History of Harmony - Chicago a cappella

History of Harmony

Program Notes

Program List

Listen to the Music

Doobie Brothers (1972)

by Tom Johnston, arr. Deke Sharon

Early 20th Century Roots:

Goodbye My Coney Island Baby / We All Fall

by Les Appleton / George Goodwin and George Meyer (1924)

Whiffenpoof Song

Yale Whiffenpoofs (1909)

by Tod B. Galloway, Meade Minnigerode, George S. Pomeroy

Mein Kleiner Grüner Kaktus

Comedian Harmonists (1934)

by Bert Reisfeld and Rolf Marbot, arr. Harry Frommermann (adapted by Paul Langford)

Wimoweh (Mbube)

Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds (1939)

by Solomon Linda (additional words and music by Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman, and Pete Seeger)


The Object of My Affection

Boswell Sisters (1935)

by Jimmie Grier, Pinky Tomlin, and H. Coy Poe; arr. Patrick Sinozich

Paper Doll

Mills Brothers (1943)

by Johnny S. Black, arr. Sinozich

Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy

Andrews Sisters (1941)

by Don Ray and Hughie Prince, arr. Sinozich


Earth Angel

The Penguins (1954)

by Curtis Williams, Jesse Belvin Gaynel Hodge, arr. Paul Langford

Mr. Sandmann

The Chordettes (1954)

by Pat Ballard, arr. Langford


The Chords / Crew Cuts (1954)

by James Keyes, Claude Feaster, Carl Feaster, Floyd F. McRae, and William Edwards, arr. Langford


The Moonglows / McGuire Sisters (1954)

by Harvey Fuqua and Alan Freed, arr. Langford

I Only Have Eyes For You

The Flamingos (1959)

by Harry Warren and Al Dubin, arr. Langford

Love is a Many-Splendored Thing

Four Aces (1955)

by Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster, arr. Langford


Oh Happy Day

Edwin Hawkins Singers (1968)

by Edwin Hawkins, arr. Sinozich




My Girl

The Temptations (1964)

by Smokey Robinson and Ronald White, arr. Langford

Reach Out I’ll Be There

Four Tops (1966)

by Lamont Dozier, Brian Holland, and Eddie Holland Hawkins, arr. Langford

Please Mr. Postman

The Marvelettes (1961)

by Georgia Dobbins, William Garrett, Freddie Gorman, Brian Holland and Robert Bateman, arr. Sinozich

Baby Love

The Supremes (1964)

by Lamont Dozier, Brian Holland, and Eddie Holland, arr. Sinozich

Be My Baby

The Ronettes (1963)

by Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich, and Phil Spector, arr. Langford

Good Vibrations

The Beach Boys (1966)

by Brian Wilson, Mike Love, arr. Sinozich

1970s Hooks

Various, arr. Deke Sharon

A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square

Manhattan Transfer (1981)

by Manning Sherwin & Eric Maschwitz, arr. Gene Puerling

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Bobby McFerrin (1988)

by Bobby McFerrin, arr. Kirby Shaw

1990s: Girl Groups & Boy Bands

Various, arr. Deke Sharon

Pitch Perfect Finale (2012)

Various, arr. Deke Sharon

Bohemian Rhapsody

Queen (1975)

Freddie Mercury, arr. Hoss Brock and Brian Streem

Notes on the Music

by Matt Greenberg

The sweet vocal harmony of the Doobie Brothers’ classic 1972 hit Listen to the Music, written by group founder, guitarist, and lead vocalist Tom Johnston, is the perfect way to embark on our journey through the history of pop harmony.

In the first two decades of the 20th century, barbershop quartets epitomized vocal harmony in popular music. The four-part singing style has standard harmonic characteristics that immediately identify the style as “barbershop.” This medley of Goodbye My Coney Island Baby (written by Les Applegate in 1924 for a production of the musical No No Nanette) and We All Fall (an earlier tune “borrowed” by Applegate for his medley) became a popular barbershop standard. This version was published by the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America, Inc., commonly referred to as “SPEBSQSA,” and now mercifully known simply as the Barbershop Harmony Society.

Meanwhile, another tradition was developing at colleges and universities in the early decades of the 20th century. Glee clubs – named after the English part song form known as a “glee” – had been around in England since the 18th century. By 1900, dozens of American schools had established glee clubs, including Harvard (in 1858) and Yale (in 1861). Then, in 1909, five of the Yale Glee Club’s best singers began meeting at Mory’s Temple Bar, improvising harmonies to familiar songs. They named themselves after a mythical fish, mostly because they thought it was a funny word, and the Whiffenpoofs were born. (Cole Porter was a member of the group just four years later.)  For the group’s namesake number, The Whiffenpoof Song, the singers borrowed an existing setting of the Rudyard Kipling poem “Gentlemen-Rankers” (with the line “We are poor little sheep who have lost our way…”) and gave it some new words.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, perhaps the most renowned vocal group was a male sextet from Germany known as the Comedian Harmonists. Inspired by earlier American jazz vocal groups, they sang everything from classical and folk song arrangements to popular music of the day.  Because several of the members were Jewish, they were eventually banned from performing in public by the Nazis, and they split off into different groups, with three of the singers leaving Germany permanently.  Although they all survived the war, the original group never reunited. Their recording of Mein Kleiner Grüner Kaktus (“My Little Green Cactus”) came out in late 1934, just as the group was about to break up. This song could be taken as a silly ditty about someone who prefers a cactus to other flowers; it has also been interpreted to represent a modern symbol for femininity, about an independent woman who is uninterested in social conventions and able to defend herself.

Vocal harmony was also flourishing in Africa in the 1930s, notably with South Africa’s Solomon Linda and his group the Evening Birds. During a recording session in 1939, Linda and his group recorded Mbube (“Lion” in Zulu), and it became a smash hit in South Africa. The song’s catchy melody and unique vocal harmonies laid the groundwork for the later development of isicathamiya, an a cappella style characterized by intricate vocal harmonies, rhythmic vocalization, and choreographed movements. “Mbube” found wider fame after American musicologist Alan Lomax came across the record in the early 50s and passed it along to folk singer Pete Seeger, who recorded it as “Wimoweh” with his group The Weavers in 1952. Another hit recording followed in 1961 by the Tokens, who renamed it “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”

The 1930s and ‘40s saw the rise of big band and swing music, and that harmonic language found its way into vocal harmonies as well. One of the earliest vocal groups that came to prominence in this era was the Boswell Sisters, whose biggest hit was The Object of My Affection (1935). Raised in New Orleans, Martha, Connie, and Vet Boswell developed a complex vocal style that was full of unpredictable harmonies and tempo changes, playful jazz phrasing, and imitations of jazz instruments. Their intricate musical approach was a major influence on everyone who followed. The Mills Brothers became the first African American artists with a number one hit on the Billboard chart, Paper Doll (1943), which sold six million copies and stayed at number one for three months. Born in Piqua, Ohio, Donald, Herbert, Harry, and John Mills grew up hearing the barbershop quartet led by their dad. That harmonic style, combined with the influence of jazz and their clever imitations of instruments, became their trademark.

With more than 70 hits over 40 years, they have been called the most popular male vocal group of all time. In the 1940s, the Andrews Sisters, Laverne, Maxene, and Patty, embodied the energetic and brassy style of the big bands, translated to voices. Their hit songs, most notably Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy (1941), along with their tours singing for the troops and their dozens of radio and film appearances, made them one of the most beloved acts of the World War II years.

In the 1950s, vocal harmony really flourished in pop music. Doo wop was an a cappella style of singing which originated mostly in urban black communities in the 1940s. Influenced by barbershop style and the Mills Brothers in particular, doo wop began appearing on the pop charts by the ‘50s. Because radio, along with the rest of the entertainment industry, was so segregated, songs written and originally performed by black groups were often quickly covered by white artists who imitated the general style (but sometimes lacked the original feel). The trend brought hits like Earth Angel, recorded by the Penguins and the Crew Cuts; Sincerely, recorded by the Moonglows and the McGuire Sisters; and Sh-Boom, recorded by The Chords and the Crew Cuts. I Only Have Eyes For You, a 1930s ballad remade in doo-wop style, was recorded by the Flamingos in 1959. Mr. Sandman was recorded by seven different artists in 1954, including the Four Aces, but it was the version by the female vocal quartet The Chordettes that became the most iconic. The Four Aces were only one of dozens of pop male quartets hitting the pop charts in the ‘50s. A few of these groups, particularly the Hi-Lo’s and the Four Freshmen, brought groundbreaking originality and adventurous jazz harmony to their vocal arrangements. Others, like the Four Lads, the Hilltoppers, the Ames Brothers, and the Four Preps, were more geared to the crooning pop sensibility of the years just before rock and roll exploded. (The musical Forever Plaid poked good-natured fun at this quartet craze.) Love is a Many-Splendored Thing by the Four Aces was an over-the-top example of vocal harmony in pop music, hitting number one in 1955.

The long history of gospel music began in Chicago with Thomas Dorsey, who married southern blues with traditional religious music at Pilgrim Baptist Church. Over time, gospel music became part of the fabric of our musical heritage, and with Oh Happy Day, it even crossed over to hit number four on the Billboard Pop Singles chart. Edwin Hawkins transformed a traditional 18th century English hymn into an irresistibly groovy contemporary anthem that made people want to let loose, clap, and dance, no matter what their religion.




During the late 1950s and early 1960s, the advent of rock and roll resulted a shift towards a more individualistic, instrumental-focused style of popular music, emphasizing the virtuosity and rhythmic energy of artists like Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry over intricate vocal arrangements. But soon, with the rise of Motown, pop music saw a resurgence of vocal harmony. Founded by Berry Gordy Jr. in Detroit in 1959, Motown placed a significant emphasis on meticulously crafted and sometimes intricate vocal harmonies as a central element of its sound. Gordy helped bring vocal harmony back to the forefront by assembling and nurturing songwriters and talented vocal groups who could deliver seamless harmonies with precision and soulful expression. Acts like the Four Tops (Reach Out I’ll Be There), the Temptations (My Girl), the Supremes (Baby Love), and the Marvelettes (Please Mr. Postman) became synonymous with the Motown sound, characterized by tight vocal harmonies, call-and-response techniques, and polished arrangements. The trend wasn’t limited to Motown: vocal groups like the Chiffons, the Crystals, the Shirelles, and the Ronettes (Be My Baby) all helped define the musical landscape of the 1960s.

Meanwhile, vocal harmony was finding another champion in Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. Even the group’s early surfer hits often featured multiple layers of voices and intricate harmonies. But with the 1966 album Pet Sounds and the subsequent single Good Vibrations, Wilson pushed the boundaries of what was possible in pop music. By experimenting with overdubbing and multi-track recording (a technique pioneered in the 1950s by guitarist Les Paul and his wife, singer Mary Ford), Wilson created lush, densely layered vocal arrangements. Those harmonies, together with the unconventional instrumentation, emotional sincerity, and innovative production of these records, left an indelible mark on pop music.

The ‘70s saw the rise of disparate musical genres, from disco and funk to soft rock and punk. Despite the diversity of styles, vocal harmony added texture and richness to the overall sound of much of the 1970s’ most popular music. Whether it was the lush vocal arrangements of the Carpenters (Close to You), the layered harmonies of disco hits or ballads by the Bee Gees (Too Much Heaven), the memorable country rock vocals of the Eagles (Best of My Love) and Pure Prairie League (Amie), the adventurous progressive rock sounds of Electric Light Orchestra (Mr. Blue Sky) and Kansas (Carry On Wayward Son), the soaring choruses of songs by Fleetwood Mac (Go Your Own Way), or the intricate folk rock harmonizing of Crosby, Stills & Nash (Suite: Judy Blue Eyes), vocal harmony played a vital role in defining the sound of the decade.

This variety of musical styles persisted into the 1980s. Jazz harmony singing, with roots going all the way back to the Boswell Sisters, got renewed attention with the popularity of the Manhattan Transfer, a quartet whose eclectic musical tastes included everything from big band swing and jazz vocalese to 1960s R&B. The group’s album Mecca for Moderns (1981) featured the 1940 love song A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square. The stunning, Grammy Award-winning vocal arrangement was by Gene Puerling, whose pioneering work with the Hi-Lo’s and The Singers Unlimited set new standards for vocal harmony and paved the way for the development of contemporary a cappella music.

In 1988, Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t Worry, Be Happy became the first a cappella song to reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. This was even more remarkable because McFerrin performed every note of the song himself, overdubbing all the vocal lines, whistling, speaking, and vocal and body percussion sounds, resulting in a one-man reggae-infused tour de force.

By the 1990s, vocal groups began to make yet another comeback. Although they were generally less focused on expansive harmonies, synchronized vocals were a key element of their sound. Reminiscent of the earlier decades of the 20th century, single-sex groups ruled. In fact, the boy band phenomenon was a cultural juggernaut with global reach and unprecedented commercial success, with supergroups like Boyz II Men (End of the Road), Backstreet Boys (I Want it That Way), and N’Sync (Bye Bye Bye) selling millions of albums and performing for sold-out crowds around the globe.  Not to be outdone, girl groups of the ‘90s such as TLC (Waterfalls), Destiny’s Child (Bills Bills Bills) and Spice Girls (Wannabe) also dominated the charts, often embracing themes of female empowerment, self-confidence, and independence in their music and image.

In the last decades of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, there was a huge resurgence of vocal harmony on college campuses, building on a tradition that stretched back to the Yale Whiffenpoofs. A focus on self-expression—distinct from traditional choirs—appealed to a diverse range of students, and advancements in recording and amplification technology made it easier for student-led a cappella groups to produce high-quality recordings and stage performances. Deke Sharon co-founded the Contemporary A Cappella Society in 1991 and the Contemporary A Cappella Recording Awards in 1992, and his advocacy, outreach, educational efforts, and arrangements were a huge driver to this growth. With new festivals and competitions springing up, popular culture took note. On TV, shows like “The Sing-Off” (2009-2014) and “Glee” (2009-2015) brought a cappella music into the mainstream spotlight. But perhaps nothing reflected and contributed to this explosion more than Pitch Perfect (2012). Despite its small budget and unknown cast, the film grossed well over $100 million worldwide, spawned two sequels, and developed a devoted fan following. No surprise, Deke Sharon had a major hand in this movie, serving as both music director and arranger. For the film’s finale, he created a 10-part vocal arrangement for the underdog “Barden Bellas,” a mashup of songs to showcase their versatility and creativity as they compete against their rivals at the international championship.

We end our tour of harmony with a song that is maybe the ultimate example of complex vocal arrangement in pop music, Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Written by lead singer Freddie Mercury, the six-minute song was unlike anything heard on the radio when it was released in 1975, with its extended structure, operatic passages, choral sections, and wildly disparate musical styles. Originally intended to be tongue in cheek, the song became a worldwide hit and has only grown in popularity in the decades since.

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