"I never have sung it, but I love the storytelling," he said. "You think: 'How clever,' or 'How sweet' or 'How naive.'"
Sykes' voice is billed as a baritone, but it's even hard to settle on that, once you hear him floating a falsetto that recalls his days as a boy soprano. On the other end of his range, Sykes lets out a rumbling, open bass with a mysterious quality that can send shivers.
Coincidentally, three of the songs on Sykes' program for his Feb. 9 concert at Stanford University have the word "river" in the title. Perhaps not so coincidentally, together they epitomize his notable range.
An ample serving of Aaron Copland includes "At the River," Copland's arrangement of the folk song. "You can't get more American than that," Sykes said admiringly of the late modern composer.
Later comes Arthur Hamilton's "Cry Me A River," a timeless torch song from 1953.
The third song, a dream for singers with a mighty lower register, is "Ol' Man River" from the musical and film "Show Boat," with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II.
The program also includes American classical pieces by Charles Ives, spirituals, and songs in Spanish and Portuguese. One piece, "Lamento" by Sykes' Brazilian friend Rique Pantoja, has no words; it's all vocalese, sung in falsetto over arpeggios played by pianist Mark Rice, who will be performing with Sykes.
Sykes has certainly established his credentials as a classical singer. His resume includes performing with the Metropolitan Opera, the Deutsche Oper Berlin (he also speaks German), the Boston Pops, the London Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Still, he doesn't find his musical versatility unusual. American singers absorb a particularly wide range of influences, from Springsteen to Run-D.M.C., he said.
"There are moments when I can't get enough of Coltrane, but there are moments when I want to hear that Mahler again," he said.
Perhaps Sykes' most powerful influence is Linda Anderson. She's the seventh-grade teacher who helped set him on his musical path and is still a friend.
Back at John Adams Junior High School in Southern California, Sykes was a shy kid who liked music and theater and was just realizing that "no one made fun of me when I sang." Anderson introduced him to her favorite composers, Brahms and Mahler, and also helped him learn to appreciate Schubert, Bach and others.
She also taught him that singing isn't just good technique; it's communication. Singers have to know whom they're singing to and what they're saying. To this day, when Sykes begins learning a new song, he looks at the lyrics first.
"When you look at Bob Dylan, there's not a great voice; it's about storytelling, the message," Sykes said. "Sometimes classical music is just a glorious voice with nothing underneath."
Sykes' flair for storytelling means he hasn't given up the role-playing that he loved as a child. During the 2006-07 season, for example, he played the dope peddler Sportin' Life in the Michigan Opera Theatre's production of "Porgy and Bess."
A writer for the Detroit Free Press said Sykes "nearly stole the show... strutting and twirling across the stage in his snazzy white suit with oily charisma and singing ... with full-throated ardor, rhythmic looseness and inspired gestures."
These days, Sykes balances performing and touring with time at home in Southern California with his wife and children. He says he doesn't have any special tricks or warm-ups to keep his voice healthy; instead, he goes running and drinks lots of water to stay generally fit.
While on tour, he's hardly the rowdy guitar-smasher. Instead, when he has a busy schedule, he focuses on giving his voice a respite between gigs. There's a lot of resting and meditating alone in hotel rooms. "It's a lonely life," he said. "You can't really put your voice in a box and go out and walk and talk."
But songwriting is another way to communicate, and Sykes has been doing more of that lately. He recently recorded an original song called "Captured," a love song about a guy who'll do anything for his girl, even stopping the sun.
Sykes is not sure when he'll release the song, but he knows just how to describe it. It's a folk song, he says, that's also "a cross between jazz and R&B."
What: Baritone Jubilant Sykes performs a varied program of music, including classical and folk music and spirituals, presented by Stanford Lively Arts.
Where: Dinkelspiel Auditorium, Stanford University
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 9
Cost: Tickets are $38/$42 for adults and $19/$21 for Stanford students, with other discounts available.
Info: Go to http://livelyarts.stanford.edu or call 650-725-ARTS.