As our regular columnist works on a duet of her own, she looks at some great collaborations of the past
I’ve written a song I feel would make a good duet and it’s led me to thinking about memorable duet songs over the years. Simon & Garfunkel, The Everly Brothers, The Louvin Brothers… there can be something really magical when two voices sing together, particularly when the vocals and harmonies create a real blend. Singing alternate verses and call and response are just a couple of ways a duet can be sung and here I’ll discuss some iconic duets, as well as sharing some personal favourites.
There are duets that have defined a sound and a time. Marvin Gaye and Tammy Terrell’s sublime duets epitomised the sweet Motown sound of the 60s. Formidable husband and wife writing team Ashford and Simpson wrote all but one of their classic love songs such as Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, You’re All I Need To Get By and Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing, each one showcasing their soulful, yearning vocals. A key factor in a great duet is the chemistry between the two vocalists, particularly if they’re singing a love song, and these two were among the best at conveying pure romantic emotion.
“A duet can be an effective way of telling a story”
A duet that defined the 60s hippie movement is Sonny and Cher’s I Got You Babe. Sonny Bono, inspired by Bob Dylan’s It Ain’t Me Babe, wrote the song for himself and Cher, who was his wife at the time. A duet can be a effective way of telling a story, revealing the thoughts of the song’s characters, and their laidback, conversational delivery of alternating vocals expresses the song’s sentiment perfectly. Bono worked as a songwriter and a producer for Phil Spector and you can hear that influence in the song’s elaborate production and arrangement. The song was later covered by UB40 and Chrissie Hynde, testament to its enduring appeal.
Conway and Loretta, Dolly and Porter, Jones and Wynette… country music has produced many classic vocal duets. My favourites are those between country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. Songs such as their interpretation of Love Hurts beautifully interweave Gram’s bruised heartache and Emmylou’s lilting harmonies. Emmylou, renowned for her many collaborations, has an interesting take on singing duets: for her it’s about giving each other room to shine and not out-singing the other vocalist. “In duet singing, you have every note available to you, except for the lead. So, to me, the voice is always just another melody. It’s like a dance. You’re following someone else’s lead, and you just hope for the best.”
“Duets work well when there are strong personalities conveying their feelings”
Continuing with country duets, it was those masters of the pop melody The Bee Gees who wrote one of the most successful country-pop duets ever, Islands In The Stream by Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers. Originally written for Marvin Gaye, the song suits Parton and Rogers’ distinct voices, bringing a real sense of fun as they sing alternating lead vocals, two-part harmonies and playful lines such as “You do something to me that I can’t explain”. Duets work well when there are strong personalities conveying their feelings and telling the story, and these two definitely accomplish this.
Interestingly, Dolly was also the choice for one of my all-time favourites, the incredibly moving Don’t Give Up by Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush. Gabriel was inspired by American roots music and approached Parton to sing it with him. When Parton turned it down, friend and previous collaborator Kate Bush sang instead and her delicate comforting vocals work beautifully in the chorus as she reassures Gabriel’s soulful pain in the verses. In the era of Thatcherism and the subsequent economic hardship for many, you can really feel Gabriel’s despair.
The 80s also provided what for many is one of the finest duets, the glorious Fairytale Of New York. The song was originally intended as a duet between Shane MacGowan and Pogues bassist Cait O’Riordan, but O’Riordan left the band before the song was finished. Producer Steve Lillywhite asked his wife Kirsty MacColl to provide a guide vocal, and The Pogues liked it so much they asked her to sing on the record. This evocative duet has strong characters, drama, humour, nostalgia, a great melody and stirring celtic instrumentation as the couple with lost hopes and dreams argue on Christmas Eve. The duet stands out for being like a real conversation between the two and their dialogue is full of memorable lines: “I could have been someone/Well, so could anyone.”
Tina Turner was the first choice for two major 80s duets
As mentioned, some famous duets were originally intended for someone who didn’t end up on the record. Tina Turner, famous herself for legendary duo Ike and Tina Turner, was intriguingly the first choice for two major 80s duets. The label wanted her for What Have I Done To Deserve This by The Pet Shop Boys but the role went to one of Neil Tennant’s heroines Dusty Springfield and again, their contrasting vocal styles work so well together, Dusty’s inimitable husky soulfulness full of emotion against the upbeat electro pop.
Tina was also the first choice for the anthemic Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves written by Eurythmics’ Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart. The duo then approached Aretha Franklin and the combination of their powerful soulful voices created one of the most memorable female duets sending a strong message of female empowerment.
“Cave’s dark baritone against Kylie’s innocent girly voice make the song a compelling listen”
It often seems that vocal duets work when they’re a collaboration that may be unexpected. Nick Cave had Kylie Minogue in mind for his murder ballad Where the Wild Roses Grow. Nick explains: “I’d wanted to write a song for Kylie for many years. I wrote several songs for her, none of which I felt was appropriate to give her. It was only when I wrote this song, which is a dialogue between a killer and his victim, that I thought finally I’d written the right song for Kylie to sing”. Kylie replied the next day and again, their contrasting voices, his dark baritone against her innocent girly voice, make the song a compelling listen.
In recent years there have been some exciting duets, most notably the T-Bone Burnett-produced Raising Sand album. Blending together the close harmonies of Robert Plant’s legendary rock voice and Alison Krauss’s angelic soprano, the record is a stunning collection of classic songs by the likes of Everly Brothers, Gene Clark and Townes Van Zandt. It’s clear the artists share a love for their interpretations, and that all-important chemistry is between them in abundance. Another major collaboration has been between songwriters Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. They starred together in the 2006 film Once and their emotional performances, particularly in the ballad Falling Slowly, earned them a well deserved Academy Award for Best Original Song.
There are so many classic duets that I’ve not had time to mention and I’d love to hear some of your favourites, and why and if you have written a song for a duet. Did you find it easy? Now I just have to get back to my wishlist of which male artist I’d love to sing on my duet and pluck up the courage to ask them!
Regular Songwriting columnist Lisa Redford has been described by BBC Radio 2′s Bob Harris as “one of our finest singer/songwriters.” She has earned acclaim for her heartfelt acoustic music with gorgeous melodies, stunning pure and soulful vocals. Lisa most recent EP is Reminders, recorded with musician and producer Jeff Hill who has worked with Rufus Wainwright and Teddy Thompson. It has received glowing reviews and BBC radio airplay.