Society has often underestimated the range of black male emotion. The image of raw, aggressive sexuality has been shown as the only amorous quality that black men possess.
The poignancy of the male falsetto is able to capture listeners and make them realize that a black male species is just as capable of immersing himself in affection and the desire to finesse the female psychology. The falsetto is a show of selflessness. In a world where black men are historically thought of as less than a man, it speaks volumes that they would express themselves in an octave that shows such vulnerability.
The falsetto can be a show of despair but just as much a display of sensuality. The common thread is uncompromised emotional purity.
THE decided to make a list that captures some of the greatest falsetto performances. Surely some other phenomenal tunes were left out, but we hope those that you see here will encourage you to find more.
Little Anthony and the Imperials—“Goin’ Out of My Head” (1964)
When Anthony Gourdine debuted in the 1950s, he followed a trend where groups had a petite male front man, such as Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers. The group went on to have its own success, and younger generations might best connect with them as the first act to use the ever-so-clever “Shimmy Shimmy Ko Ko Bop,” all the way back in 1959.
By the time “Goin’ Out of My Head” was released in 1964, he was now in his 20s. The tune maintains the youthful quality that first made listeners fall in love with him, but the way he vocally interprets the subject matter of the song also alerts listeners that they are now seeing the emergence of his manhood.
The timelessness of Gourdine’s falsetto propelled the song into being one of the most covered tunes of the 20th century. Below is a 1970s performance of the classic:
The Temptations (led by Eddie Kendricks)—“Just My Imagination” (1971)
Eddie Kendricks is amongst the most regarded falsetto singers of music history. Though they might seem tame in current times, the Temptations were considered to be a sexier act in the 1960s. Even their name tells that story. But through their early years, it was Kendricks’ alluring falsetto that helped to move their presentation from “mannish” to debonair.
The difficulties that sometimes come with being a black male might lead one to believe that they do not have the capacity to contemplate and plan their lives with detail. Kendricks’ vocals show that his kindred do not aimlessly wander through their lives but hold a vision for their future.
Smokey Robinson—“The Agony and the Ecstasy” (1975)
The BET 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award recipient has been Motown’s other resident falsetto. He composed plenty of sweet tunes that made us appreciate love in its purest form. His wordplay and vocal delivery could be so honeyed that sometimes a listener would have to focus intently to grasp his pain.
“The Agony and the Ecstasy” is the story of a man who has overextended himself with female obligations. Smokey’s falsetto shows a sense of conviction. His vocals are frank enough to admit his wrongs but transparent enough to convey that he regrets the damage being emotionally attached to two women has caused in all their lives.
His vocal control seems to truly vacillate between agony and ecstasy. He shuffles through the pros and cons of a tortuous affair. The falsetto on this song shows a man who has acknowledges his uncertainties yet accountable enough to convey his self-serving ways.
The Isley Brothers—“Between the Sheets” (1983)
Though this song has been sampled for some of the most rambunctious hip-hop songs, it is the gentle vocal delivery that makes the original so enduring. The proposition for intimacy sometimes comes across as a one-sided fantasy in music. Ronald Isley’s falsetto flips that narrative and values pleasing the woman. Her pleasure is tantamount to his own.
Lenny Kravitz—“It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over” (1991)
Moving to a topic that is deserving of its own post, the genre of rock has indisputably been influenced by black musicianship, yet few black “rock stars” actually exist. Enter Lenny Kravitz. Finding into a niche that had already been aesthetically carved for him by Jimi Hendrix and Slash (of Guns & Roses), he scored the biggest hit of his career by channeling the falsetto of the R&B greats before him.
The song’s production is mellow yet extremely textural, borrowing elements of rock, soul, and even opera. Rather than compete with the sound, Lenny’s falsetto swoops in effortlessly. His falsetto reflects a man who has become accustomed to the disappointment love brings, but the fact he has yet to be defeated by love motivates him to nurture his relationship all the same.
Below is delivers a great live version on OG The Arsenio Hall Show:
Maxwell—“This Woman’s Work” (1997)
Maxwell has an artistry that unlocks creative channels across genres and connects demographics in such thrillingly unexpected ways. “This Woman’s Work” is a soft rock song first sang by British chanteuse Kate Bush. In the original, Kate sings what she thinks a man is saying after this wife has given birth. Maxwell and his falsetto let us know that a man can evidence those sentiments a woman hopes her husband feels.
The male ego can be one of the greatest hindrances to a relationship. Maxwell’s falsetto ends the fear of being viewed as the weaker sex. Instead, he shows appreciation for the sacrifices of womanhood. In this narrative, a woman has carried a child for nine months and finally given birth, for the child to now bear the husband’s name and be deemed his seed. In the most ideal scenarios, this tradition would strengthen a family structure.
But after the woman has given birth, her weakened state makes her question how much more she is willing to sacrifice in the name of their marriage. Maxwell’s tender encouragement actually strengthens the woman because that was what she needed all along. His falsetto is the vocal equivalent of a man stripping himself of the superhero persona to let a woman know that he appreciates the work she does that would be impossible for him to do.
Maxwell first released the song after he performed it in 1997 on MTV’s Unplugged. Though he released a studio recorded version in 2001, the original remains THE’s standard!
The falsetto has allowed us to experience just one angle of black men in all of their beautiful complexity. Comment and tell us your favorite falsetto performances!