The Voices of Our 1960s-70s Childhoods

Are you the kind the person who has songs running through your head at all times? I am. Not every single second of the day, but most seconds of most days there’s something playing in the background (or foreground) of my consciousness. When I was involved in opera productions there would be a whole minutes-long passage that would loop back to the beginning at some convenient harmonic convergence, so that it might not end until some other music took its place. Since I left the business most of my “ear worms” have ended up being fragments of songs from recently-played CDs (yes, we are dinosaurs and still buy CDs).

Sometimes they go way back in time, however. (For several months, “You Never Give Me Your Money” from the Beatles’ Abbey Road album switched on in my head pretty much every time I entered the kitchen. No idea why.) This past Christmas Eve, I pulled out my old DVD (like I said, dinosaurs) of the 1966 animated cartoon special “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas”, which we never missed when it was broadcast on American television during my childhood. That was nearly 2 weeks ago, and I thought nothing more of it, but then something very strange happened this morning.

I had woken up around 6:30; it was still dark so I was just letting my thoughts roam where they would, when for some reason I recalled the theme song to the early 1970s TV series “Love, American Style”. And then…wait, I thought, those back-up voices. Don’t they sound just like the same voices on the Partridge Family Album? Now, I haven’t heard that album since I was maybe 10 years old, but I remember listening to those songs and thinking that the singers sure didn’t sound like a group of kids. They sounded like adults. OK, but who were they?

Well, here we are in 2020 and Wikipedia is indeed a wonderful thing (and I need to make a donation to them!) Get this: it’s the same constellation of singers, concentrated around the brothers Tom and John Bahler, here in a group called The Love Generation but more often generally part of the Ron Hicklin Singers, a group of studio singers who were hired to record pretty much everything we late Baby Boomers – the generation portrayed in the old TV series “The Wonder Years”, actually – heard on television during the sixties and seventies. Commercials, theme songs, you name it. Along with the Beatles and the pop artists on WFIL and American Bandstand, these singers more or less sang my entire childhood.

Here are some examples of where you can hear the voices, collectively or individually, of the Ron Hicklin Singers (courtesy of their Wikipedia entry): the theme songs for the TV shows Love, American Style, Batman, Flipper, That Girl (Season 5 opening), Happy Days. There they are backing up lead vocalist Cyndi Greco in the theme song to Laverne & Shirley . They recorded songs for the show The Partridge Family and the cartoon spin-off The Brady Kids, songs for the Monkees, including “I’m a Believer” (!!), for Paul Revere & the Raiders, and probably about a thousand other songs and jingles that flowed out of TVs and into American ears during the 60s and 70s. Of special note: Thurl Ravenscroft, the brilliant and unmistakable bass voice of “You’re a Mean One, Mister Grinch” from the above-mentioned DVD and Kellogg’s Tony the Tiger (“They’re grrrrrrreat!”) was a Ron Hicklin Singer. And Jackie Ward, the group’s alto, was by her own accounts “the voice of Rice-a-Roni” for 20 years.

The Bahler brothers allegedly can be heard in the song “MacArthur Park” (there were male back-up singers on that? I pulled it up for a listen on YouTube. I didn’t notice any. Unless they sing those super high notes at the end?) and “Suicide is Painless” from the 1970 film M*A*S*H*.
And especially Burt Bacharach’s swinging “South American Getaway” from the 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Listen to this song on YouTube. Listen with headphones or earbuds if you can. They’re terrific. And there’s Thurl Ravenscroft, of Grinch and Tony the Tiger fame, singing bass, PLAIN AS DAY. [Wait, stop the presses: the soprano on this song, Sally Stevens, recently commented on YouTube that it’s herself, John Bahler, Jackie Ward, Sue Allen, Ron Hicklin and Bob Tebow.]

It only took me literally 50 years to realize this. Sure, it all sounded similar. As a kid, they all sounded like a bunch of grown-ups to me. I never realized they were the same singers, doing it all.