God Only Knows: Sweet Vocal Harmonies



Vocal harmonies. I just love them. I love hearing them and I love singing them in the various bands I’ve been in over the years. They can give you a big beaming smile, make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end, or bring a tear to the eye.

So, let me take you on a whistle-stop tour of the history of vocal harmonies through the decades, up to the present day and hopefully introduce you to some new, and old, favourites along the way.


The origins of layering voices to make a pleasing sound started in European post-renaissance churches with sung Masses and classical choral music. In the late 19th century Barbershop quartets becomes popular in the US, which then underwent a revival in the 1940’s. This was followed by the rise of doo-wop in the 1950’s

image‘Whispering Grass’ by The Ink Spots was a popular early doo-wop hit

It was doo-wop and barbershop (along with jazz vocal groups such as The Four Freshman) which were to be the main influences on a young Brian Wilson in the late 1950’s. He formed a group with his brothers and some friends which would, in time, become one of the most influential vocal harmony groups ever: The Beach Boys.

The Beach Boys – Sloop John B

This clip is an outtake from one of the sessions for their masterpiece ‘Pet Sounds’, and with the vocals isolated from the instruments you can really hear the full depth and breadth of the performances. There were lots of different types of voices in The Beach Boys and they all blended together perfectly to create their unique sound.

On the other side of the Atlantic The Beatles were honing their close harmony skills (heavily influenced by the work of The Everly Brothers) in the bars and clubs of Liverpool and Hamburg in the early 1960’s. The combination of Lennon, McCartney and Harrison’s voices continued to be an integral part of The Beatles sound all the way through their career together.

The Beatles – Paperback Writer

‘Paperback Writer’ from 1966 was directly influenced by The Beach Boys. ‘Sloop John B’ has just hit the British charts and The Beatles had managed to get their hands on an advance copy of ‘Pet Sounds’. It has an awesome a cappella start before a killer guitar riff and Macca’s whooping bass kick in. There’s also some great textures created by the vocals under the later verses.

The so-called ‘British Invasion’ of the US in early 1964 was a catalyst for many groups on both sides of the pond using vocal harmonies in the next few years. Out if the ashes of some of these came a group which just about rewrote the book in 1969 with their eponymous album: Crosby Stills and Nash.

imageDavid Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash joined forces in 1968 from The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and The Hollies respectively. The album ‘CS&N’ was, at times, very stripped down, with minimal instrumentation; something which allowed the rich sound of their exquisite vocal harmonies to shine through (such as the atmospheric ‘Guinnevere’).

Crosby, Stills and Nash – Carry On

The example here, ‘Carry On’, is taken from their next album ‘Deja Vu’, which featured the addition of Neil Young to the band (but not on this particular track). The breakdown section in the middle is exquisite with Nash’s top vocal part cascading down as the other harmonies hold firm.

In the 1970’s the mantle was taken up by bands such as The Eagles (whose songwriters Don Henley and Glenn Frey were directly influenced by CS&N). They modified the West Coast sound, giving it more of a Country flavour.

The Eagles – Seven Bridges Road

This track was a live favourite which started out as a dressing room warm-up song and ended up as a set opener, featuring all five members harmonising.

With the advent of electronic music, vocal harmonies became a lot less prominent in the mix of records in the 1980’s. An exception to this would be a mini doo-wop revival by Huey Lewis and the News and their hit ‘If This Is It’

Huey Lewis and the News – If This Is It

If you try and ignore the goofy 80’s video there’s some good old blue eyed soul in there backed up on the choruses by some rather nice doo-wop harmonies

The dawn of the 1990’s gave rise to the girl/boy bands, and with it, a resurgence of groups relying on close vocal harmonies. The pick of the boys in this respect was probably Boyz II Men (how 90’s is the name of that band?!) who had a massive hit with ‘End Of The Road’


 Those Boyz certainly knew how to rock the suit/jeans combo…

The pick of the girls was En Vogue (whom I had a massive crush on in my university years. There, I said it).

En Vogue – My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It)

A looped James Brown guitar sample threads it’s way throughout the song whilst the girls (Dawn, if you’re asking…) hit some great harmonies including the obligatory a cappella breakdown.

In the mid to late 2000’s a band formed in Seattle with a mutual admiration for Bob Dylan and Brian Wilson. The sound of Fleet Foxes is a throwback to the late 1960’s West Coast pop sound with some reverb-drenched harmonies worthy of note. ‘White Winter Hymnal’ and Mykanos off their first album are fine examples of this.

Fleet Foxes – Mykanos 

So, that brings us up to the present day. Are there any bands out there still pushing the envelope and kicking out some killer harmonies in 2014? Well, the whole inspiration for this particular blog is from a band I’ve just become obsessed with over the past month called The Staves.

The Staves are three sisters with beautiful, pure voices who create the sort of harmonies to make you melt. There’s something otherworldly about sibling harmonies (or ‘blood harmonies’, as they are sometimes known). The same voice overdubbed with harmonies has a pleasing sound to the ear. Get the right mix of people and the experience gets to a new level. Do the same with siblings and it’s a whole new ball game.  There’s enough similarities and differences between the vocals to make the whole thing gel together and create a lush, layered sound with an almost instinctive feel for how the parts work together.

The Staves – Wisely and Slow

This song, the opener off their last album Dead Born and Grown, with it’s sliding, swooping parts is perfection. There’s just the right amount of suspended tension in some of the sections which give way to glorious resolution. They have just released an EP, ‘Blood I Bled’, after recording sessions in a snowy wilderness with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon.

I urge you to buy it.

The Staves – Blood I Bled


Leon Wilson


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s