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

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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