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.