Long before there were musical instruments, the human voice was used to make beautiful music, whether on its own or as part of the countless vocal groups that have formed over history. It’s no surprise that the beauty of singing has been extolled by poets such as Henry Longfellow, who declared: “How wonderful is the human voice. It is indeed the organ of the soul… the flowing of the eternal fountain.”
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The desire to come together and sing started in caves. This joyful process changed and developed through Medieval times, through the Renaissance and into Longfellow’s 19th-century era, when the main way to hear transcendental music was in church. Indeed, a cappella music has its origins in Gregorian chanting, and the words “a cappella” in Italian mean “in the style of the chapel”.
Call and response
African slaves brought their musical traditions with them when they were forcibly transported to work in the North American colonies. Early types of African-American music included spirituals (religious songs using vocal harmony) and field songs. These work songs were sung in time with the movement involved in hard labour. Some slaves sang “call and response” tunes, a technique in which phrases from a lead singer were followed by the other vocalists, a style used so potently in Ray Charles’ groundbreaking ‘What’d I Say’ in 1959.
African music also blended with the folk music of the white European settlers, eventually producing new styles, such as the blues – especially vocal country blues. One of the landmark 19th-century vocal groups was The Fisk Jubilee Singers, a group of African-American singers established at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1871, by the progressive treasurer George L White.
The earliest vocal groups
They are one of the earliest and most famous black vocal groups, known for their innovative performances of slave spirituals that were rarely heard outside church. They toured America and Europe, and a dozen members of the troupe performed for Queen Victoria in 1873. They had a lasting influence on British culture. ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’, an African-American spiritual recorded by the Fisk Singers in 1909, has become the unofficial anthem of the England rugby team. Happily, the group are still going strong and were awarded the National Medal Of The Arts from President Bush in 2008.
At the time The Fisk Jubilee Singers came to prominence (they sang for President Ulysses S Grant), the gospel movement was taking hold in America. The first published use of the term “gospel song” appears in 1874 in the work of Philip Bliss. This evangelist preacher used the word “gospel” to describe a new genre of spiritual songs that originated out of the hymn-singing tradition. In the early 20th Century, hundreds of gospel music publishing houses emerged and, with the advent of radio in the 20s, the audience for the music increased rapidly. Following World War II, gospel music moved into major auditoriums, with hauntingly expressive singers such as Mahalia Jackson becoming world stars.
Another vocal style with a long tradition is barbershop quartet music. Its roots are not just the Middle-America cliché of a Norman Rockwell painting; rather, they were a melting pot of influences, as immigrants to the New World brought a repertoire of hymns, psalms and minstrel-show songs that were developed into harmonies sung by groups on street corners (sometimes called “curbstone harmonies”). The close-harmony quartets and “barbershop” style of “cracking a chord” is first associated with black southern quartets of the 1870s, such as The American Four and The Hamtown Students. By the start of the 20th Century, most barbershops seemed to have their own quartet. The term became widespread after 1910, with the publication of the song ‘Play That Barbershop Chord’.
Though the popularity of barbershop music has ebbed and flowed, it remains an enduring musical form and even helped inspire influential singing groups. The celebrated Mills Brothers (more of them later) first learned to harmonise in their father’s barbershop in Piqua, Ohio.
The Boswell Sisters
As jazz took hold in the 20s, there was a dip in the popularity of vocal groups, but waiting in the wings were The Boswell Sisters, a group who changed the face of modern music in the 30s after they emerged from the vaudeville houses of New Orleans. They were true innovators and can easily claim to be one of the all-time greatest jazz vocal groups.
The sisters were talented musicians. Martha played piano; Vet played violin, banjo and guitar; and Connee (who had been left paralysed from the waist down by a childhood accident, and always performed sitting down) played cello, saxophone and guitar. The turning point in their career came when a radio station gave them a daily singing programme.
They recorded several songs during the 20s, but it wasn’t until 1930, when they made four songs for the Okeh label, that they finally achieved popular recognition. The sisters’ harmonic vocals, interspersed with scat singing and clever tempo and key changes, quickly brought them popularity beyond New Orleans. They inverted melodies and employed innovative syncopation on recordings such as ‘Shuffle Off To Buffalo’, which showed off their flawless harmonising. They were also the first group to use the phrase “rock and roll”, on their 1934 song of the same name.
They also appeared in several movies (including The Big Broadcast (1932) and Moulin Rouge (1934)) and were regulars on Bing Crosby’s radio programme. Many of their hit recordings were made with The Dorsey Brothers Orchestra. Connee wrote the group’s arrangements, as heard on classic recordings such as ‘Heebie Jeebies’, ‘Old Yazoo’, ‘Shout, Sister, Shout’, ‘Crazy People’ and ‘The Object of My Affection’.
Vet and Martha retired from show business in 1936, but Connee went on to enjoy a successful solo career. During that golden period, they had a natural feeling for “hot” jazz and swing, and were greatly admired by many top jazz musicians. When 16-year-old Ella Fitzgerald was persuaded to take part in a talent contest at the Harlem Opera House, she sang ‘The Object of My Affection’, a song by Connee. Fitzgerald later said, “There was only one singer who influenced me. I tried to sing like her all the time, because everything she did made sense musically… and that singer was Connee Boswell.”
The Andrews Sisters
In the years around World War II, The Andrews Sisters began to rival the Boswells for popularity, but they always acknowledged a debt. As Patty Andrews put it, “Without The Boswell Sisters there would be no Andrews Sisters.”
The Andrews Sisters got their big break with a 1937 version of the Yiddish tune ‘Bei Mir Bist Du Schon (Means that You’re Grand)’, which sold 350,000 copies in one month. They recorded hits galore for Decca Records, including ‘Beer Barrel Polka’, ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’, ‘Don’t Fence Me In’ and ‘I Can Dream, Can’t I?’ For a time, Maxene, LaVerne and Patty Andrews went toe-to-toe with Elvis Presley and The Beatles in terms of Billboard Top 10 hits, and they went on to become one of the top-selling female vocal groups of all time, selling approximately 100 million records.
They were also one of the most popular bands ever in terms of Hollywood, appearing in 17 films in all, including pictures with Abbot and Costello, Bing Crosby, and Bob Hope.
Part of their success was that they captured the mood of their time and became indelibly associated with their work entertaining troops in World War II. The Andrews Sisters travelled across America, and to Italy and Africa, to raise morale, and their recording of ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’, for the film Buck Privates, became a theme tune of the war effort.
The Andrews Sisters were smart. They knew they needed variety and made use of their ability to perform different types of music, becoming among the first and most prominent musicians of their era to bring ethnic-influenced music to the forefront of America’s hit parade. Their influence was felt worldwide – The Harmony Sisters of Finland were one of a number of bands to imitate their style.
Although the Andrews separated for two years in the 50s, as the strain of constantly touring together took its toll, they reunited in 1956 and continued to perform together until LaVerne’s death from cancer in 1967. They gained a new set of fans in the 70s, when Bette Midler’s cover of ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’ sparked a wave of nostalgic interest in the song’s original performers. The late 20th-century was less kind to the Sisters, with constant tabloid intrusion into their personal lives and problems. Nevertheless, they remain a benchmark for an all-girl singing band.
Of course, their success prompted rival record companies to hire their own versions of the band, including the wholesome Lennon Sisters, a group of children who appeared in the 50s on The Lawrence Welk Show and went on to have a 60-year career in show business, performing for seven different presidents.
Possibly more significant are The Dinning Sisters, who were signed by Capitol Records in 1943 to be that label’s answer to The Andrews Sisters. The Dinnings sounded similar – especially in fast-paced boogie-woogie-influenced records such as ‘Pig Foot Pete’ or in the jaunty ‘Down In The Diving Bell’.
The Dinning Sisters were a musical family of nine children, all of whom started singing harmony in church. Three of the sisters, twins Jean and Ginger, along with Lou, started to win amateur singing contests before the age of 10 and later began to perform with older brother Ace’s orchestra. The turning point came in Chicago, where they were hired after an audition for NBC radio and remained on the station for seven years, eventually becoming one of the highest-paid acts on the wireless.
Personnel changes were frequent but their albums for Capitol sold consistently well, including their debut release, Songs By The Dinning Sisters, which held the top spot on the charts for 18 weeks. Jean Dinning was also a good songwriter, and her song ‘Teen Angel’, co-written with her husband, Red Surrey, and recorded by her brother Mark Dinning, captured something of the bleakness of the 50s. Though considered too maudlin for some radio stations, it was later used in the 1973 film American Graffiti as representative of the era.
Though the Dinning Sisters were successful, they never managed to surpass The Andrews Sisters in terms of popularity, and Lou Dinning admitted plaintively, “Let’s face it, The Andrews Sisters were way ahead of us. We tried our darndest to be as commercial as they were, but weren’t flashy enough. We were all kind of shy. We came from a farm in Oklahoma. We never took dancing lessons or anything.”
“The heavyweight champions of quartet singing”
It wasn’t only female vocal groups that swept America. The Ink Spots, who formed in Indianapolis in the late 20s, were originally called King, Jack and the Jesters – a name they dropped after a legal claim by bandleader Paul Whitehouse.
The Ink Spots would improvise vocal harmonies, often simulating wind instruments with their voices. Though they weren’t initially successful, their big break came in 1939 – with Bill Kenny as lead singer – when songwriter Jack Lawrence persuaded them to record a ballad called ‘If I Didn’t Care’. The record became a million-seller and sparked a string of hit releases, including ‘Maybe’, ‘My Prayer’, ‘Whispering Grass’, ‘To Each His Own’ and ‘I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire’.
The Ink Spots toured the world and appeared with Glenn Miller. The group remained popular with both black and white audiences through the post-war years and into the 50s, and have their own special place in American social history for breaking down racial barriers by appearing in previously all-white Southern venues. They influenced a generation of bands, including The Drifters and The Dominoes. Jerry Butler, the founding member of The Impressions, said, “The Ink Spots were the heavyweight champions of quartet singing!”
In terms of output, few bands could match The Mills Brothers. With 2,246 recordings made by 1981 – their final year performing together after six decades – The Mills Brothers are one of the most recorded bands of all time, amassing a body of work that won them 36 Gold records, with sales of more than 50 million. Their songs, with their smooth and tight harmonies, remain favourites of 21st-century barbershop quartets.
Like The Ink Spots, The Mills Brothers knew that audiences loved the gimmick of singers imitating instruments with their voices. The Mills Brothers did this with trombone and trumpet effects on their first big hit, ‘Tiger Rag’, in 1932, and became so proficient that many of their albums contained a clarifying note: “No musical instruments used on this recording, other than one guitar.”
As well as serene harmony singing, what made The Mills Brothers stand out was a playful wit in their songs – such as ‘Glow Worm’ and ‘Up A Lazy River’ – and their natural affability won them influential admirers, including Bing Crosby, Mel Tormé and Dean Martin. (Tormé was just one singer who cut his teeth in a vocal group. He was still only a teenager when he formed The Mel-Tones, a precursor of contemporary vocal jazz, who were popular during World War II and enjoyed several hits on their own, as well as with Artie Shaw’s band.)
The Mills Brothers’ hits – ‘Goodbye Blues’, ‘You’re Nobody’s Sweetheart Now’, ‘Sweet Sue’, ‘Bye, Bye Blackbird’, ‘You Always Hurt the One You Love’ and ‘Yellow Bird’, as well as ‘Paper Doll’ – were some of the most influential of the pre-rock era and meant that they became one of the first African-American vocal groups to attract a loyal white audience throughout the United States.
By 1950, The Mills Brothers were fearful that their act was wearing thin and decided to record with orchestras. They teamed up with Tommy Dorsey’s arranger, Sy Oliver, and had hits with ‘Nevertheless (I’m In Love With You)’ and ‘Be My Life’s Companion’.
Donald Mills commented modestly on their success, “It’s just simple melodies and good lyrics. As long as people can understand the words and can tap a foot to our music, that’s all we’ve ever needed.”
Another success story was The McGuire Sisters, known for their sweet harmonies, matching outfits and hairdos, and synchronised body movements and gestures. They earned six Gold records for hits including 1954’s ‘Sincerely’ and 1957’s ‘Sugartime’, and were mainstays of TV variety shows hosted by Milton Berle, Andy Williams and Perry Como. Still going strong in 2004, they performed in a PBS special that year, Magic Moments: The Best Of 50s Pop.
The 50s trio of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross also have a place in vocal group history. Expanding on the technique known as “vocalese”, by which a jazz singer adapts an instrument to the human voice, Dave Lambert, Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross applied the style beyond the usual intimacy of a small combo to full big band arrangements. Their witty vocals, energetic delivery and sharp harmonies took the jazz world by storm, making instant stars of the three performers and inspiring a host of similar acts, such as The King Sisters, and Manhattan Transfer.
In the mid-50s, the rapid spread of doo-wop changed how vocal groups were performing. The music could be performed nearly anywhere – without the need for expensive equipment – and became part of mainstream American culture.
The first recordings in the doo-wop style are credited to The Orioles, with ‘It’s Too Soon To Know’, in 1948, and was followed by The Larks, in 1951, with ‘My Reverie’. The top stars of the doo-wop era included Dion And The Belmonts, The Chantels, The Coasters, The Drifters, The Duprees, The Flamingos, The Platters, The Shirelles and, from Pittsburgh, The Del-Vikings, The Marcels, and The Skyliners.
It has been estimated that there were more than 100,000 different singing acts who were recorded during the 50s, a time when there was even a trend to have vocal groups named after cars, as with The Cadillacs, The Ramblers, The Corvettes, and The Valiants.
The doo-wop revolution was then taken on by the giants of the Motown machine, among them The Supremes, The Temptations and The Marvelettes. These were later followed by funkier ensembles, such as Earth, Wind & Fire and The Isley Brothers. The list of inductees to the Vocal Group Hall Of Fame shows just how many great vocal groups came out of this period.
Another 50s harmonising group who had influence beyond their time was The Four Freshmen, formed by The Barbour brothers and Hal Kratzsch when they were students at Butler University’s Arthur Jordan Conservatory Of Music in Indianapolis. The Grammy-winning Four Freshmen’s hits include ‘It’s a Blue World’, ‘Mood Indigo’, ‘Day By Day’ and ‘How Can I Tell Her?’. They also used their voices to sound like instruments, in this case copying the trombone section of the Stan Kenton Orchestra.
Their 1956 hit ‘Graduation Day’ was later covered by The Beach Boys, and Brian Wilson has referred to The Four Freshmen as his “harmonic education”. Wilson’s cousin, Mike Love, said that when Wilson was a teenager he would write out Freshmen songs on the piano and work out the harmonies for his brothers and cousins to sing. Sometimes, Wilson’s mother, Audree Neva, who was a talented pianist and organist, would sing the top part of the melody if the youngsters could not get the notes right.
The Beach Boys were also influenced by the gorgeous The Hi-Lo’s, but put their own indelible stamp on the world of music with their innovative use of vocal harmony. Their string of hits with the “California Sound”, among them ‘Surfin’ Safari’ and ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice?’, remain benchmarks of well-constructed and enchanting pop music. Though they started as a vocal harmony group, The Beach Boys famously became something more, as Wilson experimented with studio technology and sonic textures.
The legacy of vocal groups
Vocal groups did not die out in the post-Beach Boys era – folk bands such as The Weavers built their appeal on harmonising, and bands such as Queen would multi-track Freddie Mercury’s voice to gain the effect of a vocal group – but arguably the most interesting vocal-group development of the past 30 years (and we’re not counting boy and girl bands as straightforward vocal groups) has been New Jack Swing (sometimes called swingbeat), which uses mellifluously soulful solo or harmonising vocals sung over hip-hop beats.
A key person behind this genre is the New York-born singer-songwriter and keyboardist Teddy Riley, who oversaw Keith Sweat’s three-million-selling debut album, Make It Last Forever (1987), and who now masterminds some of the freshest sounds coming out of K-Pop. Riley said: “We gave R&B a new lifeline. New Jack Swing was the first genre to have a singer on a rap track. You can still see the effect of it in today’s music, from rap to R&B.”
Though New Jack Swing has moved in different directions, the appetite for vocal groups is still evident, with 21st-century bands such as Pentatonix (PTX), a five-member a cappella group from Arlington, Texas, having huge success with harmonic versions of modern pop songs. A cappella has also had a resurgence due to TV competitions such as The Sing-Off and the film Pitch Perfect.
These 21st-century vocal successes are proof that, as musical revolutions and styles have risen and fallen, vocal groups have never lost their popularity. Nothing that can move listeners more than the human voice.