At an ‘oldies’ concert in the ‘eighties, I experienced the sound of the stratospheric falsetto voice of a male singer for the first time, live and in action. I had heard it before of course, having come into ‘musical awareness’ in the early ‘sixties, shortly before the Beatles came out. We had just entered high school and sang along, verbatim, with the ‘girl groups’ like the Ronettes (‘Be my Baby!’) and the Supremes. In fact, listening to them taught us Dutch girls more English than schoolbooks would ever do, and with an American slant at that. They sang in high tones, but of course they were women so that was to be expected. And then, along with the Motown groove came Frankie Valli, the guy that started the falsetto characteristic of much pop music today. ‘Sherry,’ ‘Rag Doll,’ Can’t take my eyes off you’ were some of his hits, remember? If you, too, are of a ‘certain age,’ you can karaoke away on any of these tunes and party it up. He made your windows shatter with his upper treble, and we loved him for it.
In May 1985 in the Vancouver Coliseum, a concert took place that combined on its bill a few formerly famous pop idols, largely on the casino and ‘oldies’ circuit by then. And there he was, the youth idol of American women: Lou Christie! Being ten years younger, he was the next celebrated falsetto after Frankie Valli. As it happens, both were of Italian-American origin with modified stage-names to suit the intended mainstream audience.
He worked his buns off that night, gave it his extra-energetic, sweaty but charming all, his charisma undeniable, loudly adored as he was by a stadium-full of women in their forties. He had dressed nice for stage with a glitter-shirt, balloon-pants and suspenders, and of course, a mullet! I’m not particularly interested in this ‘genre’ of musical performance and found it mildly embarrassing to watch this guy trying so hard to be 23 again. I kind of missed him in his heyday, having moved on to the Beatles by the time his huge hit came out in ’66: ‘Lightin’ Strikes Again’ (Stop! I can’t stop! No I can’t stop myself! – controversial lyrics about making out on the backseat of a car) that made it to the top of the charts in Canada while I was still ensconced in high school in the Netherlands. So that’s what he sang that night, dutifully producing ‘the repertoire’ precisely the way the audience expected him to, half the time in ‘only-dogs-can-hear-it land,’ as John Mackie of the Vancouver Sun so beautifully put it in his review of the concert.
Both Valli (86) and Christie (78) are still alive and kicking: both made numerous comebacks, produced records, kept touring and performing, and do TV and radio shows. Judging by some of the comments underneath YouTube clips, plenty of women well over 70 would still throw their panties at Lou Christie on stage, any time.
What’s falsetto, if it’s not soprano? Low notes, the so-called ‘chest voice’ as sung by men, require thick vocal chords. As the notes go higher, the vocal folds get thinner for both men and women – ‘the head voice’ – but the singer is still always in control of the output by never completely opening the vocal folds to let all the air out of the lungs at once, to be able to move comfortably within a certain range of octaves. There’s the power of dynamics that a trained voice possesses. Falsetto is, in a way, the moment where the voice cracks, ‘gives up’ all control, leaps in pitch in a semblance of a note, but it’s breathy, thin and without reserve power behind it. It gets your attention, no doubt about the way it hits your raw gut of emotions. Airy and sweet, sometimes tough: hiphop and rappers do it, too. That’s why it’s become a staple of pop music, with Smokey Robinson, Barry Gibb of the BeeGees, Michael Jackson, right up to Justin Timberlake the more famous examples. Sometimes it gets confusing and hard to recognize: for instance, the Canadian group ‘The Nylons,’ four men consisting of two tenors, a baritone and a bass, sang ‘a capella’ beautifully and swingingly. Marc Connors, the lead tenor, went into upper register falsetto with great ease and in full control, never sounding ‘off.’ Most people remember ‘The Lions Sleep Tonight.’
By contrast, God help us, in 1968 we also had Tiny Tim, the falsetto from Hell, the one-hit wonder. How dare he ‘tag’ our gorgeous tulip fields with his ridiculous interpretation of the old 1920’ies Al Dubin/Joe Burke song? There’s a reason he was hardly heard from again.