Skip to main content

Vocal Groups

Vocal Groups

You may ask, isn't any group that sings a "Vocal Group"? As with many musical questions the answer is not that straight forward. But think of the 'Backstreet Boys'. My understanding of the difference is that a "Vocal Group" primarily consists of a front of at least three singers (three part harmony) with a back-up band. While researching I ran across this website The Vocal Group Hall of Fame (VGHF) and it also allows for two part harmony or Duo's, though I can't find an actual definition on the website. However this site seems contradictory in that the typically guitar playing Everly Brothers seems to fit for them. So aside from the VGHF view, in my definition it would be very uncommon among these groups for one or more of them to play a musical instrument (not that they can't) as part of their performance.  Therefore disqualifying the Everly Brothers. The VGHF initial inductees for the most part reflect this criteria. But again in the 'Hall of Fame', I've found many exceptions to this such as the 'Bee Gees', where Maurice Gibb quite often played the keyboards during performances (and when recording) and Barry played guitar.

But who am I to quibble with a Hall of Fame, but I am. Certainly this non profit organization was put together on a wing and a prayer and little money so it deserves much praise for making an effort. For me it serves as a fairly good point of reference, despite the fact I found several errors and major inconsistencies. They literally toss the definition right off the musical stage, such as in 2001 adding the all instrument playing 'Eagles', and in 2004 adding 'The Beatles'. This in my mind defeats the purpose of having a Vocal Group Hall of Fame if your going to admit such a vast variety of artists. I suspect a lack of attention may have led to adding these names, hoping to attract a wider audience. In addition to my whining I did try and contact them but the site seems to be inactive.

If we look to Wikipedia for a definition  "A vocal group is a [sic] of singers who sing and harmonize together with a backup band. While some group members may play their own instruments, it is uncommon. Groups that play their own instruments are generally categorized as bands instead of vocal groups".

While I generally concur with this above definition, when looking at the accompanying list of "Vocal Groups" they include like the VGHF, the all instrument playing 'Eagles' who are the very definition of a "Band". Also on these lists are the 'The Beach Boys', a fantastic harmonizing "Band" who all with one exception played instruments. Check out this clip at the 5:15 mark where (the typically lead singer) Mike Love introduces the band.

So a group that just sings is how I'm defining a "Vocal Group" 

I'll refer to the "Vocal Group" as just 'VG' to avoid the monotony. With the exception of the 'Eagles and 'The Beatles' et al not being VG's, then how do we define those artists? A 'Band' or other 'Groups' consist of members who may just sing, play an instrument or both. For the sake of a better way to describe it they are the "backup band" and singers both. Like the Beatles, Eagles and the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pearl Jam and you get the idea. Having only one main lead singer like Mick Jagger makes the Stones a 'Band', not a VG. The Eagles had two primary lead singers, Don Henley and Glenn Frey. The multi voice harmonizing yet instrument playing Beatles are also a 'Band'. So for my purposes these types of 'Bands' or 'Groups' are not what I'm talking about today. Just to point out we all know examples of groups that from time to time employed a "back-up band" as well, or say perhaps added a brass section, orchestra or background singers.

Why to I blather on about this stuff? I guess because it matters to me that we at least attempt to keep things straight. I spend too much time surfing the web about music and cover songs I will admit, but when I run across otherwise seemingly intelligent people describing things that make no sense (like me maybe you are thinking) it drives me nuts, and let me give an example. An answer on a question about "foreign language songs that were popular in the US", citing the song "Louie Louie" by the Kingsman as example because of the lame and outdated claim about unintelligible lyrics, sorry then I just L.M.S.! I am no expert as I've said before but if we are going to try and define something we should be consistent in how we describe it and in the examples we use. I should not be explaining say, about the antiquated "horse whip" and say "well this stick looks like one, it could be used as one therefore it is one". Ok, Ok I know people used sticks before they started making whips out of leather, just like groups of people sang and played instruments before we made up the term "Vocal Group" but hopefully you get my point.

Here is another example of a VG, after James Brown took over as front man for the 'Famous Flames', they were still a VG as the "Flames" were just the singers and they played with an unnamed back-up band. This 'unnamed' band idea was very common, we would see a VG, say on a TV show and even in concert and we are led to believe they don't even have a band at all, or at the very least they are way in the background or completely hidden from view.

When it came to recording many of these VG's used different musicians all the time, provided by the studio and or thier management.  Or, in the case of going on tour together they would often share the same 'backup band'. Now there were certainly some fine collections of 'backup' musicians like the "Funk Brothers" from Motown, "The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section" or Phil Spector's 'House Band', who later came to be known as "The Wrecking Crew" out of Los Angeles. These were high demand recording musicians who did not tour with the groups, they were actually too good for the studio's to let them. There were and still are also 'back-up' studio singers who only appear on records and rarely if ever tour with the groups either. These singers and musicians were so important that they could be the difference between a hit song and a dud.

The definition can get a bit fuzzy as too many singers it seems (over 6) puts you into the "Choral Group" category, and at some point more singers leads to a "Choir" of all things and then the streets will never be safe. The "a cappella" groups like 'Ladysmith Black Mambazo' or 'Pentatonix' are vocals without musical accompaniment and to me is a separate thing altogether...another good blog topic. Many "Doo-wop" groups appear on these lists as well, this subgenre of R&B is destined for a separate blog post as well but certainly the characteristic melodic harmonizing qualifies such artists as they typically did not play instruments when performing.

So even with these nebulous criteria you can imagine there are certainly way too many VG's for one blog post, but here is a collection of some recognizable names and a cover song or two. Among the first inductees into this 'Hall of Fame' in 1998 take us back for the most part to the 50's thru 80's, and as mentioned some hold fairly true to the definition. So once again I'll give an illustration and forgive me if you find me once again getting too pedantic...I'm working on that folks.

One of these things is not like the others; NYSC, The Spice Girls, Pink Floyd, Destiny's Child.

The Supremes underwent a similar transition to that of the Fabulous Flames with Diana Ross taking the lead and getting her name at the front as well. They and some others on this list I have already mention in past posts.  "You Keep Me Hangin' On" written by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, Eddie Holland was a #1 hit in 1967 and is the most covered Supremes song at over 120 versions. Kim Wilde (1986). The Supremes are one of the first names that would stand out, but for music fans almost all of these names are easily recognized.

'The Platters' second highest charted song (1960) was a cover of "Harbour Lights" (released in 1959), written by Hugh Williams and Jimmy Kennedy it was first recorded by Roy Fox and His Orchestra with vocals by Barry Gray in 1937.

'The Marvelettes' original song "Too Many Fish in the Sea"(1964) charted at #25 in 1965. Written by Eddie Holland and Norman Whitfield it's been covered 15 times, The Young Rascals (1967).

'The Letterman', who were not known for originals would only have one song hit #1 and that was on the Adult Contemporary chart in 1961, it was #7 on the Hot 100. "When I Fall in Love". The original music was written as an instrumental by Victor Young and it was actually titled "Theme from One Minute to Zero" a movie in 1952. Words were written by Edward Heyman and the first recording as "When I Fall in Love" was sung by Jeri Southern with Victor Young and His Orchestra, also from 1952. Since covered as both an instrumental and with vocals over 520 times. Nat "King" Cole (1957)

'The Miracles' were another transition group with Smokey Robinson taking the lead position. Active from 1965 to 1972 they were one of the most prolific groups, vocal or otherwise during that period. These superstars of Motown produced 26 top 40 songs with seven top 10's and the number one "Tears of a Clown" written by Henry Cosby, Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson. Released in August of 1967 it has been covered 47 times. The Beat (1979).

Another Motown success story were the 'Four Tops', though they recorded for many labels they remained in their native Detroit after Motown Records left for L.A. in 1972, signing with Dunhill (ABC Records). They were likely the longest lasting original member group (1953-1997) fronted by the great Levi Stubbs (born Levi Stubbles, June 6, 1936, died October 17, 2008). Their first #1 was in 1965, "I Can't Help Myself" another by Motown's Holland-Dozier-Holland team. Their second #1 was in 1966 with the same writers "Reach Out I'll Be There" was their biggest hit which was also Motown's second #1 in the UK after the Supremes "Baby Love" in 1964. "Reach Out I'll Be There" was a hit song for Gloria Gaynor in 1975, it's been covered 135 times.

If the 'Four Tops' were the longest lasting VG then 'The Drifters' were the complete opposite. This formation became very unstable after the departure of Clyde McPhatter in 1954 (he was drafted). He sold his majority share to the notoriously low paying George Tredwell and it has had over 60 vocalists (from 1953 to present). The original group fronted by McPhatter would have success with "Money Honey" (1953) written by Jesse Stone.

The next successful incarnation came with the great Ben E. King and "There Goes My Baby" hitting #2 on Billboard, #1 on Cashbox and the R&B charts in 1959. Written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller with contributions from Ben E. King, George Treadwell and Lover Patterson it introduced a different type of arrangement, string instruments and orchestration which really helped revolutionized R&B, Soul and for that matter R&R recording. With King they would do "This Magic Moment" and "Save the Last Dance for Me". King would leave after being refused more money and have great success as a solo artist.

The last successful period for Tredwell's Drifters was with Rudy Lewis at lead and the memorable songs; "Some Kind of Wonderful", "Up on the Roof", "Please Stay" and "On Broadway". This last song has a bit of a story, most will know the successful jazzy Grammy Award winning cover by George Benson in 1978, but something I learned was the Drifters version from 1963 was a rewrite of a song first recorded by The Cookies in 1962. Written by the Brill Building then husband and wife team of Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann as a favour for their friends, Carole King and Gerry Goffin who needed one more song for the Cookies album. The song was actually first released by The Crystals in 1962 as the Cookies version came out in 1963. The Publisher was looking for songs specifically for the Drifters so Mann and Weil ending up working with Leiber and Stoller to produce the new version.

The other first time inductees to the Vocal Group Hall include (sorry but properly edited) names, some I have talked about and no doubt will be talking about in the future; The Temptations, the Four Seasons, the Commodores, The Impressions, The Jackson 5, The Manhattan Transfer, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Martha and the Vandellas, The Chi-Lites, The Dramatics, The Delfonics, The Pointer Sisters, The O'Jays, Dion and the Belmonts, The Midnighters, Boyz II Men, The Spinners, The Dells, The Stylistics, and Little Anthony and the Imperials.

Click this link for my Spotify playlist "MMC Blog Vocal Group Cover Songs"


If you like my blog, please consider filling in the follow by email link at the top right hand of the page. Remember to confirm the subscription when you get the first email. Confidentiality is assured unless you are a close friend or family member then all bets are off. While I can compile data from my blog it's not tracking in terms of anyone's identity. For past blog posts click on the menu at the top right corner. Pass it along to a friend who might enjoy it as well or post it to your timeline on FB. And many thanks as always for reading my blog!


Popular posts from this blog

One Hit Wonders (not!)

One Hit Wonders (not!)

Yesterday (Sept. 26) was the 50th Anniversary of Abbey Road, the Beatles last recording session together and the second last album before Let it Be was issued May 8, 1970. And also Happy belated One Hit Wonder Day! (Sept. 25th) so I thought it would make a good blog topic.

The simplest definition I found is from music journalist Wayne Jancik "an act that has won a position on a national, pop, Top 40 record chart just once." This from the 'The Billboard Book of One-Hit Wonders' (1998). So we aren't talking one #1 hit. It's not a term I like as it implies (and some truth to that) these artists have had just a brief moment in the spotlight, perhaps undeservedly so and then fallen off the music map. I know other and deeper definitions are a bit more broad and go beyond the absolute single hit idea. They also consider many artists that have still maintained a quality career and just not reproduced another 'top 40 hit' song and or ma…

Old Country New Country

Old Country/New Country

What exactly I am about to attempt to demonstrate I confess I'm not 100% certain, but what I do know is that there has been a bit of a downward sliding scale regarding the enduring quality of mainstream Country Music songs. Apologies in advance for rambling and ranting at various points. This is not a history of Country Music but my opinion on the current state of things in general with the genre.

It's murky waters that I'm swimming in here as there is an evolution involved in any music genre so direct comparisons are perhaps inappropriate. I am somewhat aware of the influence the so called Country Music "establishment" has had on this evolution. One need only look at examples like Taylor Swift, Shania Twain and Garth Brooks and others who were criticized and in some cases "shunned" for their unconventional approaches who are now celebrated as part of that same 'establishment'. So there is some hypocrisy at play in my op…

Sweet Soul Music

Sweet Soul Music

Arthur Conley co-wrote this song with Otis Redding and it's a tribute to some of the early greats of Soul Music. The song's melody (and words for that matter) borrowed heavily from the Sam Cooke song "Yeah Man" and a subsequent lawsuit brought by A.W. Alexander who managed Cooke's songs after his untimely death added his name to the song credits. The resulting song however was a huge hit for Conley and it reached #2 on Billboard's Hot 100 and R&B Chart in 1967 and #7 in the UK where Soul Music was gaining popularity particularly amongst a subset of British youth. The lyrics reference the co-writer Otis Redding, James Brown and songs by The Miracles, Lou Rawls, Sam & Dave and Wilson Pickett, some of the key figures in early Soul Music. "Sweet Soul Music" covered 30 times, The Jam (1977).

Soul music is a fusion of R&B, Gospel and Jazz. Known generally for it's more upbeat tempo it's fun to listen to and great for …

Rock artists sing the Blues

Rock artists sing the Blues

I have talked about this frequently throughout my posts but more particularly in the series on the Delta Blues and the History of R&R parts 1-4. Truth be told, most of the greatests 'Rock' artists owe much of their inspiration to the Blues. Rock bands and solo artists have cut many sides early and throughout their careers of blues songs. Thanks to artists like Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley who were obviously very well known and successful, their covers of some of the great blues songs served as a conduit and exposed them to artists and listeners alike. Here are some 'Blues' that inspired Rock artists, a few of these songs are more well known than others.

Confessin' the Blues by The Rolling Stones was recorded  June 11, 1964 and released on a 7" record of five songs on August 14. Written by Walter Brown (vocals) and Jay McShann (piano and bandleader) originally released in June of 1941. Covered about 35 times including Chuck Berr…

25 of the Greatest Cover Songs #76-100

25 of the Greatest Cover Songs #76-100
Ok here is the last of my list, I could go on and as a matter of fact I will, just not with another set of 25 plus "to infinity and beyond!" I have to say it was easy to come up with more songs to complete the total of 100 as this final list started at 43. But it was very difficult to decide which ones would make the final cut, so these last 25 songs became a list with a number of great ones left for another day.

76. "Flip Flop and Fly" is a song by the same collection that brought us the classic "Shake Rattle and Roll" written by Jesse Stone (credited to his pseudonym Charles E. Calhoun) and Lou Willie Turner, sung by Big Joe Turner (1955). The first time I heard this was at a club in my hometown I'll say around 1979 or so, performed by the talented Canadian Blues band Downchild Blues Band, later known as just 'Downchild'. Still the best cover for me although I've heard many fine ones out of some over …

25 of the Greatest Cover Songs #51-75

25 of the Greatest Cover Songs #51-75
There has been a very positive response to the first two 'Greatest' posts. So the list continues and the songs become no less in their timeless quality compared to numbers one through fifty. I will post a #76-100 edition in the near future and that will be out of my system. But what if I do more lists by genre? Just thinking out loud, sorry but I will keep blogging on various topics as long as people continue to click.

51. "I Put a Spell on You" written and originally recorded by Screamin' Jay Hawkins in 1956. There have been many really good covers of this song but Nina Simone (1965) was just the second person to cover this song. I just can't get over how overlooked this artist was in her time, a high class version that turns the song on it's ear to give it an entirely different sound.

52. "Strange Fruit" was a courageous recording by the legendary Billie Holiday from 1939. A song written as a poem by anot…

Music Myths and other Silly Things

Music Myths and other Silly Things
Who doesn't like a good story? There are many great ones and some not so much about music. I try and put a little story into my blogs and during the course of my research I have run across some that are quite curious. Some of these myths about songs and artists have innocent enough beginnings and have been perpetuated or at least not denied by the artists themselves, others come from malcontents and the misinformed.

Here is one that falls in the category of a silly thing; Bob Dylan and the 'Stealers Wheel' song "Stuck in the Middle with You", released in April, 1973.

1. Bob Dylan did not write this nor did he sing this song, nor is this song about Bob Dylan.

2. If you do a search for 'Dylan and Stuck in the Middle" you will get results like the following:
Home » Artists » Bob Dylan » Stuck In The Middle With YouBob Dylan - "Stuck In The Middle With You" lyricsBob Dylan: CD's Sheet Music Tablature, Stuck in …

25 of the Greatest Cover Songs #1-25

25 of the Greatest Cover Songs

Nothing quite grabs the attention more than a list of the greatest this or that, so at 85 posts about cover songs I thought it about time to get to it. As I advised with my other 'Greatest' posts we all have our favorites so anytime there is a list, something or someone 'great' gets left off. And the debate ensues, why is this and that at #11 not #4 and vise versa. My list therefore, shall be no different for it is not scientific but subjective and it is biased by my own tastes and exposure to music. Having said that it's hard for me to have missed many of the truly great cover songs of all time, indeed I think I've talked about quite a few:

"Respect" from the writer and original recording Otis Redding and a cover she made her own, the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin. More about the song and Aretha in these posts. Before I get to some cover's I've not mentioned, here are more songs from my previous issues that are …



When talking about the band I have to confess I'm out of my depth so I will tread lightly. We should however get right to their beginnings and major influence, that being the 'Talking Heads' and their namesake song "Radio Head". The band had been called 'On a Friday' but their record label requested they change it before signing a contract (with EMI records) in 1991.
Radiohead are one of the most successful and influential Rock bands since their debut album "Pablo Honey' (Jerky Boys) in February of 1993. All their songs are credited to the entire band Colin Greenwood, Jonny Greenwood, Ed O'Brien, Phil Selway and Thom Yorke. And there's the 'sixth member' producer Nigel Godrich who's done all their albums since 1994. Their song "Creep" charted top 40 across the world and it's depressing tone eventually wore the band down to the point they stopped playing it live for a long period of time. The songs melo…

Linda Ronstadt

Linda Ronstadt

Just recently I watched "Linda Ronstadt, The Sound of My Voice" on CNN and I don't mind saying I was moved to tears more than once. Narrated by Linda herself and including rare footage and photo's in addition to some great interviews, it paints a wonderful picture of a remarkable career. If you get the chance you really should watch it, but for now a mini bio and then to some of her music from that amazing voice.

Linda was born on July 15, 1946 and grew up on a ranch in Tucson Arizona in a prosperous family. Music was a very important part of daily life so her exposure and interest came very naturally. She began her career in the mid sixties joining the growing country/folk rock scene. Ronstadt met Bobby Kimmel at the University of Arizona and later met Kenny Edwards and they formed the band the 'Stone Poneys'. She would release some solo material starting in 1969 and then tour with Jackson Brown, Neil Young and the Doors. She began having hug…