The middle voice

When I was a boy first learning to appreciate music, two-part harmony was a big thing. I remember my mom showing it to me, and there were so many great examples on the radio. The Everly Brothers first, then Simon & Garfunkel, Sam & Dave, and oh yeah, the Righteous Brothers. There were co-ed versions, too: Dale & Grace, Peaches & Herb, and eventually the greatest duets of them all, Marvin & Tammi.

I had a friend named Johnny who could really sing. Many a day after lunch at school, he and I would meet up in the schoolyard and go through a bunch of songs in two-part, just us singing. And we had a five- or six-piece boy band for a while. All I could do was sing. Johnny played his electric guitar, too.

One of our finest moments was when, as seventh graders, Johnny and I sang a song on stage as part of a salute to the graduating class ahead of us. It was Sam Cooke's "Wonderful World," as doctored up by Herman's Hermits. I took the high, Johnny sang the low. A cappela, baby. We nailed it. Everybody clapped. How good that felt.

Now, there were plenty of groups out there with more than two voices, but a lot of what they put out you could deliver with just a pair of vocalists. The Coasters, the Isley Brothers, even the Beatles and the Stones – there were probably three parts to a lot of their material, but even with two guys singing, you could get the gist of it across.

It started to get more interesting when a kid named Brian Wilson started writing three- and four-part harmonies for him and his brothers and his cousin in the garage of his father's house in L.A. You'd need at least three singers to really do the Beach Boys catalog justice. Also showing up on the airwaves were the Association and the Mamas & the Papas, groups that made every voice count.

Then there were the Byrds, another L.A. outfit, whose versions of their own songs, and others', had so many layers. And their guitar player swung a mean ax, with 12 strings, that wasn't your grandpa's banjo. The Byrds sound was too rich for just two singers.

In that beautiful noise somewhere was a young Turk named David Crosby. If I'm hearing it correctly, he was the guy in the middle. It made all the difference in the world.

Alas, there was too much power in the Byrds. You knew they would melt down after a short while. But Crosby's next stop made even greater rock history. He fell in with Steven Stills from Buffalo Springfield and Graham Nash from the Hollies, and the three of them created a sound that swept the world. The first two albums they put out – the second with another Buffalo Springfield alum, Neil Young – positively dominated the radio for years as the '60s ended and the '70s started.

Nash was the high, Stills the low, but to me it was the middle voice, Crosby, that made their act an instant classic.

He wrote a lot of songs, some of which legions of baby boomers know by heart to this day. And many of his lesser known tunes are good, too. Dreamy, mostly. They tend to keep you a little off balance while they tell you a good story.

I write about Crosby today, of course, because he left this planet this week at age 81. Given what he had done to his body as a young man, that was an incredibly old age.

He and Nash did a bunch of two-part work, and for years the whole CSN&Y group would cobble together a record every now and then. But they were all off doing their own things most of the time after the legendary group ran out of steam.

I was always a little leery of Crosby. I couldn't tell if he was a nice guy or a jerk. He seemed to evoke a strong reaction from people one way or the other. He had many friends in high places, but I sense that he also had his detractors. 

On the good side, he was there in the room when his friend Joni Mitchell signed her first recording contract. And I hear that he was also there in support when Grace Slick signed herself into rehab.

I'm willing to leave it there and dig no further. Even if you stopped at what he did with the Byrds, you'd have to put Crosby in your music hall of fame. And that was only the beginning.

Sure, I'll play some Byrds and some Crosby Stills & Nash in his honor this weekend. But I've never stopped listening to several of those records since they were made five decades ago. That middle voice keeps drawing you back in.


  1. About three or four years ago, I met my daughter for dinner at the Stammtisch pub in NE Portland on a Sunday night. We were seated in a booth not far from the bar, and I noticed someone sitting on a stool who looked just like David Crosby. But I was sure it wasn't David Crosby because I knew he had had a liver transplant and probably wouldn't be drinking, especially in public. I also couldn't think of any reason why he'd be in Portland. After a while, I told my daughter who I thought the man was and she replied, "David Crosby? Who is he?" I decided against going over to talk to him, my daughter and I finished our meals, and left. The following day, my daughter called me and said, "Guess what? You were right! That was David Crosby!" She had spoken to a coworker of hers who had gone to a show Crosby had appeared in on the previous Saturday night. From then on I always looked for Crosby whenever I went to Stammtisch. Sadly, I won't be doing that anymore.


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