During his late-night TV talk show, comedian Jimmy Fallon has a recurring comedy segment where he performs with his barbershop quartet, the Ragtime Gals, singing hits of his generation.
Decked out in straw hats and brightly colored striped suits resembling a Lifesavers candy wrapper, the Ragtime Gals sing in four-part harmony to Justin Timberlake’s SexyBack and Color Me Badd’s I Wanna Sex You Up.
Like all good parodies, it takes the historic art of barbershop singing to its extremes – but it isn’t completely out of tune. As the local Summit City Barbershop Chorus prepares for its spring concert Saturday, members say they won’t be singing the same ditties they did 69 years ago.
Barbershop is just another version of a cappella singing, says Al Schumm, who has been a member of the chorus for 33 years. People are surprised about how modern it has become.
The chorus will present Barbershoppin’ Bandstand at Arts United Center, featuring a repertoire of pop hits from the ’50s and ’60s by artists like the Beach Boys and the Beatles. Inspired by the American Bandstand TV show hosted by Dick Clark, the concert will have its own top-10 hits countdown, Rate-a-Record segment and guest stars.
The concert will also feature the chorus’s four quartets and national-touring sportsman quartet, Four Man Fishin’ Tackle Choir.
Dan Johnson, the chorus’s show director this year, says it’s becoming more common for barbershop quartets and choirs to perform more contemporary songs.
The days are gone when guys stood on the street corner in straw hats, singing Let Me Call You Sweetheart,’ Johnson says. It walks a little different now. We have a huge library of songs we can sing.
Rooted in the African-American tradition of harmonic singing, the national Barbershop Harmony Society began in 1938 in Tulsa, Okla., as a songfest organized by tax lawyer Owen Clifton Cash. Cash’s small meeting turned into regional chapters, with the Summit City Chorus becoming a local chapter in 1944.
The society now has more than 35,000 members, and Johnson says younger generations have expanded the musical landscape.
Traditionally, all the songs were classic barbershop songs, Johnson says. As time has gone by, arrangers have written vocals for more contemporary-type songs. It’s becoming normal to hear tunes from the ’50s and ’60s.
Among local shows, the chorus also performs in regional competitions, winning the 2012 AAAA Cardinal District Championships against choruses from Indiana and Kentucky.
Johnson says the chorus’s 35 singers range from high school students to members who have been in the chorus for at least 50 years. He says the group’s open membership ebbs and flows from year to year.
Our members are getting younger and younger, Johnson says. A number of men had swing choir experience in high school, and once out of high school, they found barbershop to be another performance experience.
With a weekly rehearsal schedule, Johnson says the generation gap is filled with a love of singing and performance.
It’s a marvelous experience. I think it’s fantastic to get young men with older, mature men who bring qualities and values that are really positive, Johnson says. For me, my youngest child is 32. To see what a 16-, 17-year-old is like now – you realize they are not so bad either. It’s a good thing.