And scoff not at the Stylistics

The castrato may be dead, if temporarily exhumed in the film Farinelli, but men singing like women remains a pop phenomenon. Barney Hoskyns reaches for the high notes, while (below) two of our finest falsettos talk (like a man)

It was only fitting, somehow, that McAlmont and Butler's "Yes" - the most thrilling pop single of 1995 - also marked the return of the male falsetto as a supreme pop instrument. When David McAlmont let loose over Bernard Butler's neo-Spectoresque assembly of swirling strings and cavernous drums, his multi-tracked flights of rapture took us to the glory days of vocal group soul, of Little Anthony and the Imperials, of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and even of Russell Tompkins Jr in the Stylistics.

Scoff not: the Stylistics (left) may denote everything that was kitsch about Seventies soul, but the singles they made with producer Thom Bell between 1972 and 1974 ("Betcha By Golly Wow", "You Make Me Feel Brand New") utilised the creamy falsetto of Russell Tompkins Jr to devastatingly seductive effect. Falsetto leads were big in the early Seventies: other great exponents of the style included William Hart of the Delfonics, Ted Mills of Blue Magic and Marshall Thompson of the Chi-lites. All these singers drew to a greater or lesser extent on the peerless voices of Little Anthony (Gourdine) and William "Smokey" Robinson - the first chokingly camp, the second wistfully ethereal.

The high tenor/falsetto came down to soul through the great gospel quartets and through the street-corner sound of doo-wop. Swooning, melismatic leads like Clyde McPhatter and Jackie Wilson learned all the craft they needed to know in church. This extraordinary sound of a man singing like a woman produced some of the most delirious testifying - both to the power of God and of the secular beloved - ever recorded. What is more surprising is the hysterical reaction it inspired in female admirers inside and outside the church; the more stratospheric the falsetto, the more orgasmic the response. It was almost as though the falsetto - a voice implicitly castrated - allowed women a unique access to man's vulnerability and, dare one say it, femininity. (One of the most unearthly falsetto voices in soul history belonged to Ted Taylor, who had to take up karate to defend himself against men who taunted him.)

Two singers who tailored their styles to exploit the ambiguous sexuality of falsetto were Marvin Gaye and Al Green, both a long way from the gruff he-man emoting of Barry White or Teddy Pendergrass. For Green in particular, falsetto was about losing yourself in a kind of rapturous, polysexual freefall. Prince took this to its logical extreme with the disarmingly speeded-up falsetto of "If I Was Your Girlfriend", then paid tribute to the swooning ecstasies of Philadelphia soul on the magnificent "Adore". Other singers - Curtis Mayfield, Aaron Neville - have used falsetto in a more cerebral, less overtly sexual manner. Neville in particular, with his flutteringly baroque phrasing, sounds closer to the great castrati of European opera, which only makes his heavy-set appearance - complete with tattooed biceps - the more disconcerting. An equally spine-tingling voice is that of Horace Andy, the Jamaican veteran whose vocals grace the work of the Bristol group Massive Attack.

Falsetto is such a big part of black music that it is easy to overlook the few white practitioners of the style, from the Italian-American doo- wop lead of Frankie Valli through the fey prog-rock mewlings of Yes's Jon Anderson to the trilling (and often twee) harmonies of the Bee Gees (right) and the electro-pop vocals of Jimmy Somerville. Colin Blunstone's sub-Stingish new album is a long way from the sound of "Say You Don't Mind" (1972), but he remains one of the more extraordinary white pop singers of the past quarter century. Falsetto was a key component in the honeyed harmonies of the Beach Boys; by Surf's Up (1971), indeed, Carl Wilson had developed an exquisitely beautiful solo voice. Van Morrison floated up to his falsetto register for the divine "Crazy Love" on Moondance, while Robert Wyatt sings his austere polemics with the touching fragility of a choirboy. More recently, Jeff Buckley has followed his late father Tim's example and taken the tenor voice into previously uncharted territories.

No white singer, however, is ever likely to scale the peaks of arguably the greatest falsetto performance recorded in the last 20 years - a slow- building 1975 Stax track by obscure gospel-soul man Rance Allen called "God Is Wonderful". Over the course of four minutes, Allen swoops, slides, shrieks, soars and shudders his way through the ultimate love song to the Creator. It takes you as close to heaven as any piece of music I know.

Arts and Entertainment
'Banksy Does New York' Film - 2014

Art Somebody is going around telling people he's Banksy - but it isn't the street artist

Arts and Entertainment
Woody Allen and Placido Domingo will work together on Puccini's Schicchi

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
The sixteen celebrities taking part in The Jump 2015

TV

Arts and Entertainment
British author Helen Macdonald, pictured with Costa book of the year, 'H is for Hawk'
booksPanel hail Helen Macdonald's 'brilliantly written, muscular prose' in memoir of a grief-stricken daughter who became obsessed with training a goshawk
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge has announced his departure from Blink-182

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

    Pot of gold

    Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
    10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

    From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

    While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
    Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore