Friday, July 11, 2008

Falsetto A-Z

Surprisingly, one discovers the word falsetto, literally meaning “false soprano,” actually has two different meanings at One definition reads, “A male voice in an upper register beyond its normal range,” while the other reads, “The treble range produced by most adult male singers through a slightly artificial technique...” What precisely, then, are we hearing when we hear falsetto singing? For a form of singing that is so essential to popular music, I find it somewhat surprising that its status is so culturally ambiguous: abnormal on the one hand, “slightly artificial” on the other. To call it a form of singing by males that is artificial associates artifice with femininity, a linkage that Michael Jarrett identifies as ultimately deriving from use of the castrati in Italian opera, the castrati being emasculated men whose physical alteration when boys allowed them to sing like women when adult men. The castrati were known as voci artificiali, "artificial voices."

But as Majorie Garber has pointed out, the operatic use of the castrati eventually gave rise, after the social practice of creating them ceased, to the bel canto singing style, the style favored by Italian-American pop singers (255). And, as Michael Jarrett has observed, that style "helped fashion the rock universe" (231). He writes:

Dean Martin's croon profoundly affected Elvis Presley, but it also attracted the black gaze of desire. Chuck Berry comes from this tradition (though perhaps by way of Slim Galliard). And Marvin Gaye readily admitted: "My dream was to become Frank Sinatra. I loved his phrasing, especially when he was very young and pure.... I also dug Dean Martin and especially Perry Como (quoted in [Gerald] Early, ["One Nation Under a Groove," New Republic, 15-22 July 1991] 30) (231)

Doo-wop popularized falsetto because, according to Simon Frith, the male voice was broken "into its component parts such that the combination of all its sounds, from low to high" defined masculinity ("Brit Beat: High Signs," Village Voice, 7 June 1994). No wonder, then, that most successful male pop groups always had a member capable of singing falsetto; in the Bee Gees' case, when Barry Gibb (pictured) decided to sing falsetto with "Nights on Broadway" on Main Course (1975), the Bee Gees were, de facto, transformed into Barry Gibb's band.

Falsetto A—Z, A Primer
Little Anthony & The Imperials, “Shimmy, Shimmy, Ko-Ko-Bop”
The Bee Gees (Barry Gibb), “Nights on Broadway”
[Canned Heat (Al Wilson), “Goin’ Up the Country”] (see comments)
Lou Christie, “Lightnin’ Strikes”
The Delfonics, “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)”
Elvis (Presley), “Blue Moon”
Art Garfunkel (Simon & Garfunkel), “Bridge Over Troubled Water”
Eddie Holman, “Hey There Lonely Girl”
The Impressions (Curtis Mayfield), “People Get Ready”
Mick Jagger (The Rolling Stones), “Emotional Rescue”
Eddie Kendricks (The Temptations), “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)"
Led Zeppelin (Robert Plant), “Whole Lotta Love”
Curtis Mayfield, “Freddie’s Dead”
Aaron Neville (Neville Brothers), “Mona Lisa”
Roy Orbison, “Crying”
Prince, “Kiss”
Queen, “Bohemian Rhapsody”
Smokey Robinson (& The Miracles), “Ooo Baby Baby”
Leo Sayer, “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing”
Tiny Tim, “Tiptoe Through the Tulips”
U2, “Lemon”
Frankie Valli (The Four Seasons), “Sherry”
Brian Wilson (The Beach Boys), “Good Vibrations”
Brian Wilson (The Beach Boys), "Don't Worry Baby" (see comments)
X (John Doe), “White Girl”
Neil Young, “Tonight’s the Night”
The Zombies (Colin Blunstone), “She’s Not There”


Tim Lucas said...

I think you missed an important one in your Falsetto A - Z Guide: Brian Wilson's falsetto on The Beach Boys' "Don't Worry Baby." It's said that this, arguably Brian's most heart-rending vocal ever, was one of his most difficult to record because he had to get over memories of being mocked and jeered when he went into the higher register and "sang like a girl." As it happens, it's in this song that Brian sounds most like a man because his heart is right out there on his sleeve. I'm currently reading an excelent novel called GLIMPSES by Lewis Shriner, in which the protagonist is able to mentally project onto recording tape music sessions that never happened except in his own vivid imagination -- thus reconstructing mythic lost music like SMILE and The Doors' "Celebration of the Lizard." In this book, Shriner makes the convincing point that "Don't Worry Baby" is Brian singing what he always wanted to be told by his father, but never was. I'm only 150 pages into the novel but it's riveting, and I recommend it.

Anonymous said...

Technically, Alan "Blind Owl" Wilson's singing can be classified as falsetto only according to the popular definition in that it is above the normal male singing pitch. It does not qualify as a proper falsetto in the physical or musicological sense. Properly speaking, "Going Up the Country" and "On the Road Again", his hits with Canned Heat, are both done in a high tenor style.

Thanks for this interesting post on high pitched singers!

Rebecca Davis Winters
Blind Owl biographer

dino martin peters said...

Hey pallie Sam, man thanks for recognizin' the profound influence that our Dino had on other music makers..."Dean Martin's croon profoundly affected Elvis Presley, but it also attracted the black gaze of desire." Never was, never will be anyone as cool as the King of Cool...oh, to return to the days when Dino walked the earth...

Blaise said...

I have a playlist containing 500+ falsetto songs on Spotify: