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March 5, 2013

Jim Bailey: More to the finished product than belting out a song

Gospel singer Larnell Harris has commented before on his Dove Award-winning duet with Sandi Patty, “More Than Wonderful.” At their recent Sandi Patty & Friends concert in my daughter Rachel’s home church in Springdale, Ohio, he added a revelation I hadn’t heard before.

“The song was originally intended as a solo,” he explained. “When they asked us to do it as a duet, first I went in the studio and recorded my part. Then later Sandi recorded hers. We never sang it together until sometime after the project was released and people were playing it.”

The trick here is that Sandi’s part was melody, and he was harmonizing with her. Did you get that he recorded his part first?

Obviously, besides an instrumental track, a demo of the melody was coming through Larnell’s headphones in the studio to harmonize with. A real pro can handle that, of course — and Larnell Harris, at that time a member of the Gaither Vocal Band and backup singer for the Bill Gaither Trio, filled the bill.

It seems today’s critics don’t understand the nuances of the recording industry. Witness the fuss about Beyonce’s version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the inauguration, which she admitted either lip-syncing or doubling her own recorded version in the outdoor chill on the Capitol steps after being unable to rehearse with the live band.

Of course, when Larnell and Sandi come together for their “More Than Wonderful” and “I’ve Just Seen Jesus” duets nowadays, it’s second nature. The first time it happened, though, you have to wonder what was said: “Glad to meet you, Sandi. Wonder how we’ll sound when we sing together live for the first time in five minutes?”

Matter of fact, that’s what those earpieces are for that singers wear onstage. They aren’t hard of hearing or listening to a ball game; those are monitors to judge their voice levels with each other and the background music. They ostensibly are hearing exactly what the audience is hearing.

Learning to sing harmony isn’t always that easy for some people. It is said that Elvis Presley never learned to sing harmony, one reason why he wound up being a pop star instead of singing in a gospel quartet as a young man.

Then there’s Mark Lowry of the Gaither Vocal Band. A great baritone singer, when he originally joined the group he had trouble hearing his part because he had always sung melody.

So what did he do? I’m told he wrote out his harmony part, note by note, and memorized it as if it were a melody line.

Live performances have a great deal of excitement about them. But for technical perfection, follow the performers into the studio. They can re-record parts they don’t like, mix and mesh, start over or make changes on the fly. What’s on the CD may have taken all day to get.

Jim Bailey’s column appears on Wednesday. He can be reached by email at jameshenrybailey@earthlink.net.

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