Perfect Tenor Performances #1: Brian Free

Perfect Tenor Performances #1: Brian Free May 4, 2011

When it comes to critiquing tenor singers, I can be a stinker. In fact, sometimes I can be downright evil. However, you may all rest assured that I will withhold some of my more bitingly sarcastic remarks from this context, because some things just shouldn’t see the light of day. 🙂 But the fact remains that I am mercilessly tough on tenors. To illustrate, I didn’t even like Ernie Haase when I first heard him, and you all know how I feel about Ernie Haase now (!)
I don’t know why, but I’m much more easy-going on baritones and leads, and it’s hard for a bass singer to do wrong in my eyes. Perhaps it’s because the tenor is my favorite part.

You say, “How’s that?”
Well you see, tenor singers are a bit like the little girl in the old rhyme: “And when she was good, she was very, very good/But when she was bad, she was ‘ORRID!” That’s the southern gospel tenor for you.
This little series will showcase some tenors being very, very good. I will take some favorites, some perhaps not as “favorite favorites” but still good, and find a live performance from each of them that is, in my opinion, absolutely perfect. It may or may not be a performance of one of their signature songs, but whatever it is, there are no flaws in it whatsoever. An important requirement is that the song be rather difficult in terms of the range and power needed to deliver it.
It’s entirely possible and in fact likely that for the best tenors, flawless performances are not rarities. So there may well be cases where I will pick out a performance, and someone else will come along and say, “Wait a minute, this one is flawless too!” And maybe they’re right. But this series is simply highlighting one piece that stood out to me as particularly good.
I was inspired to do this by watching Brian Free the other day, so I’ll kick it off with him. Though I love his voice, he’s not my absolute favorite, but he can do some terrific singing, and I’ve always appreciated the clarity with which he delivers a lyric. (Besides which he is also a humble, genuine guy and a class act, and anybody can quote me on that!) Today I’ll share with my readers his solo rendition of “The Old Gospel Ship.” An old classic, but the way Brian sings it is, to me, simply addictive. From the first note to the last, this is a flawless and thoroughly enjoyable performance:

I ask you, how can you not be hooked just in those first few seconds? When he steps out and simply sends those long notes soaring, “I have good news to bring,” I for one am all ears…and I haven’t always been a raving Free-ite. He doesn’t crack or squeak once all the way through, but delivers a relentlessly clear tone with no real effort to speak of. As Billy Hodges once said, “If Brian has a break, he doesn’t know where it is.” But even though the song’s range is demanding, it doesn’t reach the ear-piercing levels of “Looking For a City” and hence remains within more comfortable and pleasing boundaries. The less “through the roof” Brian gets, the less noticeable his somewhat nasal tone is. There’s a pure, clean quality to it that shines best when he doesn’t try to go beyond the sky (as it were). As I’ll discuss more later, I’ve lately been experiencing something of a conversion over Brian Free’s voice, and I think this performance is a big part of what turned me from being an occasionally appreciative listener to being an official Brian Free fan.
Part of what I’m looking for in this series are moments of such technical perfection that even people who might not regularly listen to a certain tenor have to admit, “This singer isn’t my personal cup of tea, but that was a really good performance.” I’ll be posting similar entries on Danny Funderburk and David Phelps, two more highly-respected tenors whom I wouldn’t generally go for.

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  • quartetman

    I think he is a good guy, but admittedly he isn’t one of my favorites However, I love his sound on the original “Robe of White” on the original “Live: project. Had he continued with that sound, he would likely be one of my favorite tenors. With that said, I really like songs like “This Time One More Time Will Do It” and the live version of “the Greatest of Miracles”. He also is fun to hear doing the really high stuff like “Look For A City” where you expect more falsetto sounds. Gold City also had several great songs when he was there.

  • That’s funny, because I still can’t stand “Looking For a City” even though I’ve seen the light. 😛
    Totally agreed on “Robe of White.” I assume you’re talking about this one where he was approximately 18 and looked like a Ken doll but sang like someone twice his age?
    In general I would actually see where you’re coming from when it comes to his Gold City stuff, but somewhere around his solo/Assurance period, I think he improved noticeably.

  • quartet-man

    That a similar one and I thought of it when I posted my previous post, but I am talking one even earlier than that (Ritchie was lead then instead of baritone). 😀 That one is good with a similar sound from Brian.
    As far as most of the Gold City stuff I like (I would say at least the live “Greatest of Miracles”) I am unsure if his sound is much different than the sound I don’t care as much for, but the songs, other performers and his emotion on them make them good.

  • I like his sound on “One More Time Will Do It.” I think that was after “Greatest of All Miracles,” and I like him much less on that one. It seems like he had already improved some between those two.

  • quartet-man

    Yeah “One More Time Will Do It” was from the Pillars of Faith CD and was after “The Greatest of Miracles” by a while. He has improved since the early GC stuff (except I still like “Robe of White” I mentioned above.) I heard he studied voice and I want to say it was either Lee Roy Abernathy or maybe Mosie Lister.

  • I think it’s interesting that he started with such a full tone so early on, then quickly got real mousy/squeaky, then gradually returned to a fuller sound.
    I looked up his bio and found that he listed one of his favorite singers as Andy Chrisman of 4Him. That group got started in 1990, so it’s possible that Andy has influenced his later career. They do have slightly similar voices, though Andy is a little richer and rougher.

  • quartet-man

    I figured maybe the full voice to begin with was more because he was younger. Also, it seems that they might not have gone as high at the beginning, so maybe it was easier for that reason too. So, maybe getting a little older, singing higher, and needing endurance in singing so much up there caused him to change his technic.
    Funderburk and Phelps are two of my three favorite tenors, so it will be interesting to see what you say (in print :P) knowing you don’t care for them as much.) Now, I like some other tenors and there are those I like who aren’t as high, but I count the less high ones differently than my favorites who could bring it on the very high notes.

  • They’re on their way.
    But… you should check your inbox some time for a funny mp3 or two from me, because I can do killer tenor impressions, including Funderburk and Phelps. I can also do Free and Wes Hampton. Those are the only ones I’ve got at the moment, but maybe I’ll try Little Ernie at some point. 😀

  • Pingback: Perfect Tenor Performances #2: Danny Funderburk | Southern Gospel Yankee()

  • mark

    For those who only like Brian, a little, wait, just wait till u hear him sing ,”Unashamed”. Talk about flawless, talk about “An Angel`s Voice”, talk about “BEST EVER”, though I realize that his gift is first and primary a “Gift from God”. If we don`t admit this first, we will be tempted to “Worship” his voice, instead of HIS MAKER, Jesus. Amen. This is a good post I just made.

  • Do they have a new project coming out? I should look for live clips on Youtube.

  • Angela Hollar

    I think he has a unique voice.

  • That, I think we can all agree on. 🙂