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

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama


Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before