Today it seems that everybody and their sister is grabbing a mic and singing songs out of the American Songbook. This speaks to how popular the standards genre has become … which is great. But some of these efforts are just not very good … and a few of the real “Fails” come from surprisingly top drawer performers in their own genre. Sad demonstrations that being a superstar in one genre doesn’t mean you can walk across the street and crank out great vocal standards fare.

But that’s topic for another day! We’re not here today to take potshots at the losers but to talk up the winners … at least as I see them. Before I drop my Top Five list and “honorable mentions” on you  however…

What is a Crossover Artist?

Could this be a hint as to who made the list?!

I called out a definition of a vocal standards crossover performer in my “Categories” post last month but just to quickly recap … in my opinion a crossover artist is one that comes to the American Songbook after an established career in another singing genre, or from a different venue altogether — like acting, dancing, politics or welding.

Also, for the purposes of this list I focus primarily on the quality of the performer’s work with the standards rather than the volume of work they produced — otherwise who could even begin to compete with Rod Stewart!

On the other end of the spectrum, I also washed out of consideration an artist that only crossed over for an occasional or “one off” rendering of a standards classic — no matter how well they pulled it off (Lady Gaga on TB’s recent Duets II release).

Hey, if someone wanders into a studio and pumps out a nice duet with Frank or Tony, I think that’s all goodness and light … again, it speaks to how hot the genre is. But if they never really pick up the mantle of the American Songbook they don’t qualify as a “crossover artist” in my mind. For me to consider them in the mix, an artist has to deliver dedicated standards effort equal to at least one album’s workload.

They’re the Top!

Here’s my top five vocal standards cross over artists:

  1. Ray Charles
  2. Louis Armstrong
  3. Linda Ronstadt
  4. Bette Midler
  5. Boz Scaggs

Jump beyond the break to see how I made these picks over some other strong and very successful performers … and find out who the honorable mentions are!

Ray Charles was clearly an amazing talent, but why #1 you ask? Ray was so strong in the genre you could argue that he was not even a crossover artist. He transcended genre … equally important to Blues, R&B, Country, Rock, Pop and the standards realms.

His stylings were unique and he had the knack for not only crossing over but bringing songs from other genres (Blues and Country especially) and making them standards . Ray gets the nod for the top spot because he wrote nearly as much into the American Songbook as he borrowed from it and left the genre expanded and richer for his effort.

Preceding Ray on the crossover path, Louis Armstrong similarly affected the genre by carving out his uniquely styled persona. Louis started singing in earnest after 10 plus years as a dedicated musician and became a cornerstone purveyor of the American Songbook for decades.

Linda Ronstadt’s country/pop career was in high gear back in the early ’80s when she got together with Nelson Riddle and crossed over to the standards … making a trio of standards albums that reinvigorated a genre that had fallen into the “Dearth Years” — the horrible down time between the Rat Pack generation and the emergence of the New Guard in the ’90s.

What’s New, Lush Life, and For Sentimental Reasons are outstanding albums in their own right, with Ronstadt singing the “frail” out front of Nelson Riddle. But the fact that they took a swing at these recordings in a time when the genre was really down, with no assured success, elevates Linda into the top realm of standards crossover vocal artists for me.

After the Big Three…

After the top three it starts to get squishy … there are many, many talented crossover players in the standards game these days, and historically all the way back to the ’30s and ’40s. I wanted to get to a top five though so I took a stand on these two folks to round things out.

Bette Midler has dabbled with the standards since the early ’90s but she garners this #4 position in my list for her superior albums honoring Rosemary Clooney (2003) and Peggy Lee (2005) and her 2010 import album Memories of You. I think her best work was delivered in the Rose Clooney tribute record — Bette does a great job honoring Rose’s unique vocal stylings while also making these songs her own … sounds impossible but take a listen and you’ll get it.

Finally I took a bit of a personal flyer on the # 5 spot. I know there are tons of guys and gals that have crossed and done a great job and certainly some that have produced more material than Boz Scaggs. But I think his unique vocal style lends itself incredibly well to the standards and his Speak Low and But Beautiful albums are enough for me to push him into the mix.

Boz is not another crooner “sound-a-like” guy pushing Sinatra-esk riffs (not that there’s anything wrong with that — just drawing a distinction). He takes on the standards on his own terms, rendering cool and unique versions of classics like “Dindi”, “Do Nothing ’til You Hear From Me” and “Skylark” … bottom line, I think his combination of unique vocal style and flair for the material gets him on my list.

Where the hell is…

… Fred Astaire, Rod Stewart, Sting, Queen Latifah, Barry Manilow, George Michael, Carley Simon, Willie Nelson (fill in the blanks here with your favorite that I left off the list). I hear you… and I freely admit that the above Top Five List is my personal view as of today. I concede that there may be folks more deserving of a top five slot. Hit me with your best shot — I can take it! Seriously, lay some wood to me where I’ve gone wrong, or what clearly deserving artist I’ve overlooked.

Before you sharpen your knives and ninja stars, let’s hit on a couple of the obvious remaining folks I did not place in the top five…

Rod Stewart rocks! In fact to me, he really does Rock better than he sings the American Songbook. Don’t get me wrong … I think Rod has done a lot to help bolster the standards genre and has certainly been far and away the most prolific of all the modern era crossing artists — launching a whole second career with scads of standards albums.

The problem is that I grew to love Rod’s very smokey and unique vocal style with “Maggie May” and the Every Picture Tells a Story album from the early ’70s and I have a hard time getting my ear around his standards renditions. I know many people love his standards stuff and I don’t dislike Rod’s work per se … I just don’t appreciate it enough at this point to jet it up into the top five.

Another amazingly prolific guy, from the early years, Fred Astaire discovered and introduced many, many of the standards we’ve come to know as American Songbook cornerstone classics — “Night and Day”, “A Foggy Day”, “Nice Work if You Can Get It”, “Cheek to Cheek”, “The Way You Look Tonight” … and trust me when I say that is only a sliver of the catalog he introduced.

So why didn’t he make the top five … well, I love Fred to be sure; but you got to admit that as a singer, Fred Astaire is a fine dancer! Hell, even Fred said he couldn’t sing … I’ve listened to him for many years, and quite a bit this week because I really, wanted to get him in the top five but I couldn’t pull the trigger. His vocal style is very ’30s “pre crooner” — and that’s when he actually sings at all. As often as not he sort of sing-talks the lyrics … I just can’t quite get there.

Well, there it is folks. Tell me where I’ve gone wrong and who I missed!

  • Susan

    I agree with most of your picks… Linda Rondstadt’s work with Nelson Riddle was outstanding. And I really do like Boz singing the Standards, but I would have to put Barry Manilow up there… his “Sings Sinatra” CD was one of my favorites.

  • Anonymous

    Barry was a major consideration and arguably a better choice for the list. He definitely falls into the “cream of the crop” for crossover artists. In the end I was drawn to Boz’s distinctive vocal style over Barry’s clean, polished semi pop-Broadway vocals. DON’T get me wrong though … everybody likes to make fun of Manilow but he’s amazingly talented and “Sings Sinatra” is a great play!

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