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From Sinatra To Rod Stewart – The Crooner Conundrum

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A few weeks ago, I published a review of an Engelbert Humperdinck concert DVD, and while I was doing research for it I ran across something he once said and it sort of stuck with me. When someone commented about how a few critics had dismissed him as a mere "crooner," he frowned and answered, "If you are not a crooner, it's something you don't want to be called."

Huh? Well, Engelbert has a right to express his feelings, but to me the real question for both him and the unnamed crtics is, when did being a crooner become a bad thing?

I guess a good starting place for this puzzle would be a definition. The music wiki defines it like this: "Crooner is an epithet given to a male singer of a certain style of popular songs, dubbed pop standards. A crooner is a singer of popular ballads thus a 'balladeer.' The singer is normally backed by a full orchestra or big band."

I didn't find anything particularly negative in that, so I continued looking for something to explain when and why the prevailing attitude changed, and I found lots of references that just seemed to muddy the water. For example, I found this: "Tony Bennett – one of the world's favorite crooners." But I also found, "Bennett is a belter, not a crooner."

Along with Bennett, Dean Martin, and the under-appreciated Dick Haymes, I had always thought of Frank Sinatra as the ultimate crooner, and one of his albums from his early days is titled, Sinatra – Birth Of A Crooner. However, I found many quotes similar to this one: "Sinatra is not, and never has been, a crooner."

Bing Crosby was often called "the original crooner," and I found that a fan group called "the devotees of colorful crooner Russ Columbo" compared him to Crosby – but then I also found Russ himself proclaiming, "I'm not a crooner – or a blues singer or a straight baritone." Hmmm.

I found reference to a contestant on American Idol, describing how he'd been placed in the "sweet young crooner" category. And I found this quote on the website of another young singer wannabe: "Who doesn't want to be a crooner? I'm not a crooner, but I aspire to be one."

And here's one about Keith Richards that probably doesn't have anything to do with the question at hand, but I'm including it because I liked it: "He's a guitar player, not a crooner!"

An opinion from football analyst John Madden, talking (in his unique way) about Snoop Dogg, "Snoop is not a crooner. A Crooner was the, ya know, the smooth guy, the smooth voice guy, I mean those kinda guys. I mean even on radio anymore you don’t get the crooners."

And finally, I found the following written about an album by Rod Stewart, who over a career spanning forty years has managed to jump in and out of just about every genre around. "…It Had to Be You, the first in his series crooning the songs…."

It would be easy to snicker at Stewart's transformation from a big-haired rocker to crooner (and a lot of people have) but sometimes the road to Snickerville takes a detour. Fact is, Stewart has demonstrated a pretty good voice through the years, and the more you listen to him doing the old standards the better he sounds. He's become bigger than ever by recording a series of albums of crooner tunes, and I have to admit that his version of at least one classic song has become a favorite of mine. It's called "The Way You Look Tonight." Try it and see what you think.

If there's a simple answer to my original question — and I'm not sure there is — it might just be this: those who seem to want to disparage crooners are probably the same people who like to mock a lot of other feel-good things, by exercising a misguided sense of smug superiority. But crooners have been successfully crooning for a long time and will probably continue to do so, because that's what most people like – including me, if you haven't figured that out by now.

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About Big Geez

  • http://www.morethings.com/log Al Barger

    Most likely, foolish people using “crooner” as an insult are intending it as a dig at the singer’s manliness. Note that women aren’t accused of the crime of “crooning” with similar musical styles and arrangements.

    Also, that’s the obvious intended difference if they’re making a big distinction between being a “crooner” or a “belter.” See, a belter is not some pussy little nancy boy, but someone who’ll belt you one right in the nose. Tony Bennett’s upside your head!

  • Big Geez

    Thanks for the comments, Al. Yeah, you’re right, and as I researched this I also seemed to find a lot of quotes that implied that a “crooner” had a poorer quality voice – sort of like, they had to settle for crooning, rather than real singing. Sheesh.

  • http://musical-guru.blogspot.com/ Michael J. West

    I wish I could like Rod Stewart as a crooner, but the truth is that I love him too much as a rocker. Over the first three or four albums, 1969-72, he was absolutely the greatest rock & roll act on Planet Earth. Everything else just seems like slippage.

  • http://geezermusicclub.wordpress.com/ Big Geez

    Sorry to hear you can’t like Rod as a crooner, Michael, but I can relate to how you feel. Sometimes when I’m really fond of a particular artist singing a certain way, or even a certain song, it just sets my teeth on edge to hear anything else. Example, I have a difficult time listening to anyone but Etta James sing “At Last”, although I’ve heard several try. The only one that’s passable is Nat Cole, but then he always sounds good.

  • charles gradante

    Let’s not forget phrasing as an essential part of crooning..sinatra always called himself a saloon singer and he is the only crooner who you can listen to for three hours without getting bored…not bennett,martin,or crosby ever had a three hour radio program that lasted 3 decades…”Saturday night with sinatra”….he is the standard…

  • http://geezermusicclub.wordpress.com/ Big Geez

    Good point, Charles…but now you’ve introduced something new into the discussion. Was Sinatra saying that “saloon singer” was lower than crooner? ;-)

  • http://www.morethings.com/log Al Barger

    “they had to settle for crooning, rather than real singing” I guess some folks would take that kind of outlook, but I would somewhat tend to think that it takes more skill and control to convincingly put the nuance into a quiet ballad where you can really hear everything clearly than it does to belt out a blues song with a rock band blaring away behind you.

  • peter

    Engelbert is an amazing singer.
    I saw him in concert is Sydney recently and he blew everyone away.
    I wouldnt want him crooning in my ear…apart from the fact that my girlfriend may get jealous….but with the power that sings with I feel I will checking in to get my hearing aids a little premature.

    Peter,38.

  • http://musical-guru.blogspot.com/ Michael J. West

    I would somewhat tend to think that it takes more skill and control to convincingly put the nuance into a quiet ballad where you can really hear everything clearly than it does to belt out a blues song with a rock band blaring away behind you.

    In most cases I would agree with that entirely. But, in my experience, the truly gifted singers are the ones who can convincingly put nuance in a belted-out blues song.

  • http://musical-guru.blogspot.com/ Michael J. West

    Elvis Presley, naturally, remains my favorite singer of all time…because he could do both.

  • http://www.morethings.com/log Al Barger

    Oh yes Michael, I didn’t mean to disrespect the skillz involved in being a good rock singer. Robert Plant and Roger Daltrey kick ass. But even then, I’d be measuring their fullest displays of skill and technique by the ballads. “Behind Blue Eyes” is more of a display of vocal skill than “My Generation.”

  • zingzing

    and nick cave bests them all. except, of course, elvis. yah. sure.

  • http://clatch.blogspot.com A.L. Harper

    I have chosen this article as one of my editor’s picks of the week. You can see what I had to say here.

    Congratulations and keep up the good work.

    A.L. Harper
    Assistant Music Editor

  • http://geezermusicclub.wordpress.com/ Big Geez

    Thanks! Much appreciated.

  • http://clatch.blogspot.com A.L. Harper

    You’re welcome. I have picked you most weeks actually I just didn’t think to say before now.

  • http://geezermusicclub.wordpress.com/ Big Geez

    I didn’t realize that, but I’ll know from now on because I’ve added this section to my RSS feeds!

  • olle

    this site sucks -_-

  • roger antony carter

    great to find this blog here. as a lyric writer I find that every now and then I write a set of lyrics for well, the Great man…Chairman of the Board…and hey, no idle boast I think I did a couple that had I ever been able to get to him. he may well have said. “yeah, ring a ding ding”

    ah well, if any one here knows who the ballad singers are nowadays give me a SHOUT.hahaahah

    Thanks for a great article and some real nice “company”

    Roger

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/fran-parker/ Fran Parker

    Five years later and still a great article!

    MP3 link to song “The way you look tonight” broken, might want to try Youtube.