Harmony Master Class: Simon & Garfunkel and Andy Williams

A harmony master class, as I will define it, is a preferably live exhibition of exceptionally good harmony singing. It can be from any genre, as long as it’s aesthetically pleasing. For my first installment, I’ve chosen Simon & Garfunkel’s collaborative guest appearance on the Andy Williams show. Williams often invited and sang with popular groups of his day (including other folk revivalist bands like Peter, Paul & Mary). Although Williams’s voice is heavier than Simon or Garfunkel’s, it’s remarkable how smoothly he blends in his tones with theirs. In the little intro clip, he recalls that he didn’t find it difficult to find his part, because he grew up practicing harmony singing with his brothers.

The piece is the legendary “Scarborough Fair,” here presented with the rarely heard, Simon-penned counterpoint tune “Canticle.” As you might be able to tell, the lyrics are rather flaky and anti-war (you can follow along here), but then that’s only to be expected. However, if you concentrate on the music, it’s quite exquisitely woven together with the folk song.

It might look a bit odd that Garfunkel appears to be staring very intently at Williams as they sit in a circle around a single microphone, but this is a practical choice. As I can confirm from personal experience, eye contact is especially important in synchronizing close harmony when you haven’t sung extensively with your singing partners.

An interesting detail is the way Paul shows off his upper range around 2:48, harmonizing above Williams while Garfunkel sings the counterpoint, then dips back under him for the next line. As a duo, Simon and Garfunkel would often cross their parts so that you could only tell by careful listening who was singing what at a given moment. Williams puts it well when describing the elegant simplicity of their sound: “You became mesmerized by it, by just that lack of things going on.”

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13 thoughts on “Harmony Master Class: Simon & Garfunkel and Andy Williams

  1. Terry Franklin

    What I see watching this is the almost lost art of blending when singing with others. I certainly am not hearing much of it within Southern Gospel music. Everyone appears to be fighting to be heard. My favorite singers are those that can almost disappear when they are not carrying the melody. Sadly, very few of today’s “greatest” singers have this ability — you can ALWAYS hear them. They want you to.

    Jake Hess could do it. Whenever any other member of the Statesmen was carrying the melody, Jake would become invisible. But then, as soon as the melody came back to him, there he is, that classic Jake Hess we all recognize.

    In analyzing what great blend singers do, I see 3 characteristics: 1) They back off their volume so that the melody is ALWAYS dominant. That means letting the “Lead” LEAD!! 2) They darken their tone in relation to the melody singer. That usually means attenuating the nasal characteristics of the voice, making it “throatier.” 3) They soften consonants, singing in a sort of “mush-mouth” style. Old commercial group singers from the 1950’s used to call it singing “oily.”

    EXAMPLE: Pull up The Imperials singing “His Name Is Wonderful” on YouTube. It’s the one where they are wearing blue suits. This is circa 1968 or 1969, totally live, no tricks, just piano. Listen closely to Terry Blackwood as he passes the melody to Jim Murray. THAT’s what I’m talking about. Also, listen to the blend between Terry (the Lead singer) and Roger Wiles, the Baritone. To this day, I often can’t tell them apart.

    And the good news for all of us is that one doesn’t necessarily need a great voice to be a great blend singer. I won’t name names (I’d probably get someone mad at me) but there have been a number of just average singers that had that blending ability to hold chords together like glue. God bless ’em!

    1. Great insights! I agree, and I also love that performance of “His Name is Wonderful.” I played it over and over when I first found it. I grew up on the Russ Taff incarnation of the Imperials, when they were doing more of the soft rock thing a la Air Supply, Steve Miller Band, etc. But I never knew they had a blend like that.

      I think Jim Murray would be an example of someone who could do double duty—he had a great solo voice, but he could also disappear into the blend when someone else was leading.

      1. Terry Franklin

        Jim Murray is a GREAT example of that! Notice (on “His Name Is Wonderful”) how he goes from singing softly to really stepping-in to the melody when it’s handed to him. Jim Murray is one-of-a-kind; one of the greatest voices EVER! If I had to come up with one word to describe his singing it would be this: Angelic. No one can sing like that man. Trust me, I’ve tried!

    2. If comments had a “favorite” button, I would without hesitation click it on Terry’s comment. RIGHT ON…and very insightful.

      As I am probably, in my estimation, the feeblest vocalist in our family, I prefer harmony over tackling a lead line and have discovered those very techniques to be most beneficial in blending with my siblings. Don’t suppose I consider myself a blending master—I’m not and I know it—yet what Terry defines does really work.

      The purpose of blending is to support the lead and subsequently the message you are both trying to convey—not to out-sing the lead and draw attention to your “amazing” abilities. That is a hard lesson to learn, and actually needs to stem from an attitude of humility. A harmony vocalist aims to enhance (not detract or distract), heartening and contributing to a solid sound.

      I have also noticed that imitating the way the lead pronounces his/her words is crucial to a tighter blend. That’s one of the reasons family groups are often lauded for their tightness—they all come from the same location and thus possess similar accents. (Unless you’re from our home, where we have a strange combination of Minnesota, Iowa, and Southern accents!) When I am attentive to my sister Leesha as she sings, focusing on her mouth, it is easier to mimic her pronunciation and achieve a closer blend. (I’m pretty much echoing what you said in your post about eye-contact, but applying it to pronunciation.) I seem to recall that the Weatherfords would do that—concentrating for long periods of time on a few syllables to attain the blend for which they are still respected.

      The groups today that work on their blend are the ones that really shine, in my opinion. (And that covers the national and regional spectrum.) Yes, there are people with incredible vocal abilities, compelling stage presence, and big hearts, but there is a wonderful dimension to a group that possess those qualities and goes the extra mile to blend.

      Okay, I’ve ranted enough! 🙂 Good thoughts, y’all!

  2. Jan

    I’m a very average singer and have no training at all, but I seem to have a gift for hearing the harmonies in songs. The most beautiful harmonizers are the ones I have the most difficulty isolating. And those are the songs that are the most soothing to me. Music is such a wonderful gift from the Lord.

      1. Terry Franklin

        Okay, here is a test I use for harmony singers. You could title it, “So You Think You’re Good At This Harmony Stuff.” Try to add a third part to the Beatle’s song, “If I Fell.” It’s a lot of fun once you get the part down.

        That’s one way I learned to sing harmony — singing a third part with Conway & Loretta, Porter & Dolly, Glen Campbell & Bobbie Gentry, John & Paul, and many others. Even Paul & Art. I think I’m a serial harmonizer!

      2. Me too! (Oh, speaking of, I have a Bruce Hornsby remix lying around on my computer somewhere. I’ll send it to you.)

        Thanks a lot, now I’ll be obsessing over this all weekend. I’ve had Theory 1, 2 and some 3—do I get to apply anything I’ve learned there or do I have to do it all by ear? 🙂

      3. Ah, I meant using my ability to actually transcribe music so I could see the parts, which would make it easier to make sure the third one was slotting in correctly. But it sounds like that would be cheating. 😀

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