B Is for Harmony | Music Matters

The second letter of the Greek alphabet comes up a lot when considering harmony singing in mid- to late 20th-century popular music. Australian brothers Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb of the Bee Gees, well known for their tight three-part harmonies, made their first appearance on American television 50 years ago this month (The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, 2/4/68); a survey of other harmony-rich groups finds many that share that first initial.

The Beatles & the Beach Boys

The Fab Four and the Brian Wilson–led brother act emphasized two- and three-part harmony. This was par for the course in 20th-century Western popular music; immediately prior to both bands’ rise to prominence in 1962, close harmony singing was all over Western culture via doo- wop groups such as the Five Satins and the Penguins, neo-barbershop acts including the Four Freshmen and the Mills Brothers, and country-style sibling acts such as the Louvin Brothers and the Everly Brothers.

Yet while the Beach Boys and the early Beatles vocal technique was widely imitated during the mid 1960s, harmony singing fell out of favor in the later part of that decade, most likely owing to the very same barbershop quartet quality that bespeaks, shall we say, squaresville, as far as the late 1960s/early 1970s counterculture was concerned. Which is to say the Beach Boys seemed old-fashioned by 1968, whereas, at the same time, the ­Beatles deemphasized harmony singing just as the band was experiencing disharmonious inter­personal relations.

The Bee Gees

Then along came the Bee Gees: Barry and his younger twin brothers flew the flag for strong harmony singing in the late 1960s. Although the vocal element that the Bee Gees have been best known for since their late 1970s disco era is Barry’s “screaming in tune” falsetto, the brothers were initially regarded for tight three-part harmonies employed on lush orchestral pop ­singles such as “To Love Somebody,” “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” “Lonely Days,” and “Run to Me.” The brothers, too, seemed out of step in the late 1960s/early 1970s with their orderly, shimmery vocal latticeworks, but by the mid-1970s, the likes of the Electric Light Orchestra and ABBA would take the Gibbs’ techniques straight to the bank.

The Byrds

The Byrds were the other primary act key to close harmony singing in 1968. Debuting with “Mr. Tambourine Man” (1964), the Roger McGuinn–fronted quintet initially joined ensemble singing associated with the early 1960s folk movement to Beatles-style instrumentation. But by 1968, the band resolved to update country music similarly via “Sweetheart of the Rodeo.” Even more significantly, David Crosby had departed the band by that time to found Crosby Stills & Nash, which would carry on the Byrds legacy as one of the dominant acts of the early 1970s, and both Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles would make lush vocal harmonies their corner­stone.

Big Star

Power pop acts like the Raspberries and Badfinger kept the early Beatles/Beach Boys aesthetic of short, sharp, harmony-heavy songs alive in a music scene largely bereft of such. But it’s Big Star, the Memphis quartet led by Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, that has loomed the largest, inspiring several decades of rock bands such as the Bangles and Teenage Fanclub with an often haunted atmosphere encompassing tight harmonies and unexpected R&B flourishes.

“Bohemian Rhapsody”

If harmony singing was in little evidence in hard rock music in the early 1970s, British band Queen fixed that state of affairs via a truckload of stacked vocal tracks in this metallic operetta. The band served as an interstice of Zeppelinesque heaviness, Bowie-ish camp, and Elton John–style balladry that still seems startlingly unique, and this recording set the scene for gleaming vocal arrangements from groups such as ­Boston and Def Leppard and innumerable pop metal ­performers.

Boyz II Men

With much respect to New Edition, rhythm and blues/soul has had but one dominant harmony group in the past 30 years, and its name is Boyz II Men. Songs such as “The End of the Road” and “On Bended Knee” were emulated not only by the likes of Bone Thugs & Harmony and TLC but by just about every 15-year-old harmonizer aiming to lay waste to their junior high talent show in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Backstreet Boys

The African American harmony group model exerted a strong influence upon the boy band phenomenon of the late 1990s/early 2000s, and the Backstreet Boys were the topmost of the popmost. Swedish mega-pop supremo Max Martin crafted 1999’s “I Want It That Way” for the ­Floridian fivesome, and it is the prime exponent of vocal-heavy recordings of the past 20 years, exhibiting Sistine Chapel–levels of craft that would inspire acts such as the Jonas Brothers and One Direction.

Rob Kemp is a Brooklyn-based music writer

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  1. Allison Gray says:

    Thanks for pointing out how seminal the Bee Gees are in modern music. I listen to so many modern acts and can hear the Bee Gees in their harmonies.

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