Daniel Mount has an interesting post today that asks the question “Has the era of the super high tenor in SG ended?” He gives a brief summary of three “eras” of tenor singing philosophy: the early classical trained era (think Bobby Clark, Sherill Nielson, Denver Crumpler, Bill Shaw), the super high era (Ernie Phillips, Brian Free, Jay Parrack are his examples) and the current power, belting style tenor (Danny Funderburk, Ernie Haase, Harold Reed).
It is striking to see the lack of the “super high” tenors today, especially among the younger generation of tenor singers. I agree with Daniel’s assertion that the super high tenor era has ended, and I’ll go as far to pinpoint when. Two things occurred that marked the end of this era:
- Jay Parrack’s departure from Gold City
- Jerry Martin’s departure from the Kingsmen
Parrack and Martin will go down as the last, and arguably the best, of the dominant super high tenors. Parrack has all but disappeared from SG completely, having served as a minister of music since his Gold City days and only making intermittent appearances since then. His replacement, Steve Ladd, started out emulating Parrack’s style to an extent, but it wasn’t long before he started employing more of a power style, and less of the ultra high notes. Subsequent Gold City tenors have followed that same style, notably Josh Cobb and Brent Mitchell.
Martin left the Kingsmen and joined the Dove Brothers, whose songs were keyed much lower than the Kingsmen. While the jury is still somewhat out on if he returns to that style to a great extent with the Kingdom Heirs, his first CD with them did not feature any “super high” notes from him, and while he will still do it occasionally in concert (a la the second verse of “Look For Me At Jesus’ Feet), as Daniel posits, Jerry has been moving toward the power, belting style of tenor singing.
One thing that doesn’t come out in Daniel’s post is that while there have been more prevalent styles of tenor singing, all 3 of these approaches have always seemed to exist in SG music. Willie Wynn was an ultra high tenor all through his tenure with the Oak Ridge Boys, Lew Garrison was the same with the Prophets. Bill Baize was a power tenor back in the early to mid 70s with the Stamps. Today, John Rulapaugh can be considered a throwback to the classically trained sound. You can tend to find tenors to fit all three categories in any era. I’d also posit that Wynn was the primary catalyst for the move toward the ultra high tenor sound, long before Ernie Phillips. A listen to either of the “live” versions of the Oak Ridge Boys singing “Jesus Is Coming Soon” is more than enough to cement his place. Johnny Parrack also was heavily responsible for the switch, especially due to the huge popularity of the Kingsmen’s “Big and Live” project.
What do you think? Has this era ended? Are you glad to see it go, or will you miss the thrill of seeing how far up the tenors can go? Can you think of any new “super high” tenors in SG today?