Masters of the High Register

A selection of great falsetto vocalists

In late December, I did a four-part series on the Bee Gees here (part 1), here (part 2), here (part 3) and here (part 4). One of the group’s distinct features was the frequent use of falsetto singing, starting with their 1975 studio album Main Course. My most recent Best of What’s New installment included Aaron Frazer, a young vocalist from Brooklyn, N.Y., who also happens to be a falsetto singer. In fact, while I’m not a voice expert, I think he’s incredible! These posts triggered the idea to write about music artists I like, who are masters of the falsetto.

Before getting to some great music and singing, I’d like to provide a little bit of background. I’ll keep it light! According to Wikipedia, falsetto “is the vocal register occupying the frequency range just above the modal voice register and overlapping with it by approximately one octave.” Essentially, modal voice generates the richest tone that unlike falsetto isn’t breathy. It’s the most frequently used vocal register in speech and singing in most languages.

I always thought falsetto and head voice are the same – not so! As this post on Ramsey Voice explains, “While falsetto and head voice have been used interchangeably in the past, falsetto is understood to be a breathy version of high notes and head voice produces a richer and more balanced tone on the high pitches in a singer’s voice. Falsetto and head voice are two different modes for singing the same notes in the upper registers of the voice.” Didn’t you always want to know that? 🙂

If you’re curious to learn more about different voice registers and singing modes, the above Ramsey Voice post goes into all the gory details, illustrated with video clips. The only thing I’d like to add is that females have falsetto as well, though I think it’s fair to say this singing mode is primarily associated with male singers, and the examples in this post are all male artists. But as Ramsey Voice notes, “plenty of studies have…shown that everyone’s vocal cords work in basically the same way, and everyone is capable of falsetto singing.” Time for some falsetto action!

Philip Bailey, of Earth, Wind & Fire/September

September, one of my favorite Earth, Wind & Fire songs, initially appeared as a single in November 1978. Co-written by Maurice White, Al McKay and Allee Willis, it became one of the group’s biggest hits. The song was also included on the compilation The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol. 1, which came out a few days after the single. The tune, on which Bailey shared lead vocals with White, is a great example of Bailey’s amazing falsetto.

Smokey Robinson, of The Miracles/OOO Baby Baby

OOO Baby Baby is one of the most beautiful examples of falsetto I can think of. Smokey Robinson’s voice sounds so sweet and gentle that it almost makes me want to cry! Robinson was also a co-writer of the ballad, together with Miracles bass vocalist Pete Moore. OOO Baby Baby became the lead singles of The Miracles’ studio album Going to a Go-Go in March 1965. The album came out in November that year.

Curtis Mayfield/Move On Up

When thinking of great falsetto vocalists, one of the first artists who came to my mind was Curtis Mayfield. While there are other tunes where his falsetto is more dominant, Move On Up is one of my absolute favorites, so I simply couldn’t skip it. Written by Mayfield, the song was first recorded for his debut solo album Curtis from September 1970. It also appeared separately as the record’s second single in June 1971. I just love that tune – the infectious groove, Mayfield’s singing and his effortless switching between modal voice and falsetto – it’s just perfect!

Marvin Gaye/Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)

Marvin Gaye is another exceptional vocalist, no matter what singing mode you’re talking about. On Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler), co-written by Gaye and James Nyx, Jr., the boundaries between Gaye’s head voice and falsetto are so fluid that to me it’s hard to tell, which is which. The tune was first recorded for his 11th studio album What’s Going On, a true gem released in May 1971. In September of the same year, it became the album’s third single.

Prince/Kiss

No post about falsetto vocalists would be complete without Prince. The funky Kiss was one of his biggest hits. Written by Prince, it became the lead single to his eighth studio album Parade, released in February 1986, just ahead of the album that followed in March. Frankly, the tune wasn’t love at first sight for me, but I’ve come to dig it.

The last two tracks shall belong to the artists who inspired the post. Here’s Nights on Broadway, the tune that started the frequent use of falsetto for the Bee Gees.

Co-written by Barry Gibb, Robin Gibb and Maurice Gibb, Nights on Broadway was recorded for the Bee Gees’ 13th studio album Main Course released in June 1975 in the U.S. and the following month in the U.K. The groovy track also became the album’s second single in September of the same year.

Aaron Frazer/Bad News

Bad News is another great tune from Aaron Frazer’s impressive debut album  Introducing…. The song was co-written by Frazer and producer Dan Auerbach. It actually reminds me a bit of Gaye’s Inner City Blues.

Sources: Wikipedia; Ramsey Voice; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

After the unprecedented events we witnessed in this country earlier this week, it feels somewhat surreal to blog about something completely unrelated. At the same time, the fact new music keeps coming out is reassuring to me. In fact, music has always had a degree of healing power during challenging times and provided a welcome distraction. While ignoring reality can be dangerous, I believe occasionally escaping from it is a good thing to clear your mind and gather strength.

I’m very excited about this week’s Best of What’s New installment, which features indie and country singer-songwriters, a young incredibly talented vintage soul vocalist who knocked my socks off and…well, you’ll need to continue reading to find out yourself. All of this great music was just released yesterday (January 8).

Denison Witmer/River of Music

Dension Witmer is a singer-songwriter from Lancaster, Pa. According to his artist profile on Apple Music, Tagged by many music journalists as one of the most likely songwriters to fill the void left by Elliott Smith in the acoustic indie singer/songwriter movement, [he] catalogs the experiences of young adulthood in almost painfully honest detail. With a soft and sensitive voice that perfectly matches his laid-back 1970s California pop production and subtly expressive guitar work, he has gone from writing in his journal to becoming an intimate of like-minded artists like Damien Jurado and Pedro the Lion over the span of a few albums. Growing up in Lancaster, PA, Witmer picked up the guitar at the age of 16 and was soon showing enough promise to draw the interest of the Innocence Mission’s Don Peris. As Peris became Witmer’s musical mentor, he would oversee and play guitar and keyboard on his apprentice’s first recordings, 2000’s River Bends EP and the much-heralded Safe Away. Here’s the great River of Music, a track from Witmer’s new EP American Foursquare (Simplified). It surely feels good listening to his soothing voice and beautiful guitar-playing. And the lyrics about the power of music perfectly illustrate what I wrote in the intro of this post.

Morgan Wallen/Livin’ the Dream

Country music singer-songwriter Morgan Wallen, who hails from the tiny Tennessee town of Sneedville (about 250 miles east of Nashville), first gained some prominence as a contestant on season 6 of The Voice in 2014. While Wallen didn’t make it to the final, his stint eventually led to a deal with Panacea Records and his debut EP Stand Alone from August 2015. Wallen switched to Big Loud Records thereafter and released his first full-length studio album If I Know Me in April 2018. Livin’ the Dream is a track from his sophomore release Dangerous: The Double Album. This double album features a hefty 30 tunes, many prominent country songwriters and a guest appearance by Chris Stapleton. Livin’ the Dream, a tale about life as a “rock star,” was co-written by Wallen, Ben Burgess, Jacob Durrett and Michael Wilson Hardy, aka Hardy.

Barry Gibb/To Love Somebody

Yep, that’s Barry Gibb, formerly of the Bee Gees. I recently covered them in a four-part series here (part 1), here (part 2), here (part 3) and here (part 4). All I’d like to say in this post is if you think the Bee Gees were just a disco band, I’d encourage to take a closer look at their music or read my series. Was it necessary for Gibb, the group’s only surviving member, to come out with Greenfields: The Gibb Brothers’ Songbook, Vol 1., an album of newly recorded versions of mostly famous Bee Gees songs? Probably not – on the other hand, why not! The Bee Gees’ catalog is full with well crafted songs. Co-written by Barry Gibb and Robin Gibb, To Love Somebody is among my favorite early Bee Gees tunes. It initially appeared on Bee Gees’ 1st, the group’s first internationally released full-length studio album that was released in July 1967 in the UK and appeared the following month in the U.S. The newly recorded version features Jay Buchanan, lead vocalist of American rock band Rival Sons. The album also includes many other guests, mostly from country music, a favorite genre of Barry’s, such as Little Big Town, Dolly Parton and Sheryl Crow. Be cynical about it, if you like. I dig and stand behind these songs and the Bee Gees!

Aaron Frazer/ If I Got It (Your Love Brought It)

According to his website, Aaron Frazer is a Brooklyn-based, Baltimore-raised songwriter [who] first came into the international spotlight as multi-instrumentalist and co-lead singer for Durand Jones & The Indications. He penned some of the group’s most notable tracks, including ‘Morning In America,’ and sang lead on ‘Is It Any Wonder?’ – the latter an instant sweet soul classic anchored by Aaron’s falsetto, which caught the ear of producer and Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach…Soft-spoken with the look of a slightly disaffected 1950s matinee idol, Aaron Frazer possesses a unique voice that’s both contemporary and timeless. His higher register conveys a wide emotional palate and a progressive worldview in the tradition of musical masterminds like Curtis Mayfield. While Aaron’s stirring falsetto and thoughtful songwriting have made him established in the world of revival soul music, he refuses to be pigeonholed. That falsetto is in beautiful action on If I Got It (Your Love Brought It), a tune from Aaron’s debut album Introducing…, which was produced by Auerbach. The song was co-written by Frazer, Auerbach and David Ferguson. So good! check it out!

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; Aaron Frazer website; YouTube

Bee Gees – Part 4: Downfall, Comeback and Last Man Standing

“We didn’t categorize our songs as disco, but then we weren’t thinking that way at all. We were just thinking about writing songs based on the discovery of this falsetto voice and how well that seemed to work.” (Barry Gibb, The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart)

By the end of the ’70s, the Bee Gees had become ubiquitous. Saturday Night Fever won Album of the Year at the 1979 Grammy Awards, one of four music awards they scored related to the film. At one point, the Bee Gees and their younger brother Andy Gibb held five of the top 10 spots on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. Perhaps not surprisingly, what goes up, must come down. Or crashing down in this case.

The Bee Gees Are Disco Icons, but Robin Gibb Was Pure Pop - The Atlantic
Bee Gees in 1979 (from left): Robin Gibb, Barry Gibb and Maurice Gibb

Apart from ubiquity, whether they liked it or not, it was the Bee Gees’ close association with disco that triggered their precipitous downfall when disco rapidly declined in popularity by the end of the ’70s and became the subject of outright backlash. More and more radio stations refused to play disco and Bee Gees music. And it got even worse. In the Broken Heart documentary, Maurice Gibb noted, “We had FBI and Secret Service around the airplane every time we landed in a certain place because of the bomb threats. It was scary stuff.”

Essentially, the situation forced the Bee Gees to stop performing as a group. While for their 1981 album Living Eyes, they stylistically turned away from their ’70s albums that had brought them past fame, it only sold 750,000 copies worldwide – not too shabby on the surface but measly compared to 16 million predecessor Spirits Having Flown had generated. Living Eyes stalled at no. 41 in the U.S. and at no. 73 in the UK. Here’s the title track, a co-write by the three brothers.

For the next six years, the Bee Gees largely focused on writing songs for other artists. Barry Gibb worked with Barbara Streisand on her hugely successful 1980 studio album Guilty, which he co-produced and for which he wrote or co-wrote all songs. This included the ballad Woman in Love, which like the album topped the charts in the U.S., UK and many other countries. The title track, written by the three Gibb brothers, also became a hit. Interestingly, the album cover showed a picture of Streisand and Barry Gibb who also sang backing vocals on Guilty.

Additional examples of Bee Gees songs performed by other artists in the 80s include Heartbreaker (Dionne Warwick), Islands in the Stream (Dolly Parton & Kenny Rodgers) and the Diana Ross album Eaten Alive. The Gibb brothers also did some solo work during that period. Robin Gibb enjoyed some success with his solo music in Germany.

In 1987, the Bee Gees decided to record a new album, E.S.P., six years after their last unsuccessful studio release. For the first time in 12 years, they also worked again with Arif Mardin, who had produced their mid-’70s album Main Course, the career-defining record that previously revived the group, introducing their R&B-driven dance pop and Barry’s falsetto.

While I’m not sure Mardin had a comparable influence on E.S.P., the album launched another comeback for the Bee Gees. It performed particularly well in Europe, reaching no. 1 in Germany and Switzerland, no. 2 in Austria and no. 5 in the UK. In the U.S., it barely cracked the top 100, stalling at no. 96 on the Billboard 200. Here’s the lead single You Win Again, co-written by all three Gibb brothers like all other tracks on the album.

Then fate hit again. Andy Gibb, who like his older brothers was a music artist and had enjoyed some success in the late ’70s, passed away on March 10, 1988 from myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle caused by years of cocaine abuse that had fatally weakened his heart. He was only 30 years old. In addition to drug addiction, Andy had struggled with depression.

Andy’s death delayed the Bee Gees’ next album One. After taking an eight-month break, Barry, Maurice and Robin returned to the studio to finish the album. It appeared in April 1989 and was dedicated to Andy. Here’s the moving tribute Wish You Were Here.

The Bee Gees went on to release four additional studio albums between March 1991 and April 2001. Still Waters, which appeared in March 1997, marked their last triumph. In spite of lukewarm reviews, it became their best-selling album in almost 20 years. Here’s opener Alone, co-written by Barry, Maurice and Robin, which also became the lead single.

The remaining story of the Bee Gees is sad. On January 12, 2003, Maurice Gibb unexpectedly died at the age of 53 due to complications from a twisted intestine, which caused cardiac arrest. While Barry and Robin occasionally performed together thereafter, Maurice’s death ended the Bee Gees. In November 2011, it was announced Robin had been diagnosed with liver cancer. Six months later on May 20, 2012, he passed away. Robin was only 62 years old. Barry Gibb had lost all of his brothers.

In February 2013, Barry kicked off his first solo tour in Australia “in honour of his brothers and a lifetime of music,” as he told British newspaper Express in April 2013. Performing without any of his brothers was extremely challenging, as he noted in the aforementioned article. In the end, things worked out well. “The Australian leg of this tour was a great test of my self-doubt because even though I’ve done solo performances before it wasn’t going to be the same without Robin and Mo,” Barry said. “The opening night in Sydney was incredible. That’s where we grew up so to go back and see people that we knew was therapeutic.”

HOROSCOPE: Sept. 1, 2020
Barry Gibb, September 2020

Gibb has continued to tour over the years. In October 2016, he released his second solo album In the Now, together with his sons Stephen Gibb and Ashley Gibb. Last month, he announced a new solo album Greenfields: The Gibb Brothers Songbook, Vol 1, which is scheduled to appear on January 8, 2021, as reported by JamBase. It includes new recordings of Bee Gees songs like I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You, Lonely Days and Jive Talkin’, featuring many guests, such as Jason Isbell, Alison Krauss and Cheryl Crow.

“I think everything we set out to do, we did against all odds. I can’t honestly come to terms with the fact they’re not here anymore. Never been able to do that. I’m always reliving it. It’s always, ‘what would Robin think’, ‘what would Maurice think’ – and Andy. It never goes away. And, what I wanted to say earlier is that I’ve rather have them all back here and no hits at all.” (Barry Gibb, The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart)

Sources: Wikipedia; The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heartdocumentary directed by Frank Marshall; Express; JamBase; YouTube

Bee Gees – Part 3: Change in Musical Direction and Singing Style

“They [Atlantic Records] were about to drop us. We had to adopt a new sound. We had to adopt a new attitude.” (Barry Gibb, The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart)

At the beginning of 1975, the Bee Gees relocated to Miami. Interestingly, the man who encouraged the move thinking it would help them creatively was none other than Eric Clapton. Not only did Barry Gibb, Maurice Gibb and Robin Gibb follow his advice, the entire band lived in the very same house where Clapton had stayed while recording his second solo album 461 Ocean Boulevard.

BeeGeesLove_4649 on Twitter: "The #BrothersGibb with producer Arif Mardin.  #BeeGees #BarryGibb #MauriceGibb #RobinGibb #family #siblings #brothers  #musicians #singers #songwriters #composers #artists #legends #tbt…  https://t.co/DTl1WnKLbH"
The Bee Gees with Arif Marden (from left): Barry Gibb, Maurice Gibb, Arif Marden and Robin Gibb

The Bee Gees worked with Atlantic producer Arif Marden, who had also produced their previous album Mr. Natural, and engineer Karl Richardson at Criteria Studios in Miami. Initially, the Gibb brothers started writing songs in their old, more ballad-oriented way. When their manager Robert Stigwood heard the tunes, he urged them to adopt more of an R&B style. With Marden, who had worked with Aretha Franklin and other R&B artists, they had the right producer.

The result was Main Course, the Bee Gees’ 13th studio album released in June 1975. In addition to listening to contemporary R&B artists like Stevie Wonder, Marden had encouraged the use of synthesizers and dual bass lines to create a more technological sound. When they were working on Nights on Broadway, Marden also suggested to the band to add some background parts to the song like a screaming. This is when Barry came up with repeating lines of the tune sung in falsetto. The singing of the Bee Gees would be changed forever.

Nights on Broadway and Jive Talkin‘ catapulted the Bee Gees back to the top of the charts, especially in the U.S. where the tunes hit no. 1 and no. 7, respectively, and Canada (no. 1 and no. 2, respectively).

“The way they changed and the groove they got into there was so profound. If that was something that was initiated by me, I can’t think of any… that’s one of the great things I’ve done in my life. I’ll take full credit!” (Eric Clapton, The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart)

The group’s next album Children of the World was characterized by Barry’s falsetto and synthesizer sounds. And it brought more chart success. You Should be Dancing became another no. 1 single in the U.S. and Canada. Children of the World also did very well on both countries’ albums charts, peaking at no. 8 and no. 3, respectively. By contrast, the reception was cool in the UK where the album failed to chart.

The Bee Gees were on the up. They went to even bigger heights with their next project: their involvement in the creation of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. The Gibb brothers wrote five new songs for it that all became hits: Stayin’ Alive, How Deep Is Your Love, Night Fever, More Than a Woman and If I Can’t Have You. The soundtrack also included their previously released tunes Jive Talkin’ and You Should Be Dancing.

With 40 million copies sold worldwide, Saturday Night Fever is one of the best-selling albums in history and the second-best selling soundtrack of all time. The album is also credited with prolonging the mainstream appeal of disco. Notably, the Bee Gees never saw themselves as a disco band, even though critics, media and other artists called them “Kings of Disco.” While there’s no doubt Bee Gees tunes from that period included elements of disco and were very danceable, they also were strongly influenced by R&B. Here’s the excellent Night Fever – love that smooth funky sound.

After Saturday Night Fever, the Bee Gees were on top of the world. So perhaps it’s not a surprise their next studio album Spirits Having Flown became another major success producing more no. 1 singles. Here’s one of them ironically titled what was ahead when disco not only lost its luster but led to outright hostility: Tragedy.

Sources: Wikipedia; The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart – documentary directed by Frank Marshall; YouTube

Bee Gees – Part 2: Rise to International Fame

“You can’t deny talent. And the talent was so obvious.” (Robert Stigwood, The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart)

Prior to leaving Australia for England, Hugh Gibb, the father of Barry, Maurice and Robin and their manager at the time, had sent some demos to Beatles manager Brian Epstein. Epstein passed on the tapes to Australian born expatriate Robert Stigwood who had recently joined NEMS, a music store directed by Epstein. Stigwood liked what he heard, and after an audition in February 1967, the Bee Gees got a 5-year deal with Polydor Records to oversee their releases in the UK, while Atco Records would handle U.S. distribution.

Before going to the studio, Vince Melouney (lead guitar) and Colin Petersen (drums) joined the group. In July 1967, the Bee Gees released their first international album titled Bee Gees’ 1st. Stigwood launched an aggressive promotional campaign boldly declaring the Bee Gees were the “most significant new musical talent of 1967.” Lead single New York Mining Disaster 1941 became another hit, reaching no. 12 in the UK and peaking at no. 14 in the U.S. Co-written by Barry Gibb and Robin Gibb, the stunning tune became a top 10 in New Zealand, the Netherlands and Germany, where it reached no. 3, no. 4 and no. 10, respectively.

Bee Gees’ 1st also featured another classic: To Love Somebody, which was co-written by Barry and Robin as well. It also became the album’s second single in June 1967. While it almost matched the chart performance of the predecessor in the U.S. where it peaked at no. 17, it was less successful in the UK, reaching no. 41 there.

Only three months after To Love Somebody, the Bee Gees released another gem that became their first no. 1 single in the UK: (The Lights Went Out In) Massachusetts. The beautiful tune, co-written by the three Gibb brothers, also topped the charts in New Zealand, the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and Austria, and peaked at no. 2 in Switzerland, Ireland and Australia. The Bee Gees had fully arrived on the international scene.

1968 saw the first trips to the U.S., including an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in March, as well as tours to Scandinavia, Germany and Switzerland. The Bee Gees also scored their second no. 1 in the UK with I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You, released in September that year. Co-written by all three brothers, the tune climbed to no. 8 in the U.S. and also was a hit in many other countries.

While the Bee Gees had achieved significant international success, not all was well and things would soon unravel. By 1969, Robin began to sense that Robert Stigwood was favoring Barry as the group’s frontman. Following the release of the next studio album Odessa in March 1969, Robin left to launch a solo career. Barry, Maurice and Colin Petersen went on to record the Bee Gees’ next album Cucumber Castle. Vince Melouney had left the group in 1968.

In December 1969, Barry and Maurice parted ways as well. They each worked on solo albums that didn’t appear. Meanwhile, Robin released his solo debut Robin’s Reign in February 1970 and had a no. 2 single in the UK, Saved by the Bell. But the brothers realized they needed other and reunited later that year. In November 1970, the Bee Gees’ next studio album 2 Years On came out. Here’s the record’s single Lonely Days co-written by all three brothers.

The Bee Gees’ next studio album Trafalgar, which came out in the U.S. in September and in the UK in November 1971, brought mixed success. While lead single How Can You Mend a Broken Heart became the group’s first no. 1 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100, the album only reached no. 34 on the Billboard 200 and did not chart in the UK at all. By 1973, chart success had largely become elusive. After touring the U.S. and Canada in 1974, the Bee Gees found themselves playing small clubs in England. Something needed to happen to reignite the group. A change in musical direction and singing style would open their next chapter.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

Bee Gees – Part 1: The Beginnings

“When I think about it now, I think about how it all sort of all started. We just had this dream. And we thought, well, what do we wanna be famous for? It turns out it was the songwriting.” (Barry Gibb, Miami 2019). I would humbly add some of the most amazing three-part harmonies I’ve ever heard! I was reminded of this the other night when watching the documentary The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart on HBO Max. The film about the highs and lows of brothers Barry Gibb, Maurice Gibb and Robin Gibb spontaneously inspired this four-part feature.

The story of the Bee Gees starts in 1955 in Manchester, England, when 9-year-old Barry Gibb (guitar, vocals) and his younger brothers 6-year-old Maurice Gibb (vocals) and 6-year-old Robin Gibb (vocals), who are fraternal twins, formed skiffle and rock & roll group The Rattlesnakes, together with their friends and neighbors Paul Frost (drums) and Kenny Horrocks (tea-chest bass).

In December 1957, the brothers were going to lip-sync to a record at a local cinema, just like other kids had done there before. But on the way to the venue, the fragile shellac 78-RPM record broke, forcing them to sing live and in harmony – possibly one of the best accidents they ever had. Encouraged by the audience’s positive reception, Barry, Maurice and Robin knew what they wanted to do for the rest of their lives: singing together professionally.

Fight to save Bee Gees debut venue raises £250k - BBC News
The Rattlesnakes

In May 1958, Forst and Horrocks left, which put an end to The Rattlesnakes. But determined to pursue a career in music, the Gibb brothers immediately formed a new group, Wee Johnny Hayes and the Blue Cats. Only three months later, their family emigrated to the metropolitan area of Brisbane, Australia. But that didn’t stop the three brothers who soon started performing locally. In 1960, they met speedway driver and promoter Bill Good who hired them to entertain the audience at the local Redcliffe Speedway in 1960.

Good also introduced the boys to Brisbane radio-presenter jockey Bill Gates. It was Gates who came up with the name ‘BGs’ after his, Good’s and Barry Gibbs’ initials, which was later changed to Bee Gees. The Bee Gees started to appear on TV shows and perform at resorts on the Queensland coast. After Barry presented some of his songs to Col Joye, an Australian pioneer rock artist, Joye helped the Bee Gees get a deal with Leedon Records, a subsidiary of Festival Records in 1963.

In March 1963, the Bee Gees released their debut single The Battle of the Blue and the Grey. Written by Barry Gibb, the country-oriented tune made it into the Australian charts, placing at no. 98.

The Bee Gees continued releasing two to three singles a year, while Barry also kept writing songs for other artists. In November 1965, their debut album The Bee Gees Sing and Play 14 Barry Gibb Songs appeared. It was largely a compilation of their previous singles. One of the new songs was the opener I Was a Lover, a Leader of Men.

The early releases by the Bee Gees lacked commercial success, and by 1966, their record company was on the verge of dropping them. At that time, the Gibb brothers met Nat Kipner, who had just been appointed A&R manager of Spin Records, a new independent label. Kipner not only successfully managed the Bee Gees’ transfer to Spin but also introduced them to engineer and producer Ossie Byrne. Through Byrne, the Gibb brothers gained generous access to his own small, self-built St Clair Studio. Over several months in mid-1966, the Bee Gees recorded a large amount of original songs there.

Disillusioned by their lack of success in Australia, Barry, Maurice and Robin decided to return to England, hoping they could be more successful there. While at sea in January 1967, they found out that Spicks and Specks, one of the tunes they had recorded at St Clair Studio, had been named Best Single of the Year by Australia’s most popular and influential music newspaper Go-Set.

Spicks and Specks hit no. 1 and no. 2 in New Zealand and the Netherlands, respectively, and climbed to no. 5 on the Australian charts. The Bee Gees had scored their first hit. England would bring them international fame.

Sources: Wikipedia; The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heartdocumentary directed by Frank Marshall; YouTube

Music From Down Under That Rocks: Part 3

A two-part musical journey to Australia

‘How can a “two-part musical journey to Australia” have a part 3,’ you might ask. Well, to start with, math has never been my strong suit. I also could have called it ‘le encore’ to the initial two-part mini-series, since that’s what it really is. But I like the concept of a part 3 in a two-part series. Plus at the end of the day, the title matters less than the music.

Parts 1 and 2, which you can read here and here, featured AC/DC, Bee Gees, The Church, Cold Chisel, Crowded House, The Easybeats, INXS, Men At Work, Midnight Oil and Little River Band – or, as Bruce, the man behind the excellent Vinyl Connection, noted, “a pretty good ‘starter pack’ of a certain kind of accessible pop/rock that is, for the most part, radio friendly.” While I leave it up to you to decide whether it’s “pretty good”, I do agree with the radio-friendly part. I realize to some folks pop is a bad word, since they associate it with commercial and selling out. I have no shame to say I like pop, if it’s well crafted. My all-time favorite band The Beatles had plenty of pop. I also think Thriller by Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, is one of the best albums ever recorded.

Australian Music Collage 3

Part 3 or le encore or whatever you’d like to call it was inspired by some great feedback to parts 1 and 2 from readers like Bruce, who clearly know more about music from down under than I do. And that’s one of the reasons why I enjoy this blogging thing. One door opens another, and the more you get into it, the more you realize how little you know – or, how I prefer to view it, how much more there’s to explore! So let’s get to five additional acts from Australia from A to P. And, no, I’m not saying that’s all the land of the vegemite sandwich has to offer, but as the wise George Harrison once said all things must pass.

Ariel

My streaming music provider doesn’t list even one song by this band, which was founded in Melbourne in 1973. But luckily, there’s YouTube. The following mini-bio is based on the website of singer-songwriter and guitarist Mike Rudd and bassist Bill Putt, who were the driving force behind Ariel. The group combined key members from two of Australia’s leading progressive bands of the period: Rudd, Putt and John Mills (keyboards) had come from Melbourne’s Spectrum, while Tim Gaze (guitar) and Nigel Macara (drums) had played in Sydney-based Tamam Shud. Like Spectrum, Ariel began strongly, but lineup changes, record company problems and the changing nature of music in the mid-70s meant that they never achieved the level of success they deserved. Ariel disbanded in July 1977. During their three-and-a-half-year run, they were quite productive, releasing four studio and two live albums. Ariel proved to be Mike Rudd’s last really high-profile outfit, although he remains one of the most respected figures in the music scene. His long-time musical partner Bill Putt passed away in July 2013. Here’s Miracle Man, written by Gaze, a catchy rocker from Ariel’s debut album A Strange Fantastic Dream released in January 1974.

The Go-Betweens

Indie rock band The Go-Betweens were co-founded by singer-songwriters and guitarists Robert Forster and Grant McLennan, the only constant members during the band’s existence. By the time they released their studio debut Send Me a Lullaby in November 1981, Lindy Morrison had joined on drums and vocals, with Forster and McLennan handling vocals and rhythm guitar and vocals, bass and lead guitar, respectively. By 1987, the band also included Amanda Brown (violin, oboe, guitar, keyboards, backing vocals) and John Willsteed (bass, guitar), the lineup until their first breakup in December 1989. After pursuing solo careers during the ’90s, Forster and McLennan revived The Go-Betweens with a new lineup in 2000. That version of the band released three more albums. Following McLennan’s death from a heart attack in May 2006, Forster dissolved the band and resumed his solo career. While The Go-Betweens had strong supporters even among critics – of all people, Robert Christgau called them “the greatest songwriting partnership working today” – chart success largely eluded them, with no top 50 hit in Australia or the UK. Here’s Cattle and Cane from the band’s sophomore album Before Hollywood that appeared in May 1983. Co-written by McLennan and Forster, the tune was also released separately as the record’s lead single. Climbing to no. 4 on the UK Independent Singles Chart, I assume it was their most successful song.

Hoodoo Gurus

Initially called Le Hoodoo Gurus, Hoodoo Gurus, a band I had never heard of before, were formed in Sydney in 1981 by Dave Faulkner (guitar, vocals), James Baker (drums), Roddy Radalj (guitar, vocals) and Kimble Rendall (guitar, vocals). So where the hell is the bassist, you might ask – after all, no bass, no band! Well, I suppose Hoodoo Gurus are an exception that proves the rule! Plus, from what I can see, at least on all of their studio albums, they knew better and had a bassist. The band’s popularity peaked in the mid to late ’80s with their second, third and fourth albums, especially in Australia, where according to Wikipedia they reached “iconic status” on the rock scene. Between 1998 and 2003 and band was on hiatus, while their members pursued side projects and solo work. By early 2003, Hoodoo Gurus had reformed. They have since released three additional albums and remain active to this day. Faulkner is the only original member of their current lineup. Here’s a tune that’s right up my alley: Show Some Emotion written by Faulkner and included on their second album Mars Needs Guitars! Love the jingle-jangle sound that reminds me of The Byrds and R.E.M.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

The band (initially without a name) was founded by Australian singer-songwriter Nick Cave in Melbourne in December 1983, which in addition to him included Tracy Pew (bass) and Hugo Race (guitar), or were they? Wikipedia notes an embryonic version of the band that got together in September 1983 in London where Cave lived at the time. Following a short Australian tour, Cave returned to London, where the first consistent lineup emerged with him, Race, singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Mick Harvey, Blixa Bargeld (guitar, vocals), and Barry Adamson(bass). At that time, they called themselves Nick Cave and the Cavemen. Their debut album From Her to Eternity, a pun on the James Jones novel From Here to Eternity, appeared in June 1984. A biography by Mark Deming on All Music calls them “one of the most original and celebrated bands of the post-punk and alternative rock eras in the ’80s and onward.” The band remains active until today and has released 17 studio albums, the most recent of which is Ghosteen and came out last October. Here’s the official video of Into My Arms, written by Cave, and the opener to the band’s 10th studio album The Boatman’s Call from March 1997.

Powderfinger 

Powderfinger were formed in Brisbane in 1989 by Steven Bishop (drums), John Collins (bass) and Ian Haug (guitar, vocals), who were all students at a local private school. They started out as a cover rock band that among others played songs by Neil Young, whose classic Powderfinger became their name. By 1992, the band had evolved into the lineup that existed until their disbanding in 2010: Haug, Collins, Bernard Fanning (vocals), Darren Middleton (guitar) and Jon Coghill (drums). Following a self-funded EP that appeared on their own label Finger in August 1992, the band released their first full-fledged record Parables For Wooden Ears in July 1994. It was poorly received. But things started to change significantly with their sophomore release Double Allergic that catapulted them to no. 4 on the Australian charts; each of their remaining five studio albums went all the way to the top. Some of their records also charted in New Zealand. It appears their only album that made the Billboard 200 ironically was titled Odyssey Number Five, their fourth studio album from September 2000. That’s unfortunate. From the aforementioned album, here’s the catchy My Happiness credited to all members of the band.

Sources: Wikipedia; Mike Rudd and Bill Putt website; All Music; YouTube

Music From Down Under That Rocks: Part 2

A two-part musical journey to Australia

Here is the second and last part of this mini-series about music from Australia. You can read part I here. I also should point out that by “music from Australia” I mean bands that were founded down under.

Aphoristic Album Reviews noted New Zealand could claim Crowded House, one of the bands included in part I, as their own, given founding member Neil Finn is from there but lived in Melbourne when they were formed. Moreover, with three Finns, their current line-up has a clear majority of New Zealanders. Fair points. Plus, one could add Neil Finn has been the band’s key songwriter.

Australian Music Collage 2

I guess one could also challenge the notion that the Bee Gees, which were also highlighted in part I, are from Australia. After all, as I noted, the Gibb brothers were born in England, only lived in Australia for about nine years and didn’t become famous until after they had returned to England.

But like Crowded House, they were formed there. That’s why I included them. But I suppose, there is no perfect science behind the madness. With that being said, let’s stir up some more potential controversy!

The Easybeats

The Easybeats were formed in Sydney in late 1964. Their founding members were Stevie Wright (lead vocals), Harry Vanda (lead guitar), George Young (rhythm guitar),  Dick Diamonde (bass) and Gordon “Snowy Fleet (drums). All came from families that had emigrated from Europe to Australia: Wright and Fleet from England, Vanda and Diamonde from the Netherlands, and Young from Scotland. I let you be a judge whether that actually makes them an English-Scottish-Dutch band. What is undisputed was their inspiration by the British Invasion. After signing with Parlophone/Albert Productions, The Easybeats released their debut single For My Woman in March 1965, which reached no. 33 in the Australian charts. The follow-on She’s So Fine, which appeared in May 1965, marked their national breakthrough, climbing to no. 2 on the domestic charts. The tune was also included on their debut album Easy that came out in September of the same year. In July 1966, The Easybeats relocated to London. A couple of months later, they recorded what became their biggest hit, Friday On My Mind. Co-written by Young and Vanda, the song was released in October that year. It topped the Australian and Dutch charts, and reached no. 6 and 16 in the UK and U.S., respectively. Following international success in 1966 and 1967, the band’s popularity declined and eventually, they broke up in October 1969. Here’s Friday On My Mind. I just love that tune!

INXS

INXS were founded as The Farriss Brothers in Sydney in 1977 by Garry Gary Beers (bass), Andrew Farriss (keyboards), Jon Farriss (drums), Tim Farriss (guitar), Michael Hutchence (lead vocals) and Kirk Pengilly (guitar, saxophone). The following year, the band started to regularly support Midnight Oil and other local bands. In September 1979, they performed for the first time as INXS, a name that been suggested by a crew member of Midnight Oil. In early 1980, INXS signed a deal with Sydney independent label Deluxe Records and released their eponymous debut album in October that year. It wasn’t until their fourth studio record The Swing from April 1984 that the band gained recognition beyond Australia. The lead single Original Sin, which was recorded in New York with Nile Rodgers and featured Daryl Hall on backing vocals, became their first hit beyond Australia. The next studio album Listen Like Thieves from October 1985 marked their international breakthrough. A series of successful records followed. After Hutchence’s suicide in November 1997, INXS relied on guest vocalists before starting to work with a series of permanent lead vocalists. In November 2012 during a concert in Perth, Australia, the band announced they would no longer tour. Their final studio album Original Sin had appeared in November 2010. Here’s Need You Tonight, one of INXS’ biggest hits and their only no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Co-written by Andrew Farriss and Michael Hutchence, the song was included on their sixth studio album Kick from October 1987.

Men At Work

Men At Work were established in Melbourne in June 1979 by Colin (James) Hay (lead vocals, guitar) and Ron Stykert (bass), who had performed as an acoustic duo since 1978, and Jerry Speiser (drums). Soon thereafter, they were joined by Greg Ham (flute, saxophone, keyboards) and John Rees (bass). After Rees had entered, Stykert switched to lead guitar. In 1980, Men At Work self-financed their debut single Keypunch Operator, which was backed by Down Under. A slightly different version of the latter tune was included on the band’s debut album Business As Usual from November 1981 and became their biggest hit. In 1984, long-standing tensions between Hay and Speiser led to Speiser’s departure, along with Rees. Together with session musicians, Hay, Strykert and Ham recorded Men At Work’s third and final studio album Two Hearts released in April 1985. By early 1986, the band was toast and Hay started a solo career. In mid-1996, Hay and Ham brought Men At Work back together with a new lineup. They toured but did not record any new music. The band broke up a second time in 2002. Afterward, Hay and Ham periodically reunited to perform as Men At Work with guest musicians. In April 2012, Ham who had suffered from depression and anxiety over the loss of a copyright lawsuit related to his flute part in Down Under, passed away from a heart attack. Last June, Hay toured Europe with backing musicians as Men At Work. Here’s Who Can It Be Now?, the great lead single from the band’s debut record, which was written by Hay.

Midnight Oil

Midnight Oil were formed as Farm in Sydney in 1972, playing covers of Cream, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Led Zeppelin. Since the previous year Rob Hirst (drums), Andrew James (bass) and Jim Moginie (keyboards, lead guitar) had performed together. After they had placed an ad for a band member, Peter Garrett joined as their new vocalist and synthesizer player. In late 1976, the band changed their name to Midnight Oil, a reference to the Jimi Hendrix tune Burning of the Midnight Lamp. Martin Rotsey (guitar) joined in 1977 and together with their manager Gary Morris, Midnight Oil founded their own record label Powderworks. Their eponymous debut album appeared in November 1978. In 1982, they broke through in Australia and internationally with their fourth studio album 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 – yep, that’s the title! In 2002, Midnight Oil disbanded following Garrett’s decision to quit the band and focus on his political career. After temporary reunions in 2005 and 2009, Midnight Oil came back together in 2016. Last year, they announced plans for new material to be released this year. I knew about Midnight Oil because of their great 1987 tune Beds Are Burning. Here’s another song I like: Blue Sky Mine, credited to of the band’s members, and appearing on their seventh studio album Blue Sky Mining from February 1990.

Little River Band

Little River Band were founded in Melbourne in March 1975 by Glenn Shorrock (lead vocals), Beeb Birtles (guitar, vocals), Graeham Noble (guitar, vocals) and Derek Pellicci (drums), along with session musicians Graham Davidge (lead guitar) and Dave Orams (bass). In May 1975, they signed with EMI Records and released their eponymous debut album in November that year. The record was an instant success, peaking at no. 12 in Australia and no. 80 on the Billboard 200. The excellent single It’s a Long Way There, which was my introduction to the band, became their first top 40 hit in the U.S. Little River Band remain active to this day. They have had many lineup changes over the decades, and none of their original members are still around. The band’s most recent 17th studio album Cuts Like a Diamond was released in 2013. I only know a number of Little River Band songs until their May 1986 album No Reins. I generally dig their harmony singing on these tunes, which I think is comparable to other rock bands like the Eagles, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and The Doobie Brothers. Here’s Lonesome Loser, written by David Briggs, the band’s lead guitarist from 1976 until 1981. The song is the opener to their fifth studio record First Under the Wire from July 1979. It was one of six top 10 hits Little River Band scored in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

On This Day In Rock & Roll History: April 14

I can’t believe almost three months have passed since my last installment in this long-running recurring feature. For some reason, at times, I need to convince myself to start digging through music history for a specific date yet again, though once I do so, I’m usually intrigued with what comes up. Of course, there are occasions where what I find only mildly excites me. When that happens, I tend to refrain from writing a post.  Anyway, April 14 turned out to be an interesting date.

1945: Richard Hugh Blackmore, better known as Ritchie Blackmore, was born in the southwestern English seaside town of Weston-super-Mare. This means the guitarist and songwriter is turning 73 years old today. Blackmore is best known as one of the founding members of Deep Purple, which is still my favorite hard rock band to this day. Yes, there are other great hard rock bands, first and foremost Led Zeppelin, but if I had to choose one, it would still be Deep Purple. Blackmore also founded Rainbow in 1975 and revived the band as Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow in 2015. In 1997, he kissed rock music goodbye and established Blackmore’s Night, a British-American traditional folk-rock band with then-girlfriend Candice Night, who became his wife in 2008 – I suppose he carefully listened to what many parents tell their kids about getting engaged or married: Don’t rush it! 🙂 In 2016, Blackmore was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Deep Purple. Here’s Blackmore in action with a cool high-speed guitar solo: Highway Star, from my favorite 1972 Deep Purple album Machine Head. Happy birthday!

1963: The Beatles saw The Rolling Stones perform for the first time at The Crawdaddy Club in Richmond, a suburban town in southwest London. “They were still on the club scene, stomping about, doing R&B tunes,” recalled George Harrison, according to The Beatles Bible. “The music they were playing was more like we’d been doing before we’d got out of our leather suits to try and get onto record labels and television.” Added Paul McCartney: “Mick tells the tale of seeing us there with long suede coats that we’d picked up in Hamburg, coats that no one could get in England. He thought, ‘Right – I want to be in the music business; I want one of those coats.'” And what did Ringo Starr have to say? “I knew then that the Stones were great. They just had presence. And, of course, we could tell – we’d had five weeks in the business; we knew all about it!” Last but not least, here’s some of John Lennon’s recollection: “They [The Stones] were run by a different guy then, Giorgio Gomelsky. When we started hanging around London, the Stones were up and coming in the clubs, and we knew Giorgio through Epstein. We went down and saw them and became good friends.”

Rolling Stones At Crawdaddy Club 1963
The Rolling Stones at the Crawdaddy Club, April 14, 1963

1966: The Spencer Davis Group was on top of the U.K. Singles Chart with Somebody Help Me, scoring their second no. 1 single in the U.K. Like their first chart-topper Keep On Running, the tune was written by Jackie Edwards, a Jamaican musician and songwriter. The song was also included on the band’s third studio album Autumn ’66 released in August 1966. If my math is correct, Steve Winwood, who sang lead and played keyboards, was all of 17 years when they recorded the single. He was still known as Stevie Winwood at the time – what an amazing talent!

1967: The Bee Gees released their debut single in the U.S., New York Mining Disaster 1941. Co-written by Barry Gibb and Robin Gibb, it became the band’s first international single release and their first song to chart in the U.S. and the U.K., peaking at no. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 and no. 12 on the U.K. Singles Chart, respectively. When the tune was released, there were rumors the Bee Gees actually were The Beatles recording under a pseudonym. “If you sounded like the Beatles and also could write a hit single, then the hype of the machine would go into action, and your company would make sure people thought you sounded like the Beatles or thought you were the Beatles,” recalled Barry Gibb, according to the 2012 biography The Bee Gees – Tales of the Brothers Gibb, by Hector Cook, Melinda Bilyeu and Andrew Mon Hughes. “And that sold you, attracted attention to you. It was good for us because everyone thought it was the Beatles under a different name.” While it’s safe to assume opinions about the Bee Gees are divided among readers of the blog, I’ve actually always thought they were pretty talented vocalists and songwriters.

1972: David Bowie released Starman as a single in the U.K., which became his second major hit there since Space Oddity from July 1969, peaking at no. 10 on the singles chart. In the U.S., the single performed more moderately, reaching no. 65 on the Billboard Hot 100. Written by Bowie, the tune was a late addition to his fifth and, in my opinion, best studio album The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars released in June 1972. It also happens to be one of my favorite Bowie tunes.

Sources: Wikipedia, This Day In Music, This Day In Rock, The Beatles Bible, YouTube