Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A song for your sweetie, barbershop style

(published in the February issue of Coastal Senior)

She might be at work, putting away files or entering data on the computer.  Perhaps she’s at home, in the kitchen or the garden.  Guys, regardless of where your Valentine is on Valentine’s Day, she probably wouldn’t be expecting a visit from four dapper gentlemen in red sport coats and ties, bearing a long-stemmed rose and a Valentine’s Day card.  Oh yes, and a couple of love songs to let her know how you feel about her.  It’s a unique gift from a unique group of distinguished men; the 13th Colony Sound, Savannah’s barbershop singers.

“All the guys love the singing Valentines,” says the chorus’s current president, Bob Kearns, 64.  “We’ve be doing them practically since the chorus began, and they are one of our main fundraisers.”  Helping a group of guys with their own unique way of preserving the Great American Songbook is something Kearns never expected to be doing at this stage of his life.

A former board member of the Long Island Philharmonic in New York, Kearns moved to Savannah five years ago after making numerous business trips here doing aerospace engineering work.  “One morning while singing in my church choir,” Kearns says, “a guy told me ‘you’ve got to come with me to sing with this group that meets every Monday night.”  It was the 13th Colony Sound, and Kearns joined up at a time when a cappella singing appeared to have long since peaked in popularity. 

Barbershop singing traces its beginnings to, where else, barbershops, where four or more men would sing a song without music (or a cappella).  A good example is the 1903 song “Sweet Adeline” which you may remember the Marx Brothers singing in their film “Monkey Business” (the only time, by the way, that silent brother Harpo Marx used his voice in a movie).  By 1970, barbershop singing had undergone a national revival thanks largely to the Broadway hit “The Music Man”, later made into a successful film. 

1970 was the year when what was then called “The Savannah Chorus” received an official charter from the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America.  Someone eventually decided that mouthful of a name was a tad long, and the national organization shortened it to the Barbershop Harmony Society.  Names changed in Savannah, too, as the chapter later became ‘The Coastal Chordsmen’ and, in 1984, the 13th Colony Sound.

The last few years have brought another renaissance in barbershop singing, at least in Savannah.  “We went from a time many years ago when it was unusual to have choruses with fewer than 40 guys down to a chorus with just 15 guys when I joined,” Kearns says.  Now, things are picking up thanks in part to some innovative marketing, such as the chorus’s occasional get-togethers at Spanky’s near Savannah Mall.  “We’ve got it back up to 30 members,” Kearns says, “and we’re shooting to get it back up to 40.”

 Many of the chorus’s members are longtime prominent Savannahians, most in their 60’s and 70’s.  Then, there’s Dan Gillespie, 89, who as a young man helped build the atomic bombs used during World War II.  Gillespie hasn’t let an Alzheimer’s diagnosis keep him from singing tenor, and it hasn’t taken away his quick wit.  Backstage during one of the chorus’s shows, observing a bit of chaos in getting another act on stage, Gillespie quipped “building atomic initiators was easier than this.”

The 13th Colony Sound has gotten a bit younger over the last couple years, particularly with the addition of music director Jeremy Conover, 33.  He joined three years ago, and bearing a music degree and a pedigree as a singing coach and champion barbershop singer in the Midwest, brought a more ambitious musical agenda for the chorus.  “We’ve put on two full-fledged stage shows largely because of Jeremy’s work with us,” Kearns says, including last year’s “Remember Radio”, a recreation of an old time live radio show.

Given the ages of many of the chorus members, they also decided to do their best to get the next generation involved in barbershopping, at first recruiting students from Savannah Arts Academy and Armstrong Atlantic State University and, in 2009, forming the young men’s Savannah Storm Chorus.  “This music is our life blood,” Kearns says, “and if we don’t teach those younger guys about it, the music will die on the vine.”  It appears the music is in good hands, as Savannah Storm won a national Barbershop Harmony Society championship for their age group in their first year of existence, and recently went back to national competition in Las Vegas.

Lest you think Barbershop singing is for men only, the Moon River Chorus might have something to say about that.  Joe Ryan, one of three charter members of the 13th Colony Sound still singing with the group, started the women’s chorus in 1995.  They meet every Thursday at 7:00pm at Whitefield United Methodist Church on Waters Avenue, and all women who like to sing are welcome.

As for the men, “we’re trying hard to have fun every Monday night,” Kearns says.  They meet at 7:00pm at the Benedictine school cafeteria.  Who knows; this time next year you might be part of one of the 13th Colony Sound’s quartets, singing to someone’s sweetheart on Valentine’s Day.

Note: If you’d like a 13th Colony Sound or Moon River Chorus quartet to sing to your Valentine, they are available February 10th – 14th.  You can make a reservation by calling (912) 351-7388.

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