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Brianna Thomas on the Art of Song Delivery

Vocalist recommends her favorite cuts that feature a unique delivery of a song's lyrics, music and message

Brianna Thomas
Brianna Thomas

For a vocalist, song delivery is everything—how you convey the message. Melody and words are married; one is not more important than the other. Melody can be beautiful, but it’s easy to hide behind and get caught up in. These artists and tracks inspire me to dig deep into what I’m saying and pull the melody out. – Brianna Thomas 

Carmen McRae
“How Long Has This Been Going On?”
Book of Ballads (Kapp, 1959)

She’s constantly aware of the words coming out of her mouth. She doesn’t waste any notes; every note is in the [emotional] context of what words she’s singing. But she doesn’t limit herself—she puts her soul in it. It’s the sassiest thing; it’s really gangsta.

Mahalia Jackson
“How I Got Over”
Recorded Live in Europe During Her Latest Concert Tour (Columbia, 1962)

Her voice was like nothing else; it’s like God broke off a piece of his own vocal cords and put it in her. The sound of her voice, even if she’s just humming, conveys that feeling. You can feel down in your spirit and your bones what she’s saying, and she never sang “How I Got Over” the same way. And Mahalia had a hard swing; there is a pulse in her that you feel throughout the entire song.

Ella Fitzgerald
“St. Louis Blues”
These Are the Blues (Verve, 1964)

Her instrument is impeccable. People think of the blues as growling or talking, but she’s really singing it. She is very playful with the words and even adds some racy lines, but she never neglects the communication. She puts a slow, deliberate pace on the song, and you feel that that’s what this song is supposed to be.


Nina Simone
“If I Should Lose You”
Wild Is the Wind (Philips, 1966)

She’s really a genius. She brings the feeling to you. She’s playing piano and she lays this carpet down, this lushness, and everything she’s playing is telling the story of the words. She hangs on every word—there is no real time that she does [the song] in, and that’s indicative of the feeling. There are lines where you hear her sing the “ing” of the word. One of my favorite lines is where she sings, “Hating the sound of rain.” Rain is usually soothing and it gives life, but she makes it seem inescapable.

Aretha Franklin
“Today I Sing the Blues”
Soul ’69 (Atlantic, 1969)

You could take the melody out and she would be having a straight-up conversation with you. Her voice is amazing, obviously, but she doesn’t waste any opportunity for space; [her performance] is very deliberate.

Donny Hathaway
Everything Is Everything  (ATCO, 1970)

It’s one of the breeziest versions of “Misty” you will ever hear.
It’s so soulful. The way he’s all in those words, and the way he uses his emotion to convey the melody, is perfect. Again, nothing is wasted.


Shirley Horn
“Do It Again”
Where Are You Going (Perception, 1972)

The pace is incredible—it’s crawling. She opens with “You really shouldn’t have done it,” and she’s talking to someone. And you could go to the grocery store and get a sandwich and a Coke between that and the next word. The song is super-sexy and I love the arrangement.

Dianne Reeves
“I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good”
Dianne Reeves (Blue Note, 1987)

I was transfixed because I had been singing this, but she was so free. There are moments when her voice is running like water. It brings to mind an R&B flavor, and as a performer growing up in the ’90s, I was excited to hear that in the context of the music I love to sing, which is jazz.

Bill Withers
“Let Me in Your Life”
Live at Carnegie Hall (Sussex, 1973)
He opens this live recording talking about women in their 30s not being so keen and trusting of men, and you can feel the energy in the room. It’s an open letter and the words alone are ridiculous. The way he writes, it’s like folk music, people’s music, but he’s also a genius with his musicianship. He understood how to use both those things. He can rock out and do all sorts of funky stuff, but he was so tender with this. It’s so poignant.


Etta Jones
“On the Street Where You Live”

Don’t Go to Strangers (Prestige, 1960)
She leans into this song so hard from the first note and immediately draws you in. The energy of the tune is so swinging and you really catch the words. The way that she’s interpreting it makes you go, “Yes!” A lot of people do this song faster, and it’s not that you have to slow everything down to hear the words, but as a vocalist, you have to find the pace that you can tell the truth at.

[As told to Jeff Tamarkin]

Illinois-born, NYC-based Brianna Thomas has been a vocalist since childhood. She’s performed at festivals such as Montreux, Savannah and Umbria and at numerous high-profile venues including the Kennedy Center and Jazz at Lincoln Center, where she’s appeared frequently. Her debut album, You Must Believe in Love, was released in 2014. Visit her at




Originally Published