Will Friedwald's gift as a critic is his ability to make anyone reevaluate their opinions about popular singers, including his own. It'll come as a surprise to readers of his 1990 book Jazz Singing: America's Great Voices from Bessie Smith to Bebop and beyond, in which he argued that rock & roll ushered in the Apocalypse for good music, that he now considers Elvis Presley to be one of the greatest of all popular singers, the first man to assimilate rhythm and blues, country, and mainstream pop into a seamless whole. Even in praising an artist, Friedwald's opinions are provocative, as when he avers that Dean Martin was a major influence on Elvis's singing; it sounds nutty, but careful listening will back it up.
What makes a jazz or pop singer "great"? Tricky question. The 811 double-columned pages of this book provide a series of contentious, informed, and highly entertaining answers in the form of extended essays on its two hundred or so performers. (The BIOGRAPHICAL GUIDE, which Friedwald spent a decade writing, is modeled after David Thomson's BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF FILM, but with much longer, and better written, entries.) For Friedwald, great pop music is centered on the American songbook, and its finest singers were active during the LP era, the heyday of the concept album (1955 - 1985). What this means for his book is that he doesn't write about too many singers born after 1950, though Diana Krall, Kurt Elling, Michael Feinstein, Audra McDonald, and Dee Dee Bridgewater are among the boomers too interesting NOT to warrant an essay apiece.
Elsewhere, Friedwald is busy challenging our perceptions of the classic performers and throwing away critical gems on almost every page. For example: "I can only imagine that both Sinatra and Dylan had moments when they felt like Dr. Frankenstein: They had created a monster and couldn't control the damage it caused." "Streisand...is incapable of easing up -- whether on a note, on the beat, on the band, on the words, on anything. [She] nearly always sounds as if she's attacking you with a song." "What will it take to convince Aretha Franklin that she is, in fact, a great artist, and not a fly-by-night hit maker? Why does she consistently act as if she's in the same league with Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston?" And then there are the deeper insights: "One thing [Ray Charles] has in common with Tony Bennett is the way he revels in the rapture of the sound of strain -- like an alto saxist struggling for a high F. And one thing he has in common with Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, two bluesmen in a different kind of music, is that he challenges our notion of sound itself."
Chances are, several of your favorite contemporary singers, like several of mine, are going to be missing from this book, but there's more than enough interesting material here to make it an essential purchase anyway. You'll be reading and re-reading it for months.