When it comes to critiquing tenor singers, I can be a stinker. In fact, sometimes I can be downright evil. However, you may all rest assured that I will withhold some of my more bitingly sarcastic remarks from this context, because some things just shouldn’t see the light of day. But the fact remains that I am mercilessly tough on tenors. To illustrate, I didn’t even like Ernie Haase when I first heard him, and you all know how I feel about Ernie Haase now (!)
I don’t know why, but I’m much more easy-going on baritones and leads, and it’s hard for a bass singer to do wrong in my eyes. Perhaps it’s because the tenor is my favorite part.
You say, “How’s that?”
Well you see, tenor singers are a bit like the little girl in the old rhyme: “And when she was good, she was very, very good/But when she was bad, she was ‘ORRID!” That’s the southern gospel tenor for you.
This little series will showcase some tenors being very, very good. I will take some favorites, some perhaps not as “favorite favorites” but still good, and find a live performance from each of them that is, in my opinion, absolutely perfect. It may or may not be a performance of one of their signature songs, but whatever it is, there are no flaws in it whatsoever. An important requirement is that the song be rather difficult in terms of the range and power needed to deliver it.
It’s entirely possible and in fact likely that for the best tenors, flawless performances are not rarities. So there may well be cases where I will pick out a performance, and someone else will come along and say, “Wait a minute, this one is flawless too!” And maybe they’re right. But this series is simply highlighting one piece that stood out to me as particularly good.
I was inspired to do this by watching Brian Free the other day, so I’ll kick it off with him. Though I love his voice, he’s not my absolute favorite, but he can do some terrific singing, and I’ve always appreciated the clarity with which he delivers a lyric. (Besides which he is also a humble, genuine guy and a class act, and anybody can quote me on that!) Today I’ll share with my readers his solo rendition of “The Old Gospel Ship.” An old classic, but the way Brian sings it is, to me, simply addictive. From the first note to the last, this is a flawless and thoroughly enjoyable performance:
I ask you, how can you not be hooked just in those first few seconds? When he steps out and simply sends those long notes soaring, “I have good news to bring,” I for one am all ears…and I haven’t always been a raving Free-ite. He doesn’t crack or squeak once all the way through, but delivers a relentlessly clear tone with no real effort to speak of. As Billy Hodges once said, “If Brian has a break, he doesn’t know where it is.” But even though the song’s range is demanding, it doesn’t reach the ear-piercing levels of “Looking For a City” and hence remains within more comfortable and pleasing boundaries. The less “through the roof” Brian gets, the less noticeable his somewhat nasal tone is. There’s a pure, clean quality to it that shines best when he doesn’t try to go beyond the sky (as it were). As I’ll discuss more later, I’ve lately been experiencing something of a conversion over Brian Free’s voice, and I think this performance is a big part of what turned me from being an occasionally appreciative listener to being an official Brian Free fan.
Part of what I’m looking for in this series are moments of such technical perfection that even people who might not regularly listen to a certain tenor have to admit, “This singer isn’t my personal cup of tea, but that was a really good performance.” I’ll be posting similar entries on Danny Funderburk and David Phelps, two more highly-respected tenors whom I wouldn’t generally go for.