HARMONY FOR LUNCH BUNCHIt’s been happening every third Thursday for nearly 21 years—a special musical treat for the lunch time crowd at Sam’s Hof Brau on the corner of Watt and El Camino in Sacramento. The “Harmony for Lunch Bunch,” as they call themselves, line up for food service at Sam’s starting at about 11:30am, and are singing in the conference room in the back by high noon. They are barbershop singers from the greater Sacramento region singing classic barbershop arrangements of old songs, such as were popular at the turn of the 19th into the 20th century (and sometimes some newer ones). Though mostly men, there are usually enough women attending to form a quartet with a few left over, but all join in the communal singing. (Be sure to click on the link to “Continue Reading”)
There was no sheet music on this third Thursday (or any other), and no piano or guitar. The closest thing to a musical instrument was the pitch pipe “played” by Bob Roberts to ensure everyone started in the right key and in tune. This bunch for lunch sang strictly a capella (meaning without accompaniment, though technically speaking it means “in the manner of the chapel”).
They used to be called SPEBSQSA (unofficially pronounced speb-squa) and, informally, they still are. Since 2004, members have been encouraged to use the new name of “Barbershop Harmony Society” in an effort to make the organization more readily recognizable and pronounceable. They often refer to themselves simply as “The Society,” which is easier than using the full name of Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America, Inc. To the rest of us, since 1938, when they were formed, they are simply “barbershoppers.”
The Society’s purpose is to do just what its name says: to preserve and encourage the style of singing that became famous with the period-piece Broadway play and later the movie, “The Music Man,” which featured the barbershop quartet “The Buffalo Bills.” To help toward this end, the Barbershop Harmony Society established the “Barberpole Cat Program” in 1971. By 1987, “The Society” had selected and voted on 12 songs as a common repertory that every member should learn and know. Any beginning quartet can use these songs as a foundation in building their technique and repertory. The 12 selections are very useful for impromptu group singing, such as found at the “Harmony for Lunch Bunch,” because everyone knows their own vocal part, and some know all four vocal parts to each song. It’s also a great place for the newcomers to learn from the veterans, and for the veterans to “keep up their chops.” Oh, and they all have a good lunch and a lot of fun.This particular “lunch bunch” started at Sam’s Hof Brau about 20 years ago and Jack McPhilips, who was among the first to participate, has been running it for about 10 years. According to Jack, “…it is an extension of the concept that started at a pizza place in the Bay Area..
Jack, whom I met nearly 40 years ago, is my contact with this group. At the time we met he was the music director/leader/conductor of a small women’s chorus, the members of which had been members of the women’s version of barbershop singing known as “Sweet Adelines.” The women were all excellent harmonizers and, as a group, encompassed a very broad vocal range. “The Music Ma’ams” was the name they gave themselves, and their approach was to utilize their harmonizing skills, but with popular and show tune music. I wrote a few arrangements for them, and was in awe at the results.
Jack was, and is, well known for his keen ear and leadership, as well as his ability to teach by rote those singers in a group who might be musically illiterate. His sense of musicality is also very high, which made for a wonderful partnership with “The Music Ma’ams” that sang somewhere from the late 1960s through much of the 1970s. (It should be noted that many barbershoppers have a formal music education or are at least musically literate.)There were a few other directors at the luncheon. Roger Perkins is the director of The Sierranaders in Auburn, California, just a few miles northeast of Sacramento. Roger started singing with the barbershoppers when he was only 25 years old, and has been the Sierranaders’ director since 1984. With a music degree from California State University at Sacramento, he studied voice, piano, and other instruments in the so-called “classical” realm, yet said “There’s something about singing in a small a capella group, especially a quartet… that is very satisfying.”
Roger’s ensemble has a broad repertory which varies year-to-year, depending on the theme for the show for each year. “It can vary from cowboy to Broadway music,” he said. Most of the songs performed at Sam’s on my visit were the vintage barbershop repertory, but they did sing a few of the “newer” songs, such as the Les Brown/Doris Day #1 hit from 1945, “Sentimental Journey.”Kent Borrowdale directs the Folsom chapter, known as the Folsom Harmony Express, and sings in their quartet called “TBDL;” other members of the quarter were also at the luncheon. Kent, who has been involved with barbershop music for over 30 years, is multi-talented. Jack McPhilips said of him, “He’s the best lead in the room.” (He also sings baritone.)
All manner of expertise and experience were represented in the “Harmony for Lunch Bunch.” On the day I visited, the conference room in the rear at Sam’s was packed. The average age of the singers was… well, let’s say every time I asked the average age increased In truth, most were in their 70s or 80s, with a few older and a few in the 40s through 60s. With the resurgence of a capella singing in the popular world and as depicted in some TV drama and talent shows, there has been a new interest among teenagers and the younger generations. Quartet (and quintet) singing is also enjoying great popularity in the gospel circuit. Jack said that “The Society’s” membership had been up to 45,000, but has declined and leveled off to about 30,000. As with many things in life, musical interests tend to flow in cycles. Perhaps with the changing and evolving repertory within the barbershop community, membership is again on the rise.
One of the things that make the barbershop style of singing unique among most popular styles of music is the type of intonation used. The really good quartets and choruses sing in what’s known as “just intonation,” which gives a very pure sound. It was the type of tuning used before fretted (guitar) and keyboard instruments exerted great influence. Essentially, all pianos are deliberately a little bit out-of-tune so that in whatever key one plays, all of the notes will be relatively in tune. This type of tuning is called “equal temperament;” in it, all the keys are equally out-of-tune. As a result, a song played in the key of C would sound “equally good” if it were to be transposed into the key of A-flat, or any other key. Before “equal temperament,” a song played on a keyboard instrument in a key other than the original would sound dreadfully out-of-tune.
If you are interested, read some of the links I have provided at the end of this article. But here’s something that’s really fascinating: a really good quartet—four singers—can produce a fifth note when they sing certain chords just right (no pun intended).If you enjoy really good music—regardless of its genre, but just music done well and with a lot of heart—you might want to look up a local chapter of barbershop organizations. If you don’t feel comfortable or confident in holding your own part in a quartet, there are plenty of opportunities to sing in choruses. Take a look at the links provided at the end of this “journey” to see what options you have to get involved. Of course, you don’t have to sing at all! You can contact a local chapter and attend their performances. OR, you also could go to Sam’s every third Thursday and get a free concert with your lunch!
To see an extensive slideshow of the Harmony for Lunch Bunch, click on the “Play” arrow at the bottom left of the image, below. If you are viewing this on a desktop computer, the slideshow should start by simply clicking once on the slideshow image.
May you find harmony in your life—and lunch!.
To view ALL of my photos from “my journey” to The “Harmony for Lunch Bunch”, please visit my online photo gallery (click here).
I’m looking forward to bringing you my next journey. I’ll probably share some more of my travels up California State Highway 45, featuring the Bayliss (Carnegie) Library and other nice spots up the valley from Sacramento.
Links and Contacts