Recently, I found myself the subject of an animated discussion in a Wal-Mart check-out line, when the clerk asked for some identification. As I went to comply, another shopper standing nearby challenged the checker with the words “Well you know HIM, don’t you!” When I had the chance, I quietly asked my “defender” how she knew me. “Well I should” she responded, “I hear you on the radio all the time. Nobody else sounds anything like you”. Both a little embarrassed and somewhat flattered, I had to admit to myself that even after 42 years in Utah, my public voice is the product of New Jersey roots, Vermont schooling, and a lifetime of being shaped by a love affair with language and rhetoric. Just as people have fingerprints which are unique to them, an entire forensic science has developed around the concept of “word print” analysis recognizing that each member of the Human race has an aural identity different than that of any other.
Because this is true, I cannot help but think about those voices which have impacted, and continue to have an effect on our history and our everyday life. Even those who were not yet alive during the WWII years, immediately recognize the voice of Winston Churchill urging his nation to “fight on the beaches” and” in the fields” and to “never surrender”, and FDR’s grim reference to “a day which will live in infamy”. A lifelong “audiophile” I thrill to the magnificent sonority of Richard Burton’s voice as he reads lines from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” on my 50-year old Sony tape play-back deck connected to a Harmon Cardon vacuum-tube-powered amplifier system of the same vintage. The late Burton once explained that “for the five hours I play Hamlet, I AM Hamlet!”, and all I have to do today is close my eyes as the tape unwinds and I am there in the audience, breathless at a performance recorded 46 years ago by a voice which has no peer.
Any morning I awaken to a need to be reminded of how much I have to feel good about, I slip on a recording of the inimitable Louis Armstrong singing “What a Wonderful World”, in that gravely voice formed in throat chords so as to protect a diaphragm vital to his cornet playing; no other voice in the world could imitate that of the great “Satchmo”.
Another great dramatic voice we all recognize immediately is that of James Earl Jones who – among dozens of other roles – was the voice of Darth Vader in the Star Wars series, and that of Mufasa in “Lion King”. His deep authoritative voice greets users of public pay phones in the South with his “Welcome to Bell Atlantic”. What few of his admiring public might realize is that Jones, often thought of by fellow professionals as “The Voice”, was born with a stuttering disability which he has had to fight all his life. “One of the hardest things in life”, he has said, “is having words in your heart that you can’t utter”.
One of my all-time favorite voices is that of actor William Conrad, who played Matt Dillon in “Gunsmoke” during its days on radio, and then went on to narrate “Tales of the Unexpected” and “How The West Was Won” in the world of television and film. Altogether, his deep, clear-throated voice found its way into more than 7,500 radio dramas. The late Conrad was one of many talented actors who failed to see their radio roles translate into television because they didn’t “LOOK the part”!
Walt Disney and the cartoons he brought to the film medium brought fame for the likes of Mel Blanc – known as the “man of a thousand voices” – with his invented vocal identities for Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Yosemite Sam, Wil-E-Coyote, Woody Woodpecker and The Flintstones’ Barney Rubble. It gave a “second life” to actors like Ernest Borgnine (Spongebob Squarepants) and Jim Backus, (The Nearsighted Mr. Magoo).
Voices must invest the animated characters they portray with the character and personality traits envisioned and embraced by the voice-actor playing the role. A good example is Ed Asner’s voice of the grumpy, curmudgeonly Carl Frederickson in the award-winning movie favorite, “UP!” .
As I finish the final paragraph of each column or essay I write, I hear the voice of the actor Lawrence Dobkin as he signed off after each television broadcast of the long-running “Naked City” drama ringing in my listening ear: “There are eight million stories in the Naked City, and this has been one of them.”
Born into extreme poverty in New Orleans in the early days of the 20th century, Louis Armstrong went on to become the quintessential American musician of the Jazz Era, with a hot trumpet and raspy voice that continue to stir generations. His hallmark rendering of “What a Wonderful World” became the background theme for the movie, “Good-Morning Viet Nam”.
Library of Congress photo
Library of Congress photo
The crusty voice of Hollywood actor Ed Asner painted the perfect character-picture for the curmudgeonly Carl Frederickson in the popular animated motion picture UP!.