What Etta James taught me about the Voice

My blog tends to focus more on giving information on the care of the voice.  But as a former singer and true lover of music, I can’t help but occasionally indulge that to talk about the art of voice. 

I could not let the passing of Etta James go by without saying something what her voice meant to me.  Her sudden absence is felt worldwide as we unify to listen to her music again, in tribute, on the radio waves.

It’s possible Angelenos are feeling this loss even more strongly, as James discovered her voice in a South Central Los Angeles church.  We feel we’ve lost one of ours. In the end, leukemia took her life.  But that is not what will be remembered of the voice that gave generations of music lovers something to relish.

A legend in her time and ours, Etta James sang ballads that wrung heartstrings and shaped R&B for all artists that followed her. She was the definition of “making it on your own,” coming from impossible lows to an equally impossible high.  Her inspiration is clearly heard in the works of Amy Winehouse, Adele, Beyonce and countless other artists.

The remembrances of Etta James have featured interviews with her.  Listening on my way to work this morning, I was surprised to hear her speaking voice.  James was a notable contralto but her low, raspy speaking voice would make you wonder if she could sing more than three notes.  But even in her later years, she hit far more than three notes.  It may not have been the same voice of her teenage and early career years.  However, her voice still had the vibrancy and passion that made her listeners’ hearts soar.

I can’t help it – it made me think about voice and voice production.  I can’t help but anticipate if a patient will have vocal pathology as I listen to their speaking voice.  I can predict what I will see on an exam by being attuned to the nuances of their speaking voice. However, I found myself humbled, listening to James’ interview voice and her singing voice.  I would never have guessed it was the same person.

To me, this shows that we still have much to learn about the voice and how it is produced.  I often tell a signer to come in for a check when they are feeling well because many singers have pathology even when they sound good.  It gives me a baseline upon which to measure all future exams.  I often do see little scars, early nodule formation, or other problems during these baseline exams that singers never knew they had.  It’s important to remember that it is possible to have pathology and still sound wonderful.  In fact, I’d bank on the fact that James’ cords did not look great.

But, oh, the sound her cords made … it just goes to show that not all great voices come from perfect cords.  And by the same token, not all problems come from imperfect cords.  Singers come to me when they are having a problem and are often shocked to see normal looking cords. But so much of voice comes from sources beyond the vocal cords.

What strikes me today, as we mourn the loss of Etta James and celebrate the legacy she leaves behind, is that the voice is mysterious and great.  We know far less about it than we dare to admit.  However, it is in that mystery, in that unknown something, that truly great voices are found.