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]


THE QUIET MAN (Bobby Smith R.I.P.)

“The singer is the star: my job is to create the music.”

Thom Bell (Spinners’ producer and the greatest record man of the 1970s. Also possibly the wisest.)

One of the principal themes of this blog has been the promotion of the idea–or, if you will, the obvious but too often neglected truth–that rock and roll was principally a singer’s music. The rock division of the crit-illuminati who sprang up in the late sixties and whose members have dominated the conversation ever since has generally been willing to promote writers, producers, instrumentalists and even session players at the expense of singers (unless, of course, the singers can qualify on one of the other counts, in which case they become true “creators” and therefore, cool again).

Part of this is understandable. In the collaborative, often “assembly line” nature of music making, singers have often been easily (if lazily) relegated to the similarly maligned and misunderstood role of actors in the movie business. They’re out front. They’re obvious. They’re most likely to be noticed and/or adored by the uncritical masses. And, hey, aren’t they really just breathing in time or something?

We all know the drill..

You sound a lot hipper knowing who James Jamerson or Hal Blaine were than knowing who, say, Bobby Smith was.

Now, there’s nobody walking the earth, today or ever, who appreciates the other kinds of genius that found their voices in rock and roll–James Jamerson and Hal Blaine very specifically included–than yours truly.

But without the singers none of us would have ever had the chance to celebrate the rest.

Singers sell the records. Singers set the styles.

And singers move the mountains.

I doubt any singer got less credit for moving more mountains than Bobby Smith, the principal lead of an aggregation variously called The Detroit Spinners, The Spinners and just….Spinners, for more than five decades.

Even within his own group he was often seen as taking second place to the more heavily publicized Philippe Wynne (a co-equal genius who nonetheless often received credit for Smith’s vocals even in the liner notes of the group’s actual albums) and Jonathan Edwards (a powerhouse of the group’s last really popular period).

The others were great singers and dynamic showmen. But it was Smith who took the majority of leads on the group’s great hits, Smith who produced more of their defining moments than anyone else and Smith who held the center in the seventies, when Spinners were the greatest vocal group of the last decade when the human voice still trumped the machines and that distinction actually meant something.

Time came for Bobby Smith on March 16. Well, for his body anyway.

It will never come for this:

Spinners “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love” (Television performance)