Has the Super-High Tenor Era ended?
In the quarter century during which the Blackwood Brothers and Statesmen defined the Southern Gospel genre, 1950-1975, the genre’s strongest tenors frequently either had classical training or emulated the stylings of those who did. Denver Crumpler, Bill Shaw, Cat Freeman, and Bobby Clark, among others, set the standard by which the other tenors of their generation were measured.
The following quarter century, 1975-2000, was defined by very different quartets with very different tenors. Gold City, the Kingsmen, and the Cathedral Quartet were the three most popular and awarded quartets of the quarter century. Over the years, the Cathedrals had several very different styles of tenors. But the Kingsmen and Gold City both became known for the same style of tenors. Their tenors used reinforced head tones to reach incredibly high notes, frequently approaching or reaching a full octave above the highest notes of a classical tenor.
Some tenors, including Ernie Phillips, Brian Free, and Jay Parrack, had one-in-ten-thousand freak-of-nature voices which permitted ease and consistency at these notes. While the previous generation of tenors emulated Shaw and Crumpler, this generation of tenors—in local, regional, and national groups—attempted to emulate Phillips, Free, and Parrack. But since most human voices cannot do what they did on a consistent basis, many of these attempts fell short.
By the 1990s, another change was in the air. Tenors like Danny Funderburk and Ernie Haase employed a belting voice technique (defined here) to achieve power tenor notes in a way that reinforced head tones cannot, and to convey emotion in a way that classical deliveries cannot. Funderburk and Haase were, of course, the final two tenors with the most popular quartet of the 1990s, the Cathedrals, and won numerous Tenor of the Year awards along the way.
In the years since, it seems that increasingly few tenors emulate Free, Phillips, or Parrack, and more use belting tones. As a matter of fact, the most remarkable evidence in favor of this point can be found by looking at the current Kingsmen and Gold City lineups. Both employ tenors—Harold Reed and Dan Keeton, respectively—who use the belting technique. Additionally, two of the strongest former Kingsmen tenors still on the road, Jerry Martin and Jeremy Peace, have both moved away from the lighter head tones to a greater emphasis on power belting notes.
The era of the classically influenced tenor is long past—which is regrettable, since they brought something to the genre that no other voice type can bring. Is the era of the super-high tenor also on its way out?
Is belting voice technique the future of Southern Gospel tenor singing?