For the Acadiana men who sing in barbershop quartets, it’s all about close harmony and camaraderie.
July 9, 2003
Bob Landry is a barbershopper, but he doesn’t cut hair, and he doesn’t shop for barbers. For the last 56 years, he has been singing in barbershop quartets, one of the oldest forms of American a cappella music.
There are about 32,000 men around the world who keep the singing tradition alive. Every year, members of the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America gather for an annual conference of song and competition. This year’s conference was held last week in Montreal, Canada, with performances from 45 quartets, 15 college quartets and 17 choruses, which consist of at least 12 men and up to 160 men.
In Acadiana, there are six barbershop groups – McKinley Street Function, Louisiana Purchase, Pride of the Marsh, The Four Fathers, 7-OH-1 and Landry’s group, The M&M Barbershop Quartet.
Landry is 74 years old and sings lead in M&M. He has white, curly hair and wears glasses. He’s led a musical life, teaching music to youngsters for more than 50 years. He says it’s important for young people to learn music because “it’s the only subject where when one person makes a mistake, he has to notice it and correct it. It’s like real life. Nobody tells you when you’re making a mistake.”
Landry established the Acadiana chapter of SPEBSQSA in 1964. Every Tuesday night, the chapter meets and practices at his house, and every Wednesday night, the M&M rehearses for two hours, with a quick break for coffee and conversation. He says the appeal of the barbershop quartet is that “everyone’s on an equal basis. That’s one of the great things about barbershop – the camaraderie. You have to be on good terms with others to do it. You have to be tolerant and understanding.”
Barbershop singing is four-part, unaccompanied, close-harmony singing, with the second voice acting as the group’s lead. What makes it different from other styles of a cappella singing, like doo-wop, is that the three voices harmonize with the lead while he sings the melody. One voice sings tenor and one sings the lead. The bass sings the lowest notes of the harmony, and the baritone supplies the notes in-between. Landry says when sung properly, barbershop quartets sound like there are more than just four voices at work and can sound as if six people are singing at one time. With close harmony and a good pitch, there are overtones and undertones that are produced by the men’s singing, rounding out the sound. Landry calls it “the expanded sound.” Barbershoppers call it “ringing the chord.”
The SPEBSQSA traces the roots of barbershop quartets to the mid-1800s when white singers sang four-part harmonies in blackface. When minstrel shows began to be replaced by vaudeville acts, the tradition remained, usually accompanied by ethnic comedy that would be considered offensive by today’s standards.
But this style of music did not take on the form of “barbershop” until the black, Southern quartets of the 1870s, with notable acts like The American Four and The Hamtown Students. The first written reference to this style of harmonizing as “barbershop” was in 1910, with the publication of the song “Play That Barbershop Chord.”
At the turn of the century, before the advent of recorded music, a song’s popularity was measured by the number of copies of its sheet music that a song sold. Most tunes coming from Tin Pan Alley were simple vocal arrangements with simple melodies and themes, with an accompaniment for a piano or ukulele and an arrangement for a male quartet. With the invention of the Edison machine and later recordings made by Victor, Edison and Columbia, music lovers were actually able to hear the songs as the composer had intended them. Male quartets then began to find work as recording artists, recording the songs for the recording companies. Radio did more to hurt the style of music than it did to help it. Composers began writing more for jazz combos, which was more suitable for dancing, than the soothing sounds of the barbershoppers.
But in April 1938, a Tulsa, Okla., tax attorney named O.C. Cash was visiting Kansas City on business. He met a man named Tulsan Rupert Hall in the lobby of the Muehlebach Hotel. The two men found that they shared a common interest in a cappella singing and a common disappointment with the fading popularity of barbershop quartets. The two formed the group, the Society for the Preservation and Propagation of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in the United States. Hall crowned himself the Royal Keeper of the Minor Keys and Cash dubbed himself the Third Temporary Assistant Vice Chairman.
On April 11, 1938, the two men, along with 24 other men, sang on the roof garden of the Tulsa Club in Tulsa. By the group’s third meeting, 150 men were present. They made such a commotion that they caused a traffic jam on the street below. A reporter (long since forgotten in the annals of barbershop history) made his way to the roof and interviewed Cash, who made the outlandish claim that his group was a national organization. The story was picked up by news wire services and reported across the nation.
Barbershoppers rarely speak of the SPEBSQSA. Instead, they refer to it as the Barbershop Harmony Society. It’s the world’s largest all-male singing society and consists of 32,000 members, with 824 chapters in the United States and Canada. There are more than 2,000 quartets registered with the organization – and the society estimates that there are another 1,000 quartets in North America that aren’t members of SPEBSQSA. The society also has affiliate organizations in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden, The Netherlands and Great Britain, with quartets in Denmark, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Uganda, China, Hungary, Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Iceland and Russia.
Back in Landry’s Jennings home, the members of the M&M Barbershop Quartet, dressed in matching black slacks and red polo shirts, are visiting with one another before their weekly rehearsal.
Seventy-nine-year-old John McBurney is the group’s baritone and a retired vice president of Evangeline Oil Refinery in Jennings. He has been singing barbershop for 40 years. Landry says the baritones are always ribbed the most in the group and that no one in their right mind wants to sing the baritone part. McBurney says, “These three guys get all the pretty notes, and the baritone gets whatever’s left over.” But all kidding aside, McBurney says, he really does love singing in the quartet.
Allen “Rusty” Cassidy, a 44-year-old pharmacist, sings tenor. Landry taught him to sing in the fourth grade, which began their lifetime friendship. He says, “We started out as friends and we became brothers. You almost become married. It becomes a commitment.”
Fifty-four-year-old Dr. Richard McGregor, a general practitioner, sings bass. He’s been singing with M&M for the last six years, and he’s the newest member of the 12-year-old group. He says he was already singing bass in his church choir when Landry approached him to sing. He says, “They were desperate. It didn’t work out with me either, but they just couldn’t find anybody else.”
When the group rehearses, they run through a few numbers in their repertoire – “Honey,” “Little Blue Eyes,” “Sweet and Lovely,” “Shine On Me,” “My Wild Irish Rose” and “A Tree in the Meadow.” Landry stands in the middle with McGregor on his left. McBurney stands on the outside of the group next to McGregor, and Cassidy stands on the other side of Landry. As they sing, they lean into the song, emphasizing parts of the song with hand gestures and facial expressions.
As they sing “The Chordbuster March,” when they hit the notes just right, it sounds as if there are more than just their four voices singing. It takes just the right balance for them to ring the chord.