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Chicago Tribune Barbershop Article

Group: Date: Tue, Aug 11, 1998, 4:32pm (CDT+1) From:

(BrianLynch) Barbershop story in Chicago Tribune MELLOW TONES By Lisa Stein Special to the Tribune August 11, 1998

If you've listened to a top 40 radio station for more than 15 minutes in the last few years, chances are you're aware of a resurgence in a cappella music. The R&B of Boyz II Men and the pop gospel of Take 6, for example, feature many strictly vocal passages that allow the singers to showcase their harmonizing ability.

But what may come as a surprise to some is the growing popularity of a particular style of a cappella music, especially among younger singers: the barbershop quartet, that emblem of innocence centered on clean-cut, romantic crooning that hit its zenith in the early 1920s. If these groups persist in their devotion, a new generation of barbershop singers will be blending mellifluous chords well into the next millennium.

Reconciling the stereotype of barbershop quartets -- middle-aged men in red-striped shirts and straw hats singing on bended knees -- with contemporary youth requires some effort. What could possibly draw teenagers to barbershop, which has been neglected by several previous generations?

"It's so foreign to them, it's cool," explained Nancie Kozel, music director at Barrington High School. "Some of the text in these old songs is so fun and so different for them, like `Coney Island Baby. "

"It's almost like the guys are teasing the girls, like they're going away and they say they're so sorry and then they laugh about how they're looking forward to the next girl," said Barrington high school student Jared Karney, 18. "It's fun to be up there and portray that kind of character. We get to take on a different personality than in other styles of music." Karney was a member of Kozel's first barbershop group, the Mellow Fellows, which was such a hit with students and local audiences last year that she will coach four quartets in the fall. Barbershop quartet programs at other suburban high schools, including Streamwood and Maine West in Des Plaines, also have blossomed in the last year.

The thrill of singing barbershop lured hundreds of high school students to several camps in the Midwest this summer, including one held last month in Muncie, Ind., that attracted boys from Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio. "You don't need instruments, and you can do it wherever you are," said Jonathan Compton, 17, a senior at Streamwood High School and a baritone in a quartet called The Voices that recently returned from barbershop camp. "It just sounds great."

Kevin Hadap, 18, who sings bass in The Voices, reaches for a divine analogy to describe the barbershop experience. "Even if you're just listening to it, you're sort of imagining yourself in a church and you're surrounded by heavenly music. The whole place is just ringing with sound," he said. Hadap is considering forming a new quartet when he starts at Lake Forest College in the fall.

Barbershop circa 1998 shares some similarities with its roots. It still consists of two tenors, one of whom sings lead, a baritone and a bass. Women can and do sing barbershop, and even have their own international organization, the Oklahoma-based Sweet Adelines, but barbershop remains a largely male phenomenon in public perception.

Today's barbershoppers have access to a wider variety of arrangements, ranging from such old favorites as "Melancholy Baby" and "Dust Off That Old Pianna" to Ricky Nelson and Elvis Presley songs to selections from musicals such as "West Side Story" and "Fiddler on the Roof." They also are likely to sport an updated look, wearing tuxedos or flashy costumes.

Jeff Schmidt, 18, a tenor who just graduated from Barrington High School, first encountered barbershop at Disney World in Orlando, Fla. "I loved the seven-chord sound of it, the conforming outfits and everything," he said. "A guy bass sounds awesome. Guy sounds are just good." According to the aptly named Jack Musich, 69, a member of the international Barbershop Harmony Society, based in Kenosha, Wis., and of the Arlingtones quartet, "Rap has found listeners in a large segment of youth. But the younger people now are looking for something different -- harmony. Now we come along with four-part harmony.

"When they do it right they ring a chord, and once they ring a chord," he added with glee, "you've got them hooked."

Indeed, barbershoppers of all ages and most a cappella singers wax eloquent on the joys of "locking a chord" -- hitting the perfect blend of voices, each part holding its own but subsumed by the euphony of the whole. That common experience points to the heart of barbershop -- bonding with a group of guys, all joined in pursuit of harmony.

"There's this connection with the people you're singing with," said Dan Matheson, an actor who sings lead tenor in the long-running musical "Forever Plaid," a story about a resurrected 1960s quartet. "You're all giving up a little bit of personal attention so you can all be the center of attention."

Matheson noted a sharp increase in the number of college quartets in recent years. In the 1980s he sang in the only male group at his alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; now, he says, the university is home to at least five such groups. That observation is shared by Kevin Weist, a producer and writer for Nickelodeon and member of a New York quartet, the GrooveBarbers. "In the 1980s it was primarily a northeastern, Ivy League or maybe Big Ten type thing, where a few colleges had one group each. These days there are, like, 10 groups at each college, all over the country," he said.

Brian Lynch of the Harmony Society, originally known as the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America, reported that the number of college quartets competing for entrance in the society's annual international contest has risen steadily since 1992, going from 30 to more than 50 quartets.

Matheson says accessibility is the key to barbershop's strong appeal to younger singers. "Singing barbershop is so much easier technically than pop a cappella because all the arrangements are written out. I remember hearing the Nylons and (the music) seemed to say, `Anybody can do this. "

"You can be pretty good at it even if you're not the greatest singer," Weist agreed. "If you hook up with other people who can sing, it elevates your game.

"It's way more enjoyable to sing it than it is to listen to," he added, laughing. "The only four people liking it are the people singing it." Don't tell that to most of barbershop's enthusiasts. "People love the sound of barbershop," Kozel asserted. "Ninety percent of humanity would find it more entertaining than an Italian aria."


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