June 23, 2015

FTV: I’d like to teach the world to sing . . .

Okay music fans – complete the song lyric in the title – go ahead, I will wait.  If you had ‘in perfect harmony’ pop in your head (where it is probably now stuck)(sorry), you win the grand prize.  Now the bonus round:  Who wrote it?  This FTV isn’t actually about that commercial (yes, it was written for a commercial and eventually became a pop hit), but it is about ‘harmony’.  Not the ‘getting along’ type of harmony, but the musical type.

John Fischer and I had been e-mailing back and forth as I picked his brain for an article I was working on about Bob Colclasure.  One of the things he mentioned about singing with Bob C was:   “I always credit my harmonizing ability to paying with Bob C.  When he did songs he always sang the melody, or what he thought the melody was.  I just learned to change parts as he did taking whatever sounded good.  I figured out that when we did a new song, I was often singing the melody first as he would jump to a harmony part for no reason.  I finally figured it out that that was the way he sang, filling in parts he felt needed to be there, even when they were countermelodies, so I learned how to change parts on dime”.

That got me thinking about how I learned to sing harmony.  I always say we used ‘accidental harmonies’ a lot with my first band, The Twig.  I know exactly what John means when he talks about ‘jumping around’ and ‘filling in parts’ because that is exactly what we did.  I had a pretty high range compared to Mike and Gene, so I went high when it was needed but we weren’t exactly singing harmonies.  We may have hit a few ‘accidentally’ and when it sounded good, we kept doing it and if it didn’t, we experimented until we found something that sounded better than just singing in unison.

When I joined the Air Force guys who played as Cloudy and Cool, I was a fill in so I didn’t sing that much at first.  When we auditioned a new keyboard player, we were running through Proud Mary and Ray the guitar player stopped us and said, ‘we aren’t going to have everybody singing the same parts – do the harmony’ and I said ‘okay – what is that?’  We got a brief lesson in ‘harmony’ from him on the spot and afterwards found out that not only did I like it, it wasn’t all that hard if you had a strong lead vocal to follow.  Ray insisted that we were starting out with a new name (Knockdown) and we were going to fix the things that he didn’t like about Cloudy and Cool –  singing in unison being one of them.

Ray and I would sometimes switch parts mid song as I had the higher range.  There were times that I couldn’t tell if I was on the right part because Ray was so adept at finding harmonies, he always made what we sang sound better.  Joy to the World (Three Dog Night) is a perfect example of a song that found us flip-flopping our parts between the verses and the chorus.  When we were learning new songs, I could tell if I was singing the right harmony part because Ray would get a big grin on his face.  If it wasn’t correct, he would just say ‘Hmm, let’s try that one again’.

By the time Barry Seymour and I formed Sledgehammer, I had been singing lead and harmony vocals for a good six years.  Barry had also been singing lead and as he was majoring in voice, he also brought his keen ear for arranging vocal parts to the band.  We had a great time dividing up the vocal duties between the four band members and occasionally found ourselves doing four part harmonies.  Mike designed and built our PA and he made sure we had vocal monitors.  Being able to hear our individual and collective vocal parts was a big plus playing gigs in venues ranging in size from a bar to Lakeview Arena.  Harmonies are always easier to find when one can hear all the vocalists!

We thought we could harmonize on any song, until we tried to learn Wishing You Were Here by Chicago.  The original recording features the vocal blending talents of The Beach Boys who make it seem so easy, but I assure you it is not!  To paraphrase the old Dirty Harry movie line ‘A band has got to know its’ limitations’ and we found ours with Wishing You Were Here.  The vinyl album we were using to learn the song had a dandy scratch in it and we all broke up when Mike started strumming his bass in a perfect imitation of the scratch which marred the recorded track. Our final burst of laughter had us howling like coyotes (in pretty good wild animal harmony, I might add) before we decided that this was one song we were not going to spend any more time trying to learn.

When I shared my thoughts about this article with Barry he added two additional comments:

“We also had a terrible time trying to learn the Rock and Roll Medley from Uriah Heep’s live album.  There were layered vocals that gave us fits (more howling).  We did, however, do a great job on Steely Dan’s Pretzel Logic”.  I also loved a lot of the Doobie Brothers stuff we did.  In light of our ‘howling’, I suggested that perhaps we should have changed our name to ‘Barry and the Coyotes’.

 In answer to my earlier question ( ‘who wrote  the lyric used in the title?’), our friends at Wikipedia explain it as follows:  “The idea originally came to an advertising executive named Bill Backer, who was working for McCann – Erickson — the agency responsible for Coca-Cola.  Backer, Roger Cook and Bill Davis were delayed at Shannon Airpiort in Ireland. After a forced layover caused  tempers to flare, they noticed the next morning that their fellow travelers were talking and joking while drinking Coca-Cola.  Backer wrote the line “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” on a napkin and shared it with British hit songwriters Cook and Roger Greenaway. The melody was derived from a jingle by Cook and Greenaway originally called “True Love and Apple Pie”.  A version of the song was recorded by Susan Shirley and released in 1971. Cook, Greenaway, Backer, and Billy Davis reworked the song and recorded it as a Coca-Cola radio commercial.”   It was later reworked into a hit pop record by both The New Seekers and The Hilltop Singers.  It promotes harmony using great harmonies.  “I’d like to teach the world to sing”  is kind of fun to sing along with because it has a nice harmony part that kicks in with the “in perfect harmony” line, which makes perfect sense to me now.