Born in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, he was the sixth in a family of eight children. In 1950, he was awarded a scholarship to study opera at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music. In 1957 Vickers joined London’s Royal Opera House, Covent Garden company. In 1960 he joined the Metropolitan Opera. He became world famous for singing a variety of roles, including both German and Italian. He was a powerful "heldentenor" with a voice that could match the demands of the Wagnerian operas, although his personal philosophy gave him reservations about Richard Wagner's characters at times.
In 1968 he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada.
He made his Bayreuth debut in 1958 as Siegmund in Die Walküre and sang Parsifal there in 1964. His debut role at the Metropolitan Opera was Canio in Pagliacci in 1960. He appeared at the Met for 20 subsequent seasons in more than 225 performances of 16 roles, including Don Jose, Herman in Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades, the Samsons of both Handel and Saint-Saëns, Don Alvaro in La Forza del Destino, and Tristan.
Vickers' reputation rests on his exceptional grasp of characters in the grip of conflicting emotions. He was known to sacrifice vocal beauty and a smooth singing-line for the sake of dramatic effect; but his basic musicianship and scrupulous histrionic preparation were never in doubt. His deeply committed portrayals of such tormented figures as Peter Grimes, Canio, Otello, and Samson were the keystones of his artistic legacy. His recordings of these roles are justly prized, but can only give a hint of the potent impact of his highly-charged performances.
His recordings, accepting their inferiority to 'real life', nonetheless carry a peculiar intensity which is often lacking in the studio opera recordings of lesser actors. The dramatic intensity he was able to invest in his first recording of Otello conducted by Tullio Serafin alongside baritone Tito Gobbi and soprano Leonie Rysanek is all the more striking considering he had not yet performed the role on stage. That Jon Vickers was able to create such an impression in the studio surely attests to an innate dramatic awareness which is all too rare in singers of his calibre.
In 1953 he married Henrietta Outerbridge. They have five children.