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January 10, 2014 / Erik Ritland

Trick Voices: Frankie Valli and Emmett Miller

Frankie+Valli+FrankieValli_lUnfortunately today I heard the Four Seasons’ song “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” Sure, it’s got that classic ‘60s sound, and I’d rather listen to it than all those new bands with stupid names that try too hard to be different, but it’s so lame. Songs can be lame and still be tolerable, or even good, if they have something else to go along with them (a great arrangement, solo, vibe, etc.). But the cheese of this song overshadows any of its redeeming qualities.

I do appreciate the quirky, girly falsetto of Frankie Valli’s voice though. In the early 20th century and before this type of vocalization was called using a “trick voice.” People would do fun stuff with their voices to entertain crowds. They’d make animal noises, imitate noises of trains and other objects, and do impressions and the like.3g10004u-L

Sometimes this spilled on to record. The last of the blackface singers, Emmett Miller, used his trick voice to great effect over the dozen or so singles he released in his lifetime. If you think that blackface is simply a racist throwback to a backwards era, read Nick Toches’ brilliant book Where Dead Voices Gather to get a broader perspective.

Each of Miller’s songs are fun and worth listening to but his all-time classics are “Lovesick Blues,” which Hank Williams, a big Miller fan, made famous, and “Anytime,” his signature song. They’re fun throwbacks to a by-gone era and his chilling falsetto alone make them worth listening to.

Erik Ritland is a journalist and musician from St. Paul, Minnesota. He writes frequent Daily Rambles and Ramblin’ On catalogs his writings on culture, music (including his own projects), sports, religion, and many other topics. You can reach him via email here.



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