Barbershop: The Music of My Youth, Now Finding Youthful Devotees

It is inevitable: The scent of corinthian leather always reminds me of four-part harmony.

Not that I get much of  an opportunity these days to sniff corinthian leather; at least not nearly as much as I hear harmonies sung by great voices. I’m talking about the many hours I spent in the back seat of a green 1975 Chrysler Cordoba, whose commercial spokesperson — Ricardo Montalban — would boast of its soft, luxury combo-leather/vinyl upholstery, not really from Corinth but from some marketer’s imagination. We drove in that car for miles and miles, on mid-summer family vacations across the country, to join the convention of the society of barbershop choruses and quartets in a different city every year.

Back then the organization was known as S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A – pronounced SPEBS-kwa, for the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America. But it’s now known simply as the Barbershop Harmony Society.

My parents knew that my adolescent attention span meant it wasn’t a good idea to make me sit through three days of quartet competitions, so my sister and I would go on day-trips set up by the society, while dozens of quartets were winnowed down to a final ten in a convention hall. And once the convention was over, the family would make a leisurely vacation to major American sites off the interstate highways on the way back home.

This is how I managed to see most of the lower-48 states (I’ve now been to all 50) before I was 20, and where I got my propensity for putting thousands of miles on a rental car to get somewhere or produce a documentary. As one beleaguered sound recordist once noted, “it’s not a Craig Duff shoot unless the mileage gauge turns over five digits.”

So when I heard dad was coming to Philadelphia last summer to make his annual pilgrimage to harmonize with thousands of his barbershopping pals, I decided to spend my birthday with him, and I brought my camera along.

With the kind assistance of the society’s public relations manager Melanie Chapman, I spent a morning with a chorus as they prepared for the competition, and connected with various quartets as they squared off on the final two days of competition. The top choruses can be pretty intense, making singers audition and attend rigorous and regular rehearsals, sometimes several days a week in the month before competition. But the Chorus of the Chesapeake, from Dundalk Maryland, represents the spirit of most of the choruses in the society: they embrace all who come to harmonize, and they don’t get too intense in scrutinizing an individual’s performance. These guys get together once a week, and anyone who remains in good standing gets to sing with the chorus in contests and shows.

What I also discovered in Philadelphia was a rejuvenated society. Though the average age of the membership is still over 60 years old, more young men are joining choruses and quartets (far more than I remember when I was a young person, testing the waters as a teenage baritone in my dad’s chorus in Ohio). With the popularity of shows like Glee and the Sing Off and even American Idol, singing out loud has come out of the shower. And barbershop — with its unique arrangements that can give you chills when you hit the chord just right and hear the harmonics all around you — is a great hobby to lend a voice to.

They say that barbershoppers come for the singing, but stay for the fellowship. And the Dundalk chapter was as good an example as any of that common bond of harmony and friendship the choruses enjoy.

The result of my weekend in Philly — after months of the footage sitting on the back burner, as I dealt with more immediate tasks, like covering breaking news or producing multimedia content for TIME’s special issues — was released this week: Barbershop: The Original Glee for Guys.

My thanks to Jim Fields for prodding me to finish, and to John Gramaglia, who edited the story because I had no time to do it myself.

Now if I could just distribute scratch-and-sniff cards of that unique aroma of corinthian leather baking in the July sun, I could make the package complete.

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