Vocal Groups

Vocal Groups

You may ask, isn’t any group that sings a “Vocal Group”? As with many musical questions the answer is not that straight forward. But think of the ‘Backstreet Boys‘. My understanding of the difference is that a “Vocal Group” primarily consists of a front of at least three singers (three part harmony) with a back-up band. While researching I ran across this website The Vocal Group Hall of Fame (VGHF) by the names it mentions it also allows for two part harmony or Duo’s, though I can’t find an actual definition on the website. However to me this site seems contradictory in that the typically guitar playing Everly Brothers seems to fit for them. I will use this website as a bit of foil for this post. Aside from the VGHF view, in my definition it would be very uncommon among these groups for one or more of them to play a musical instrument (not that they can’t) as part of their performance.  Therefore disqualifying the commonly guitar playing Everly Brothers. On the other hand, the VGHF initial inductees for the most part reflect this singing only criteria. But again in the ‘Hall of Fame’, I’ve found many more exceptions to this such as the ‘Bee Gees’, Robin was the only ‘vocalist’ while Maurice Gibb quite often played the keyboards among many other instruments during performances (and when recording) and Barry played guitar.

Who am I to quibble with a Hall of Fame, but I am. Certainly this non profit organization was put together on a shoestring budget so it deserves much praise for making an effort. For me it serves as a fairly good point of reference, despite my perceived shortcomings.  They literally toss the definition right off the musical stage when in 2001 adding the all instrument playing ‘Eagles’, and in 2004 adding ‘The Beatles’. This in my mind defeats the purpose of having a Vocal Group Hall of Fame if your going to admit such a vast variety of artists. I suspect a lack of attention may have led to adding these names, hoping to attract a wider audience. May as well add The Rolling Stones and Metallica. In addition to my whining, I did try and contact them but the site seems to be inactive.

If we look to Wikipedia for a definition  “A vocal group in the music industry is a group of singers who sing and harmonize together with a backup band”.

While I generally concur with this above definition as they go on to list exceptions, but when looking at the accompanying list of “Vocal Groups” the Wikipedia authors include (as does the VGHF noted above), the all instrument playing ‘Eagles’ who are the very definition of a “Band”. Also on these lists are the ‘The Beach Boys’, a fantastic harmonizing ‘Band’ who all (with one exception) played instruments. Check out this clip at the 5:15 mark where (the typically lead singer) Mike Love introduces the band. I do recognize they had many records where Brian Wilson used session musicians rather than the group members. The perception of a group as Wiki seems to describe it somehow influences the definition. This is a troubling concept. The perception and use of a Tomato does not make the fruit a vegetable. Unlike the Easy Beets or is that The Easybeats.

So a group that only sings is how I’m defining a “Vocal Group”

I’ll refer to the “Vocal Group” as just ‘VG’ to avoid the monotony. With the exception of the Eagles and The Beatles et al not being VG’s, then how do we define those artists? A ‘Band’ or other ‘Groups’ consist of members who may just sing, play an instrument or both. For the sake of a better way to describe it they are the “backup band” and singers both. Like the Beatles, Eagles and the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pearl Jam and you get the idea. Having only one main lead singer like Mick Jagger makes the Stones a ‘Band’, not a VG. The Eagles had two primary lead singers, Don Henley and Glenn Frey. The multi voice harmonizing yet instrument playing Beatles are also a ‘Band’. So for my purposes these types of ‘Bands’ or ‘Groups’ are not what I’m talking about today. Just to point out we all know examples of groups that from time to time employed a “back-up band” as well, or say perhaps added a brass section, orchestra or background singers. Not unlike the Beach Boys, almost all these groups used session and guest musicians in the studio.

Why do I blather on about this stuff? I guess because it matters to me that we at least attempt to keep things straight. I spend too much time surfing the web about music and cover songs I will admit, but when I run across seemingly intelligent people describing things that make no sense (like me maybe you are thinking) it drives me nuts, and let me give an example that’s a bit off topic. From a prominent website, there is an answer on a question about “foreign language songs that were popular in the US”, it is citing the song “Louie Louie” by the Kingsman as example because of the lame claim about unintelligible lyrics. Richard Berry wrote the song in English, he was born, raised and died in California and there is no evidence he spoke anything other than English. His original recording is easily understood. As I am no expert as I’ve said before but if we are going to try and define something like a Vocal Group we should be consistent in how we describe it and in the examples we use. I should not be explaining about let’s say the antiquated “buggy whip” and say “well this stick looks like one, it could be used as one therefore it is a stick”. Ok, Ok I know people used sticks before they started making whips out of leather, just like groups of people sang and played instruments before we made up the term “Vocal Group” but hopefully you get my point.

Here is another example of the transition of a VG, after James Brown took over as front man for the Famous Flames, they were still a VG as the Flames were just the singers along with an unnamed back-up band. This ‘unnamed’ band idea was very common, we would see a VG, say on a TV show and even in concert and we are led to believe they don’t even have a band at all, or at the very least they are way in the background or completely hidden from view. There was also what as known as the Orchestra Pit that was situated at the head and/or below front stage. Also a typical set-up for solo singers.

When it came to recording many of these VG’s used different musicians all the time, provided by the studio and or thier management.  Or, in the case of going on tour together they would often share the same backup band/Orchestra. Now there were certainly some fine collections of ‘backup’ musicians like the “Funk Brothers” from Motown, “The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section” or Phil Spector’s ‘House Band’, who later came to be known as “The Wrecking Crew” out of Los Angeles. These were high demand recording musicians who did not tour with the groups, they were actually too good for the studio’s to let them. There were and still are also ‘back-up’ studio singers who only appear on records and rarely if ever tour with the groups either. These singers and musicians were so important that they could be the difference between a hit song and a dud. You can check out my posts on these two here, Session and Background Singers and The Greatest Bands of all Time!

The VG definition can get a bit fuzzy as too many singers it seems (over 6) puts you into the “Choral Group” category so the Boy Band BTS at seven is in perilous territory. At some point more singers leads to a “Choir” of all things and then the streets will never be safe. The “a cappella” groups like Ladysmith Black Mambazo or Pentatonix are vocals without musical accompaniment and to me is a separate thing altogether…another good blog topic. Many “Doo-wop” groups appear on these lists as well, this subgenre of R&B is destined for a separate blog post some day as well but certainly the characteristic melodic harmonizing qualifies such artists as they typically did not play instruments when performing.

So even with these nebulous criteria you can imagine there are certainly way too many VG’s for one blog post, but here is a collection of some recognizable names and a cover song or two. Among the first inductees into this ‘Hall of Fame’ in 1998 takes us back for the most part to the 50’s thru 80’s, and as mentioned many hold fairly true to the definition. So once again I’ll give an illustration from their list and forgive me if you find me yet once again getting too pedantic…I’m working on that folks.

One of these things is not like the others; NYSC, The Spice Girls, Pink Floyd, Destiny’s Child.

On to a real VG, The Supremes underwent a similar transition to that of the Famous Flames with Diana Ross taking the lead and getting her name at the front as well. Often times this happens, and Ross did go on to a remarkable Solo career, including singing at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Concert the other day. So this is not an uncommon thing to happen to many VG on this list and some I have already mention in past posts.  “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” written by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, Eddie Holland was a #1 hit in 1967 and is the most covered Supremes song at over 145 versions. Kim Wilde (1986). The Supremes are one of the first names that would stand out, but for music fans almost all of these following names are easily recognized.

The Platters second highest charted song (1960) was a cover of “Harbour Lights” (released in 1959), written by Hugh Williams and Jimmy Kennedy it was first recorded by Roy Fox and His Orchestra with vocals by Barry Gray in 1937 and covered a dozen times before the Platters, there are now over 130 versions.

The Marvelettes original song “Too Many Fish in the Sea” (1964) charted at #25 in 1965. Written by Eddie Holland and Norman Whitfield it’s been covered 18 times, The Young Rascals (1967).

The Letterman, who were not known for originals had 11 gold records and many top 40 songs but would only have one hit #1 and that was on the Adult Contemporary chart in 1961, it was #7 on the Hot 100. “When I Fall in Love“. The original music was written as an instrumental by Victor Young and it was actually titled “Theme from One Minute to Zero” a movie in 1952. Words were written by Edward Heyman and the first recording as “When I Fall in Love” was sung by Jeri Southern with Victor Young and His Orchestra, also from 1952. Since covered as both an instrumental and with vocals over 680 times. Nat “King” Cole (1957) is perhaps the best and certainly most well known version.

The Miracles were another transition group with Smokey Robinson taking the lead position and then going Solo. Active from 1965 to 1972 they were one of the most prolific groups, vocal or otherwise during that period. These superstars of Motown produced 26 top 40 songs with seven top 10’s and the number one “Tears of a Clown” written by Henry Cosby, Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson. Released in August of 1967 it has been covered 60 times. The English Beat (1979).

Another Motown VG success story were the Four Tops. Though they recorded for many labels they remained in their native Detroit after Motown Records left for L.A. in 1972, signing with Dunhill (ABC Records). They were likely the longest lasting original member group (1953-1997) fronted by the great Levi Stubbs (born Levi Stubbles, June 6, 1936, died October 17, 2008). Their first #1 was in 1965, “I Can’t Help Myself” another by Motown’s amazing Holland-Dozier-Holland team. Their second #1 was in 1966 with the same writers “Reach Out I’ll Be There” was their biggest hit. It was also Motown’s second #1 in the UK after the Supremes “Baby Love” in 1964. “Reach Out I’ll Be There” was a hit song for Gloria Gaynor in 1975, it’s been covered at least 155 times.

If the Four Tops were the longest lasting original VG then The Drifters, perhaps true to their name were the complete opposite. This formation became very unstable after the departure of Clyde McPhatter in 1954 (he was drafted). He sold his majority share to the notoriously low paying George Tredwell and the group has had over 60 vocalists (from 1953 to present). The original group fronted by McPhatter would have success with “Money Honey” (1953) written by Jesse Stone.

The next successful incarnation came with the great Ben E. King and “There Goes My Baby” hitting #2 on Billboard, #1 on Cashbox and the R&B charts in 1959. Written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller with contributions from Ben E. King, George Treadwell and Lover Patterson it introduced a different type of arrangement, string instruments and orchestration which really helped revolutionized R&B, Soul and for that matter R&R recording. With King they would do “This Magic Moment” and “Save the Last Dance for Me“. King would leave after being refused more money and had great success as a solo artist.

The last successful period for Tredwell’s Drifters was with Rudy Lewis at lead and the memorable songs; “Some Kind of Wonderful“, “Up on the Roof“, “Please Stay” and “On Broadway“. This last song has a bit of a story, most will know the successful jazzy Grammy Award winning cover by George Benson in 1978, but something I learned was the Drifters version from 1963 was a rewrite of a song first recorded by The Cookies in 1962. Written by the Brill Building pair and then husband and wife team of Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann as a favour for their friends, Carole King and Gerry Goffin who needed one more song for the Cookies album. As these things go the song was actually first released by The Crystals in 1962,  the Cookies version came out in 1963. The Publisher was looking for songs specifically for the Drifters so Mann and Weil ending up working with Leiber and Stoller to produce the new version.

The other first time inductees to the Vocal Group Hall include these ( I think properly edited) names, some I have talked about and no doubt will be talking about in the future; The Temptations, the The Four Seasons, the Commodores, The Impressions, The Jackson 5, The Manhattan Transfer, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Martha and the Vandellas, The Chi-Lites, The Dramatics, The Delfonics, The Pointer Sisters, The O’Jays, Dion and the Belmonts, The Midnighters, Boyz II Men, The Spinners, The Dells, The Stylistics, and Little Anthony and the Imperials. Once again some some debatable inclusions such as the band The Four Seasons. While session musicians and additional back-ups were used in studio and on tour, aside from their vocals Bob Gaudio played piano, Tommy DeVito played guitar and Nick Massi played bass on hits such a “Sherry”, “Walk Like a Man” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry”. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990 and the VG Hall in 1999.  Frankie of course went on to a very successful solo career with songs such as the title track to “Grease” in 1978. He still tours with a revamped Four Seasons group.

References; 1, 2, 3

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2 thoughts on “Vocal Groups

  1. Thanks for your comment. Yes the Manhattans are certainly noteworthy and with my focus the Hall Of Fame inductees, of which they are not one, that’s an oversight on my part. “Kiss and Say Goodbye” is a classic.


  2. An interesting article, endeavouring to find an appropriate definition of a Vocal Group. I would tned to agree with your view. incidentally, here’s another name you could add – The Manhattans ?

    Liked by 1 person

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