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

Celebrating Music Giants Lost in 2016

Following are my favorite memories of five exceptional music personalities we lost in 2016.

Other than briefly acknowledging some of the big music personalities who passed away in this year, I had not planned to further cover this rather sad subject. Yesterday’s news about the untimely death of George Michael at age 53 made me change my mind. But instead of writing a traditional obituary type of post, I’d like to celebrate each personality’s life by recalling my favorite memories of them.

Glenn Frey

The Eagles are among my all-time favorite 70s rock band. Not only was Glenn Frey one of the founding members, but he also wrote, co-wrote and sang lead on many of their tunes. One such gem is Already Gone, the opener to the Eagles’ 1974 album On the Border. Written by Jack Tempchin and Robb Strandlund, this rocker features Frey on lead vocals and sharing lead guitar responsibilities with Don Felder. I had the great fortune to see the Eagles as part of their History tour in Atlantic City in July 2015, six months prior to Frey’s death. Here is a nice clip of Already Gone, which apparently was captured during an Eagles gig in New Zealand in late 1995. It definitely brings back memories of that unforgettable show in Atlantic City.

Prince

While I immediately liked Purple Rain when I listened to it for the first time, other Prince songs were more of an acquired taste. But one thing that impressed me from the very beginning about Prince is that he was a multi-instrumentalist. In fact, I read he played almost all instruments on his first five studio albums, including an incredible 27 instruments on his debut! Undoubtedly, his signature instrument was the guitar, and nothing illustrates his mastery better than the killer solo he played on While My Guitar Gently Weeps during his 2004 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Here is a clip of this unbelievable performance, together with a pretty cool band that includes Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Steve Winwood and Dhani Harrison, among others.

David Bowie

The first David Bowie song I ever heard on the radio was Space Oddity, and it continues to be one of my favorite songs. The tune is the opener of his 1969 album David Bowie, which was his second studio album. I always thought one of the song’s cool features is how Bowie is harmonizing with himself. Another aspect that immediately attracted me is the acoustic guitar part – I guess in part because I was learning to play the guitar myself at the time. Here is a clip of the song’s official video from 1972.

Maurice White

The founder of Earth, Wind & Fire was instrumental for the band’s success, especially between 1970 and his official retirement in 1994 due to Parkinson’s disease. He was the band’s main song writer and producer, and sang co-lead with Philip Bailey. In addition to their amazing voices, the thing I’ve always loved about Earth, Wind & Fire is that their music makes you want to dance. The band has recorded so many great songs, but if I would have to name one in particular, it would be September. Co-written by White, Al McKay and Allee Willis and produced by White, the tune was initially released as a single in Sep 1978. It was also included on the band’s The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol. 1, which appeared in Nov that year. Here is an audio clip.

George Martin

While he was not a performing artist, what would The Beatles have been without their great producer, Sir George Henry Martin?  There is a reason why he was called the “Fifth Beatle,” including by Paul McCartney. Martin had extensive involvement in all of The Beatles 12 original albums. His musical expertise proved particularly valuable for orchestral arrangements on the band’s later albums. In addition to The Beatles, Martin produced recordings for many other artists, such as America, Jeff Beck, Cheap Trick, Elton John and Little River Band. In my opinion, one of his greatest accomplishments with The Beatles was the stings arrangement for Eleanor Rigby. Here is a clip of this gem from the 1969 album Yellow Submarine.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube