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

What I’ve Been Listening to: Yola/Walk Through Fire

When I included the latest single by Yola in my last Best of What’s New installment, I noticed her first full-length solo album Walk Through Fire received many accolades. Since the strong voice of the English singer-songwriter immediately grabbed me, I checked it out and have to say it’s a true gem, both musically and in terms of her vocal performance.

Getting to that point wasn’t exactly an easy path for Yola who was born as Yolanda Quartey in 1983 in Bristol, England. According to this review in Popmatters, Yola had a tough childhood characterized by poverty and a parent who didn’t care for her and banned music. Later she lived homeless in London for some time before establishing herself as a session singer and touring with acts like DJ collective Bugz in the Attic and electronic music outfit Massive Attack.

Yola Carter

In 2005, she co-founded country-soul band Phantom Limb and recorded two studio albums and a live record with them. But ultimately, as her artist profile in Apple Music notes, Yola felt the need to strike out on her own. Over the next few years, she started writing her own songs that were influenced by Muscle Shoals era country-soul, R&B and classic singer-songwriter style. In 2016, she released her debut EP Orphan Offering under the name of Yola Carter.

Eventually, Yola went to Nashville where she met Dan Auerbach after he had seen a video of her. Apparently, Auerbach was immediately impressed by her. “Her spirit fills the room, just like her voice,” he reportedly said. “She has the ability to sing in a full roar or barely a whisper and that is a true gift.” Auerbach teamed up with Yola to co-write songs, together with other writers, including Bobby Wood, Pat McLaughlin and Dan Penn.

Yola and Dan Auerbach

Auerbach also assembled an impressive group of seasoned studio musicians, including Dave Roe (bass), who played with Johnny Cash and John Mellencamp, among others; harmonica player Charlie McCoy (credits include Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, Bob Dylan, etc.) and drummer Gene Crisman, who together with Bobby Wood was a member of the Memphis Boys. They were the house band of American Sound Studio in Memphis, Tenn. where artists like Elvis, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield recorded. Auerbach also produced Walk Through Fire, which appeared in February 2019 on his Easy Eye Sound label.

With all of the above, it’s not surprising the album has a retro late ’60s sound. This is also matched by the cover. And yet, to me, Walk Through Fire feels like an album that will hold up well over time. It simply is a work of beauty. Let’s get to some music.

Here’s the opener Faraway Look. The track was co-written by Auerbach, McLaughin and Yola. BTW, McLaughlin’s compositions have been performed by artists like Bonnie Raitt, Alan Jackson, Taj Mahal and Al Kooper, among others. Sure, the production might be a bit on the lush side, but this is just a beautiful tune.

Ride Out in the Country is another great track. The song was co-written by Auerbach, Yola and Joe Allen. Allen is a county songwriter and bassist who since the early ’70s has worked with the likes of Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash.

Next up is the title track, which according to Wikipedia references both a fire that damaged Yola’s home and an abusive relationship from which she escaped. The tune was co-written by Auerbach, Yola and Dan Penn. Penn has co-written many soul hits of the ’60s, including The Dark End of the Street and Do Right Woman, Do Right Man and Cry Like a Baby.

Rock Me Gently is my current favorite on the album. It’s another Auerbach-Allen-Yola co-write.

Let’s do one more: Love All Night (Work All Day), co-credited to Wood, Auerbach and Yola.

As noted above, Walk Through Fire was very well received. The album also generated three Grammy nominations: Best Americana Album, Best American Roots Song (Faraway Look) and Best New Artist. Walk Through Fire was also nominated for Album of the Year at the Americana Music Honors & Awards. And, yes, the album also did score a win: UK Album of the Year at the UK Americana Awards.

At age 37, Yola still is relatively young. I look forward to much more great music from this talented songwriter and vocalist.

Sources: Wikipedia; Popmatters; Apple Music; YouTube

23-Year-Old Southern Rock Guitarist Marcus King Shines On Soulful Solo Debut

Two weeks ago, I blogged about Playing For Change and that organization’s incredible videos produced with musicians from all over the world, covering well-known songs. One of the clips I highlighted was The Weight, featuring Robbie Robertson, Ringo Starr and professional musicians from eight other countries. The first thing I thought was, ‘how cool is it that Robertson and Starr are in the video. My second thought: ‘The young dude playing guitar and singing is killing it on vocals with his soulful voice. That guitarist was 23-year-old Marcus King. Earlier today, I listened to his solo debut album El Dorado and have to say I’m pretty blown away!

King who hails from Greenville, S.C. is not a newcomer. In fact, he has performed for a whopping 15 years! After beginning to play guitar at a very young age, already as an eight-year-old he started to be on stage with his father Marvin King, a professional blues guitarist. In 2013, as a 15-year-old, he formed the Marcus King Band. In October 2015, their debut album Soul Insight appeared. They have since released two additional records and two EPs. El Dorado, which came out on January 17 this year, was produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. Let’s get to some music!

Here’s the beautiful opener Young Man’s Dream. Spill Magazine called it reminiscent of Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush era. With King’s high pitched vocals and the tune’s sound, I think that’s not too far-fetched. Co-written by King, Auerbach and Nashville singer-songwriter Pat McLaughlin, the track also has some early Rod Stewart feel. It’s just cool!

The Well, a nice blues rocker that’s right up my alley, was co-written by King, Auerbach and Ronnie Bowman, a bluegrass vocalist and songwriter. I dig the main guitar riff and sound of that tune. Check it out!

Next up is Wildflowers & Wine, another co-write by King, Auerbach and Bowman. I really find it impressive how much soul the 23-year-old has in his vocals. That’s three great songs in a row, which already make it worthwhile to listen to this album.

There’s more. How about some country? Ask and you shall receive. Here’s Sweet Mariona, yet another tune co-written by King, Auerbach and Bowman. Listen to that sweet-sounding pedal steel guitar!

Another soul gem with a dose of country flair is Beautiful Stranger. I also love the gospel type backing vocals. To write this song King and Auerbach teamed up with country singer-songwriter Paul Overstreet.

The last track I’d like to call out is Too Much Whiskey, another co-write by King, Auerbach and Overstreet. It’s a great mix of blues and country.

In addition to King (lead vocals, guitar) and Auerbach (bass, guitar, backing vocals), other musicians on El Dorado include Gene Chrisman (drums), Matt Combs (strings), Paul Franklin (steel guitar), Chris St. Hillaire (percussion), Russ Pahl (guitar), Ray Jacildo (Glockenspiel, keyboards), Dave Roe (bass), Mike Rojas (keyboards), Billy Sanford (guitar), Bobby Woods (keyboards), as well as backing vocalists Ashley Wilcoxson and Leisa Hans.

Deservedly, El Dorado has received great reviews. Rolling Stone called it “excellent” and King “one of the most exciting guitarists to break through in years.” NPR’s rock critic Ken Tucker characterized the record as “a real beauty — and a turning-point for King.” Last but not least, Spill Magazine opined the album is a “musical masterpiece.”

King seems to be happy with the result as well, as he should be. “I’m really proud of it,” he told Rolling Stone. And what did Auerbach, who has produced for other artists like Dr. John, Ray LaMontagne and The Pretenders, have to add? “It’s staggering how good he is, how crazy-good his vocals are, how he can go anywhere on guitar.” I think that nicely sums up my sentiments.

Sources: Wikipedia; Spill Magazine; Rolling Stone; NPR; AllMusic; YouTube