Barbershop quartets deliver love notes on Valentine’s Day

Story highlights

Valentine's Day is barbershop quartets' busiest day of the year

The sharply dressed groups travel around spreading love and harmony

Barbershop has roots in the African American community and a surprising political back story

CNN —  

On a snowy February day, four men in tuxedos arrive at a wastewater treatment plant in Pennsylvania and summon the operator of the facility. Instead of inviting the mysterious visitors inside, he meets them in the parking lot of the lonely industrial complex.

Puzzlement melts into gratitude as the quartet begins to sing, delivering a barbershop message of love, pleading in dulcet four-part harmony, “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” They hand the man a single red rose and a Valentine’s Day card from his wife.

“It was four guys serenading another guy in an empty parking lot in the snow,” said Tim Kurtz of Allentown and a member of the Lehigh Valley Harmonizers barbershop chorus. “We tout the fact that we go into any circumstance to deliver the Valentine.”

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The Harmonizers are intrepid Valentine’s Day balladeers who burst into song in such unlikely locales as lumber yards, meat lockers and strip clubs. They’re dispatched to surprise unsuspecting sweethearts, creating a scene with sentimental tunes and swaying choreography, a hat tip to old-time striped pole troubadours.

“It’s a Valentine gift that will never be forgotten,” said Harmonizers member Steve Adams. “It will not be confused with one year’s (flower) arrangement or one year’s box of chocolates.”

Barbershop vocalists feel the love on February 14, when quartets are in demand to deliver memorable serenades. The Barbershop Harmony Society estimates that at least 15,000 singing Valentines are delivered each season by about 1,000 quartets.

From the Oceanaires of California to the Weehawken Wonder Boys of New Jersey, groups swirl their voices together in an unabashedly schmaltzy singing style that dates back to the 19th century.

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They earn $35-$50 for each gig, and the revenue enables them to perform barbershop year-round, traveling to competitions and staging community shows.

Singing Valentines serve a dual purpose as fundraisers and outreach.

“What’s funny is we tend to sing to more guys than women,” said Michael Brunson, 30, of Atlanta, a member of the Stone Mountain Barbershop Harmony Chorus. “We’re always looking for more people to come sing with us. Some guys think we sound pretty good, and they’ll become a member.”

A harmonic convergence of humor and romance, the singing Valentine is a relatively new development that took off during the 1990s when the barbershop organization launched a website connecting holiday customers with local quartets.

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“When we sing in stuffy offices and stuffy places, people eat it up because the world’s gotten so corporate and PC,” said Brunson, an IT field support technician whose wife sings in an all-female barbershop chorus.

“When you’ve got four guys in tuxedos walking around singing barbershop, it’s such a deviation from the doldrums of proper business. There is a lighthearted irreverence to barbershop. We look at the way the world works and say, ‘Everything’s become so not fun, so let’s make it fun again.’ “

The majority of barbershop singers are hobbyists. Roger Ross, who croons with the famed Dapper Dans at Disney World and competes internationally with the Main Street Quartet, works a day job at a county property assessor’s office in Florida. Barbershop has a lack of pretense and a spirit of populism that’s rare to find in other musical genres, said Ross.

“Everyone’s equal,” said Ross. “I’m sure that Bruce Springsteen jams occasionally with local bands but not as often as barbershoppers sing together informally. It’s a unique part of our style and our organization.”

Female barbershop quartets, known as Sweet Adelines, also tour on Valentine’s Day, singing the same songs as their male counterparts. They wear glittery fashions to heighten the spectacle of the impromptu concerts.

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“It touches the heart no matter who is singing, but women bring a certain warmth,” said Toula Oberlies, 70, a member of the all-female Capital City Chorus in Indianapolis. “The ones that enjoy it the most are the big burly guys that you wouldn’t expect. We went to a motorcycle shop near the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. There was this big man with tattoos surrounded by all these motorcycles and we started singing and tears were rolling down his eyes.”

The chorus has a Valentine Central command center in a singer’s home where they process requests and map out logistics, setting up routes for each quartet and coordinating access to high security locations.

“We sang at an airport checkpoint for a TSA agent,” said Oberlies. “We’ve gone to Indiana University Hospital and wore surgical masks to sing for a person who had received a liver transplant. The superintendent of the Indiana School for the Blind hired us to sing on the intercom for the teachers and staff. We do video singing Valentines that have gone to the military deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Quartets experience their share of barbershop bloopers, bleeps and blunders over the course of the day.

“We sang for lady at a beauty salon and she thanked us but said, ‘He’s trying real hard, but he’s not gonna get any place,’ ” said Terry Scullin, 76, of the Morris Music Men in New Jersey. “One guy bought one for his dear, sweet mother who lives alone and she wouldn’t let us in the house. She just peaked out the window and said, ‘Oh no.’ “

The singers engage in random acts of a cappella en route between assignments.

“When four guys walk into a diner wearing tuxedos, people start looking around and we invariably sing a song,” said Scullin, a retired advertising copywriter. “We’ll walk out of a building and somebody says, ‘Why are you guys in tuxedos?’ Bang, you sing in the parking lot.”

Barbershop, which has origins in the African-American community, has a long legacy of subverting social norms, said Gage Averill, author of “Four Parts, No Waiting: A Social History of American Barbershop Harmony.”

The founders of the Barbershop Harmony Society, also known as the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America, were lawyers and traveling salesmen seeking an escape from the rigors of work life during the 1930s. The group held its first singing meeting in 1938 on a rooftop in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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“It was constrained businessmen who were yearning for something lighthearted and convivial,” said Averill. “They would sing these songs associated with their childhood. There was a widespread sense, you could find this now as well, that the nation was in decline, that life was not as simple as it had been in the 1890s, 1910s.”

The name of the organization, SPEBSQSA satirized Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives and his “alphabet soup” agencies, programs launched to stimulate the economy during the Great Depression. The invitation to the first songfest promoted barbershop singing as a rebel yell against government overreach.

While the barbershop movement of the 1930s was dominated by white men, the pioneers of the musical style were 19th-century African-Americans, Averill said. They blended their voices in close harmony, with a narrow window separating the high notes from the low ones.

When perfect pitch is achieved, it sounds like there is a fifth voice, also known as the “angel’s voice” in barbershop parlance. Quartets would gather around barbershops, churches and street corners, making music on the fly.

“Until the early part of the 20th century, barbershop had a strong connection to black informal singing,” said Averill. “The music was rooted in black communities. Of course, there’s a lot of white nostalgic music that actually comes out of black culture.”

In some ways, the singing Valentine gets back to the roots of barbershop, as quartets go out into the community and raise their voices in a diversity of settings. The Capital City Chorus offers a choice of romantic songs or friendly songs to express different kinds of love. Oberlies said one of the group’s most emotional serenades involved an elderly man in a nursing home and his grown children.

“The gentleman apparently had not spoken to his family or spoken to anyone for quite a bit of time,” Oberlies. “When the quartet started singing, ‘Let Me Call You Sweetheart,’ he smiled and sang along with them. He knew the words and they were very touched to hear him sing. Music goes across every spectrum and touches the heart.”