First I better offer up my definition of a “harmony group,” which is any group that tends to privilege harmony over lead-and-support. That’s tricky. In rock and roll, lead and support groups almost always had formidable harmonies, even if they just amounted to Keith leaning into Mick’s mike. And, in fact, one of my two favorite rock and roll vocal arrangements (I’m leaving black and white gospel and bluegrass out of this) is Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia” which is just about the definition of a lead and support group finishing each others’ breaths. My other favorite is the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn,” which is so purely harmonic it sounds like it couldn’t possibly have been “arranged” any more than breathing is.

With those for logical extremes, there’s a lot of room in between. I’d place the midpoint somewhere in the neighborhood of the Rascals’ “Good Lovin’,” which weaves a lot of fantastic  and surprising harmonies into a classic lead and support structure. Start asking which sub-category the Rascals, or that record, fall in and we could be here all day.

So, to keep it simple, I’ll just list all the rock and roll aggregations I think of as being true harmony groups of the first order (no matter how many great leads they may have featured):

The Everly Brothers (from whom all else flows); the Fleetwoods; the Beach Boys; the Beatles; the Hollies; the Byrds; Simon and Garfunkel; the Mamas & the Papas; the 5th Dimension (at least until somebody figured out they could sell a lot more records by putting Marilyn McCoo out front); Spinners (a close call but I put them just this side of the divide); the Persuasions; ABBA; The Bangles.

That’s a nice baker’s dozen. I’m leaving out a lot. I’m counting Peter, Paul and Mary as folk. Doo wop is very confusing in this respect as is reggae. Groups as diverse as the Four Seasons, the Shangri-Las, the Jackson 5 or the Staple Singers (just to name a very few) had consistently fantastic harmonies, but were finally dominated by their principal lead singers. And a group like the Searchers made plenty of fine records without quite sustaining the heights of those I mentioned.

Still, even whittling the definition down to the bone, I’m left with Phil and Don, Gary Troxel, Brian and Carl; Paul and John; Allan Clarke; Gene Clark (with a nod to Roger McGuinn, who shared Sly Stone’s uncanny ability to be the dominant force in a group where he was far from the best singer); Paul and Artie; Denny and Cass; Marilyn and Billy; Bobby Smith and Philippe Wynne; Jerry Lawson; Agnetha and Frida; Susanna Hoffs and the Peterson sisters. (Update: Of course, I was bound to overlook a few. A day later, I already see the Impressions and the Turtles are inexcusably missing. Make ti a baker’s dozen plus two, then and my sincere apologies to Curtis and Howard and whoever else it will turn out I forgot. But it doesn’t change the final answer! 2nd Update: Also forgot the Bee Gees. Oh, yeah, them! Sorry Barry. Sorry Robin.)

If I had to pick a “greatest” I wouldn’t.Not even with a gun to my head. I’m a little thick but I’m not stupid.

As for a favorite?

Well, sometimes it’s easier than you think it will be.

You just have to think of a little test.

Like, who, of all those great singers, could make me listen to this tripe all the way through, every single time it ever came on the radio, just to hear a four line chorus which featured maybe your fiftieth best vocal?

You, Carl. Only you.

I’ve said it before, but there’s a piece of me that will never accept him being gone.

[Next Up…yet another fool’s game: My Favorite Dylan Cover]


DIG THOSE GEORGIA PEACHES, THEY KEEP ROLLIN’ DOWN THE ROAD (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #61)

I’ve got a little tradition of highlighting female vocalists around here, especially the extremely young female vocalists of the late fifties and early sixties who were the catalysts for one of the most liberating and least understood chapters of the revolution…the freeing of the female voice in mainstream American life. I try to highlight it here because it’s been too little remarked elsewhere.

Since I’m always looking and listening for ways of understanding what they did, I occasionally bump into something worth sharing, in this case the remarkable (and remarkably similar) stories of Brenda Lee and Gladys Knight.

How similar?

This similar:

Gladys Maria Knight: Born May 28, 1944. Atlanta, GA

Brenda Mae Tarpley (aka Lee): Born December 11, 1944. Atlanta, GA

Gladys began singing, more or less professionally, when she was four.

Brenda began singing, more or less professionally, when she was five.

Gladys was first to television, on Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour, in 1952, at age 7 (without the Pips).

Brenda had to wait until 1955, when she was 10 and signed to Red Foley’s Ozark Mountain Jubilee.

Brenda recorded her first record, at age 11, in 1956.

Gladys recorded her first record, at age 14, in 1958.

Brenda had her breakout hit, “Sweet Nothin’s,” in December of 1959, just after her fifteenth birthday. It reached #4.

Gladys (with the Pips) had her breakout hit, “Every Beat of My Heart,” in early May of 1961, just before her seventeenth birthday. It reached #6.

In Joel Whitburn’s end-of-the-century edition of Top Pop Singles, the last to chart the rock and roll era proper, Lee ranked 32nd and Knight 41st among all acts who charted between 1955 and 1999.

Knight (with the Pips) was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. Lee was inducted in 2002.

Like pretty much every female rock or soul vocalist before Janis and Aretha, they were/are vastly under-appreciated. Like nearly every one of those vocalists they had a tale to tell, only a small portion of which is included in these two interviews which I happened to stumble across on two very different journeys in the last few weeks.

Like anything either has ever said, whichever part of the tale they happen to be telling is worth attending:

And yeah, one was black and one was white.

But if we failed to become one, it wasn’t their fault…

LIFE AND DEATH….IN A SHANGRI-LAS RECORD, WHERE ELSE? (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #33)

You think you know….You don’t know…

SHANGSSubject: The Shangri-Las’ “I Can Never Go Home Anymore.”

How many times have I listened to this song? A thousand maybe.

And how many times have I listened close…I dunno. Nine hundred and ninety-seven maybe.

I don’t use the Shangri-Las for wall paper or “background” music. I’m not sure I could if I tried. And even if I did use them for background music, I certainly wouldn’t try it with this.

But, as I like to say, with these young women, the story never ends.

So last week I’m listening for that thousandth time–just another night with the fantastic (if unfortunately named) Myrmidons of Melodrama set that RPM put out some years back (a godsend that finally–finally!–collected all of their classic Red Bird sides in one place).

Basically, RPM put out the album twice. The first was released in 1995, acquired by me some time in the late nineties and one of about three (out of a thousand) that survived the great CD sell-off of 2002.

Then, in that same year of 2002 (and unbeknownst to me at the time–when you see me selling my CD collection, you know my life is at stake and my mind is, er, occupied), they released a slightly altered version, which it took me some years to acquire. Frankly, with so many items to replace or upgrade (still not done yet by the way), there didn’t seem much urgency.

Still, I knew it had a couple of things that weren’t on the first one. Nothing major, just a couple of pre-Red Bird sides replacing the other pre-Red Bird sides (all good, but none of which Mary Weiss sang lead on) and “stereo” mixes on ten songs, including the big hits (of which “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” was one). There were also, as it turned out, a few magical extra seconds of “Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand),” which I didn’t know about and which therefore came as both a pleasant surprise and reason enough to be happy I had sprung for what even I–a Shangs’ fanatic–considered a luxury item.

There were other reasons to be happy. RPM had already done a better job of remastering this music than anyone else, and–surprisingly, because mono is the watchword for records from this period–the stereo mixes were vastly superior to any previous release of these endlessly repackaged songs, most of which I have in a dozen or more sources.

So, in all that, I missed this…

At the end of the bridge of “I Can Never Go Home Anymore”–a bridge that is the peak moment in rock and roll arranging (I rank the overall arrangement slightly behind “Midnight Train to Georgia,” where Gladys and the Pips spend four minutes finishing each other’s breaths, but the bridge here is unmatchable) and ups the already impossible emotional stakes five times in twenty-seconds.

Only it turns out that in this mix–and no other–it’s six times in twenty-three seconds.

And that extra three seconds lifts the song to a whole other plane.

Mind you, I say this as someone who, before last week, would have sworn such a thing wasn’t possible.

Shoulda’ known better than to ever underestimate Mary Weiss.

Because, here, after one of the Gansers (I think) shouts Mama! and the strings soar past her (and every opera aria in history) and the group croons/chants You can never go home anymore like a tolling church bell and somebody (Marge? Mary Ann? Mary?…I can’t find out and it’s driving me crazy) shouts MAMA! and Mary cuts her off with No I can never go home anymore, she then tops herself–or make that, tops herself topping all the other crazy stuff that has gone on for two and half minutes and been taken to whole new levels of craziness those five times in twenty seconds.

On every other version I’ve heard, Weiss then cuts straight to the last verse.

Here (listen close!) she says:

“Listen…I’m not finished.”

When I finally heard that last week (maybe the sixth or seventh or tenth time I’ve “listened” to this particular mix), it was like having my own life grab me by the throat.

Because that’s the essence of everything the Shangri-Las stood for in the rock and roll revolution.

Sixteen-year-old working class kids who were born to be kicked saying: “Listen…I’m not finished.”

From there, you can go anywhere you want.

Amy Winehouse used this music to drink herself to death.

I’ve been using it for thirty-five years to stay alive.

Different strokes for different folks I guess.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominations are out and I’ll have plenty to say about that later in the week.

Had to get this–by a group that recorded barely thirty sides and is more deserving than thirteen of this year’s fifteen nominees (and not behind the other two)–in here first.