Frequently questions about Jackie Wilson involve his vocal range, either in an absolute or comparative sense: What was Jackie’s vocal range? Who had the greater range, Jackie or Michael? Who had the highest voice, Jackie or fill-in-the-blank? What is the highest note Jackie could hit?
Maybe some of you reading this can shed light on these questions. I don’t know enough about the topic to answer them, but I did exchange some interesting messages with a YouTube poster called GoodGuitarSolos, who is a singer and a practitioner of “notewatching.” I want to share some of this exchange because I believe that thinking of Jackie’s voice in terms of vocal range takes listeners down the wrong path to understanding what makes Jackie such a great singer.
About a month ago, GoodGuitarSolos posted an unusual YouTube video entitled High Notes in ‘Rock Music’: G4-B4 (Version 2.0), which featured high notes from several dozen singers. At the 3:54 mark is #33, described as “An extremely impressive operatic B♭4 by Jackie Wilson, the song is called “My Empty Arms” (A low tenor).”
For those of us who are clueless about musical notation (I head that list), the range for the solo tenor voice is C3 through C5, which is one octave below middle C up to one octave above middle C. (Middle C is C4. The tenor “high C” is C5.)
There are a million jokes about tenor high C among opera aficionados, of course, and for operatic tenors, the tenor high C is sometimes called the “money note” because it is what opera patrons pay to hear from the tenor. Many famous tenor arias were not written with the high Cs that we hear today: those high Cs were either “optional” (in “Che gelida manina,” for example) or have become customary over time because–well, because tenor high C is the “money note.”
Over time, “high C” has become a term that means “surprisingly high note” for many of us. Why? Because so few people can genuinely identify the notes they hear.
But GoodGuitarSolos CAN identify notes he hears. He says it is difficult at first, but practice and working with others interested in notewatching has made it fairly easy for him now. When I asked him to identify Jackie Wilson’s range, he responded:
I’ve heard like G2-Eb5 so far… The G2 was kind of spoken, so his lowest sung note I’ve heard was a very strong Bb2. Jackie had an incredible technique, so he was definitely able to go higher (and maybe lower).
Now, perhaps this information helps some interested in Jackie’s vocal range, but I could not stop myself from pushing my own point with my new friend. Here’s what I wrote to him:
Personally, I believe that what makes Jackie Wilson such a phenomenon is not so much the range of his voice, but his full command of every note he can sing, coupled with an astonishing bag of technical abilities. Underlying it all is his understanding of the ideas and emotions of what he sings and his ability to determine what technique best conveys the emotions. Pulling everything together are Jackie’s control and power.
GoodGuitarSolos basically agreed, responding, “I believe Wilson had an almost perfect pop/rock technique, which gave his performances so much soul and technical prowess.”
Never a shy person, I pressed my new friend to identify the high notes we hear when Jackie sings one of our favorites, and he graciously did. I’ve put his response into a separate post on “Danny Boy.”
Thanks, GoodGuitarSolos. I hope I have not distorted any of your very interesting comments.