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In Texas: Going for the Bird

8 minute read
Richard Woodbury

Roger Welliver is flat. More than flat, he is almost completely off pitch. The song — I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen — calls for an F, but the note he is bellowing this scorching July morning in San Antonio is closer to a B flat. The problem is partly the fault of a ruddy young man in Big Smith overalls who has sounded the wrong note on a pitch pipe, but the small group of onlookers doesn’t know that. They poke one another and guffaw.

The laughter doesn’t faze Welliver, 42, a frozen-foods shipping clerk in Omaha. He is in ecstasy here on a stage at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, harmonizing with one of the finest quartets in the land, at the annual convention of the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America. Welliver has paid $20 to “Sing with the Champs” — an opportunity for rank-and-file barbershoppers to sing briefly onstage with a championship quartet — and he is paired with SPEBSQSA’s 1986 gold medalists, a foursome of Missourians called Rural Route 4. He is dressed in the group’s red bandanna, straw hat and work boots.

As video cameras and tape recorders grind, Welliver and the champs back up and take another crack at Kathleen. This time the melody sparkles. Welliver, after all, is no tyro. He has been singing tenor in the Omaha Central Statesmen Chorus for 14 years. But like most of the 6,500 barbershoppers here, he will admit, he isn’t quite competition caliber. The bystanders applaud, and Welliver hustles off, tightly clutching for posterity the two-minute videotape of his gig. “This,” he confides, “is something you dream about all your life.”

He is followed at the mike by other champs-for-a-day: an accountant, a short-order cook named Larry, a computer specialist who beams while a wag introduces him as “the greatest lead voice from Florida.” He bows and launches into Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven. Fellowship and fun count for more than tonal quality in barbershopping, a thriving movement that celebrates a unique song style: the four-part unaccompanied harmony that flourished at the turn of the century on porches, street corners, saloons and, yes, barbershops across America. In its early years, barbershop singing was pretty much a male preserve, but today both men and women perform. SPEBSQSA is an organization for men interested in preserving barbershop harmony; Sweet Adelines and Harmony Incorporated are similar groups for women.

On the city’s Riverwalk and in hotel lobbies and elevators, where the songsters break out in “woodshedding” — the impromptu jam-session-like warbling of old chestnuts — the camaraderie runs thick. At the Hyatt Regency, three old-timers search the crowd for a baritone. “Come over here, Jamie,” one hollers. Let Me Call You Sweetheart suddenly gushes forth, halting a bellman in his tracks.

This year the week of hoopla is more intense than usual because the society is marking its 50th anniversary. Quartets and choruses from six countries are on hand, England’s Northernaires and Sweden’s Vocal Vikings among them. A grand march through downtown brings out a galaxy of past champs. The Dukes of Harmony, 1977 and 1980 gold medalists, are prominent in a blue Ford Model A. The Gay Notes, 1958 titlists, cruise by in a ’58 Edsel. Old quartets endure as much for their catchy names as their sounds. The Gala Lads and Chord Busters are here. The Four Hearsemen, who swept the 1955 sing-off garbed as undertakers, have trekked south from Amarillo. But now they are minus their lead tenor, who has passed on.

Cries of recognition resonate through the live oaks as old barbershoppers spy one another in the crowd. A bass from San Diego embraces a long-lost bass from Long Island. The Californian has in tow his 26-year-old son, also a barbershopper. “How many things can you do with your boy and really enjoy?” he asks. Certainly few that are so indelibly G-rated. The society adheres to a ten-point code of ethics, and a committee is available to punish those who might spice their lyrics with a double entendre or even a Swedish joke. The panel hasn’t had to meet in years. “People like to ridicule us as a bunch of squares,” declares Sarasota, Fla., anesthesiologist Hank Vomacka with a wink. “But they keep coming back to listen.”

A lanky tenor named Franklin Spears, swigging a can of Lone Star, lends his insight. “The nice thing about barbershopping,” he confides, “is you don’t know what the guy singing next to you does for a living, and you don’t care.” Spears happens to be a justice of the Texas Supreme Court, and he gloats, “I’ve been here three days, and I haven’t talked about a case yet.”

The mood is far more serious in the rehearsal rooms of the 51 quartets that are vying for the international championship. Singers pace, vocalizing bits and pieces of their lyrics, all the while sipping glass after glass of water to lubricate their cords. Among such polished foursomes, the margin of victory will hang on fine points: how well a group conveys the mood and emotion of a song and how precisely its singers blend their four notes to produce a fifth, wholly new harmonic. That high, ringing fifth tone — the overtone, or “bird” — is the grail that every barbershop quartet strives for.

The smart money favors three entries: the Second Edition, a young, laid-back bunch from Louisville that placed second last year; the Chicago Chord of Trade, led by an ex-gold medalist who does his own arranging; and the Chiefs of Staff, another seasoned Chicago outfit, known for its consistency of tone. But no one is counting out the Chordiac Arrest from Northbrook, Ill., or the Inns ‘n Outts from Houston. The contest will ride on style and panache and the electricity that each foursome can generate in the hall.

Style and showmanship are also basic to barbershopping. “There’s a lot of ham in all of us,” the Texas judge admits. And ego. This is a mutual- admiration society, where singers feed off plaudits from their peers. The moment in the lights is everything. “Barbershopping is Broadway,” a Dallas voice points out. “You’ve made it here. Guys who didn’t know they could carry a tune outside the shower — everybody is a star.”

Hotel message boards reflect the close fraternity of men, and their wives, many of them members of the Adelines: “The Redwoods from N.Z. Are in Room 1109,” “Alice and Albert, Have a Nice Day, John.” At the souvenir tables, singers snatch up LPs by grand masters and $27 home-study tapes — Theory of Harmony, How to Warm Up Your Voice. The camaraderie extends to the contest stage. The battle is to win, not to beat the other guy. ” ‘We’ is the competition,” notes a Chief of Staffer. No candy-shirted drunks around a barber pole at this convention. For the final rounds, the costuming is ingenious. Houston’s Inns ‘n Outts strut onstage painted up as the four gray visages of Mount Rushmore. A Virginia quartet appears as clowns. Florida’s Sidekicks prance on as doctors and plumbers. But the twelve judges are looking for more than slapstick. “Too much theatrics detract from sound quality,” sniffs one.

By the last night, the 51 entries have been culled to ten. The Chord of Trade, in top hats and tails, wows the hall with Give My Regards to Broadway. They seem to win hands down on presence and arrangement, but something lacks, and they must settle for third. The Second Edition has easily made the cut too but is haunted by a mediocre first round. Tonight in rhinestone tuxes, they bring the crowd to a frenzy with Darktown Strutters’ Ball. Cumulative scores do them in, however, and they finish second.

No such problem for the Chiefs. For a week their tenor and baritone have been battling colds. The tenor popped antibiotics and hunkered in a sauna. Maybe the lack of hard practice helps. In gray tuxes, they captivate the crowd with a medley of lilting love songs. Vowels echo rich and uniform down the darkened rows of fellow singers. Their voices have caught the elusive bird, and the overtone rings clear and shrill. Afterward, as they pace backstage awaiting results, someone is afraid that they missed the real essence. The judges disagree and give them first prize.

“Did you hear the bird screeching?” crows bass Don Bagley as he juggles the 40-lb. silver trophy. “It makes the hair stand on your neck.” Bagley, 48, exults, “It’s taken me 27 years to get up here. It will take 27 to get down.”

Gold medals on their necks, the weary champs strut into the night. Now they must “take Kathleen home again” at a string of receptions, where they will be expected to sing till dawn. But none of the four is unhappy at the thought. “Where else,” asks tenor Tim McShane, a utility-company dispatcher, “can I hear such applause? Where can I be such a weekend star?”

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