The "Outrageous Five" Falsettos ©JCMarion
falsetto
(fol · set´· o¯ ) - (n., Music )

1. A male singing voice marked by artificially produced tones in an upper register beyond the normal range especially of a tenor. 2. One that sings in this way.

That is how the dictionary describes the singing style that we have all known and appreciated through the years. I have been well aware of the beguiling aspects of this type of vocalizing as well from my affinity for Hawaiian music in which falsetto singing is an integral part of the culture as practiced by such artists as Joe Keawe and Bill Aliiloa Lincoln. The first time I was aware of this style of vocalizing in the R & B field of music was most likely the early tunes by Pha Terrell and perhaps Donnie Elbert. Elbert's huge hit of "What Can I Do" was certainly a showcase for this style.

Many groups have since employed falsetto stylings in both background vocalizing among the tenors, and more pronounced, in the lead singer's performances. Some of these have long been classics such as the Paragons, Jesters, Vanguards, Diabolos, and even the Five Keys. The few that I have selected to be included for this article are ones that I feel are in somewhat of a class by themselves. I call them the Outrageous Five Falsettos.

The first one was the record that introduced most early rock & roll fans to this style and it featured "Fast Eddie" Carson with the Royaltones on Old Town records with "Crazy Love". I remember the first edition of the Rock & Roll Book of Lists had a category of the number of times the word "no" appeared in a song and gave the nod to The Human Beinz mid 60s schlock as the winner. They evidently never heard this gem by Carson and the 'Tones. This tune has remained a classic from its opening "laughing sax" intro to the bass 'doo-wop-a-doo-wop-a-doo' lead-in, and all in between. From the jump-stop ending on every verse to the 'no-no-no-nos' and the call to reveille sax break, this cut has it all. An added gift of this record is the realization that the flip side "I'll Never Let You Go" is basically the same song at a ballad tempo with a slight lyric change. This was a great two-for-one deal which I figured was non intentional.

A second release from 1955 that featured an outrageous falsetto lead was the Apollo side "Stars Are In The Sky/Hurry Home" by The Sparks of Rhythm. I remember all of my friends thinking how cool the name of this group was at the time. The lead singer was Jimmy Jones later to achieve huge successes with "Handy Man" and "Good Timing" as a solo performer. Both sides of the Sparks release got great airplay in New York except for Moondog for some reason. Each tune is a throwback to the style of the late 40s rather than the mid 50s which makes it even more unique. "Hurry Home" is done in the style of groups such as the Cabineers, Charioteers, and Delta Rhythm Boys, which had gone out of favor by 1955. The flip is a soft uptempo tune with a very different harmony pattern and without the heavy backbeat so typical of R & B in the early 50s. Despite that the record succeeded which owes as much to the falsetto vocal style of Jones than any other factor.

The third of our five standouts is on the tiny Brooklyn independent label Sampson. It is by the Softones and called "My Mother's Eyes", the old pop music weeper. I loved the tune, and my Mother detested it. I remember her saying something on the order of 'look what they've done to that beautiful song of George Jessel, or Eddie Cantor, or somebody. I thought the treatment of the old tune was outstanding-the wavering falsetto lead, the bridge by an alternate lead in normal tone, and back to the falsetto voice. The bridge vocal backed by some of the best vibraphone playing this side of Johnny Otis was memorable (credited to Lawrence "88" Keys-an old acquaintance of Charlie Parker !). I knew someone at the time who cut a record for this label (not rock & roll), and was able to get freebie copies of the Softones tune plus pictures of the group. I was ecstatic to say the least. If that isn't outrageous enough play the flip side of "Like A Moth Around A Flame", which cannot be adequately described except to say it reminds me of a falsetto singer vocalizing over merry-go-round music !

Next is a group who recorded for one of Morty Craft's labels (Do-Re-Mi / Melba) called the MelloHarps. The tune is "Love Is A Vow" and is wicked indeed. The style used mostly on this side is the echoing effect of the falsetto trailing the lead, and the strong performance of this style is the reason that this recording has stood out and become memorable. The kind of vocal ensemble work on this release is certainly a lost art and will never be recreated. Be thankful that these works are being preserved because of the persistent efforts of doo wop fanatics like ourselves. There will never be a return to this style of music. The only thing that could possibly mar the performance of this song is the uneven final note, but by then most listeners are blown away enough to dismiss this slight imperfection.

Finally there is the "king" of outrageousness when it comes to falsetto singing on vocal group recordings - The Ladders. Not much is known of this group who apparently were based in Harlem rather than the Bronx as I had always believed. I could swear that I attended a practice session by the group in a tenement building rec room in the South Bronx (just off Southern Blvd.) in 1956, but maybe the passage of time has led me to confuse the Ladders with another group. This group has two mind blowing ballads on Bobby Robinson labels from the 50s (Holiday /Vest/Everlast) called "I Want To Know" and "My Love Is Gone". The first features an interesting pattern - wordless falsetto-led chorus, normal lead chorus, and falsetto lead chorus. Everything about this record is strong and up-front. Both leads, the pounding piano chords, and the background vocals. Soaring above all is the great falsetto lead of incredible power and strength. A lingering fade out is the capper on a wonderful performance. The second ballad ("My Love") lifts most of the main melody line from Tara's Theme from the soundtrack of Gone With The Wind. The falsetto is the full lead on this tune and the reach for the highest notes at the ending of the verse nears glass shattering proportions. The bridge for this song is lovely and the backup vocals show off the rest of the group to good advantage. These two songs and a third rather undistinguished up tempo tune ("Counting The Stars") were preserved on a collection of Robinson productions on Everlast which remains one of the greatest original compilation albums ever.

So there they are - five outrageous falsettos. Only in the annals of R & B vocal group history would there be such a collection of this sub-category. Only us doowop fans and fanatics will always be there to carry the flag of this - a most unique form of American music.

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