Jan 11, 2009

Top Ten Falsettos in Pop and Rock History

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Left: Frankie Valli, king of pop falsetto

I shlepped around in the 1970s and 1980s with a dream of trying to make a career out of music, but I lacked the willingness to completely immerse myself into music, and I liked money too much to ever adopt the poverty associated with being a struggling musician. Still, I had a lot of fun, and I can still play just about any stringed instrument.

One of my stronger abilities as a singer has always been my grasp of the falsetto voice, and while my lead singing voice is competent-but-unremarkable, I harmonize well and can cover a lot of range. Anyways, enough about my lackluster musical accomplishments - let's move on to a discussion of the greatest falsettos in pop and rock music.

The 1960s were perhaps the golden age of the falsetto in pop and rock, though artists like Justin Timberlake keep alive the tradition today.

As always, jump in and remind me of the singers I overlooked, or critique the way I ranked them.

1. Frankie Valli - Yes, Valli sometimes comes across a bit screechy, but no singer legitimized the falsetto to generations of male pop singers than Frankie. He showed that you could hit the high notes and still maintain your masculinity, especially in defiant songs like "Walk Like a Man," sometimes misunderstood as a sort of sexual double entendre. Songs like "Opus 17 (Don't You Worry 'bout Me)" and "Can't Take My Eyes off You" still move me despite hearing them thousands of times.

2. Eddie Kendricks - There would not have been a Temptations without Eddie Kendricks, and his falsetto leads on songs such as "The Way You Do the Things You Do," "Get Ready," and "Just My Imagination" elevated the group into superstardom. Chainsmoking eventually corroded his marvellous voice, but Eddie was one of a kind.

3. Lou Christie - Like Frankie Valli, Christie used the falsetto as a sly foundation of his masculinity, though there is an undercurrent of lust that runs deeper in the sexually-suggestive songs he recorded, like "Lightning Strikes" and "Rhapsody in the Rain" that the Four Seasons only hinted at. Christie was much more subversive than such sexually over-the-top singers like Mick Jagger, using his clean-cut image as a front. In reality, he was still going to nail your teenaged daughter, but you'd let Lou Christie take her on a date, while you'd call the cops on Mick Jagger.

4. Phillip Bailey - From his work with Earth, Wind, and Fire to his successful solo career, Bailey carried the falsetto torch into the 1970s and 1980s. Check out EW&F songs like "Reasons" and "Fantasy," as well as his biggest hit "Easy Lover," a duet with Phil Collins.

5. Del Shannon - One listen to Shannon's "Runaway" and its signature "wah-wah-wah-wah-wonder" falsetto should be enough to include Shannon on this list. Unfortunately, his career was derailed by bad management, heavy drinking, and ultimately the .22 caliber rifle with which he shot himself in the head.

6. Roy Orbison - I ranked Orbison lower only because his three-octave operatic voice meant that he rarely needed to switch to falsetto. Listen to the song "Crying" and hear how brilliantly Orbison mixed falsetto in the chorus ("cry-i-i-ing") with his natural chest voice at the end ("o-o-o-ver you-u-u-u").

7. Russell Thompkins, Jr. - As a kid I thought that this lead singer of the Stylistics was female, so smooth was his high-register falsetto. Of course, I was listening on a two-dollar AM radio, so please forgive the ignorance, but that didn't stop me from singing hits like "Betcha by Golly Wow" and "You Make Me Feel Brand New" in my ten-year-old falsetto upstairs in my Detroit bedroom.

8. Jeff Lynne - The vocal work and especially the falsetto of the Electric Light Orchestra founder and leader are often overshadowed by his songwriting and production skills. Consider "Strange Magic," "Telephone Line," or "Sweet Talkin' Woman" if you have nagging doubts about Lynne's falsetto abilities.

9. Michael Jackson - Even though I am not a fan of the Bad One, I must admit that he has demonstrated some impressive falsetto singing over the years. The song "Butterflies" annoys me, but this tune does include some of his best falsetto work.

10. Morton Harkett - The lead singer of the Norwegian band a-ha demonstrated an impressive vocal range complemented by a soaring falsetto in the band's 1985 hit "Take on Me." Harkett almost effortlessly shifts from his normal voice into a falsetto two octaves higher.

Honorable mentions: Prince, Chris Isaak, Paul McCartney, Pete Townshend.

37 comments:

Middle Aged Woman said...

If you listed the guy from Canned Heat, I was gonna have to hurt you.

historymike said...

Heh. I had to look up and learn about Canned Heat's Bob Hite, whose near-monotone falsetto irritated the aural sensibilities of M.A.W.

stubbleyou said...

Agree hands down with your #1 (tho' just as an aside, I don't believe Frankie used his falsetto in one of the songs you cite, "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You.")

Hey, did you forget about Brian Wilson?

historymike said...

Ugh - guilty on both counts. There is little if any falsetto in "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You," and Brian Wilson was indeed a premier practitioner of the falsetto.

(goes off to falsetto corner for a refresher)

Anonymous said...

Brian Wilson, Bruce Johnston, Adrian Baker, Gerri Polci and others have a more generic falsetto. Frankie Valli's is more distinctive. Remember that female voices can also have a falsetto range (consider e.g. Minnie Riperton). It's just a matter of using the upper respiratory tract as a resonant cavity instead of the lungs. It's kind of like pressing the register key on a wind musical instrument.

mud_rake said...

I recall a very popular song by Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers back in the late 50's, "Why do fools fall in love?" His lines, "Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?" were wonderfully falsetto and most probably 'made' the hit.

[isn't it interesting that I know every line of that song 50 years ago but can't remember where i laid my keys this morning?]

microdot said...

Please Sir, admit you have seriously erred by omitting CURTIS MAYFIELD!
I, for one am aghast, appalled and totally behoodled by your oversight!

microdot said...

since you are talking about franki Valli, who is still touring, stone deaf at 74, check this out:

Approximately Queen Jane (the Dylan song)
by the Four Seasons

http://www.youtube.com/watch?
v=RK5Sg19_onE

Anonymous said...

I think that there are many rock musicians with hearing deficits, due to years of exposure to 100+ dB sound, microdot. Frankie Valli's hearing problems are well known, and Brian Wilson has been unable to hear in at least one ear for a similar amount of time, perhaps longer. Frankie Valli has been surgically treated at least once for otosclerosis. I would suspect that other aging rockers have been medically treated or now use hearing aids, or perhaps even cochlear implants. Those would probably work as long as they sang familiar music.

I think it's kind of callous for you to single Frankie out about this, microdot, when it's an occupational hazard.

stubbleyou said...

Well as long as mud_rake mentioned Frankie Lymon, let me thrown in for your consideration the boutique selection of Kenny Rankin, who did a gorgeous cover of WDFFIL. When he scats falsetto, he sounds like a smooth trumpet.

microdot said...

I find Anonymous's comment extremely ridiculous in an ironic sense because I am a victim of tintinitus...severe nerve damage in both ears from standing in front of bass amps for years turned up to 11.
I am a semi deaf ex rock musician, ask my wife...she can't hear you either!

Anonymous, are you Anonymous#1 or #2 or the other guy, whose name I can't remember with the wry, obscurely subtle sense of humor?

Brian said...

Sorry, but there is no finer falsetto than Roger Taylor, the drummer for Queen.

Listen to him sing "Gallileo" in the operatic section of "Bohemian Rhapsody". For those of you who know Queen, then you've heard the opening of "In the Lap of the Gods" on "Sheer Heart Attack". Taylor's scream shatters glass.

Michael said...

I may be a bit biased myself, but how can BRIAN WILSON NOT EVEN BE ON THE LIST at all???

In Brian's golden years 1965-1967 (both vocally and production-wise in the studio, although that is a conservative time interval it could definitely be broadened) it is, although arguable, possible that the elder Wilson brother had the sweetest, emotionally soaring falsetto EVER!!

Think 'Don't Worry Baby', 'Surfer Girl', "I Get Around".... it goes on forever.

Michael said...
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jthomps said...

A Falsetto list without the likes of Bobby and Eldra Debarge?

Michael said...

You should have used Michael Jackson's Human Nature as a better example of his falsetto vocal ability.

Rootie said...

I agree. Frankie Valli's falsetto was so distinctive he set the benchmark for others. Here's one overlooked falsetto voice from the same era as the Four Seasons - Bob Miranda, the lead singer from The Happenings. Almost the same story as Frankie Valli - grew up close to the same area in northern New Jersey and practiced singing on street corners. Take a listen to his voice and you will find his falsetto very smooth and very pleasant without any obvious straining.

Rootie said...

I agree. Frankie Valli's falsetto was so distinctive he set the benchmark for others. Here's one overlooked falsetto voice from the same era as the Four Seasons - Bob Miranda, the lead singer from The Happenings. Almost the same story as Frankie Valli - grew up close to the same area in northern New Jersey and practiced singing on street corners. Take a listen to his voice and you will find his falsetto very smooth and very pleasant without any obvious straining.

BC said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
BC said...

Brian Wilson? How bout THIS.

Not gonna say I've heard all the falsettos in the list, but Brian Wilson used it to more emotional effect (especially working the "vulnerable" area between falsetto and full voice) than any other that I HAVE heard.

Anonymous said...

No love for Jeff Buckley? He had such an angelic voice, I thought he'd get an honorable mention at least.

I'm glad some one recognized Roger Taylor from Queen (I'm just a big fan of Freddy Mercury..)

Also, Matthew Bellamy is relatively new, but he's a great falsetto-ist in my opinion...

Theoson said...

Hey guys consider the amazing young Brit- Justin Hawkins. He sang for the group the Darkness and now fronts his own band- Hot Leg. An incredibly talented song writer and accomplished guitar player as well.

Anonymous said...

How can Brian Wilson not even make this list!!???

Warmth of the sun one of the most moving falsettos ever

Bill said...

There is a big chunk of music that you have omitted here...and I'm talking about vocal group harmony of the 1950's & 60's. Listen to Donnie Elbert, Billy Storm, Jimmy Jones, Nolan Strong, Cornell Gunther, etc, and then tell me what you think.

Nancy Morris said...

I believe the young Brian Wilson had the most beautiful falsetto of all time. I'm relieved that you at least copped to omitting him. His falsetto was angelically sweet and emotionally evocative, often to the point of being heartbreaking.

I think Brian's own emotional fragility may have made his falsetto incomparable. He never just sang; his whole heart came through in every note. In my opinion, not even Frankie Valli compares.

Listen to this "Hushabye" (I always skip from 1:12 to 1:44 to avoid hearing Mike Love's lead vocal): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Elb1MJI0pdo

doo-wop lover said...

July, 1955 The Turbans' "When You Dance" is the first falsetto this 60+ pop fan ever heard. Please listen to it!

doo-wop lover said...

Oh, I don't know how I forgot The Ink Spots and the very memorable voice and falsetto of Bill Kenny. Predated the Turbans by a BUNCH!

delmar858 said...

Without a doubt Brian Wilson should be in the top three.

Anonymous said...

How can you leave out Roger Hodgson of Supertramp? (Some would also mistakenly suggest you erred in not including Jon Anderson of Yes, but as high as his voice is, it is indeed his natural range, evidenced by his speaking voice, which is also in a much higher register than most males.)

Thomas J McKeon said...

Adam Jackson alternate lead for The Jesters (a 50s NY gang-doo wop group) certaintly had the highest on-key soaring falsetto of any rock singer. He could sing a whole song in falsetto with no strains and accurately reach notes higher than almost any woman or any of the aforementioned singers. Check out "I think I'm falling in Love" or "Please let me Love You." You can easily listen to them on You Tube or Amazon or Oldies.com or cd universe. Thomsas J McKeon

Anonymous said...

Mike, Phillip Bailey can vocally do what none of the others in your list could or can do.He's the best, no contest

Anonymous said...

I believe that Barry Gibb should have been mentioned somewhere in here.

Anonymous said...

I'll take Brian Wilson over everyone on this list (before he started smoking cigarettes heavily and his voice changed). Listen to Brian sing lead on "Their Hearts Were Full of Spring". How sweet it is.

Anonymous said...

How about Morrissey?

Anonymous said...

What about Chuck Negron?

Anonymous said...

A top 10 falsetto list without even any mention of Brian Wilson is pathetic

paul hampton said...

I realize you can't list them all but to not add Ron Isley to a falsetto list is a crime!