Sweet Harmony…a la Colette

25 Aug

Colette has another thoughtful submission on one of my favorite musical subjects….HARMONY.

har·mo·ny[hahr-muh-nee]: Music. the simultaneous combination of tones, esp. when blended into chords pleasing to the ear; chordal structure, as distinguished from melody and rhythm. A/K/A “Modulation”.

I love the sweet sounds of harmony and one of my absolute favorites is Seven Bridges Road by The Eagles:

I particularly enjoy acapella harmony but still like the acoustic guitars, as well. I must also include this as one of the most moving harmonies I’ve heard.

I Shall Not Walk Alone, Ben Harper & the Blind Boys of Alabama

So utterly soothing…and there is a distinct difference between male harmonies, female harmonies and “mixed” harmonies. Colette gives us some wonderful thoughts on the former.


Recent scientific research suggests that basic elements of musical sound, especially harmony, can have a potent physiological effect on our brains.

Given how my own being responds to beautiful harmony, I don’t doubt that. Listening to beautiful vocal harmony, or singing harmony parts with others, are almost spiritual experiences for me. Not to get woo-woo, but there’s a lushness, a richness, a sonic purity about intricate vocal harmony that can be ecstatic. It’s also interesting how singers without outstanding solo voices, can sometimes harmonize gorgeously with others.

Vocal harmony has been central to sacred and folk music for eons, and in American pop music I’m realizing how prominent and essential it’s been also. So I began to search for the harmonized pop music that moves me most, and found some stunning examples from a boundless ocean of them.

I’ve sharing some in two sets. The women’s set will come sometime later. But following in Music Maven’s current jones for male pipes, I’m going to the guys first.

A lot of black pop harmonizers got their “ear training” directly from the church. So let’s start with one of the great 1950s male gospel groups, the Swanee Quintet, which added electric guitar and bluesy verve to their plush gospel harmonies:

“New Mood” — The Sewanee Quintet (1950s)

Harmonizing in unearthly glory with the equally great Soul Stirrers (Sam Cooke‘s an alum) in Bob Telson’s brilliant 1980s musical, “Gospel at Colonus” are the inimitable Blind Boys of Alabama. This fusion of black gospel and Greek myth, seen on Broadway and around the world, is thrilling even on DVD. Here Clarence Fountain & Blind Boys (white coats) are collectively playing the dying Oedipus, and the Soul Stirrers (in purple and orange) are King Creon. Talk about your singing matches:

“Stop, Do Not Go On” — Five Blind Boys of Alabama and the Soul Stirrers

The gospel sound fed right into the secular pop music of the 1950s, when many black doo-wop groups put out classic ’45s. I heard this one as a little kid, and it’s been with me ever since. That opening phrase –” dom, dom, dom/ dom-be-do-be…….” Legend has it, the adolescent Paul McCartney and John Lennon were singing this song together they first time they met. If it’s not true, it should be:

— “Come and Go With Me” — The Del Vikings

White harmony-fueled acts derived more from the bluegrass/rockabilly harmonic strain, of Buddy Holly et al, also burst forth in the 1950s — including those Kentucky princes of harmony, the Everly Brothers, Phil and Don. No question that they directly influenced the Beatles and many others.

Here’s the impossibly young Everly boys on Julius LaRosa’s TV show in the 1950s:

“Bye Bye Love” — The Everly Brothers (ages 18 and 20)

Slightly older, and more poised, on British TV singing two of their dreamy best:

— “All I Have to Do Is Dream” and “Cathy’s CLown”

Leaping ahead to the early 1960s, and building on the Everly sound, one of the greatest vocal bands ever: The Beach Boys. Teen genius Brian Wilson formed the group with brothers Carl and Dennis, cousin Mike Love and friend Al Jardine. They sang about a teen fantasy of the California Good Life: surfing, cars, and girls, girls, girls. But it’s those high, transporting harmonies that stay with you. Instead of conventional 1-3-5 chord structures, Brian experimented and innovated with different vocal layerings, and his own amazing falsetto. Good early live clips of the original Beach Boys (before Brian stopped performing live) are hard to come by — their lush sound was partly a studio creation, and without onstage monitors or decent amplification, their elecrified sound was tough to record outside the studio. But some great footage on youtube recently has made me a “little surfer girl” wannabe again.

My favorite BB hit, playing on an oldie radio station as I drove across the Golden Gate Bridge, the day I got my driver’s license! Dig the high riff from Brian in the finale:

— “Fun, Fun, Fun” — The Beach Boys

A classic BB ballad, lusciously harmonized:

— “Surfer Girl” — the Beach Boys

And another fave — they could rock it! (“Yeah, the bad guys know us/And they leave us alone”)…..

— “I Get Around” — the Beach Boys

The Beatles were very respectful of, and competitive with, the Beach Boys — and vice versa. They were also wildly inventive themselves in their harmonies — a big part of their magic. Think of “Paperback Writer,” “Nowhere Man,” the list goes on and on.

Once again, the Beatles as artists were way ahead of live concert recording technology. But here’s a good live example of the uniqueness of their harmonies. Consider how Paul & John slip in and out of singing the same melodic line, and then suddenly there’s a gaping blend that verges on dissonace. It’s just smashing:

— “Ticket to Ride” — The Beatles live

The boys (with a nod to the Everlys) harmonizing on “I’m a Loser” (OK, so I’m impartial to John, the greatest rock singer ever IMO):

— “I’m a Loser” — Beatles, live in Paris (bonus cut: George sings lead on “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby”)

The Beatles Anthology” showed the Beatles were a spectacular road band whose sound was cemented by years of gigs in the UK & Europe. (For the best live audio recordings, get “Beatles at the BBC”.) The mingling of their voices was wondrous to the end, in this cut from “Let It Be,” from an impromptu concert on the London rooftop. The Beatles didn’t knpw it would be their last performance as a foursome — they were still talking about touring again. Ah, what might have been!

— “Don’t Let Me Down” — The Beatles

Flipping back to California, the folk-rock wave of the ’60s and ’70s brought more harmony. The pioneers in this idiom were the Byrds, and the fantastic, fleeting Buffalo Springfield. If the latter didn’t last long, their members had after-lives in great spin-off bands: Poco, Loggins & Messina, Neil Young‘s various groups and of course, Crosby, Stills & Nash. Her’es a very rare live TV clip of a classic Buffalo Springfield song, inspired by Janis Joplin. Wow, do they look young and sound great, especially Stephen Stills:

— “Rock ‘n Roll Woman” — Buffalo Springfield on “The Flip Wilson Show”

From the ashes of Buffalo Springfield rose the Eagles, the LA ’70s super-group formed by sidemen for Linda Rondstadt. The Eagles weren’t favorites of mine in their heyday, probably because their gazillion hits were so popular you couldn’t escape them. Also, what San Francisco rock freak would admit LA bands could be as good or better than our’s? OK, I was wrong! The Eagles wrote fabulous songs, and are still consistently excellent musicians and harmonizers. From a 1973 BBC appearance, intro’d with some a capella harmonizing:

— “Take It Easy” — The Eagles

A couple decades later, from a reunion tour (they’re putting out a new studio album this fall) — Glen Frye on lead (man, has he aged well!), Don Henley, Joe Walsh and the guys:

— “Tequila Sunrise” — The Eagles

So where do we go from there? Briefly back into the lineage African American harmonizers. On the a capella front, the terrific and still-touring Persuasions are role models for a lot of younger groups — here are Jerry Lawson and the fellas on a funky 1970s cover of (yeah!) the Everlys:

— “All I Have to Do Is Dream” — The Persuasions

After The Persuasions came some dynamic inheritors of the tradition, including the late and much-missed 14 Karat Soul:

Sesame Street tune, 14 Karat Soul

Still active are the successful Boyz 2 Men and others, but I prefer Take 6 for the originality of their modulating vocal arrangements and depth of their musicianship. I love what they do with this soulful Bill Withers classic:

— “Grandma’s Hands” — Take 6

Let’s close with a white boy band I’m learning to love belatedly — their first mega-hit live, and bringing it all back home with a Beach Boy classic (I posted this earlier, but it deserves an encore in this context). Those Backstreet Boys can really sing harmony! If only they had a Brian Wilson writing all their material they’d really soar….

“I Want It That Way” — Backstreet Boys live

– “When I Grow Up to Be a Man” — Backstreet Boys (at a tribute to Brian Wilson)


Posted by on August 25, 2007 in dudes, music


3 responses to “Sweet Harmony…a la Colette

  1. bri

    November 3, 2007 at 6:57 am

    speaking of harmonies and the backstreet boys–I cannot recommend highly enough the closing track off their new album. you can hear it here:

    I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  2. music maven

    November 4, 2007 at 7:54 pm

    Interesting. Will I’m not a real BSB fan, I kinda liked that track. I somehow can’t overcome the “bubble gum” flavor of these guys, but their harmony is pleasing to my ear.

  3. Pingback: bb king

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: