Let's not start an argument about the most distinctive voices in popular music, we could be here all night. You: Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin, Chrissie Hynde. Him: Got to be Bjork. Me: Ethel Merman – go with me, who else has ever sounded like her? While we're on the subject, Dusty. And. And.
The men? Smokey, Stevie, Marvin? Bee Gees? The growling ghost with a bourbon in each hand, Tom Waits? Maybe the fearless falsetto, trembling tenor and vibrato of Radiohead's Thom Yorke. Or Neil Young. Jeff Buckley. ou Reed. Or Robert Plant. Or Marc Bolan's choking goat. But I have to land on Freddie Mercury's 4.5-octave range, those top notes clearer than an Alpine lake. Practically perfect pitch. There'll never be another Freddie.
I hear you, Bob Dylan-, Elvis- and Bowie-voters. They fall, for me, into the category of Voices Easily Imitated. In order to be truly unique, genuinely inimitable, the voice needs to be not only instantly recognisable, but also impossible for anyone to impersonate. I'm thinking Costello instead of Presley. Tony Bennett, not Frank Sinatra. Boy George.
What prompted this musing (since we are never going to agree)? A remark made by Nick Fitzherbert last night, en route to a gig by one of the most distinctive voices ever: Jim Diamond. Full disclosure, I've known Jim for thirty years. We used to do a radio show together, with our other great chum, Bill Padley, on Radio Clyde. Those Friday nights in the Holiday Inn Glasgow after broadcast inevitably ended in the pool. I'd like to say that I perfected the art of flying with a hangover. I never did.
Back to the records. Nick was bemoaning his daughter's adoration of Sam Smith, newly nutrified, toned and slimlined, like his bank account after Petty refused to back down. He pulled up some Jim and gave her a listen. I'm picturing scales falling from Eliza's eyes.
Jim Diamond was running rings around the greats with that voice decades before the Sam Smith debacle. He's a little guy, but the voice is huge. It's arresting. I remember Pete Townshend telling Jim years ago in a gym that his voice was a 'priceless gem', to be preserved at all costs and never squandered. Jim was so proud, he told me that story every time I saw him for about ten years.
You're thinking, Jim who? Maybe you're going, oh yeah, PhD, 'I Won't Let You Down', and that other one, the Number One he threw away when he told everyone to rush out and buy the Band Aid single the following week, Christmas 1984. 'I Should Have Known Better'. Or you're humming 'Hi Ho Silver' and grinning from ear to there at the memory of the late Michael Elphick, star of the show and Jim's mate.
Few know that Jim is a soul singer. He summons pain from the depths. He is bashful when introducing his own compositions, tearful when announcing 'this beautiful thing' by Smokey (My Girl), 'a lifelong favourite' (Stand By Me), or the Beatles' 'Eleanor Rigby'. He hadn't performed in public for years, other than for charity. Getting him up on stage at the Half Moon Putney was a fluke.
He's still got it. 'One of our great underestimated talents,' as Keith Altham describes him. Yet another of rock's unsung heroes, the voices that got away. Voices that should have soared all the way to Coutts and beyond the international space station, but never did. He's still Jim. Unshakably rooted in the Scottish homeland he eulogises as he remembers his Daddy, the late fireman he adored. He acknowledges the song that 'bought the house.' He dedicates numbers to his friends, his children, his beautiful wife Chrissie – 'the one thing that is always there, that has always been there, constant, no matter what.' We all have that, Jim? No, we don't. We'd all like that.