“…because we could.”

“…because we could.”

While speaking to one of my friends in the industry (I know, how could I possibly have FRIENDS after some of my reviews?!), the topic of “crazy talented” singers came up. In particular, we were discussing the Gold City lineup from the late 80’s that consisted of Brian Free, Ivan Parker, Mike LeFevre, and Tim Riley, and how their arrangements were borderline impossible to sing without some modification or risking vocal injury. My friend said that they asked Ivan once why they pitched their arrangements so high and made them so difficult for the average singer to perform.

His response? “Because we could.”

He explained that, at the time those songs were recorded, pretty much everyone in the group (save for Riley) was in their late 20’s or early 30’s, and arguably all were at their peak singing ability. In their eyes at that time, they saw no reason why they couldn’t give it everything they had (and truth be told, the results speak for themselves – there was nary a group on the road at that time that could rival Gold City in terms of vocal ability).

Ivan went on, however. “We never thought we’d be 40, 50 years old and still have to sing those songs!”

While it is indeed a humorous observation on his part, this is actually a very common problem among vocalists, especially those who have recognizable hits early on. They’ll record a song that is not too difficult to sing when they’re younger, but then they’re stuck singing it for years to come. Sure, you could just remove the song from the set list, but if it’s a huge hit, you’ll risk disappointing fans who didn’t get to hear it.

For artists who have live musicians, the easiest solution is to simply lower the key of the song. Some artists have done this over time, while others recognize the difficulty from the beginning and alter the live arrangement almost immediately. The Cathedrals did this several times over the years, although it was more often done to accomodate the limited instrumentation of piano/bass and vocals. If done well, there is no detectable problem, but in a quartet setting, for every step down to save your tenor or lead, you’re adding low notes to the baritone and bass; you can’t go too far in the other direction to compensate, so some pre-planning is required.

In today’s SG industry, however, nearly all music is pre-recorded studio tracks. This presents a number of problems when it comes to changing the key of a song. Sure, technological advancements allow tracks to be digitally pitch-shifted as needed, but if you have pre-recorded vocal stacks, you run the risk of distorting them (they’ll sound like a tape is dragging if you lower them). You then have to choose – do you keep the stacks as-is and sounding strange, do you take the time to recut the stacks, or do you go without? I’ve heard instances where a track (with original stacks) has been lowered, and the results are, shall we say, odd (for an example of this, check out this video).

This begs the question, though: just because you CAN do something, does that necessarily mean you SHOULD? Sure, you can hit that Eb in the studio after several attempts (or thanks to an engineer with auto-tune), but if you can’t duplicate it night after night, or plan on singing it for years to come, is it really wise to do it? As I said above, the results speak for themselves in terms of appeal at that time, but are you looking to run a sprint or a marathon?

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Kyle Boreing

Kyle has been writing for MusicScribe since 2008. He is a musician, producer, arranger, and occasional quartet singer, who pays way too much attention to recordings. He is an alumni of Stamps-Baxter School of Music and has shared the stage with many different artists. He also really likes movies that are "so bad they're good." Visit his website at www.kyleboreing.com, or follow him on Twitter @kyleboreing.

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  1. Reply June 07, 11:55 #1 Bill Lancaster

    Did you see the On the Couch with Fouch interview with Michael Booth? He was asked about the future and how much longer he will be on the road. Part of his response was that they already key music so that he can sing it in his 60’s. He is just trying to plan for the future.

    • Reply June 07, 12:08 Kyle Boreing Author

      The Booths are very wise in that aspect, and their own success shows that you don’t have to hit a million high notes to sell records.

  2. Reply June 07, 12:15 #2 David Bruce Murray

    It’s great they recorded those songs in those keys “because they could.” I wouldn’t want it to be any other way.

    What I don’t understand is why Ivan thinks he still has to sing them in those same keys at his solo concerts now. More than once, I’ve heard him switch to a baritone part just to be able to finish a song.

    The Booth Brothers have another option. They don’t have to change song keys. The next time they need a new vocalist, they could just hire a tenor rather than a lead, switch Michael to a lower part, and keep on rolling.

    • Reply June 09, 18:08 Michael Booth

      Not a bad idea David. Although we don’t expect a change one never knows what the future holds. The one thing that could be problematic is the change of the group sound. We were very blessed and fortunate that God provided Paul Lancaster to step in Jim Brady’s spot. To keep the majority of the blend and sound the same was indeed fortunate.

      The tenor sound might be even more challenging because of this one thing. There can be very little “tweeter” to the tone. My whole career I have pulled back on the sharp edge of the tone getting out front so that it will blend with Ronnies more covered and rounded tone. Doesn’t sound like much of a big deal until ya try to hit an A or Bb without a pointed tone. This is contrary to SG tenor 101. This is one reason you haven’t heard a lot of really high notes. With the tone pulled back and not up front….. That’ll kill ya.

      Now with Pauls range you will eventually see that we use him more and more on the tenor as I will take most of my future solos in the lead range. This will help later in years when the voice may grow tired and will keep it from being exposed in the upper range by itself.

      Great discussion as usual fellers. Thought I would give you guys an inside look at our thoughts on this subject. And for what it’s worth, I’m glad Ivan and the guys did what they did. It sure gave us all something spectacular to hear.



  3. Reply June 07, 17:24 #3 Darrell

    Good article, Kyle. I’ve often wondered why “high” singing/arrangements are often considered to be “good” singing. Well, I guess in the SG world, “low” singing is applauded as “good” singing too. I hate it when a group/singer gets to a high point in a particular song and I have to hold my breath and wonder if they will actually hit the notes. Seems at that point you are more concerning your self with the vocal theatrics. On a side note, the one person that I often think of as being a wonderful singer who doesn’t have to do all the vocal gymnastics that other singers do is Mike Upright. The man knows his limits and he stays within them. And boy does he know how to delivery the Message in song. Really, at the end of the day, isn’t that the point? :-)

  4. Reply June 07, 22:41 #4 QwertyJuan

    I’m glad they did it though! The albums they produced were timeless (especially Pillars of Faith).

  5. Reply June 08, 13:28 #5 Kenny Payne

    Glen Payne was a man who could sing any song on any night without any problems. The reason he could do it was he knew what his voice would handle. He said if you can’t sing a song on Sunday morning the same way you sing it on Saturday night, you need to change the arrangement. This came from someone who never had a sore throat in his life. If you sing for a living, take care of your voice and you’ll be able to sing a long time.

  6. Reply June 09, 07:30 #6 quartet-man

    I discussed this with a choir member some years ago, and told him about Glen Payne’s views. Although it can be disappointing when vocalist is unable to do on stage every night what they do on record, I still think I would rather experience it when I can than not at all. This refers more to things they do to their extremes while in the studio than it does in key selection at the time.

    Perhaps unfortunately, I can detect even a half-step key change. Even the Vocal Band lowering Let Freedom Ring from D flat to C makes a huge difference to me. That gift or curse used to make it hard for me to say sight-read a song in Ab that was being played in G. I’ve managed to get past that at least in smaller changes, but if it’s too far off from written can still pose a problem.

    I would say that, many professional groups’ Arrangements can be challenging for the average church group to begin with. Some though are quite a bit harder than others. My solution at times for Vocal Band songs has been to get women to sing the tenor part, but of course the power and punch is not there. I am a baritone/second tenor, but have sung the first tenor at times over the years. The last time I had a men’s Ensemble sing Alpha and Omega, I used the key that was in A instead of B, and even then got vocal fatigue quickly from the tenor part. Yes I am out of shape vocally ( especially to those extremes ), and struggle with allergies, but that tenor part stays up there a lot.

    I do think perhaps that the groups keying the songs like they do can not only make the songs more exciting ( in the short term at least ), but can also make them stand out and make it hard for anyone else to try to compete by doing the songs. I can certainly understand the wisdom in
    thinking long-term though.

    The Ivan thing drives me crazy. If you can’t stay on the melody, or have someone in a group that takes it over, then lower the darn key.

  7. Reply June 10, 08:34 #7 Darrell Thompson

    I have heard that Rosie Rozell said that he would try to sing a note that he did not know if he could reach. I loved his tenor singing but I never felt he had to “stretch.” I think this is what you are talking about. I have also heard that groups will record certain songs at certain times of the day just so the bass could reach the low notes or the tenor could reach the high ones.

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