It was 1954 and romantic crooners like Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Doris Day were dominating the airwaves. Gordon Everest would have none of that.
Everest, then a college student in Alberta, Canada, tuned into the old tunes – like in the music from 1898 to 1931 and thereabouts: “My Wild Irish Rose”, “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” and ” Wait ’til the Sun Shines, Nellie” – as performed a cappella by quartets of barbers. With his head and heart inspired by the four-part melody, Everest joined the Calgary chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society, where the bass and tenor and baritone singers drew inspiration from the second-highest voice, a single head that didn’t need a microphone or a musical instrument.
He was hooked.
Fast forward 68 years, and he’s no less in love with the Barberpole Cat Songbook – the foundational repertoire that any self-respecting quartet of barbers can recite by heart.
“If you go anywhere in the world, a barbershop singer will know the ‘skunk’s playbook,'” said Everest, a former St. Paul resident and retired faculty member of information systems at the University. ‘University of Minnesota.
Given the pandemic’s social distancing requirements, the past few months have been challenging for the Barbershop Harmony Society’s Land O’Lakes District, which covers Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and northern Ontario. The long-standing tradition of selling singing valentines – a district staple since 1980 – was suspended last year in light of the public health crisis.
This year, six chapters plan to make up for lost time. The Twin Cities Singing Valentines Committee, a consortium of all-volunteer hair salon chapters in the metro area, will deploy three male and three female foursomes to the subway on Valentine’s Day to serenade lovers and spread romantic joy. all over. A Stillwater-based chapter will venture into Pierce County and St. Croix County, Wis.
The singers don’t wear masks, but they can perform socially distanced from the audience.
“We can stretch out and be away from the people we sing with,” Everest said.
In the past, the committee has deployed up to 25 quartets on Valentine’s Day, with some groups offering up to 18 performances from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. They sang about construction sites, classrooms, a delivery room (delayed for a day because the baby wouldn’t wait) and even a prison.
“We have a lot of foursomes this year that don’t want to go out, with this whole COVID situation, and some places that don’t want to take us in,” Everest acknowledged.
“REALLY HAPPY, SOMETIMES SURPRISED”
Helen Vulu, a resident of the Hamline-Midway neighborhood of St. Paul and baritone of the female quartet Company’s Coming, said her quartet won’t venture out this year, but they may sell pre-recorded music.
Most years, recipients of valentines singing live are “really thrilled, sometimes surprised,” Vulu said. “A young man, we came to sing for him at his workplace, and he didn’t want us to be heard. He was just stunned and embarrassed. …I have no idea about his relationship with his girlfriend. Maybe it wasn’t as solid as he thought. If we’re going to sing to old people, they love it. Almost everyone likes to have something a little special.
This year, Chapters are offering a pre-recorded virtual valentine option for $29. Otherwise, two songs in person would cost a born romantic $39 for an “early bird” booking before Feb. 8, or an additional $10 if booked after. These songs are delivered in a four-hour window on February 14. Reducing the window to one or two hours incurs an additional $10-20 charge. All net profits support the chapters, which are not-for-profit organizations.
Booking information is online at sing4me.net.
CHAPTERS ACROSS THE USA
Barbershop quartets have gone through periods of near-dormancy and resurgence over the years, but the pandemic aside, the Nashville-based Barbershop Harmony Society considers the past few years to be fertile for the discipline. Its membership now numbers some 20,000 artists in 700 chapters across the United States and Canada, with affiliates in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden and elsewhere in Europe.
The society, which formed in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1938, began enrolling women in 2018, though most women gravitate to Sweet Adelines International, which also has some 20,000 members, or the organization Harmony, Incorporated. Until 2007, the Barbershop Harmony Society was based in Kenosha, Wis.
Chapters offering Valentine’s Day performances this year include the Croix Chordsmen, Minneapolis Commodores, and St. Paul North Star Chorus for men, and the Lake Country Chorus, Twin Cities Show Chorus, and Vallée De Croix for women. women. More groups are likely to come back online as the pandemic hopefully ebbs.
“I expect to do it again next year,” Vulu said, “and hopefully it will be in person.”