What Causes That Gravely Low Voice Actors Got In The "Old Days"?

I remember in the old days actors (and actresses) as they aged would often get that gravel edge to their voices. And the octive would usually drop especially in women.

The best example is Lucille Ball, who’s voice really dropped and the gravely edge took over.

Now I’ve read it’s caused by too much cigarettes and whiskey. I know Lucille Ball smoked heavily. Is that what causes it? I recall Lawrence Tierney also had that type of voice.

Younger people will remember him as the voiceof the detective in the Simpsons episode where Bart shoplifts a videogame. It’s a Christmas episode and Bart disappoints Marge.

So does whiskey and cigarettes 'cause that type of low gravel voice. You don’t hear it often in actors today like you did in the old days. Which could be less smoking or is it that actors are just trained better vocally these days so they don’t wear out their voices?

I don’t know if this was the cause of Lucy’s raspy voice, but nodules forming on the vocal cords will add mass to the cords, lowering their resonant frequency. Smoking may exacerbate the condition by weakening the surrounding muscles, which reduces the vocal cords’ “suspension”.

Booze and smokes?

I always wondered about the actor who did the voice of Baloo the Bear in The Jungle Book, who I see was named Phil Harris. He had a kind of “old uncle” voice that I don’t hear among anyone these days, actors or not.

Smoking gets my guess. Another example was Amanda Blake (Miss Kitty on Gunsmoke). She smoked two to three packs a day and developed oral cancer as a result, though that isn’t what she died from.

Cigarettes. My mom’s voice got changed that way. Everyone said she had a sweet lilting singing voice when she was young. Heavy smoking ruined it, and gave her the gravel voice you describe.

For us women, our voices do tend to lower a bit as we age, both speaking and singing. Alcohol and tobacco use definitely contributes to the gravel or rasp effects, especially back in the olden days when cigarettes tended to be unfiltered and more heavily consumed.

Training can alleviate some of the change, but it still happens. I actually do better with blues music now at 47 than I did at 25 (have some training, but have smoked most of my life). Same with some country.

In short, several factors can contribute to the lowering of the voice.

What is an octive and how does it drop?

Neville Brand had such a voice.

An octave is one note, but doubled or halved in pitch. Mariah Carey can sing in a range of several octaves.

Ok, I know what an octave is, but what does it mean to say “the octave has dropped”?

(I admit to being intentionally obtuse when asking what an octave is, but I don’t really understand what is meant by the phrase.)

Phil Harris smoked a lot, but so did everyone back then. He also had a public persona of being a hard drinker, but that was mostly for laughs. I don’t think the real Phil Harris drank anywhere as much as “Phil Harris” did. Try listening to him on Jack Benny around 1936, then on The Phil Harris Alice Faye Show. The latter show was in the late 40s, and his voice is much more gravelly.

I knew Phil Harris from the various Disney films (Jungle Book, AristoCats, Robin Hood) but had no idea about the rest of his career. Fascinating stuff, capped off by the fact that his real first name was Wonga. Who names their kid “Wonga”?

Cigarettes, drinking and poor vocal technique can all lower and roughen a voice; if you shout or sing loudly a lot it can cause the aforementioned vocal nodes which add a gravelly “burr” to the voice. Of course, Wonga Harris there also had the advantage of a fairly resonant voice, which usually indicates large resonating cavities in the chest and head (see also: Brian Blessed). The combination of damaged vocal cords and a resonant sound gives you the sort of voice the OP is talking about.

It looks like he means the pitch of the voice would go down.

A couple of other actresses with this kind of voice come to mind: Mercedes McCambridge (The Exorcist, Touch of Evil), Doris Grau (The Simpsons, The Critic) and Selma Diamond (Night Court).

“Drop the octave” is an expression that just means that the range of the music being played/sung has fallen about an octave. So if the tune is meant to be sung in the range of, say, middle C to the octave above, a bass might sing it an octave lower, and would be said to have “dropped the octave”. Looking at it, it seems to me now that we’re using the term “octave” more to mean “range” rather than the interval of 8 notes.

I originally posted questioning the use of “the” in the phrase “dropped the octave” but having thought about it for a minute, I can imagine such use being common. In any case, it is clear what the OP meant.

…“Wonga???”…:confused: I’m a gonna go look that up!


I guess I was wondering if people’s natural voices really can drop an octave in some circumstances, or if it’s a phrase meaning they get deeper in general (without it being specifically an octave.)

Hijack over.

Can a person’s speaking (as opposed to singing) voice be identified by a musical note? I suppose if you were speaking normally and then, in the same tone of voice, went “ahhhhhhhhh” you could pick a key on the piano that would match it?

Tiny, tiny nitpick? “Gravely” is how sick you get, just before you end up in the grave. “Gravelly,” two Ls, is how your voice sounds if cigarettes are what put you there.