When listening to records from the early part of the twentieth century one thing that is notable is the absence of singing. There are a lot more instrumental records, and in those records where there is singing it often does not arrive until we have gone through at least one instrumental verse and chorus.
This can now strike us as odd, as we have got used to the fact that songs come with vocals up front. It is mediation that has been ringing the changes. Jazz was one of the first genres of music to become known through recordings. It was primarily focused on the timbre and improvisation skills of the musicians. Sound recording could capture these qualities; sheet music could not. It was also recording techniques that returned us – gradually – to singers. Electric recording arrived in the mid-1920s and for the first time singers used microphones in recording studios. New, intimate styles of singing were developed, and with them a more intense relationship developed between listeners and singers. Singers were also pushed to the forefront because of the broadcast and filming of music: these media required a different centre of attention to live performance.
At the same time, the neglect of vocals should not strike us as odd. Anyone who has played in a band will be familiar with the fact that singers can be an afterthought. It is often musicians who form bands: a gang of mates who play guitar, bass and drums. The singer is often the last to join and they can be something of an outsider. In addition, they are not usually listened to. They will be drowned out in rehearsals and also at some live gigs. It is also the case that at smaller gigs there may be no spotlight; thus the audience’s attention is spread between various group members. It is only when bands turn their focus towards recording that things begin to change, and it is only when they are signed to a record label that the singer starts to be elevated to pole position. This can be a hard dynamic to handle for all parties concerned.