“What do you call it when an
artist talks during a song?”
That was the question I got in a message from a friend recently and it has taken me down a veritable rabbit hole of research and deduction. I finally landed in the late 1800s in a world of German opera to find the origins of what is referred to as either “sprechgesang” meaning “spoken singing” or “sprechstimme” meaning “spoken voice.”
As I began to compile a list of the most important “songs that speak,” I was taken back by the variety of songs that fit into this category. It is an interesting, cross-genre list that covers the spectrum of popular music.
From the verses of C.W. McCoy’s “Convoy” to the entirety of William Shatner covering “Rocket Man” to Baloo sing-speaking about prickly pears in “The Bear Necessities,” you get the drift.
Sing speaking can set the tone for the song that is to come such as the iconic intro for The Contours, “Do You Love Me?”
“You broke my heart ‘cause I couldn’t dance. You didn’t even want me around. And now I’m back, to let you know. I can really shake ‘em down.”
It can be used for emphasis mid-song in a phrase that will be repeated by listeners for the rest of time like “tin roof, rusted” shouted in The B-52’s “Love Shack.”
Or it can be used to bring a dramatic piece of music to a close such as The Moody Blues’ “Breathe deep the gathering gloom…” which comes at the six-minute mark of the epic “Knights in White Satin” on the 1967 album “Days of Future Passed.”
Here are some other significant uses of sprechstimme from modern music for your review:
Elvis Presley, “Are You Lonesome Tonight” (1960)
Recorded at four o’clock in the morning, Elvis asked studio engineer Chet Atkins to turn down the lights as he recorded the spoken bridge from 1:28 to 2:40. The total track length for “Are You Lonesome Tonight” is 3:07.
The Main Ingredient, “Everybody Plays a Fool” (1972)
This series of spoken verses sets up the track with lead singer Cuba Gooding Sr. asking questions for the listener followed by the invitation to “dig this” on the group’s 1972 million selling single.
The Big Bopper, “Chantilly Lace” (1958)
This one is pretty iconic and was one of the first tunes that came to mind prior to a Google search. “Do I what? Will I what? Oh baby, you know what I like.” J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson used sing-speaking to its maximum potential on this classic track.
Prince, “Let’s Go Crazy” (1984)
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here to get through this thing called life.” Iconic words from the purple one.
George Jones, “He Stopped Loving Her Today” (1980)
Often cited as one of the greatest country songs ever written, Jones uses speaking to bring home the dramatic finale of the song’s surprise ending.
Edie Brickell (featuring Barry White), “Good Times” (1994)
This has always been a personal favorite simply because it is the iconic booming bass register of Barry White who brings a magical spoken interlude to the middle section of the song. This is a Barry White trademark, and no one does it quite like him.
The Shangri-Las, “Leader of the Pack” (1964)
A great song. An incredible story. Spoken words. The motorcycle speeding off in the distance. This song has it all!
- The Kinks, “Come Dancing”
- Dolly Parton, “I Will Always Love You”
- Mickey & Sylvia, “Love is Strange”
- Boyz II Men, “End of the Road”
- Meat Loaf, “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”