by Jim Bagby, faithful reporter
Photos by Keith Richmond
As Charlie “Pitch ‘Em Up” Dickens might have said, “It was the best of times, it was the best of times.”
The Society for the Preservation and Propagation of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in the United States celebrated its second annual convention the third week of January, 2020. And from the first 14 over-achievers who arrived in San Antonio on Wednesday, to the 135 SPPB members who closed out an unbelievable dinner party and show Saturday night, singing and fun prevailed. Then the fellowship, singing, tagging, woodshedding and story-telling went on into the wee hours, as it had all weekend in the Airport Hilton Hotel. In fact, the hotel made its ballroom, lobby, bar, side rooms and hallways all within reach of the endless beer keg throughout SATX II.
“It was another wonder-filled gathering with a room full of smiling faces,” was the first post-convention reaction of SPPB founder Montana Jack Fitzpatrick.
The force of nature whose official title is temporary assistant chief cook and bottle washer was aglow at the 32 percent hike in attendance and what it could portend for the future. Jack told the Saturday night crowd, “We don’t need a long-term commitment from anyone. We just ask a year or two, or three, where you can be the sparkplug to start a lodge in your area and then continue to
mentor some of the young men we need to replace us.”
Fitzpatrick’s appeal came just after the board presented the first SPPB lodge charter to the South Texas Friends in Harmony.
Our San Antonio hosts again performed 90-strong for us at the Saturday dinner.
That was just one of the many highlights for the weekend. Those included, but were not limited to:
Performances by Boardwalk and the original Cincinnati Kids; an emotional special presentation to Montana Jack, who less than two months earlier had emphatically declared himself weaker than a tide pool after his open heart surgery (which he was) and definitely a no-show for Santone; announcement of Paul Cohen as the well-deserving Barbershop Leader of the Year;
Steve Delehanty’s iconic “B-Flat Songs Medley” presentation and its pitchpipe accompaniment; the 2nd annual Old Codger Quartet Contest, this time complete with costumed mic testers.
Then there were the breakfast buffets (all part of the registration price) that spread sumptuously before us daily – I’m not kidding – and did I mention the endless beer keg? Two hotel bars/lounges provided reasonably priced lunches and suppers Wednesday and Friday that included wunnerful $5 soup specials. (I filled up on a bowl of the tomato bisque and I never heard of a bisk). The Hilton also made its vans available to take us to nearby restaurants.
Speaking of transportation, SPPB chartered a bus on Friday that took several dozen of our gang to the Alamo and San Antone’s famous River Walk.
Anyone who attended the 1964 or 1988 BHS conventions will remember the sidewalks, shops and especially delightful Mexican restaurants flanking the river, where boats of sight-seers float up and down stream.
We sang to them while we sipped margaritas (well, one of our number – no names! – gulped) and waited for tasty dishes. It was in ‘64 that two top quartets from the San Antonio Chordsmen stood on the banks of the River Walk and sang to Lady Bird Johnson as she floated past on a Presidential boat. Their song was “If the Lord Be Willin’ and the Creek Don’t Rise.” The then-First Lady Bird had helped popularize the phrase.
Back at the hotel, harmonizers from 30 states and British Columbia, Canada, were doing a pretty good job of keeping the chords ringing almost around the clock. Among the host of Gold Medalists and repeat convention attendees, Revival’s Bill Myers summed it up well: “What a great time, what fun tag singing, tremendous fellowship...such enjoyment. Can hardly wait until next time. I’ll be there good Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise.”
A first-time attender, Keith Schweer from Kansas City, was equally enthusiastic. “Had a great time! Everyone was friendly and got to sing with lots of my heroes: Chuck Olson, Don Barnick, Jim Kline, Bill Biffle and on and on.” That’s Chuck Olson of Evergreen District’s famed Aliens, who were wildly popular before they became classic by lip syncing the Boston Common – on the contest stage! Chuck was accompanied to Santone by former BHS Director of Music and Education and arranger Mel Knight
Barnick’s legendary tag-teaching skills continued in evidence through the weekend, and he was joined by another of the tag gods, Lee Plaskoff (see “Spring Brought Me Flowers,” Hi-Lo’s).
How about Stan Shramo, tenor of the comedy king Village Idiots from the ‘60s and ‘70s, chosen by the USO for a Far East tour to entertain the Vietnam war wounded. His tenor is as clear now at age 90 as anyone you can name (no, he has never smoked). He says Santone was the most fun he’s had singing in years.
A new feature this year – and sure to make a popular request return at SATX III – was a sight-reading exercise led by the multi-talented Pied Piper from Albuquerque, Bill Biffle.
He asked all attendees to bring Dr. Burt Szabo’s “Heritage of Harmony Songbook,” produced to celebrate the 50th BHS anniversary.
Some had the book and some had it downloaded on their phones, but it was a lively almost 90-minute session that had many participants reading songs they’d never heard.
The large group who showed up got through maybe one-fourth of the 65 songs. Kansas Citian and first-timer Jerry Garrard listed the experience at the top of his weekend highlights. Close behind were “woodshedding with Olson and other legends, hearing about the successes of “Friends in Harmony,” oh yeah, and tons of time to enjoy fellowship and the full craft of real barbershopping!”
If we were to mention all the VIP’s on hand, we’d miss someone. But that’s part of the charm of the weekend: the average singers, the quartet folks, the newbies, diamonds in the rough and the “stars” standing side by side, sharing the same thrills and overtones.
The thrills were intermixed with some lively, uh, audience participation during the Saturday afternoon Old Codgers Quartet Contest, which featured a full field of 12 contestants and even a mic tester with matching tee shirts (“Not Available for Shows”). Unfortunately there were a couple of disqualifications for flagrant rule disqualifications; for instance, “Colonel Mustard and His Privates” again marched onstage with three (3) Gold Medals -- and those were just the ones in view. CMAHP, as in its appearance a year previous, MIGHT have had the highest singing score but, alas, the rules specify no more than one AIC member per foursome. Brian Beck and Bobby Gray Jr. sing better than they read rules.
Third: “Barely-Tones” – Mike Ebbers, Haines Falls, NY; Rex Touslee, Loveland, CO; Glenn Schilberg, Wexford, PA; Jim Milner, Tempe, AZ.
Second: “Phlegm Tones” – Irv Engelbrecht, Lufkin, TX; Bob Arbuckle, Tyler, TX; Dave Bankard, Severna Park, MD; Marty Jahnel, The Villages, FL.
First: “The Fennel Seeds” – Mike Smith, Apple Valley, CA; John Hawes, Apple Valley, CA; Tom Lyon, Scottsdale, AZ; Art Fennel, Shrub Oak, NY.
Dundalk’s irrepressible three-part quartet ace Rick Taylor (no you can’t, Rick) did his best to contain an unruly crowd as emcee of the OC Quartet Contest. Board member Joe Polio handled introductions on the Saturday night funfest. An amazing buffet, singalongs and the “B-Flat Songs in 3/4 Time,” again led by its creator and pay-attention-or-else arm-waver, Prof. Delehanty, got us off to a jovial start. The “Cincinnati Kids” [see separate story] took the stage for the first time for a major performance in 10 years.
Our 1984 and ‘86 bronze medalists wowed us with their famed “My Wife Is on a Diet” routine. It was a special treat for the Thacker family: Steve, the bass of the Kids, and his dad, Skip, the feller with the ever-present white boater from the champion Cincinnati chorus.
Our own “house” chorus, “Friends in Harmony,” gave us another rousing concert under the musical direction of their Energizer Bunny Founder and SPPB Board Member Artie Dolt.
Not only have the FIH grown to well over 100 members in earning the first SPPB Lodge Charter, their three-generation ranks range from singers in the 90s to grandkids 10 years old. They exemplify our Society goals of singing old songs AND having fun.
We were fortunate to have four more SPPB members serve as our headline quartet – as they are busily doing across the country these days. “Boardwalk” is entertaining in the style of the old “Midnight Oilers,” a Chicago-based foursome who also were one of the first USO quartets to be chosen to sing for war wounded overseas.
Tenor Brad Hine, who never met anything with strings he couldn’t play, is the son of Oilers’ founder Thom Hine, and the brother of “Fred” baritone Clay. Lead Mark Schlinkert is the son of “Roaring 20’s” original bass Tom Schlinkert.
Dave Calland is one of the most accomplished musical leaders in the BHS, a medalist lead and chorus director and now a baritone propping up a bass fiddle. And Boardwalk bass is one Jared Carlsen, better known as “Pookie,” who’s masquerading as a bass while continuing to perform as a comic genius. Yes, he was tenor of “Fred.”
Boardwalk plays what they describe as “barber-folk” as influenced by the style and fashion of the 1920s, with a bow to the Oilers and a mix of several groups -- including the Mid States Four, Kingston Trio and, no surprise, the Smothers Brothers. The bottom line is whatever emerges after Pookie’s latest fall on his head. Call it what you like: it’s purty dang good! The quartet earned one encore and might still be singing if time allowed.
The weekend would not have been complete without recognition for two men who have been the backbone so far of SPPBSQSUS. Our initial Barbershop Leader of the Year, “Blue Grass Student Union” lead Kenny Ray Hatton, presented the 2019 BLOY award to Paul Cohen.
Paul has been the power behind the SPPB scenes since the beginning, and particularly after Montana Jack was struck down with a heart attack last winter. From his Huntingdon Valley, PA, home, Paul has had full responsibility for coordination with the Airport Hilton for SATX I and II, and planning of all membership events.
You want to know why you had hot coffee at the break of dawn every day and the beer keg was never empty? Why our Saturday buffet had three kinds of meat, including rare roast beef, and four varieties of delicious desserts? Why the desk staff never said “You guys go make noise somewhere else – we’re trying to work here!” And all the other details we didn’t have to worry about while we were singing 24 hours a day? Paul Cohen made it happen, quietly and efficiently behind the scenes.
The engraving on his crystal BLOY plaque reads:
PAUL H. COHEN
“For Exemplary and Selfless Service, at a Critical Time in Our History. All in Addition To His Usual Unsung Hero Mountain of Duties.”
Some SPPB members asked why Montana was not chosen as BLOY, last year of this? Simple: Jack made it clear at the outset he wanted – he demanded, and he’s VERY difficult to ignore when he starts demanding – that he not be eligible for any awards.
So only a handful knew that he would be presented this year with a clock, engraved with the SPPB logo, that reads:
Presented To “MONTANA JACK” FITZPATRICK
“By the grateful members of SPPBSQSUS in recognition of his vision, wisdom and perseverance in the founding of our great organization.
Thank you, Jack, for Bringing Back Our Music, Fellowship and Fun.”
The crusty naval veteran wiped away tears in his brief acceptance, saying, “Now I’ll have something to show my children.”