“We were looking for someone who looks like a man and sings like a woman. We got the ‘sings like a woman’ part down….”
Emcees have been using variations of this joke for years, and yet somehow, it always gets a laugh. It does, however, raise an interesting question….what part is the “tenor” really singing??
To answer that question, we have to go back to James Vaughn and the era of songbooks. His idea of putting a quartet on the road to sing the songs in his songbooks to help sell them was one of the factors that ultimately led to what we now know as the southern gospel male quartet. The problem was, the songbooks most often were written in SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) format so both men and women could sing the songs. In order for a male quartet to sing the songs, they had to be re-arranged into a TTBB (tenor, tenor, baritone, bass) format. The easiest way to accomplish this was to have one man sing the soprano (melody) line an octave lower, thus filling the second “tenor” part. The first tenor would then sing the alto part, the baritone would sing the written tenor part, and the bass would (of course) sing the bass. Because the melody is also referred to as the lead, we wind up with the standard lineup of Tenor, Lead, Baritone, Bass – the modern southern gospel male quartet!
In classical/traditional music, however, there is no such part as the “lead.” It’s doesn’t exist. The closest you would come to what we refer to as the “modern gospel lead singer” would be the Second Tenor (and in fact, if you look at some older gospel music material, the lead singer is often referred to as the “second tenor”). A modern gospel quartet is basically a TTBB lineup, which in the Vaughn days was perfectly fine, because the goal of the traveling quartet wasn’t to promote themselves; it was to sell songbooks for the churches to use and sing with. It was less about showmanship and more about making sure the congregation could sing the songs.
Over time, however, some of these quartets began to make a name for themselves, and they began looking for ways to stand out. They would take the same songs, but spice them up with different arrangements to show off their vocal skills. This started the trend of super-high tenors and super-low bass singers. The tenors in stood out because they “looked like a man and sang like a woman,” while the bass vocalists were singing notes up to an octave lower than most male vocalists could sing.
But what vocal part are they actually singing?
The modern gospel music male tenor is actually a countertenor (a male singer whose vocal range is the equivalent of an alto or mezzo-soprano), with an upper range going to a high D or E. For the higher gospel tenors, they actually would fall into what’s known as a sopranist, who can get up to a C6. The bass singers are usually in the “basso profoundo” range (although, depending on the terminology, some may only make the “strong bass” category). Really low singers (think JD Sumner) would be considered “oktavists” in the classical field. The modern “lead” singer is usually in the classical tenor range, leaving the baritone as the only one who actually is singing the correct vocal assignment.
So, at the end of the day, what we consider to be Tenor, Lead, Baritone, and Bass, are actually Countertenor, Tenor, Baritone, and Basso Profoundo. Just don’t expect to see it on any liner notes or website bios anytime soon….
Kyle has been writing for MusicScribe since 2008. He is a gospel music soloist, occasional quartet singer, and church music director who pays way too much attention to recordings. He is an alumni of Stamps-Baxter School of Music and has shared the stage with artists such as Mercy's Mark, the Dove Brothers Band, and The Oak Ridge Boys. Visit his website at www.kyleboreing.com, or follow him on Twitter @kyleboreing.