Phrasing is the most essential part of rock and roll. Seriously.
Starbucks was playing Tony Bennett the other day—“I Left My Heart In San Francisco”—and after I let myself be engrossed and impressed, I got to remembering how the coming of rock music for me in the mid-60s meant escape from a nauseating world of cocktail-lounge music strongly tending to the cute, the smug, the schmaltzy and the smutty. A big part of what was wrong with that pre-rock pop, I think I felt, was the expectation that the entertainer will work on you much like a cocktail, giving you a warm buzz, handsome face smirking at the mic . . . Dean Martin! Or Tony Bennett.
Well, now I think fondly of the artistry of Tony Bennett and forget the charm exertions of Dean Martin. I’m ready to appreciate, above all, the phrasing. “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” is fascinating in that dimension, subtly unpredictable and inevitable.
What does rock offer in this regard? Looking back on my own “great schism,” a crucial part of embracing rock was my violent rejection of the model of a smooth entertainer weaving his or her spell while we order another drink. I want honesty and energy and active community: I want to stomp and sing along. Phrasing-wise this mostly means I want singers to hit the beats hard and not call attention to any enlivening deviations from regularity they may supply along the way. No vocal “signature” or “stylings” except in support of the greater insurgency of rocking!
If you accept that constraint for great rock singing, what would you point to as great rock phrasing? I insist: not a jazz inflection of a rock piece, not a folky alternative, but 100% rocking?
This time I’m going with the Queen. At the very beginning of “Respect” Aretha Franklin sings “what you want” in a particular way that rewires our brains. Her phrasing here is strikingly unique even though it’s hard to tell how. What it is, I think, is that “what” and “want” are the tiniest bit ahead of the beat. It’s like swinging in jazz, but she isn’t swinging, she’s early for a more serious reason: she’s taking charge of the proceedings. She’s already at the gateway of rock, ordering us through it. In no way is she luring us off the rocking path.
The first time I went to hear B. B. King—and this was an aged, seated B. B. King in Jackson’s city auditorium—he did exactly the same thing with his first guitar phrase. He instantly owned everything. His personal style was in control of the blues just as surely as vice versa. This too was a forceful, honest “signature” styling, likewise delivered in short bursts.
And by the way, let’s file this one under Ways of Starting as well. How could you instantly seal the deal with your audience better than by opening with Aretha calling
What you want
Baby I got
 Robert Christgau, “Across the Great Divide: Nat King Cole,” in Grown Up All Wrong (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U., 1998), p. 17.
 About 1/30 of a second, as best I can tell from the audio clip.