May 26, 2012
Have you ever been asked to name a few of your favorite songs and drawn a blank? Too many choices. How about favorite musical moments? I know I have many, but I can’t mention them without a little prodding. Favorite songs and memorable moments don’t always coincide. The moments that catch one’s ear don’t always come from songs that would make it onto your personal Top 100. Recently I was listening to the oldies station and was reminded of a few of my favorite musical moments in the vocal category. They can all be found on YouTube, and surprisingly enough, the four I’ll mention all come from the 1960’s. Am I dating myself? Absolutely. But there’s little argument that the 60’s was a terrific musical decade.
The first one I could call a lightweight, a one-hit wonder by The Castaways called “Liar Liar,” and the best moment in it was “the scream,” one of the greatest ever heard in a pop song. This YouTube link will take you to one of the three or four videos of The Castaways. I chose this one for the added humor as they perform on what looks like American Bandstand or a similar show. The lip syncing is incredibly bad, and musicians will immediately notice no microphones, no guitar cords, and the distinctive Farfisa organ sound throughout the song is being “played” on a Fender Rhodes electric piano. But back to the moment. At :48 into the song the guitar player lets loose a scream worthy of a B grade horror movie, and it always caught my ear — the highlight of their one-hit. If you go to one of the other videos of the same song you will see the same scream, this time sung by the keyboard player. That’s what I call a democratic band.
The next two examples are eerily similar, both hits from 1968, both involve the singing of an impossibly high note that I first misidentified as a wind instrument. Sly and the Family Stone produced numerous hits; none more distinctive than “Dance to the Music,” one of the best examples of a song about music itself. After the initial hook, we hear the band reduced to the drummer for people who only need a beat, then the subsequent layering of the other instruments. As the song approaches the 2:00 mark, Sly nails a high G, a vocal feat that I was sure was a screaming tenor sax until Sly slid into his distinctive “yeah!” Perfect.
The 1968 hit by the Rascals “People Got to be Free” offers a similar moment. This particular Rascals song includes a powerful brass arrangement by Arif Mardin which made me think that the incredibly high note heard at 2:11 had to be played by what musicians call a “screech trumpet” — an understandable conclusion with a trumpet section being on board. But if you listen closely, this is indeed Felix Cavaliere hitting a note that most vocalists only dream about. The clue to identifying it as Felix is the same as with Sly, the note slides down into the once again classic “yeah.” You’ll find it at about 1:52.
The last song I’ll offer is a rarely heard vocal tour de force. The singer’s name was Billy Stewart. He sang for Chess Records, and died at the age of 33 in a car accident. He waxed this incredible vocal performance in 1966, an outrageous version of the song “Summertime.” This tune, originally from the opera “Porgy & Bess” is most often performed as a slow, sultry ballad, and also functions as a lullaby, as in “hush little baby don’t you cry.” Billy Stewart turned in a vocal performance that covers it all. Most distinctive is a sound that is hard to describe in words. Wikipedia calls it a “trilling of his lips.” More specifically it’s the sound that you make with your tongue if you speak Spanish or Italian — the rolling of the R’s — in this case taking it as far as it can go. We hear it during the intro at :42, then later in Billy’s improvised cadenza at 4:21. Check out the whole tune. In addition to this distinctive sound, Billy offers vocal gymnastics including scatting, improvisation, and unbelievable articulation. A terrific saxophone solo is an added bonus. Every other version of “Summertime” pales in comparison.
Of course I hope you’re inspired to listen to all of these songs in full, because the musical moments work best in context. Next up we’ll look at some memorable musical moments that involve dynamics.