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A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

It Won’t Be Long

My son has to learn how to sing.

He already sings pretty well, it’s true. None of his musical friends can carry a tune in a bucket with two handles, and he’s had to sing everything he’s ever performed with others. But he doesn’t know what he’s doing. I have to help him.

I never learned to sing properly myself. I sang quite a bit in the last band I was in. I was awful all the time. Sometimes (rarely) people would compliment me on my singing, and the (very) odd person said it sounded better than my bandmates’ singing. What they didn’t understand was that I was just bellowing out a song they liked better than the others, and because the other fellows knew how to sing, and accompanied me, I sounded better than I was. I was of little to no use to the others when they sang. But I seen my duty and I done it.

My older brother taught me to play the bass. Later, I wanted to learn to play the guitar some, too. He told me to get The Compleat Beatles, and learn all the songs, and when I was done I’d be a guitar player. I never finished, and the book’s out of print now. Oh, well.

Along those lines, I know from experience that if you want to know how to sing, you just need to learn all the Beatles songs and then you’re a singer. It’s how my friends that knew how to sing did it. They were a Beatles tribute band before I met them.

First off, you have to understand that John Lennon had a bad singing voice, and George Harrison was a lot worse than bad. Ringo didn’t have a singing voice of any kind, so there’s no point critiquing it. George, especially, always sounded like he was gargling while being garrotted at the dentist whenever I could pick out what he was doing. And all that was before you factor in the scouse ladled all over the top of everything as camouflage. But.

It’s a BIG but. Those fellows knew how to sing. Someone must have told them to learn the Everly Brothers songbook, even though there wasn’t one back then, and they did. More likely no one told them anything and they figgered it out on their own. Paul McCartney has a pure, high-register singing voice, really rare. But you put it with Lennon’s odd and wonderful counterpoint and slip Harrison’s weird and effective croaking down low interspersed with a hopscotch up high, and it’s as sophisticated as Scarlatti.

Speaking of Italians, as I said, I had to find someone to show my son what I couldn’t: How to sing like the Beatles. My Google-fu is strong, so, I found the two most charming teachers in the wwworld — a world which encompasses both Liverpool and Bologna, of course — Galeazzo and Danilo!

True harmony singing is electrifying. It’s a form of audio alchemy. Disparate elements, perhaps not very valuable on their own, meld in something spectacular. I can’t recall the last time I heard it done in front of me. Good singing is rare.

*** burp ***

(Galeazzo Frudua on YouTube)

23 Responses

  1. When I sang in a choir, I was a second alto, though, I often sang with the baritones. I used to love to sing along with this song, because I could pick out the harmony and do it pretty well. These two are very charming, thanks for sharing.

  2. Just some free advice, and worth what you paid for it…..

    Singers are imitators, first last and always, and what comes in the ear goes out the mouth. Understanding the mechanism, though, is somewhat of a worthwhile process.

    For any singer, and regardless of what music you wanna sing, lessons in Italian bel canto vocal production will (a) make everything easier by freeing up the voice, and (b) ensure that you can still do it when you get older. Once you apprehend what the center of your own particular instrument is, everything else is just a matter of understanding style – and the more styles you get into, the more flexible the whole thing gets.

    I'm the only guy I've ever known who sings bluegrass and jazz, yodels and sings Bach arias. And I can still do it, in some ways better than ever, at 67. Think about some serious voice lessons for the heir, he'll thank you for it later.

  3. This reminds me of a comment made by Isaac Stern to some young violinists: If you want to learn to play really well, listen to and emulate great singers – particularly their phrasing [paraphrasing from memory].

  4. As to the Beatles, I'm guessing they had a bit of an unfair advantage, in that once upon a time, every British schoolkid was expected to sing hymns, in school, every day. Even when I was a kid in the eighties – if we got caught lip-synching, we got a stern talking-to. Not that every kid learned how to sing well, by any stretch, but daily repetition would make even the worst vocalist pick up at least a little something.

    For your boy, I'd have to second Rob. That, or get him to join a church choir; even if the music's not his style, he would learn a lot from the experience.

  5. Julie,

    I think you're dead on about the Liverpool Lads getting a music education almost by default via singing hymnody on a regular basis. I forget (because I can't face it, I think,) that there is no instruction in real music in the schools any more.

    In re church choirs, how could I have forgotten that? Of course you're right, and of course even better it's free. And being in church couldn't hurt either, if the Social Consciousness establishments can be avoided. Virtually everything I ever learned about music came about from singing in choirs, the first time in a Methodist church in 1950. School choral organizations and church gigs as a soloist made it clear that the conductors all had educations, and there was a lot to be learned just by paying attention. And it was either free or I got paid for it.

    All this stuff got me to where I was first hired to sing with orchestras in my 40s while I was still self-taught, and listening to recordings of that (ugh) convinced me to spring for a few years of voice lessons, which made all the difference.

    Sam, I agree completely about Riders In The Sky, who are wonderful. I might also point out that a lot of the Beatles, etc, harmonies came from listening to the Everly Brothers, who themselves came out of listening to a whole buncha bluegrass brother duets (the Monroe brothers, the Stanley brothers, The Blue Sky Boys, the Louvin brothers, and onandonandon.) Bluegrass is still the clearest and most powerful vocal harmony going, and if you can play and sing it you can play and sing most anything.

  6. Speaking as a native born Scouser, I'd have to agree with your Beatles comment. The origin of what made them good is nearly always overlooked though: It was the thousands of hours, several sets a day, that they did in Hamburg.

  7. Heh!! Bilejones's comment above reminds of how unlikely the Beatles backstory is – a bunch of kids from Midwestern England obsessed with variations on Southeastern American folk music who paid their musical dues in a Germanic Baltic Sea port.

    Seems like I recall that in the Beatle's studio version of "If I fell", on that middle part where Paul goes way up high on "Vain", his voice either cracks a litte or drops out. I always thought it was interesting they left that in.

    Here's some pretty good harmonization, given how much they're horsing around:

  8. You've hit on why so little of the post-Beatles solo material is any good. Much of it might have come to life with that unique blend of voices. But Paul and John are much less than the sum of their voices. Paul definitely copied the Everly Brothers, but the Beatles sound more interesting because Phil & Don's voices were so closely matched — plus there's not that acidic quality of John, nor the sourness of George. Too sweet.

    Most of the great rock groups had great harmony without great voices: Ray and Dave Davies, Mick & Keith, Roger & Pete, the Byrds. In their case, McGuinn & Clark would actually double each other, and Crosby would provide all the harmony, weaving in, out, and around the melody like a vine. As much of a load as he is, he was a great harmony singer. The first CSN album has that shockingly magical blend that is so much stronger than the individual voices….

  9. Those Beatle chaps did rather well given that scouse is the most nasal accent in the world, my children will not sound like me as I've taken a vow of silence until they are 18.

  10. dumb but happy…and considering I can still see where my family arrived from Ireland 150 years ago not so ex!

  11. By now I'm well accustomed to weird coincidences, but just today I was blogging about how the scouse accent is conducive to rock singing, due to in part to the hard "a" sound, or not eliding the "r," as the so-called upper classes do… I'm also reminded that so much country music is sung through the nose….

  12. Gagdad Bob, a guy I worked with a long time ago once said that if country singers didn't have adenoids, they had them surgically implanted.

  13. I'm not getting it. Those guys aren't that good. Harmony singing was a staple through the doo-wop, R&B, and folk-rock eras. Dozens of bands that could blend. I sang that style with dozens of folks during those years. It's not that rare. You can still hear a lot of bands do it now. Blending sweetly is easy and common – blending voices with character is only a bit harder. Certain combinations come to sound wonderful to us because of our associations, not because there was any particular strange magic in the voices themselves.

    Lots o' fun out there on the web for those who like that style.

  14. Those guys aren't that good.

    I'm on the phone right now to Bologna to tell those guys to get some singing lessons and start a Danny and the Juniors tribute band.

    I'll let you know how it goes.

  15. I think I'm with AVI — it's not that hard to sing two-part harmony or even three-part, even with voices of ordinary quality. What the Beatles had that was quite unusual was good phrasing and a sure control over their tone, enough to let them jazz up the tune without sounding random. You have only to listen to most people's efforts to cover a Beatles tune to hear the difference. Some gravelly-voiced performers have that ability in spades, while some warbly church ladies with fairly clear tonal qualities will butcher any song they try.

    For most people, carrying a tune, and learning to carry a harmony part without drifting over to the part one's neighbor is singing, is mostly a matter of practice. You don't get much practice listening to professional singers on records all the time. You have to be in a band or a choir.

  16. My husband's dad hates pop music and listens only to (and sings only) classical. His assessment of Paul McCartney? "If only he could sing."

    Right, bitter old man. You just keep thinking that.

  17. When kids actually learned music in school they sang, and when they went to church every Sunday they at least heard harmony singing. I'm an Episcopalian. Most of our hymns are printed in the Hymnal in 4-part harmony, and if you know how to sing any of the parts you are welcome – expected, even – to do so.

    My Mom sang Soprano in our church choir and I sang in my school choir as a kid all the way through my Junior year at college (I got married after my Junior year and had no more time for singing). Now I'm in my church choir. Too bad that the kids don't sing in school anymore.

  18. I will also jump in and say that you should pony up for some vocal lessons for the Heir. It'll not only actually teach him how to make music, it'll save him from straining his voice. I have taken some from my choir master (who does a lot of vocal coaching for $$) and it really makes a difference.

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