Friday 15 July 2016

The Revival of the Barbershop Quartet

The Hamilton District Christian High Barbershop Quartet in Chicago circa May 2016 courtesy

My son, Thomas, joined Hamilton District Christian High's barbershop quartet last January.  They sang at our Christmas and Easter assemblies as well as on a Chicago Music Tour in May.  Thomas and another member just graduated but they enjoy barbershopping so much that they plan on continuing to sing with the quartet.  Thus far, Young & Sharp, their new name, has completed one paid gig, for a group of businessmen, and have a wedding lined up.  They even have a uniform consisting of black pants and shirts, red suspenders and bow ties, and straw-boater hats (

In the course of spreading the word about the Young & Sharp, I have discovered that the barbershop quartet has made a comeback in recent years.  Brantford Collegiate Institute and St. John's College both have barbershop quartets in town.  I wanted to find out more about the phenomenon.

Young black Americans sang in quartets for decades before the barbershop quartet caught on.  They would sing on street corners, in parlors and in barbershops.  Historian James Weldon Johnson said that in Jacksonville, Florida:  "Every barbershop seemed to have its own quartet."

Between 1900 and 1919, the barbershop quartet caught on among white Americans.  Dressed in straw-boaters, white shirts and pants, and striped vests, four men would harmonize a cappella songs such as Sweet Adeline, Goodbye My Coney Island Baby and Shine On Harvest Moon.  The four part harmony consisted of:  a lead, who sung the melody; a tenor who harmonized the melody; a baritone who completed the chord, singing just below the lead.

With the jazz era, and the popularity of radio, barbershoppers declined in number.  Songwriters wrote "more sophisticated melodies" which lended themselves to dancing rather than crooning (

In 1938, two men from Tulsa, Oklahoma, O.C. Cash and Rupert Hall, met up in Kansas City and reminisced about barbershop quartets.  They formed "The Society for the Preservation and Propagation of Barbershop Quartet Singing in the United States.  While only 26 men attended their first meeting, about 150 attended their third meeting where they ended up harmonizing on the rooftop.  A local reporter, sensing a story, interviewed O.C. Cash who claimed they had chapters all over the United States.  Americans started signing up and by the 1940's, they had a revival on their hands.

Famous barbershop quartets over time include:

  • The Hayd'n Quartet (early 1900's, also known as The Edison Quartet)
  • American Quartet (first quarter of 20th Century)
  • The Buffalo Bills (1950 International Quartet Champions)
  • The Suntones (1960 International Quartet Champions, regularly appeared on Jackie Gleason Show)
  • The Dapper Dans of Disneyland (appeared as The Be Sharps in Simpson's Season 5, Episode 1)
  • The Singing Senators (U.S. Senators)
  • Nightlife (1996 International Quartet Champions, Los Angeles based)
  • Ringmasters (Swedish Quartet, first BHS Champions from outside U.S.)
  • Vocal Spectrum (BHS International Champions, 2006)


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