“The gypsy cri-i-i-ied…” Lou Christie – The Gypsy Cried
Was the voice you heard a high pitched female alto, a young man crying out in pain, a peacock in heat, or someone trying to imitate a female singer? None of the above! It was one of your favorite artists reaching a new voice level beyond his or her normal range. It was a way to offset the emphasis on bass singing by going beyond the tenor or baritone lead. It would be termed “falsetto.”
Falsetto is most often used in the context of singing to refer to a type of vocal tone that enables the singer to sing notes beyond the vocal range of the normal or modal voice. However, while most people sound comparatively “breathy” or “hooty” when using falsetto production, there are, in rarer cases, individuals who have a much stronger falsetto sound production which has more “ring” to it. Examples of that are Little Joe and the Thrillers song “Peanuts,” and the Paragons, “Florence.”
One of the first songs to transition from a strong bass to a high falsetto while still using a tenor was Dion and the Belmonts, “I Wonder Why.” It gave the music a young sound that sent the message of less maturity and even a pubescent sound that eventually one would expect to crack on the very next note. Dion would continue to utilize the falsetto in songs where he would provide the lead with the Belmonts including” “Where or When,” “That’s My Desire,” and “When You Wish upon a Star.”
While falsetto may be viewed as an “add-on” to many of the songs of the 1950’s and early 60’s, it also must be viewed as a tool that enhances and distinguishes an average song from a hit. Take for instance the song “You Cheated,” by the Shields. The elementary guitar opening and basic four chord progression belies the background falsetto that was added after the recording was completed. Songwriter and arranger Jesse Belvin had stopped by the studio to visit with the Shields and listened to their recording. He recommended a falsetto as background and anonymously overdubbed it himself. The producer and group agreed that it added a haunting value to the sound and combined the tracks, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The use of falsetto was not limited to rhythm and blues. Early Beach Boys songs from “Surfer Girl,” to “In My Room,” and “Fun, Fun, Fun” carried the high notes throughout the song. It would be Jan and Dean that would influence Brian Wilson and his brothers with “Surf City” and “Dead man’s Curve.” Dean Torrence originally perfected his use of falsetto with a nine member doo wop group from University High School in Los Angeles, called the Barons. He can still hit those notes today as the spokesperson for his “Surf City” residence, Huntington Beach.
Falsetto can be seen as primarily a technique that is used by lead singers or backup members for part or all of the song. Many times, the lead singer will sing as tenor for most of the song and then use the high false tenor to trail off at the end of the song or interject it throughout. Falsetto crosses both time and color boundaries throughout the doo-wop years. There are songs produced with double falsetto, spread throughout the song such as in “You Cheated” and used at the end with Norman Fox and the Rob Roys, “Tell Me Why.”
Both women and men are physically capable of using the falsetto register. Prior to research done by scientists in the 1950s and 1960s, it was widely believed that only men could produce falsetto. One possible explanation for this failure to recognize the female falsetto sooner is that, when men phonate in the falsetto register there is a much more pronounced change in timbre and dynamic level between the modal and falsetto registers, than there is in female voices. This is due in part to the difference in the length and mass of the vocal folds of the difference in frequency ranges. However, motion picture and video studies of laryngeal action has proven women can and do produce falsetto.
While scientific evidence has proven that women have a falsetto register, the issue of ‘female falsetto’ has been met with controversy among teachers of singing. Perhaps the quintessential female falsetto voice was Janet Vogel of the Skyliners. Her ability to reach above her normal alto range and pierce the stratosphere or shatter glass makes the falsetto unique and clearly sets her apart from others who may emulate the singer. Listen to both “Since I Don’t Have You.” The engineer was going to fade the song out as lead singer Jimmy Beaumont sang 13 ‘you’s’ at the end of the song. Janet thought that the tape was over and adlibbed an ending that was unbelievable. They all agreed that her falsetto would have to stay! In “This I Swear,” she hit the highest not ever hit, a high D above high C. Not too bad for a 16 year old with nothing but natural talent. As a side note, Jimmy Beaumont passed away in October of 2017 at the age of 76.
Many books on the art of singing completely ignore or gloss over the issue of female falsetto or insist that women do not have falsetto (Roederer, 2013). Artists argue that many young female singers substitute falsetto for the upper portion of the modal voice. Failure to recognize the female falsetto voice has led to the misidentification of young contraltos and mezzo-sopranos such as Vogel, making it easier for these lower voice types to sing in the soprano, using their falsetto register.
Frankie Valli would perfect the falsetto in “Sherry,” “Rag Doll,” and “Dawn,” along with many of his other hits. Still others, such as Roy Orbison could go four octaves and shatter glass with “Blue Angel,” and “Cryin.” Add Jay Siegel and the Tokens with “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” and “He’s in Town,” plus Curtis Lee with “Pretty Little Angel Eyes,” and you get the idea.
At the risk of leaving out someone more deserving, the current king of falsetto must be Lou Christie. His is a pop-opera lyrical falsetto masterpiece in Twyla Herbert’s “The Gypsy Cried,” “Rhapsody in the Rain,” “Lightning Strikes,” “Two Faces Have I,” and a tension building “I’m Gonna Make You Mine,” finally relieved by his wailing falsetto chorus.
You can try it in the shower, or just listen to your favorite music from the 1950’s and early 60’s on 88.5 KSBR HD-2 or ksbr.org and I will take your requests at 949-582-5727. Livin’ the Dream!
Making Your Memories is a commentary on the music of the 1950’s and early 60’s. “Joe D” is an on-air talent for Orange County based KSBR FM 88.5 and is host of “MAKING YOUR MEMORIES” Sunday nights at 10PM. He is also author of “Making Your Memories with Rock & Roll and Doo Wop - -The Music and Artists of the 1950’s and early 60’s.” website: www.making-your-memories.com