I listened to a fascinating documentary about the art of backing vocals on BBC Radio 4 a couple of weeks ago. The title was R.E.S.P.E.C.T. – The Art of Backing Vocals. Presented by Nick Barraclough. Due to licensing issues its not possible for us to bring you the actual programme, however, I took a few notes and soundbites which I thought I would share with you.
Nick begins “A voice on its own was never enough for me …it took off when we all came in on the second verse…many a dreary song gets that extra lift when we all join in on the chorus”
The idea of the programme was to push the lead singer aside and look at who is really making the song. We so often identify singers with egos. Backing vocalists need to be the opposite. Their role is to create great music not compete for the audience’s adulation.
What makes a great backing vocal?
So what makes a great backing vocal? Probably a three part answer – the notes sung, the voices singing and the words uttered.
The Beatles were cited as an excellent example of blending a range of different voices in 3-part harmony with some really clever word. What backing vocals did the Beatles sing about driving a car? “Beep beep beep beep yeah”.
Backing vocals really came into their own when pop music took off in the 50s and 60s. We’re all very familiar with the BV lines “Shoo wapp”,”Do lah”, “Shoop shoop” and more.
Contemporary Backing Vocals
There are a number of styles of contemporary BVs:
Question and answer BVs. Illustrated in The Shangri La’s 1964 song Leader of the Pack “By the way where did you meet him?” “I met him at the candy store…”. This song nails impressive harmonies, speaking parts, synchopation and even a BV line from a revving motorbike!
Canon – someone sings something and then someone else sings the same thing later. Kind of a version of singing in the round – will only work with certain melodies. Choral music developed from early plainsong which then developed into multiple parts including canon.
Tudor –harmonic syllables “Fa la lah” – an early version of Do Wap.
Comment – the lead sings a line and the BVs comment on it. Some nice examples in Gladys Knight and The Pips classic “I’m leaving” “Leaving on a midnight train to Georgia”.
The trick is providing a complementary backing line that doesn’t detract from the lead. One that punctuates and in some cases is a substitute for instruments.
A couple of examples of singer only recordings was cited – Harvey and the Wallbangers were a rock & roll group that eschewed bass and drums for big fat backing vocals (remember Boogie Nights and its rhythmic BVs?).
And many of you will have come across Take 6 – a bunch of theological students from Alabama. Its vocals only – 1 lead, 5 BVs, hand claps but sounds amazing. Who needs instruments when you can sing like this?
Singers like Joni Mitchell did all her own BVs herself so you have a medly of Joni Mitchells on record. Its common practice to use “multi tracking” techniques when the same singer sings the same thing two or three times. This will thicken up the sound and picks up all the little differences from each version. Its obviously much cheaper and quicker to have one singer doing all the parts, however you will often want to try and hide that effect. In order to sound like different singers you will need to make your voice sound different each time. Rather like actors performing in a different accent, backing vocalists can:
• Use a low larynx sound to warm up the vocal
• Raise the larynx to sound more nasally and younger (a bit like Janice from Friends)
• Give a Marilyn Monroe breathy “Mr President” delivery
• Or rock it up with a harsher delivery.
I hope you have enjoyed my notes from that programme – so sorry we can’t just give you the audio recording with all the beautiful BVs for you to hear but do listen to the tracks on YouTube or Spotify to hear the different styles. I hope you can perhaps take some inspiration from it and apply some of these ideas to your own worship band setting rather than just singing basic harmonies.