The Cats, their Kittens, and the strange case of Danny Funderburk
So ya’ll have had fun, I see, debating how well/bad Ernie Haase does/doesn’t cover “I Just Started Living,” and why this and other of Danny Funderburk’s signature songs weren’t on the EHSSQ Cathedrals tribute album. I guess it could be that those are “Danny’s” tunes and have somehow achieved sacred-cow status, but it’s not like EHSSQ has had any qualms about doing their own versions of George and Glen’s songs, so I’m not sure why they’d shy away from Funderburk’s songs out of deference or whatever. Which to say, I wonder if there isn’t a simpler answer. I’m just guessing here, but I bet you’ll find that most of the tunes on the Cats tribute recording are songs that the Cathedrals own the publishing too.
No matter, it’s hard to see the point of a Danny vs Ernie Cage Match given that Funderburk was at the peak of his career and Haase was just starting out. So let’s talk about something else: namely, why it is that after Funderburk left the Cathedrals, he never managed to capitalize on his George and Glen connection (and the overwhelming affection fans felt toward him) the way pretty much every other member of the Cathedral has since the 1980s, when the group really began to dominate?
As you no doubt recall, Funderburk quit the Cathedrals in 1989 to join the newly formed Perfect Heart, which had its moments (including at least one pretty decent live album) but ultimately dissolved (I seem to recall that it’s since been revived, though I’ve heard nothing from this more recent iteration). And of course, at the time he left the Cats, Funderburk was flying high in the late 80s on a string of hits with the George and Glen and a trademark tenor voice.
What was his appeal? Some commenters say it’s because he sounds like a man even in his upper ranges, which sounds kinda silly. Being generous, I assume this kind of thing is meant to refer to his ability to sing in full voice in ranges where most tenors lost depth or warmth in their voices (the “manly” thing might also have something to do with the fact that Haase tends to bring S sounds to the front of his mouth, which many people automatically and somewhat ignorantly construe as fey or less “straight acting“). At least this is the technical explanation, but it’s pretty dissatisfying, especially considering Kirk Talley, just to take the other obvious Cathedrals tenor example, sounded almost exactly opposite of Funderburk in terms of coloration and texture and tone and he had no trouble launching off on his own after the Cats.
No, I actually think Funderburk’s appeal was as much his astonishing ability to sculpt the line of a musical thought so carefully and bend the curve of his melodic phrases so skillfully that his voice interacted with audiences almost as if he were in a personal musical conversation with his fans (as opposed to the David Phelps virtuoso wall of sound model, for instance). Indeed, I think what most people are hearing in the difference between Haase and Funderburk in the “Living” clip is the way Haase sings his words mostly on the beat and Funderburk … well … he doesn’t.
Lots of singers get in front of the beat (esp in vocal jazz) or behind it (Willy Nelson, the Greenes). But Funderburk has a knack for singing all around the beat (and here for the sake of ease, I’m going to refer to his version of “Living” from the Cathedral Reunion), as in the way he sings the line “oh and it’s totally indwelling” – “ohhhh” gets strung out in a bit of tone painting to emphasize just how nearly beyond regular words the spirit’s indwellingness is, so that that the rest of the phrase gets pushed to the end of the line, except that he scrunches up “and it’s” (the most ancillary words of the phrase) in almost a single beat so that he can give “totally indwelling” just bit more space in the measure, communicating the musical thought with a finely calibrated sense of evocative phrasing.
In other words, he speeds up and slows down the rhythm of singing not unlike the human voice in ordinary speech, which provides a felt human presence that can be lost in metronomically regularized vocalization of lyrics where every word falls in perfect rhythmic positions.
It shouldn’t go without saying that Funderburk often sacrificed diction to his vocal style (if I didn’t know that the word was “gloom” in the second verse, for instance, I probably wouldn’t have a clue what he’s saying because he basically turns the word into a gaaaaaahhhhh, … that is, feeling comes at the expense of intelligibility … though I also get the sense on the Reunion video that he’s out of shape vocally and so attempting to let style cover where lack of stamina can’t take him). But sloppy or lazy though he could be, there was such confidence and brio to his style of delivery that it was hard not to be captivated by it – there was an urgency and immediacy there that a lot of people simply wanted a lot more of.
But clearly the key to his success (and decline) had as much to do with the context in which people encountered his voice – that is, as part of the Cathedrals – as it did with Funderburk himself as a performer. And unlike Talley, Trammell, Wolfe, Bennett, Fowler and especially Haase, Funderburk simply never figured out how to make it work without George and Glen. What is “it”? I think it varies from performer to performer, but it might have had something to do in Funderburk’s case with leaving to undertake an endeavor that wasn’t really “his,” the way it was (or seemed to be) with Wolfe and Trammell, or Bennett and Fowler, or Talley, or Haase. Each of these guys in their own ways launched enterprises that were either explicitly undertaken as continuations of George and Glen’s legacy or implicitly seen to be such.
But not Funderburk. Instead, he hooked up with what was, by any objective measure even at the time, a longshot proposition for someone to sign on to at the pinnacle of southern gospel success. Perfect Heart was bankrolled by someone else other than a former Cathedral, and Funderburk was pretty clearly joining up as the hired gun or the franchise star or whatever. In all this, and unlike the other former Kittens who left the mighty Cats, Funderburk never really positioned himself as a disciple or protégé or descendant of George and Glen. That doesn’t necessarily amount to an overweening view of his own ability, but it certainly was a strategic blunder. Operating out from the under the auspices of the Cathedrals, Funderburk seems to have been viewed as just another tenor we really used to like to hear when he was a Cathedral. Which is why Funderburk has spent the past two decades being a fringe figure beloved for stuff he sang a quarter century ago.
Compare that to Haase and it’s hard to see how a debate about who sings a few songs from the 80s better isn’t of the “angels on the head of a pin” variety. To be sure, Haase has a trump card – he’s family by marriage to the Younces – but still. Credit where it’s due and all that. Musically he has done a lot more with a lot less than Funderburk. Vocally, Haase is basically high and loud – and mostly the latter, which gives off the impression of being more of the former than he actually is, as some of you have noted. IOW, you wouldn’t necessarily have heard a young Ernie Haase twenty years ago and say, “that guy has the voice of someone who will wind up headlining his own enormously popular quartet someday.”
All smart entertainers have to figure how to minimize their weaknesses and maximize their strengths, but Haase has taken this maxim of showmanship to an altogether different level of branding genius in Christian entertainment. This probably shouldn’t go without saying, even or especially coming from someone who, as you know, is at best periodically pleased by EHSSQ’s music.Email this Post