By Steve Herte
Those who know me know that I love to sing. Over the years I have sung at Karaoke bars, in a formal chorus, and in a couple of barbershop quartets, including one with my beloved late girlfriend (who possessed one of the most angelic voices I have ever heard).
Barbershop is one of only two uniquely American forms of music. (Sorry rappers, but Rap is neither music nor uniquely American. Africans have been rapping long before it was popular.) The other is Jazz. Its roots go back to the 1800s when the Tonsorial Parlor (Barber Shop) was the place for men to gather, smoke cigars, and converse as well as be groomed. Once four men were gathered one would start a melody and the others would improvise the three other parts, one above the melody, one below and one to create the unique sound of a barbershop quartet whose part weaves both above and below the melody. This original form was later dubbed “woodshedding,” probably because, when not in the Barber Shop, this was where the men took the oft times rough-shod music in politeness.
Although very popular in the early part of the 20th Century, barbershop music lost its luster with the coming of the 20s, replaced by Jazz and a faster pace of life.
The revival of this truly American art form took place in 1938, in Tulsa Oklahoma. It was there that O.C. Cash organized the S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A. (the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America) with a double goal: to standardize, preserve the style, and promote the form of music, and have the most impressive and longest organizational title. The society grew over the years and several quartets formed until a competition was organized to find the best. A judging system was established to measure how well the standards of the style were being executed. Chapters formed all over the United States and choruses formed to facilitate the formation of quartets and give the less extroverted singers a medium to participate in the style. Soon the choruses became so proficient that they too entered competition. Choreography was added to the performance and became a category in the judges’ training.
Has barbershop singing ever been in the movies? Sad to say, to the best of my knowledge, only two movies featured barbershop harmonizing. The first was the Judy Garland-Van Johnson musical about turn-of-the-century America, In The Good Old Summertime (1948). George Boyce, Eddie Jackson, Joe Niemeyer, and Charles Smith teamed to sing the barbershop classic “Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie,” and also joined star Judy Garland for the delightful “Play That Barbershop Chord.” The second movie to feature barbershop harmonies was The Music Man (1962), where a barbershop quartet forms an integral part of the story. The Buffalo Bills, 1950 International Quartet Champions, who had appeared in the Broadway production, reprised their role in the film and sang “Lida Rose,” a favorite of barbershop quartets.
When I joined in 1973, there were chapters in England and Canada. Over the 35 years, I sang in two choruses, directed one and participated in at least 15 quartets as tenor and the society expanded to Scandinavia, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Holland and Russia. The style became second nature to me. The song has to be easy to sing, follow a progression called the “circle of fifths,” have a chord on every note and those chords must be predominantly (about 75%) minor seventh chords (the “barbershop seventh”). The structure of these chords should form around the melody singer (the Lead) and the combination of bottom note (Bass), middle note (Baritone) and Lead note should generate the top (Tenor) note, so that when the tenor sang that note the chord would “ring” (generate over-tones) above the tenor part. This four-part ring is what distinguishes Barbershop from Doo-Wop (usually only three parts) and swing (five or more parts) and classical SATB (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass) where the melody is usually in the top part. Major seventh chords are verboten (not encouraged) and diminished or augmented chords are only allowed as transitional chords (those leading to key or root chords) and never when the melody is on the seventh.
On December 26, I attended the USA-Japan Goodwill Concert featuring an all-wind instrument orchestra (with the exception of the percussion section) and a women’s chorus from Japan in the first half and a young men’s barbershop chorus and two championship barbershop quartets in the second half. The orchestra was splendid and very impressive, especially when they finished with “Stars and Stripes Forever.” The women’s group was a smaller one than last year’s but they were charming and performed songs like “Getting to Know You” and “Happy Talk” with sensitivity and graceful choreography. Then, after an intermission the USA side performed.
The No Borders Youth Chorus, Vocal Spectrum, and OC Times were on the USA side. No Borders sang “The Muppet Show Theme” (cute) and “You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” They were introduced with "Can you believe these guys never met each other until tonight?" (And they sounded like they didn't do too much rehearsing together either). Their lack of synchronization made that blatantly obvious. But they did do a passable job on Billy Joel's “Lullaby (Goodnight, My Angel).” The song “Nearer My God to Thee” returned to synchronization problems and featured an unfortunate choice for soloist. Vocal Spectrum sang “When I See an Elephant Fly,” and the Beach Boys' “Good Vibrations.” The first song was, beneath their talent and silly (basically a vocal exercise) - I couldn't understand any of the words except the title (Usually the words are paramount to understanding the message of a Barbershop song). The second was ruined by the tenor singing the electronic (don't they know nobody sings that?) high part on every chorus, just because he could. OC Times sang “I'm Walkin',” a little too fast and once again incoherently. Then a song called “Unbelievable,” which was mostly scat and incomprehensible words, except for the title. After I heard it I turned to my friend and asked, "What the heck was that?" Then both quartets joined the chorus in the song “Higher and Higher.” Man, that's Barbershop, NOT! I was wondering why I stayed.
Knowing this strict structure and realizing that the style must evolve in order to survive, I’m still wondering why some singers ignore one for the other. Also realizing that the only “professional” Barbershop quartets were the Chordettes (Mr. Sandman) and the Osmond Brothers when they were discovered by Andy Williams, I understand that the hobby (some think it’s a lifestyle) is mostly amateur. But, in an august venue such as Carnegie Hall, where the crème de la crème of Barbershop have performed in the past, why should such songs and such performances be posing to represent the style when they obviously are not? Maybe I’ve been spoiled. But I do know that when Barbershop is properly sung it is thrilling not just for the audience, but for the singers themselves. That’s why I’m always ready for my quartet reunions.