Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.
In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.
So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.
(Piano by D.H. Lawrence
My earliest childhood memories are of my mother's beautiful soprano singing as she moved about the house. She sang all the time when she was on her own - songs like the Faery Song from Rutland Boughton's now-forgotten opera The Immortal Hour or "This is my lovely day" from Bless the Bride - big tunes with big notes to hit and to hold. At Christmas she'd sing "O Little Town of Bethlehem" to Walford Davies' beautiful tune "Wengen". "Again, again !" and we'd sit entranced by the words, the music and the voice.
She'd sing classics from Gershwin to Eartha Kitt, but it was the sad songs like "Annie doesn't live here anymore" that really got to me.
Since then most of my favourite voices have been female.
Up until I left home, it was just the music - heard on radio - that would hit me; I'd know nothing at all about the performers. As a child, the girlie groups - Chiffons, Shirelles, Ronettes. In my early teens, when boys tend to go for the shouty rather than the introspective, I loved Grace Slick's (W) voice on the early Jefferson Airplane singles. Airplane fans were few and far between in my school year - I never did find any others.
A project on radio aerials in the physics lab in the summer term, tuning our hand-built receiver , 'Stop ! Leave it there a minute ! Who is that voice ?'' the voice belonging to a Melanie Safka.
"We were so close, there was no room,What was she on about ? We didn't have a clue, but did it matter ? The voice ! The voice !
We bled inside each others wounds,
We all had caught the same disease
And we all sang the songs of peace"
Wandering across a cricket field and hearing Maddy Prior singing "The Blacksmith" - would you believe released as a single - drifting from a car window. Voice like a synthesiser, push the slider and up (or down) goes the note. I'd never heard anyone hit such long, pure notes with so little vibrato.
And Sandy Denny (W)- the musical love of my life, along with Vaughan Williams. Hearing 'The Sea' at a sixth form party was the start. Try this beautiful performance of 'Banks of the Nile' - still meaningful today, as our young men head for Iraq and Afghanistan.
Off to college and a world of new people and new music. Nico, beautiful, doomed and mad as a fish. Another Anglo-Saxon princess with a harmonium, folkie Helen Watson of Muckram Wakes. Janis Joplin, dead before I discovered her shouty splendour - this manic, Violet-Elizabeth having a breakdown performance shows you where Robert Plant got half his vocal mannerisms. The glorious Scots folk singer Ray Fisher - I can see I'll have to get "Pride of Glencoe" or "Mill O'Tifty's Annie" onto Youtube.
Another woman with a voice like a synthesiser, strangely detached and slightly soulless but still beautiful - Karen Carpenter. Which leads me onto another weakness of mine - music that's slush, but lovely slush - in which the 70s and early 80s seem peculiarly rich - Starland Vocal Band, Captain and Tennille, Catherine Howe, Marshall Hain's "Coming Home", even (whisper it) the mighty Dollar.
Then the mid-late 70s, the disco and reggae queens ! The Lovers Rock anthems of Carroll Thompson and Louisa Mark, Chic, Evelyns King, and Thomas, the divine Donna . Another slightly detached but compelling vocal - Ingrid Mansfield-Allman on "Southern Freeez". The punks didn't have any real divas - sorry, Souxsie, although I was always rather fond of Poly Styrene - but the new wave that followed had a number of wonderful little-girl voices - Blatt of And The Native Hipsters, Clare Grogan of Alterered Images, Alison Statton of Young Marble Giants, Jane. I discovered country music - Patsy Cline and Kitty Wells.
And I kept finding classics, floating up somehow through whatever was current - Doris Day singing "You're My Thrill", Peggy Lee "The Folks Who Live On The Hill", Nina Simone's "Since I Fell For You", Dionne Warwick's Bacharach and David Songbook.
Vashti Bunyan, long before she was re-released - tapes copied and copied again. Julianne Regan (W), who's singing on All About Eve's "Martha's Harbour" comes as close to the feel of a Sandy Denny vocal as you can get.
And it continues. While my life revolves now round children rather than music, let me just credit Portishead's "Glory Box" (what does she mean ?), Olive's "You're Not Alone", the Sneaker Pimps' (unpleasant name, great singing) "Six Underground".
There are - and will be - more - this post being a bit of a work in progress.
Now old age is creeping up, I'm starting to explore some of those operatic vibratos I despised so much in comparison to Maddy Prior thirty-five year back. I can't find a decent version of "O Had I Jubal's Lyre" on the web, but cop Leontyne Price's "Care Selve". To think I had to be nearly 50 before I discovered Handel.
Let's leave you with one my mother would have loved if she'd known it. While I think Frederica von Stade's is the classic, this version of Canteloube's La Delaissado, by the late Netania Davrath, is pretty gorgeous. Enjoy.