Perfect Tenor Performances: Gus Gaches, “Holy Is Thy Name”

When I first heard Gus Gaches’s voice, he vaulted into my personal top five southern gospel tenors practically overnight. It was instant fanhood. Some tenor singers take a little time to grow on you, but it’s hard not to be quickly won over by Gus’s pure, smooth tones. He’s very steady and clean, and he retains a full sound even in his upper register (though he wisely chooses not to push himself past a high D or so, to preserve tone quality). He may not be the most rangy or powerful tenor, but he has the complete package. Check out this performance of “Holy Is Thy Name”:

Perfect Tenor Performances: Chris Allman, “His Eye is On the Sparrow”

I started this series a while [read, two years] ago. For those who can’t remember when or why I started it up, I started it to honor those tenors who measure up to my pretty strict standards of what a great tenor should sound like. When done right, the tenor is my favorite part. In this series, I choose a performance where I can’t think of ANYTHING I would change—not one little nit-pick. And that’s saying a lot.

Previous installments have featured Brian Free, Terry Franklin, and David Phelps. For today’s installment, here is, in my opinion, one of the most naturally gifted and pleasing tenors in SG right now—ladies and gentlemen give it up for CHRIS ALLMAN!

Perfect Tenor Performances #4: David Phelps, “O Holy Night”

Of the elite tenors in southern gospel today, David Phelps is one name you will hear constantly placed above all the rest. For many, he is the standard by which all other tenor singers are measured.

I have to admit that I’m not one of the many. Which is by no means to say that he is not talented. I think if you’re going to talk about pure technical ability, Phelps deserves the top spot. However, a combination of factors makes me favor other tenors more.

[Note: If you are a raving “Phan,” you should probably stop reading here… unless you’re curious…]

Okay, so first of all, I’ve never gone for the limp ringlets look. Second, I can only tolerate breathy singing, from anyone, in small doses. Third, constant theatrical gestures/affectations are intensely annoying and distract from any real talent you may have, for anyone. Finally, Phelps seems unable to pick one style and stick with it. He insists on taking a lot of pop, some classical, and a little gospel… and mashing it all together with a big flourish (phlourish?), which impresses some people but leaves me wishing he’d make up his mind. It’s not his talent I dispute, it’s the effectiveness of the way he uses it.

Wow, that was a lot to get off my chest. 🙂 Still with me? Good, because today I’m posting what I regard as his finest performance: “O Holy Night.” I’ve always liked this performance because he pretty much just belts it out the way you’re supposed to without adding a whole bunch of breathy frills. He also keeps the gestures pretty minimal, and he sings it like he means it. And on top of all that, he has a normal haircut. (Coincidence? I think not.)

Lots of high notes here, with great tone and control. And having Anthony Burger on piano sure doesn’t hurt. (Plus, don’t you just love George sitting with his mouth open right behind Phelps? Priceless.) For me, “O Holy Night” is one of those songs that’s supposed to be bombastic, a show piece where you pull out all the stops. There’s no question David was born to sing it.

Perfect Tenor Performances #3: Terry Franklin

Terry Franklin may not be a household name, but because he was only in the southern gospel spotlight for a brief period of time with the Gaither Vocal Band, perhaps that’s natural. Most of his career has been spent in full-time evangelistic ministry with his family, traveling around the country and the world. He is also in hot demand as a studio vocalist. It’s a pretty safe bet that if you were to ask folks in the SG industry who’s on their short list for most technically gifted tenors, Terry would be at or near the top. Glen Payne said he was the best tenor he had ever heard (having sung with him for a few dates when he was filling in with the Cathedrals), and Ernie Haase has named him as one of his all-time favorites. Interestingly, Wes Hampton has often prompted vocal comparisons to Terry today, and indeed, the resemblance is at times quite striking. This is a good thing. A very good thing.

Today I’m featuring a brief and powerful clip from his Gaither Vocal Band days, singing the classic “What a Day That Will Be.” You’ll never hear a better version. (And yes, all the David Phelps Phans can sit down and stop making indignant noises in the back row.)

I will refrain from saying anything about Terry’s mullet/pseudo-mullet, because he might be reading this, and I know he’d probably like to put it behind him. Far be it from me to bring back painful memories.

Perfect Tenor Performances #2: Danny Funderburk

Today we continue to look at some o f southern gospel’s best-known tenors and enjoy snapshots of them at their live best. I started the series with Brian Free, and today I’m featuring another tenor who is somewhat controversial but has garnered much critical acclaim (as well as a massive fan following!) Though his voice is something of an acquired taste, Danny Funderburk certainly left an indelible mark on the world of southern gospel during his time with the Cathedrals. He was famous for raising the roof with power-house numbers like “I Just Started Living” and “Somebody Touched Me,” but I much prefer him when he doesn’t push his voice to the breaking point and instead allows a quiet ballad to speak for itself. Case in point, the classic “For What Earthly Reason.” It’s the tender moments like this that allowed Danny’s full brilliance to shine forth, not only as a vocalist but as a communicator of a lyric.

Truly a shining moment in southern gospel history.

Perfect Tenor Performances #1: Brian Free

When it comes to critiquing tenor singers, I can be a stinker. In fact, sometimes I can be downright evil. However, you may all rest assured that I will withhold some of my more bitingly sarcastic remarks from this context, because some things just shouldn’t see the light of day. 🙂 But the fact remains that I am mercilessly tough on tenors. To illustrate, I didn’t even like Ernie Haase when I first heard him, and you all know how I feel about Ernie Haase now (!)

I don’t know why, but I’m much more easy-going on baritones and leads, and it’s hard for a bass singer to do wrong in my eyes. Perhaps it’s because the tenor is my favorite part.

You say, “How’s that?”

Well you see, tenor singers are a bit like the little girl in the old rhyme: “And when she was good, she was very, very good/But when she was bad, she was ‘ORRID!” That’s the southern gospel tenor for you.

This little series will showcase some tenors being very, very good. I will take some favorites, some perhaps not as “favorite favorites” but still good, and find a live performance from each of them that is, in my opinion, absolutely perfect. It may or may not be a performance of one of their signature songs, but whatever it is, there are no flaws in it whatsoever. An important requirement is that the song be rather difficult in terms of the range and power needed to deliver it.

It’s entirely possible and in fact likely that for the best tenors, flawless performances are not rarities. So there may well be cases where I will pick out a performance, and someone else will come along and say, “Wait a minute, this one is flawless too!” And maybe they’re right. But this series is simply highlighting one piece that stood out to me as particularly good.

I was inspired to do this by watching Brian Free the other day, so I’ll kick it off with him. Though I love his voice, he’s not my absolute favorite, but he can do some terrific singing, and I’ve always appreciated the clarity with which he delivers a lyric. (Besides which he is also a humble, genuine guy and a class act, and anybody can quote me on that!) Today I’ll share with my readers his solo rendition of “The Old Gospel Ship.” An old classic, but the way Brian sings it is, to me, simply addictive. From the first note to the last, this is a flawless and thoroughly enjoyable performance:

I ask you, how can you not be hooked just in those first few seconds? When he steps out and simply sends those long notes soaring, “I have good news to bring,” I for one am all ears…and I haven’t always been a raving Free-ite. He doesn’t crack or squeak once all the way through, but delivers a relentlessly clear tone with no real effort to speak of. As Billy Hodges once said, “If Brian has a break, he doesn’t know where it is.” But even though the song’s range is demanding, it doesn’t reach the ear-piercing levels of “Looking For a City” and hence remains within more comfortable and pleasing boundaries. The less “through the roof” Brian gets, the less noticeable his somewhat nasal tone is. There’s a pure, clean quality to it that shines best when he doesn’t try to go beyond the sky (as it were). As I’ll discuss more later, I’ve lately been experiencing something of a conversion over Brian Free’s voice, and I think this performance is a big part of what turned me from being an occasionally appreciative listener to being an official Brian Free fan.

Part of what I’m looking for in this series are moments of such technical perfection that even people who might not regularly listen to a certain tenor have to admit, “This singer isn’t my personal cup of tea, but that was a really good performance.” I’ll be posting similar entries on Danny Funderburk and David Phelps, two more highly-respected tenors whom I wouldn’t generally go for.