Barbershop Singing in San Antonio Fights The Music’s Racist Past, Embraces Its African American Creators

barbershop: unaccompanied group singing of popular songs usually marked by highly conventionalized close harmony. From the old custom of men in barbershops forming quartets for impromptu singing of sentimental songs. (Merriam-Webster dictionary)
click to enlarge Barbershop Singing in San Antonio Fights The Music’s Racist Past, Embraces Its African American Creators
Courtesy of Marcsmen
“Are these people 92 or something?” my 8-year-old daughter whispers in my ear. We’re at the chorus hall of the University United Methodist Church on De Zavala, in front of the mammoth Friends in Harmony chorus. Ages range from 7 to over 90, but the average age seems to be 54+. Due to hurricane season, this is a slow day at the office—only about 80 singers show up.

“We’re the fastest growing chorus in the whole of the [Barbershop Harmony] Society,” says Artie Dolt, who is not 92. “I’ll be 75 this year, and I have tuxedos older than you.” He’s the dean of San Antonio barbershoppers, and a powerhouse with the enthusiasm and energy of a 16-year-old. He’s been directing and singing in choruses for 57 years, winning a quartet Mid-Atlantic district championship in 1966 with New York/New Jersey’s Hallmarks. He formed Friends in Harmony in 2013, starting with a group of 19 singers who, like Dolt, had left barbershop because “it stopped being fun.”

“When I was singing with other organizations, we’d get through a line in the whole three hours practice,” said Ed Garland, the president of Friends in Harmony. “It was all about perfection, and it wasn’t fun anymore.”

Still, Friends in Harmony manage to stop me in my tracks with a thunderous, chilling rendition of “If the Lord Be Willin’ and the Creek Don’t Rise” and an equally powerful rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, which they will sing (as they’ve done before) in two upcoming Spurs games: November 7 against the Los Angeles Clippers and a televised game against the Lakers on March 3. They’ve already booked the 2500-seat Laurie Auditorium for a Spring Spectacular on May 19, featuring Instant Classic (2015 International Quartet Champions, from Indianapolis) and GQ, a popular Sweet Adeline (female) quartet from Baltimore. “They do some eight-part numbers together that are just incredible,” said Dolt. “We’ve already been told busloads of barbershoppers from Houston (both men and women) are coming for this.”

Even though Friends in Harmony have participated in some regional competitions (“just to have fun and hear the other quartets and choruses”), the words “contest” and competition” are not part of the group’s vocabulary.

“You come [to Friends in Harmony] because you enjoy singing and camaraderie,” said Dolt. “For some, this is their life. They literally live for this chorus.”

One of them is 68-year-old Larry Schaef, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last December.

“Ninety-five percent of the people are dead in the first six months,” said Schaef, who is now at stage 3. “But there is a five percent that aren’t, and that’s me. This chorus keeps me alive. I didn’t feel good today, but as soon as I heard that first chord, that put life in me.”

The Marcsmen are the antithesis of Friends in Harmony. Last year, they came in second in the Southwestern District competition, only beaten by Dallas’ 12-time International Champions Vocal Majority, widely regarded as the heavyweight barbershop chorus in the world. Marcsmen won the district in 2012 and, a year later, came in 13th in the world at the International contest, the best finish by a group of less than 29 men on stage in the history of the Barbershop Harmony Society. This time, with Vocal Majority on the horizon, the Marscmen will try to put between 30 and 40 singers onstage, but their expectations change.

“We’re hoping for a wild card,” said Marcsmen co-founder Manny Lopez. “If we score 80 or more points, which we usually do, we can be one of the 10 wild cards to join the 30 district winners.”

“Marcsmen are what we call a state-of-the-art barbershop chorus,” said Brian Lynch, PR man for the Barbershop Harmony Society. “Just reaching the Internationals is like being in the NCAA finals. Their achievements are huge. They’re in a pretty elite group.”

The key element of barbershop is that the melody (the lead) is carried by the second highest voice. Unlike the standard chorus, gospel or hymnal church music (SATB, or soprano, alto, tenor and bass), where the soprano carries the melody, in barbershop the melody is carried by the second highest voice (the second tenor). But before singing, Marcsmen spend close to 30 minutes preparing physically and mentally for the three hours of practice ahead. In what they call “focus sessions,” they get the body warmed up, loosening neck and torso, and then concentrating on melody, intervals, sound production, alignment, breathing and other exercises meant to help each singer find his best voice… before the actual singing.

“A lot of people think singing doesn’t involve the body, but it really does,” said Lopez, one of the former Texas State San Marcos students who formed the group in 2007 and also the director of San Antonio Chordsmen, another barbershop chorus. Three members of Marcsmen (bass Wallace Stanley, lead Peter Cunningham and baritone Manny Lopez) joined Stanley’s wife Diane (a soprano in Opera San Antonio) to form Southern Stride, a mixed quartet that, at the time of this writing, ranks number one in the country and is expecting an invitation to Germany’s BinG! (Barbershop in Germany) Festival in April.
“We don’t want to get too excited, but we’re crossing our fingers,” said Stanley. Both choruses and quartets compete in district and International competitions, the men governed by the Barbershop Harmony Society and the women by Sweet Adelines International, the latter formed in 1945.

But, besides their love for four-part harmonies, both independent organizations share a tumultuous racial past that’s evident anytime one stands in front of a barbershop quartet or chorus: the whiteness of it all, an irrelevant fact (no one would demand “diversity” out of a mariachi orchestra or a hip-hop band) if we didn’t know the African American origins of barbershop.

“We are owning our heritage, trying to rectify those errors and making sure [racial bans] will not happen in the future,” said Lynch.