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What Is a True Contralto?

Image by Flickr.com, courtesy of Dan Foy

A true contralto is female who’s tessitura; that is, the part of the range in which her voice performs best is between the “E” below middle C and the second “G” above middle C. The contralto voice range is the lowest of the female singing voices, the highest being a coloratura soprano. Most contraltos sing jazz, pop, and R&B; there aren’t many contralto operatic roles.

Ethel Waters (1896-1977)

Ethel Waters started her singing career in vaudeville. Later in life, she found religion and toured with famed evangelist Billy Graham. Her rich, warm voice adds an element of sorrow in Stormy Weather (1933), a song written for her by Harold Arlen.

Lee Wiley (1908-75)

Jazz vocalist Lee Wiley made history when in 1939 she recorded the first of four jazz albums organized as tributes to composers George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, and the duos Rodgers and Hart. Oh Look at Me Now (1941) and Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine (1927) are two of her popular recordings.

Ella Fitzgerald (1917-96)

Renowned jazz artist Ella Fitzgerald is popular for scat singing (singing nonsense syllables). She was one of the few contraltos who could easily sing pitches within the range of a lyric soprano. Her scat singing and her wide range can be heard in (If You Can’t Sing It) You’ll Have to Swing It (1936) and How High the Moon? (1940).

Diana Krall (b. 1964)

Canadian jazz vocalist Diana Krall has been compared to famous contraltos Peggy Lee and Julie London. Her smoky, seductive voice adds a twist to classics such as The Look of Love (1967) and Cry Me a River (1953).

Toni Braxton (b. 1968)

Grammy Award-winning vocalist Toni Braxton is one of the most famous R&B contraltos. The sultry, lower register of her voice is exemplified in Un-Break My Heart (1996) and Breathe Again (1993).

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