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In Perfect Unison
Barbershop quartets bring harmony to SJ
By Lisa Fields

Music erupted in the lobby. And the elevator. And the bar. Not the piped-in Muzak you’d expect in a hotel, but bold, live harmonies. At any moment, in any corner of the Crowne Plaza in Cherry Hill, you might find four men joining together to create music – with a touch of elaborate showmanship thrown in.

The barbershop musicians were back in town.

Guy Kirk

At the start of the summer, thousands of barbershop singers traveled from as far away as upstate New York and southern Maryland to attend the annual regional competition hosted by the Barbershop Harmony Society’s Mid-Atlantic Division. The group hosts the two-day convention to select qualifiers for the national competition, which takes place in Las Vegas later this year. More than 900 people typically show up to watch the competition, because it’s also quite an entertaining show.

“This is an old American, traditional hobby,” says 48-year-old Haddonfield resident Dave Gottardi, who sings with the Cherry Hill Pine Barons barbershop chorus. “In the ’90s and early 2000s, it wasn’t really cool to do this, but then [Fox’s ­hit show] ‘Glee’ came out, and all of a sudden, it was cool to sing a cappella. That’s what we sing. We just sing it in four parts.”

A barbershop quartet consists of a lead, bass, tenor and baritone, who all sing the same song, offering different tones of harmony. They sing unaccompanied, and usually add grand gestures, from exaggerated facial expressions to dramatic, choreographed movements.

And while many expect the songs they sing to be old, that’s not always the case. The barbershop genre can include almost any song, including modern-day pop tunes – but there is one exception.

“What we need is a melody,” says RiverLine member Marty Israel, 67, a member of the Barbershop Harmony Society for almost 50 years. A former music teacher, Israel has also served as a judge at the society’s competitions.

“All songs have melody, except for rap, so you won’t hear rap. But we don’t care about a song’s date – I’ve arranged songs from the ’90s, including ‘Under the Sea’ and ‘A Whole New World.’”

RiverLine’s current members, including Israel, sang onstage together as a foursome for the first time during the competition in Cherry Hill. The group had to scramble for a new lead singer after their previous lead singer died suddenly five weeks before the event.

“We sang together for over 30 years,” says Steve Zellers, 61, of Riverton, about his late friend and fellow RiverLine quartet member Kevin Gregan. “The current quartet has a lot of individual experience, but we have not sung together very long.”

Their newest member, Guy Kirk of Collingswood, had previously sang baritone with RiverLine a few times before formally joining the group in May.

“It was a departure from anything I had ever done before,” says Kirk, 62. “I’m a church musician. I have known Steve as a member at the church. Performing actually felt as comfortable as competition can feel. It was the first time for me.”

 

RiverLine performing “Chatanooga Choo Choo.”

 

Although the foursome hadn’t logged much time singing together, they had good rapport when they walked on stage, posing as strangers on a generations-ago train platform before breaking into the song “Chattanooga Choo Choo.” The four were dressed as traveling businessmen from the 1940s, complete with double-breasted suits, hats and large leather suitcases.

For the competition, each quartet makes different decisions regarding costumes. Some choose to dress identically. Others opt to wear the same suits but vary ties or handkerchiefs. Still others, like RiverLine, wear completely different outfits to portray characters in a scene, such as men waiting for a train long ago.

“There’s a lot involved,” says RiverLine member David Epstein, 60. “It’s really detailed – figuring out how you’re going to sing a song and what you’re going to do with it. Working with three other guys, you have to get along, and you have to see eye to eye.”

And while RiverLine’s members are a typical representation of most of the quartets entered in the competition, some break the mold, like Madhattan, the group who ended up being named champions at the regional competition.

Madhattan

The three 26-year-olds and 40-year-old who make up Madhattan performed in sharp gray suits and pink shirts, looking more like groomsmen than the entertainment for a 50th wedding anniversary. Sporting trendy beards and haircuts (including one ponytail), the group sang an arrangement of the 1999 Eric Benet hit “Spend My Life With You.”

“There is this stereotype that barbershop is an old, white male pastime,” says Madhattan’s Richard Townsend, 26, who lives in New York City. “That notion has been getting demolished over the past few decades.”

Madhattan’s members prefer to sing modern songs that appeal to their younger sensibilities.

“It’s way harder to sing the barbershop classics and give the same emotional weight behind it,” Townsend says. “Just singing about your sweetie, you have to be really into your sweetie.”

“I’ve never called anybody ‘sweetie’ in my life,” quips 26-year-old Spencer Wight from Jersey City, another Madhattan member.

The interest of younger singers is spreading and bringing hope for the genre’s continuation. In Salem County, the music teacher at Quinton Township School has introduced the barbershop genre to his students, creating the Wildcat Harmonizers, a musical group of 12 boys ranging from second to 10th grades. (Because the group has more than four members, it is considered a barbershop chorus.)

Chris Crawford, 15, is one of the group’s original members. “I fell in love with the music and singing four-part harmony,” he says.

He isn’t the only one. All the barbershop members list the music, friendships and camaraderie as reasons why they sing with their groups.

“You form friendships, and you absolutely don’t want to let the other fellows down. There are guys who are terribly ill with cancer or heart disease or chronic pain, but they come every week because it means so much to them,” says RiverLine’s Epstein. “It’s something to keep you active, something to look forward to, because it’s just so damn fun.”

August 2017
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