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Top 11 Falsetto Songs
For his latest Top 11 column, Frank Mastropolo looks at some of the most notable songs to utilize falsetto vocals.
“I like money. It’s fun to fold and stack and smell and look at. It’s just plain fun to count money, and I often do it in a loud falsetto while wearing nothing but a captain’s hat and a coin changer.”
- “Nights on Broadway” by the Bee Gees
“Nights on Broadway” reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1975. Barry Gibb discovered his falsetto voice while recording the tune. It became a hallmark of the Bee Gees sound.
“It came to me in a dream, there was a request by Arif Mardin, who was like an uncle to us, he was a great record producer during the song ‘Nights On Broadway’ for the Main Course album, which is previous to the ‘Fever’ syndrome,” Gibb told Larry King in 2002. “And he said, ‘Can any of you scream, scream in falsetto?’ So, you know, give us an ad lib or a scream at the end. So from screaming, it turned into things like ‘blaming it all.'”
“We found another sound; we found a new sound,” Gibb recalled in the documentary How Can You Mend a Broken Heart. “I came up with a lot of new ideas to suit the falsetto. Everybody was saying the same thing: ‘Do that falsetto again, do that falsetto again.’ It was fine for me; I was having a ball.”
- “Bread and Butter” by the Newbeats
“Bread and Butter” was a No. 2 hit for the Newbeats in 1964. The song was written by Jay Turnbow and Larry Parks and placed with the Newbeats by the music publisher Acuff-Rose. Newbeats lead singer Larry Henley told Classic Bands how the group came to record the catchy hit.
“We got it in the mail. Oddly enough, it was written by two guys from my hometown and none of us knew each other. It was just a coincidence. That was back in the day of the Beatles. Mostly everything you heard was English. ‘Bread And Butter’ was the only thing out there that was just the opposite, and so it hit for that reason I think.”
The song features Henley’s falsetto. “I had a record deal because of my falsetto voice. We sent in a demo, and I can’t remember what the song was called. In those days they wanted to do four songs on a record. We looked all over town and we already had three songs. And we came across ‘Bread And Butter.’ We thought it was funny. We didn’t think it was anything anyone would really buy. The other guys in the Newbeats wanted to make it into a record, so we did.
“We were on tour at the time the record came out. We expected it to be a hit because all the musicians in the studio that played on it stood up and applauded after we did it. So we figured it must be a hit.”
- “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” by Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson was a member of the Jacksons when he approached Quincy Jones for advice. Asked to recommend producers for Jackson’s upcoming solo projects, Jones suggested himself and they began work on Jackson’s Off the Wall LP. The 1979 album’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” was the first solo song written by Jackson and introduced fans to his falsetto voice and vocal hiccups.
Jackson wrote the song at his Los Angeles home and recorded a demo backed by his brother Randy and sister Janet tapping on soda bottles with drumsticks. Jackson’s mother, Katherine Jackson, a devout Jehovah’s Witness, complained that the lyrics were too suggestive and its title could be interpreted as being about sex. Jackson assured his mother that the song could mean whatever people wanted it to.
“Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” reached number one in 1979 and became one of the greatest disco-funk tracks of all time.
- “One on One” by Hall & Oates
“One on One” was a Top 10 hit from Hall & Oates’ 1983 album H2O. The song was written by Daryl Hall, who performed lead vocals. “That song expresses a theme I’ve explored in lots of my songs,” Hall told Mix, “the idea that I’ve been traveling all my life but my heart longs to stay in one place. Being in one place, but wanting to be somewhere else.”
“I was on the road for so many years, living this very transient life,” Hall explained in Entertainment Weekly. “You’re everywhere and you’re nowhere, and your domestic life, your concept of home, becomes very special to an artist. This song sort of describes that.”
- “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by the Tokens
The song that became “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” was first recorded in 1939 by Solomon Linda of South Africa. Linda headed an a cappella group, the Evening Birds, and recorded “Mbube” — “lion” in Zulu — after his shift as a cleaner at South Africa’s Gallo Records. The song became a hit and made Linda a star in his country.
Musicologist Alan Lomax passed the song on the folk legend Pete Seeger of the Weavers, who named their version “Wimoweh,” a top ten hit in 1952. Enter Jay Siegel of the Tokens, a doo-wop group formed in Brooklyn. “I became aware of the song in high school,” Siegel told Classic Bands. “I was a big fan of folk songs.”
“I heard a song one day on the radio by a group called the Weavers. It was a live recording called The Weavers at Carnegie Hall. Their version was called ‘Wimoweh.’ I used to sing it. I taught it to the guys. When we switched labels to RCA, they put a lyric to it, our producers and I changed the melody to fit the lyric. That’s how it became ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight.'”
“The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” with Siegel’s falsetto lead, was a number one hit for the Tokens in 1961. When the song was featured in Disney’s animated film The Lion King in 1994, its popularity soared again. Linda, who died in poverty in 1962, never enjoyed the song’s financial success because Gallo Records had purchased its rights. Lawsuits followed and in 2006 Linda was acknowledged as the composer of the original song. His estate was awarded the rights to past and future royalties.
“Mbube” by Solomon Linda & the Evening Birds
“Wimoweh” by the Weavers
“The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by the Tokens
- “Biggest Part of Me” by Ambrosia
“Biggest Part of Me” was written by Ambrosia lead singer David Pack, a No. 3 hit in 1980. Pack told HuffPost that he wrote the song on the Fourth of July in 1979. “Family was packing up the car to drive to Malibu for private celebration. Car was running … I went back to my studio guesthouse to shut off the gear, sat at piano for a moment, and the chords appeared under my fingers.
“I turned on the portable cassette recorder and laid it down in a couple of minutes. Then ran back to the car and we took off. The next day I played it back, and wrote the bridge and lyrics … very quickly.
“It was early summer. That’s key. My favorite feeling of the year. I wanted Ambrosia to have a signature vocal group call and response song. So that had something to do with it as well. My previous hit ‘How Much I Feel’ had that lead vocal and wall of group harmony thing happening. So I was in pursuit of a vocal sonic identity for us.”
- “Unchained Melody” by the Righteous Brothers
“Unchained Melody” was written by Alex North and Hy Zaret for the 1955 prison film Unchained. The Righteous Brothers, Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield, recorded the best-known version, which showcases Hatfield’s incredible falsetto.
Producer Phil Spector chose “Unchained Melody” as the B-side of “Hung on You.” Spector’s policy with B-sides was to choose one he considered so bad that DJs would never mistake it for the A-side. That strategy didn’t work with “Unchained Melody,” which DJs favored, eventually making it a No. 4 hit in 1965.
“That really pissed Phil off,” Medley wrote in The Time of My Life. “First of all, regardless of what the label read, I produced ‘Unchained Melody,’ not Phil. The first 45’s that were sent out listed me as the producer, but when it became a hit, suddenly the labels were changed and Phil’s name was there as producer.
“Phil was livid, he started calling radio stations and telling them to stop playing ‘Unchained Melody.’ I can’t fathom why Phil didn’t hear what a great record that was. He was by no means an idiot. When it came to music he was brilliant. I don’t know why he didn’t hear that it was a hit, but he came to terms with it.”
“Unchained Melody” (live) by the Righteous Brothers
- “Don’t Worry Baby” by the Beach Boys
Brian Wilson told Goldmine that “Don’t Worry Baby” was his greatest vocal performance with the Beach Boys. “I think I sang it sweetly enough that you could feel the love in my voice.”
The track was released as the B-side of “I Get Around” in 1964. DJ Roger Christian wrote the lyrics about a teen who had gotten into trouble street racing and is comforted by his girlfriend. “I wrote that with Roger Christian and it took me two days to write it,” Wilson told Goldmine. “I started out with the verse idea and then wrote the chorus. It was a very simple and beautiful song. It’s a really heart-and-soul song, I really did feel that in my heart. Some say it’s about a car and others say it’s about a girl, who’s right? It’s both. It’s about a car and a woman.”
- “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” by the Temptations
By 1971 the Temptations had released a string of psychedelic soul hits written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong. “The singles won Grammys and sold well,” singer Otis Williams told The Guardian, “but people kept asking when we were going to go back to classic ballads. We mentioned this to the songwriter and producer Norman Whitfield and he gave us ‘Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me),’ with lyrics by Barrett Strong.
“Just My Imagination” reached No. 1 in 1971 and featured the falsetto lead of Eddie Kendricks. It would be Kendricks’ last effort with the Tempts before launching a successful solo career. “At the time, Eddie Kendricks, the band’s lead singer, and I weren’t getting on,” said Williams. “That’s how it is in a group. You have personality clashes. He wanted to go solo, take control of his own destiny.
“We didn’t know that this would be his last recording with us. We’d start at seven at night and go right through to the wee small hours. It was a tedious process: Norman was quite a taskmaster and he’d fry your nerves. Eddie didn’t leave the studio until morning, having delivered a wonderful sweet, tender, sincere performance.”
- “Emotional Rescue” by the Rolling Stones
After 1978’s disco-flavored “Miss You” the release of 1980’s “Emotional Rescue” made fans think the Rolling Stones had abandoned rock for dance music. “English people hate it, ’cause they say it’s all disco, but it’s not.” Mick Jagger told Rolling Stone. “But that’s what they think it is, you see. It’s just black music.”
The song features Jagger’s falsetto, which he also used on 1976’s “Fool to Cry.”
“I wrote that on an electric piano in the studio, then Charlie [Watts] and Woody [Ron Wood] and I cut it immediately, live,” said Jagger. “It was all done very quickly. I think the vocals could’ve been better. It’s just one of those recording studio things. You would never really write a song like that in real life. Comes out in the studio, ’cause it’s all ad-libbed, the end part. It was never planned like that.”
Despite its sour reviews, John Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1980 that he was a fan of the tune. “Mick’s put out consistently good work for 20 years, and will they give him a break? Will they ever say, ‘Look at him, he’s number one, he’s 37 and he has a beautiful song, “Emotional Rescue,” it’s up there’? I enjoyed it, a lot of people enjoyed it.”
“Emotional Rescue” by the Rolling Stones
- “Black Dog” by Led Zeppelin
“Black Dog” opens 1971’s Led Zeppelin IV. Its title comes from a nameless Labrador retriever who wandered around the studio during recording. Robert Plant’s falsetto is featured during a call and response with the band. Guitarist Jimmy Page credits bassist John Paul Jones with the song’s inspiration.
“John Paul Jones had a riff. And that’s the sort of riff that you know as ‘Black Dog.'” Page explained on SiriusXM. “I said, ‘Let’s try this with a call and response, with Robert singing and then the riff.”
The song’s lyrics have nothing to do with canines. “Not all my stuff is meant to be scrutinized,” Plant remarked in Led Zeppelin: The Complete Guide to Their Music. “Things like ‘Black Dog’ are blatant, let’s-do-it-in-the-bath type things, but they make their point just the same.”
July 26, 2022