Like a duck to water or a child to candy or a politician to a ho, I am powerfully drawn to musical harmonies. I love them, and I love them even more than I love a good melody, and BOY HOWDY how I love a good melody. This goes so far back for me that I cannot tell if it is intrinsic or Beatles-instilled; I suspect both. Harmonies catch my ear and my attention in any song, and if there is no harmony I am compelled to attempt to add one in my head, following the rise and fall of the melodic line like a quirky mischievous shadow. Harmonies are that way; they don’t have to be as solid and sturdy as the main line, they can add depth or height or emotion to a song, and sometimes a literal note of unpredictability into a piece that makes the song more unique and unexpected to the ear.

But on the flip side of this, I do not love all musical harmonies. Some actually bother me so much that they make me feel sort of ill. There is something to harmonies that are too close together and too many and too dense that can make me feel like I need to pull wax out of my ears or throw up. Two examples of harmony singing I find intolerable are Barbershop Quartet and its spin-offs like The Four Freshmen:

Oh, dear. That is SO not for me. It sounds stilted and dated to my ears, impure and annoying. Now I can absolutely hear the musicality to this and understand that it is based on jazz instrumentation and is quite difficult to do, and maybe it is some kind of generational dividing line for me, I don’t know. I also don’t like the Beach Boys because of their Four Freshmen-type vocals. Sorry, Four Freshman, you don’t graduate my academy of awesome.

No, I like clean, clear harmonies, probably based more on folk, country, and blues-based traditions. There is something more natural and emotional to these for me, as if you are reaching back into both time and some kind of universal musical feeling. There is no doubt whatsoever that the Everly Brothers were THE first and most influential harmonizers in rock n’ roll. Their line is so completely clear into the Beatles. So many of the Beatles’ early songs were essentially Everly Brothers tributes, and I think Paul McCartney would be more than happy to confirm that. Don and Phil Everly made harmonizing sound so strong yet so effortless and soaring in execution that they seemed magical. Listen to them, then the Beatles:

It is something to note that it probably was primarily the massive success of the Beatles and the British Invasion in the mid-‘60s that caused the permanent decline in the Everly Brothers career.

Everly Brothers to Beatles to X. Don’t you give me that look – it’s there, oh yes it is!

I don’t have the best voice in the world, but I used to have no voice at all. I sang like I spoke. When I got to be in my teen years I decided this was just completely unacceptable, and I was going to do something about it. All I could think of to do was to try to sing along to my beloved records that I thought were challenging, tape that and listen back, and keep trying to train my ear to match pitch and tone until I could hear this little clangy resonance that told me I was on or very close. One of the toughest but most fun records to sing to was “This Boy” by the Beatles. I would randomly tap myself on the leg to switch between the three harmony parts. Instant switch and dead-on was the only acceptable outcome of the game. How I wish I had those tapes still, they’d be hilarious. Here are the Beatles performing that and a couple of other goodies on the Ed Sullivan show:

Ah, my Beatles, channeling the Everlys, Little Richard, and YES the friggin’ Four Freshmen, live with no monitors. I can hear in their performance such confidence and desire to sing well.

Harmony, for me, is something more than some musical notes. It represents some ancient internal desire to connect with something else, yet bring out individuality. To create something better from the collaborative efforts of two.

Or more, yes Four Freshmen, or more.