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.

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