8 Iconic Rock Vocal Performances

May 6, 2020

A truly superb vocal performance can raise an otherwise “just okay” song to new, dizzying heights. Just try to imagine “Take Me Home, Country Road” sung by anyone other than John Denver, or “Bohemian Rhapsody” sung by some run-of-the-mill performer. It just wouldn’t be the same – if it worked at all. Need proof? Just try searching YouTube for Audioslave’s attempt at some of Rage Against the Machine’s numbers. There’s no denying Chris Cornell’s talent, but some of those songs just don’t work without Rage’s Zack de la Rocha.

With that in mind, this week we’re exploring some of the greatest vocal performances in rock history. Hold on to your hat!

Joe Cocker – “With a Little Help From My Friends”

Joe Cocker first sang this Beatles classic on this debut LP in 1969, which features Jimmy Page on guitar. But the version most people remember is the eight-minute performance that closed out Woodstock later that same year.

“With a Little Help From My Friends,” as well as dozens of other Beatles songs, has been covered countless times. But few artists have taken such a sledgehammer to The Beatles in the way Cocker did. In his version of the song, almost nothing but the lyrics remains of the original – he poured every last drop of himself into the performance, transforming the track into a timeless blues anthem.

Nirvana – “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”

This traditional folk song, sometimes called “In the Pines,” has been sung by too many artists to list over the last 7 decades. But Nirvana recorded one of the greatest versions ever produced during their MTV Unplugged concert in November 1993.

The tune had already been a part of the grunge band’s repertoire for a few years, but the stripped-down, unplugged performance, with the help of cellist Lori Goldston, made for a truly stunning performance. Cobain gave the world one of the greatest vocal performances of his short career; you can feel the soul rending agony in this cracking voice as he sings about an unfaithful partner. He died just five months later.

The Rolling Stones – “Gimme Shelter”

This one is a bit of a twist. While Mick Jagger certainly deserves praise for his performance on “Gimme Shelter,” the true star on this track, without a doubt, is Merry Clayton. As a highly qualified and accomplished singer, Clayton performed with everyone from Bobby Darin to Neil Young and Tori Amos. She even provided background vocals for “Sweet Home Alabama.” But “Gimme Shelter” has got to be her finest moment – that’s her singing “Rape, murder / It’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away.” Near the end of the tune she hits notes that would make Mariah Carey jealous, before singing “Love, sister / It’s just a kiss away” with Jagger.

From start to finish it’s a tour de force.

Led Zeppelin – “Stairway to Heaven”

There’s no questioning “Stairway to Heaven’s” iconic status. And one of the reasons this song has captivated listeners for so long is that it builds slowly over its eight-minute runtime. During that buildup, Robert Plant’s vocals rise right along with it, starting as barely a whisper and growing to a full-throated scream.

That said, don’t bother yelling for it during Plant’s solo shows – he isn’t a huge fan of the song and has only sung it a few times since Led Zeppelin broke up in 1980. But one of those occasions was the 2007 Led Zeppelin reunion concert, where he proved he still have the necessary pipes!

Tina Turner – “River Deep, Mountain High”

Record producer Phil Spector made Tina Turner sing “River Deep, Mountain High” for hour after hour until she managed to get it just right. “I must have sung that 500,000 times,” she said. “I was drenched with sweat. I had to take my shirt off and stand there in my bra to sing.” But all the hard work paid off in the end. The song is arguably the single best produced by either Spector or Turner, despite its relatively disappointing commercial showing at the time.

The Who – “Love Reign O’er Me”

Roger Daltrey wasn’t always a confident lead singer. In fact, The Who even dumped him for a few weeks in their earliest days. But around the time of Tommy he started to gain some confidence and really came into his own as a performer. Perhaps his finest work came in 1973 on “Love Reign O’er Me,” the final tune on The Who’s rock opera Quadrophenia.

In the story, at this point the hero Jimmy is standing alone on a rock in the middle of the ocean during a rainstorm. Jimmy is hopelessly alone, and Daltrey brings all the appropriate emotion with his voice, finishing off with a soaring yelp that rivals his cries in “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”

The Beatles – “Twist and Shout”

As the story goes, John Lennon had a bad cold the night they were recording this track. His voice was practically fried, and their producer, George Martin, knew they only had a short time to nail down the vocals. According the legend, Lennon gargled some milk, took a couple of cough drops, stepped into the booth and delivered this iconic, throat-shredding take on the Isley Brothers’ classic.

“That song nearly killed me,” he would later say. “My voice wasn’t the same for a long time after; every time I swallowed, it was like sandpaper. I was always bitterly ashamed of it, because I could sing better than that, but now it doesn’t bother me.”

It doesn’t bother us either!

Pink Floyd – “The Great Gig in the Sky”

Originally conceived of as an instrumental, Pink Floyd had been working on “The Great Gig in the Sky” for a long time before finally deciding to bring in a female vocalist, Clare Torry.

“I went in, put the headphone on, and started going ‘Ooh-aah, baby, baby – yeah, yeah, yeah,’ she would later recall. “They said, ‘No, no – we don’t want that. If we wanted that, we’d have got Doris Troy.’ They said, ‘Try some longer notes,’ so I started doing that a bit.” Over just three takes, Torry wailed over Richard Wright’s piano work, simply pretending her voice was another instrument. In the end, the group was thrilled with the results, even if Torry wasn’t so confident she did a good job.

As a somewhat odd epilogue to this tune, in 2004 Torry sued the band, claiming she should have received cowriting credit. The suit was settled, and all pressings of the album now list Wright and Torry as the songwriters.