Where are the baritones in popular music?

August 20, 2010

Why are so few baritone singers in pop/rock/soul music?

The exceptions are notable:  Brad Roberts of Crash Test Dummies, a deep rich voice intoning life’s strange side.   Nick Cave, also.  In the 70s, there was Barry White…whew, his thang was hanging low.

Brad Roberts - No blonds among the baritones

Neil Diamond - sideburns are a must also

Barry White - the ultimate bass-baritone intonations

And who can forget Neil Diamond going back to the 60s.  There’s a man for ya.  No wussie songs – well, except for “You Don’t Bring me Flowers” (albeit a duet).

Did the “boy soprano” thing start with the street corner doo-wop groups, or before that, with barbershop quartets (i.e. somebody had to sing way up high to fill in the chords)?  Frankie Valli (Four Seasons), and my hero, Brian Wilson, took the notes to new heights in the 60s, usually relying on falsetto.  Most Motown male artists were all about it too.

But then the harder rockers figured out how to add some grit to their alto range.  There was shrill Robert Plant, raspy Rod Stewart, manic Roger Daltrey, attitude-flaunting Mic Jagger, country-boy John Fogerty. Tons of others.

The fact is, most male vocalists push beyond tenor territory and concentrate on the alto range.  This wasn’t planned ahead of time – but it just so happens that this range sets itself apart nicely from the pitches and the sonic blend within instrumental backing tracks.

Ever notice how easy it is for popular male and female singers to sing duets with close harmonies?  It’s because the guy spends all day singing in the same range as the girl.  .

Assume you’re a guy with average gonads and hormones.  Try singing up there where

Daryl Hall is.  Attempt Neil Young’s Helpless without resorting to falsetto.

Karoke-wise, it’s a lot easier to sing a James Taylor song – he’s down a little lower.

The real anomaly is Michael McDonald. Somehow he sings high up in the alto range but maintains a certain manly gruffness – although his vocal sound has also been described as “marble mouthed.”


11 Responses to “Where are the baritones in popular music?”

  1. Mikesensei said

    Darius Rucker, first with Hootie & the Blowfish and now with a second career in alt-country, would seem to fit the bill.

    If Neil Diamond had died in a car or plane crash in, say, 1970, he would have become as lionized as Buddy Holly, because his 60s-era songs are great. “Cherry Cherry,” “Red, Red Wine,” “Sweet Caroline” and so many others. Unfortunately, he went on to produce a decade of dreck such as “I am–I said,” and the above-mentioned “flowers.” Too bad.

  2. Darius, yes, good one. The Blowfish sophomore album was so bland, however, that they seemed to disappear after their first big hits. And old Neil – Cherry, Cherry was (is) a standard but tasty classic 3-chord rock/pop tune.

  3. I don’t think Billy Eckstine had sideburns to speak of.

  4. Debbie Brabenec said

    Lou Rawls has a nice, rich baritone. Also Leo Kottke, although he’s probably not considered popular, except with the folk crowd- and not the greatest singer either. He describes his own voice as ” geese farts on a muggy day”, though I actually like his singing.

  5. Low Lou Rawls – ah yes, I knew there were more. And Leo. His “geese farts” reference is legendary. On some of his albums, he would have been better off just doing his wonderful acoustic guitar thang.

  6. Debbie Brabenec said

    Sly Stone got pretty low sometimes, I think- though they traded off on vocals so much that I didn’t always know who was singing what.

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  8. I cannot understand the infatuation with today’s style of popular singing. Why the need for all the bawling and screaming, falsetto, runs, turns and other embellishments, and men sounding like women? I can’t understand a word they say. Where are the Sinatras, Sammy Davis, Jr., Jerry Valle, Vic Damone, Soloman King, Englebert – where – o – where is good singing and beautiful music? And I’ve listed only a few men. Where are the beautiful women singers of yesteryear, Doris Day, Kitty Kallen and Jo Stafford, and don’t tell me they’re dead? Some are. Where’s that style backed by a full orchestra? Sinatra recorded an A-flat with no falsetto. Everything heard on the popular TV contest shows sounds like a MOTOWN recording. Why? This 70 year-old man doesn’t get it. Someone mentioned Neil Diamond. He didn’t have much of a voice. Even Country today sounds like a form of rock. I went into a voice studio for some lessons. It was called, An Octave Higher. I asked the owner, “What’s wrong with an octave lower?” Damn! Take me back to something good.
    Old Capt. Kent

  9. You’re right on, Kent. Sinatra, for instance, did no bawling and screaming. He had two pieces of classic advice for singers (at the time, given to Tony Bennett, I think, who paid attention): 1) “Don’t sing cheap songs” (i.e. no filler on the albums). 2) “Just sing the song” (i.e. no embellishments, vocal jamming and vamping at the end of the song, no twisting each phrase into a barrage of notes).

  10. Prithvi said

    Well said kent. Kudos.

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