, “It’s a pleasantly sweet voice.” True! Enjoy!
Note: For our friends from out of the states, Ricky Nelson and Willie Nelson are not kin.