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Backing singers

Are backing singers the overlooked ingredients that turn a good piece of popular music into classic? Here I offer my top 10 songs with backing singers. I make no apology for the fact that they are mostly what my wife Julie calls ‘fluffy music’ – that wonderful pre-Beatles, dreamboats & petticoats, Wake-up-little-Susie/Hats-off-to-Larry/Lipstick-on-your-Collar era from the late 1950s and early 1960s. Before my time, naturally!

This started after a discussion in the Dordogne with Honeyguider David Bennett – and a link he kindly sent me on a fine Radio 4 programme on this theme (you can 'listen again'). That prompted this list – but don’t blame David, I am quite comfortable with my enthusiasm!

10. At The Hop by Danny and the Juniors (1958).

The open syncopated chords ‘bah bah bah bah’ seize the ears as they lead you to the high tempo verse and chorus of this rock and roll classic. If this doesn’t get your toes tapping then nothing will – yet it’s those opening chords from Danny’s backing singers that define the song.

At The Hop

9. Blue Moon by The Marcels (1961).

Doo-wop demands close harmony and syncopation. This version of a Rodgers & Hart song is such a well-known example of the genre that, arguably, its brilliance is overlooked. You could say the doo-wop style disqualifies this recording from this list, but I think it warrants a Top 10 place by this acid test: can you imagine this record without the 'Ba-ba-ba-ba a-dang-a-dang-dang’? Unthinkable!

8. He’s So Fine by The Chiffons (1963).

Where would this be without the ‘Doo-lang doo-lang doo-lang’? Lovely 1960s girl group stuff. The idea that George Harrison copied it for My Sweet Lord – a famous law suit – is just daft.

chiffons
The Viscounts

7. Who Put the Bomp by The Viscounts (1961).

A wonderfully tongue-in-cheek parody of early rock & roll, including backing singers.

‘Who was that man?
I’d like to shake his hand
He made my baby fall in love with me.’

6. Sorry But I’m Gonna Have to Pass by The Coasters (1994).

A minor hit in 1994 in the UK after it was used in in Volkswagon advert. Then this doo-wop gem used to pop up on Terry Wogan’s show: imagine it being played at three minutes to eight o’clock and being followed by the pips. A superb base lead, classic backing vocals and simple lyrics telling this tale of marital fidelity.

The Very Best of the Coasters
The Beach Boys

5. Help Me Rhonda by The Beach Boys (1965).
It’s Mike Love’s baseline that brings it into this Top 10. In the chorus, listen for his rising ‘bow wow wow wow.’ Once you’ve heard them, it’s almost impossible to hear Help Me Rhonda without joining in – as Mike urged the audience to do when I heard the Beach Boys play live, one damp night in Thetford Forest a few years ago.

4. Leader Of The Pack by The Shangri-Las (1964).

The Radio 4 programme made a compelling case for the strength of these backing vocalists – who not only sing, but also do the iconic opening dialogue:

‘Is that Jimmy’s ring you’re wearing? Uh huh. Where d’you meet him?'

Elvis Presley - with the Jordanaires

3. Teddy Bear by Elvis Presley (1957).

Many of Elvis’s early records had the superb Jordanaires on backing vocals. According to Noel Edmonds’s misheard lyrics, on Radio 1 many years ago, they are singing ‘Hot banana, hot hot banana’. And perhaps they are.

2. Rubber Ball by Bobby Vee (1961).

Pop at its fluffiest, with backing vocals that make it: ‘Bouncy bouncy, bouncy bouncy’. They don’t write lyrics like that any more. Another by Bobby Vee, 'How Many Tears', was another of Noel Edmonds’s misheard lyrics: the backing singers seem to be singing ‘Young Jimmy Young Jimmy Young.’ If not that, then what is it?

Bobby Vee - Rubber Ball

Roy Orbison

1. Only The Lonely by Roy Orbison (1960). 

Backing singers cannot compete with popular music's finest male singer, yet they make the Big O’s first number one into a pop masterpiece. ‘Dum dum dum dummy do ah’ opens the song and alternates with ‘Way yay yay yay yeah’ to devasting effect.

Even after the end high notes (see right) the backing singers still get the last word, as they do on this web page, with a final:
‘Dum dum dum dummy do ah’.

Back to minor third Chris Durdin, June 2010

Skyscanner suggests 100 top travel songs — here.


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Bubbling under the top 10

Teenager in Love – Dion and the Belmonts (1959)
Action clip on YouTube here

Sweet Talkin’ Woman – Electric Light Orchestra (1978)
(YouTube versions presently blocked)

David's nomination: Please Mr Postman by The Beatles ("of course" - he's from Liverpool). On YouTube here

On a similar theme, In Spite Of All The Danger taken from the film Nowhere Boy, the early life of John Lennon, here.

Other nominations? Email them to chris@honeyguide.co.uk

_____________________________

At The Hop lyrics here

See this song on YouTube here

More on Wikipedia here

Danny and the Juniors

Blue Moon lyrics here

The original song on YouTube here or a not-so-young Marcels live here

More on Wikipedia here

He's So Fine Lyrics here

Hear this song on YouTube here

More on Wikipedia here including the My Sweet Lord story.

 

Who Put The Bomp Lyrics here

Best to skip this song sung by The Muppets (on YouTube here), better to hear the Viscounts here - with subtitles!

More on Wikipedia here

 

 

 

 

The Coasters on Wikipedia here

Lyrics here (PDF)

On You Tube here.

 

 

The Beach Boys

The Beach Boys - see no 5

Help Me Rhonda lyrics here

Hear and see a live version on YouTube here

More on Wikipedia here

In general, I’d say the Beach Boys trademark close harmony, mostly falsetto, is subtly different from backing vocals. But I expect Al Jardine, lead vocalist in this track, was glad to have to have the perfect blend of the three Wilson brothers behind him.

 

 

Leader Of The Pack lyrics here

A slightly odd yet strangely compelling game show version on YouTube here, or just hear it, with words, here

More on Wikipedia here

 

 

Teddy Bear lyrics here

YouTube here - a clip from the film 'Loving You'

More on the Jordanaires on Wikipedia here

File:ElvisTeddy.jpg

 

Rubber Ball lyrics here

YouTube here

More on Wikipedia here

Roy Orbison - Only The Lonely

Just lyrics here, sheet music here

YouTube Only the Lonely here (original version, there are others on YouTube).

More on Wikipedia here

How to finish a song

One of the great features of Roy Orbison’s best-known songs is that they end with, or build towards, a crescendo (In Dreams, It’s Over) or have a twist to the story (Pretty Woman, Running Scared) – or both. In 'Only the Lonely' it’s when Roy soars in the bit that goes:

“Maybe tomorrow, a new romance
No more sorrow, but that’s the chance
You’ve got to take when your lonely heart breaks
Only the lonely.”

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