Updated: Mar 4, 2019
by Jim Bagby, faithful reporter
Photos by Jay Hawkins and Keith Richmond
It was almost too good to be true. The first convention of the Society for the Preservation and Propagation of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in the United States had it all: quartets in every corner, woodshedding, tags, great old songs and arrangements recalled with varying degrees of success by foursomes of veterans and rookies alike, a bottomless beer keg, a hoot of a pickup quartet contest, good food, an amazing guest chorus, the River Walk...did we mention beer? And even a guy who had been at the 1939 Tulsa convention.
The Jan. 17-20, 2019 weekend at the Hilton San Antonio Airport glorified to the fullest the SPPBSQSUS motto: “Bringing back our Music, our Fellowship and our Fun!”
More than 100 members (102, to be exact) of an organization then less than one year old (the first dues were collected on Feb. 2 of 2018) hummed into San Antonio from 27 states and Canada. It was the realization of the vision of SPPB founder Montana Jack Fitzpatrick, the grizzled and outspoken retired naval force of nature who has a new idea every 10 minutes – and most of them he cajoles into fruition.
Montana: Wall-to-Wall Smiles
But back up a moment – this gathering did NOT have it all. There was little sleep; our ballroom meeting room, the halls and the lobby “temple of our hobby” were occupied by singers virtually around the clock. And there was almost no agenda – a full buffet breakfast Friday, Saturday and Sunday, a Friday night dinner and an optional trip to the famed Riverwalk Saturday. The rest of the time was given over to just...singing. (Did we mention beer?)
“ I never, ever recall being at a barbershop event where everyone was smiling —the entire weekend – until this one,” Montana Jack said later. “There were wall-to-wall smiles. Everyone came to have fun and they did – with gusto!”
There were singalongs at the Friday dinner led by Randy Loos, Brian Beck and Steve Delehanty (who had folks use pitch pipes to accompany a B-flat medley, each table choosing it's own song to fit into a waltz meter; you had to be there). Also introduced was the new SPPB theme song, “Brothers in Harmony,” composed for us by Norm Starks and arranged by Bill Eberius.
BLOY to Kinny Ray
Another highlight of the dinner was presentation of the first (we hadda lot of firsts) SPPBSQSUS Barbershop Leader of the Year Award to Kenny Ray Hatton. His one-man recruiting effort changed the early face of our organization. Fitzpatrick says Hatton first called him last April, when SPPB had about 30 members, and decided to get involved. After that Jack often joked “We have been hit by hurricane Kenny!”
Two months later we had grown to 228 members. Not all had been contacted personally by Hatton, but many could be traced to him. He was calling Jack daily with new names and follow-ups to see if so-and-so had paid. If someone said he could not afford to join, Kenny helped with the fee or paid it. He bought T-shirts. He kicked in on San Antonio travel expenses. Hatton chaired the early SPPB steering committee and he was instrumental in finding Dick Treptow to write our bylaws.
FIH, Codger Quartets Big Hits
The climax of the dinner came when emcee Joe Pollio instructed everyone to turn their chairs away from the stage: 90 members of the Friends in Harmony Chorus had quietly assembled behind us. Most of you have read about this group in the Harmonizer and the remarkable growth to more than 120 under the singular leadership of veteran international medalist director Artie Dolt (see article below).
The FIH put on a delightful 30-minute concert for us with singers from three generations, many of them brand-new barbershoppers and about one-third of those on hand were already SPPB members.
The first Old Codgers Quartet Contest had been announced with a lot of rules and some complaints from the non-codgers, resulting eventually in all the rules being dismissed and Steve Delehanty showing his, uh, prowess in at least half of the nine-quartet field. Judges were chosen from among those not talented enough to form quartets, and their choice for the traveling and individual trophies went to the foursome who called themselves Senior Moments: George Hatalosky, Maurice Collins, Irv Englebrecht, and Wendell Glass. They sang so well there were rumors of their being an organized quartet.
No other placements were announced – likely for the well-being of the panel – but loudly hoo-rahed were Colonel Mustard and His Privates and Full Frontal Harmony.
And Even More Quartets
We got another treat earlier with a performance by four guys who total over 200 years of Society experience among them, Last Resort. This easy-going foursome, which is likely to show up anywhere across the country, is (top down) Stew Bush, Mike Connelly, Don Barnick, and Tom Felgen. To list their pedigree, medals and accomplishments would take up the rest of the page (and just embarrass them), but it was a delight to hear them – and sing with them. Barnick, as usual, was ubiquitous as the barbershopping world's most knowledgeable and patient tag teacher.
Half of another former top-10 quartet from Louisville (that's Loouhvuhl), Bill Myers and Ken Buckner, stopped in a corner one magical half hour to recreate song after song from the Citations repertoire with Hatton and Todd Buckner. Another magic moment for young and old.
“Hey, I gotta say a word about our many members wearing gold medals,” Fitzpatrick raved in the aftermath. “They were, every one of them, gentlemen and gems. They sang and ate and joked with everyone. Even the worst singer in the house got to sing with his heroes. Truth be told, I think they had more fun than any of us.“
SO WHEN WE GONNA DO IT AGAIN?
It's official: The next annual convention will be back at the same site in San Antonio, Jan. 16-19, 2020. AND, smaller regional events might be planned at various locations across the country . Stay tuned for details.
Key Changes –
...You were kidding about a 1939 convention attender, right? Nope, Frank Riddick of Struthers, OH, accompanied his parents to that historic gathering in Tulsa. He was 4 years old. And he says he remembers a few things from then. Frank is a 66-year BHS member and still an active leader with JAD's Shenango Valley, PA, Chapter
...Frank sang in the Codger Contest with Mike Ebbers of Haines Falls, NY, who's notable to barbershoppers because he's the president of AHSOW. But he'll go down in SPPB archives as the first to send his $20 to Montana Jack and say (in so many words) “I hear you're starting a new organization and I WANT TO SIGN UP!”
...Getting in his first barbershopping in 25 years at San Antonio was George “Skip” Thacker of Silver City, NM, formerly of Cincinnati Western Hills. Skip even brought along the boater he wore while the “Big Green Singing Machine” was competing at the highest levels – including copping a gold medal in 1973! And to make it a sweeter weekend, he was accompanied by his son, Steve, of Weston, FL
...If you're familiar with the “Keep America Singing” book by Deac Martin recounting the first 10 years of BHS history, you may recall some interesting parallels between our initial SPPB gathering and that April 11, 1939 meeting. O.C. Cash, the rambunctious and colorful founder, was among the first arrivals along with his quieter partner, Rupert Hall (I sat next to Hall at a dinner one night in 1962 and he smiled a lot but hardly said a word). Cash looked around for someone to sing with while Rupe went to see about the food. In San Antonio, Montana Jack was the lively gale force from the outset while quietly efficient board member Paul Cohen, who was responsible for most of the arrangements, made sure the buffet and beer were all set. They were, and are, quite a combo...
FRIENDS IN HARMONY –
The Friday night performance by Artie Dolt's Friends in Harmony Chorus proved was a blast for singers and audience. Artie said he had 90 of their approximately 120 active members show up – many of them first-time barbershoppers. “So it was a real eye-opener for a lot of our guys. This was a whole new experience for them, and they loved it.
“At our rehearsal following the event, I discussed the “lodge” concept with the group. They were overwhelming in favor of the prospect of becoming Lodge #1 of SPPBSQSUS. This past Monday, several guys asked me to post information on how to join.”
FIH was created by Dolt about five years ago and has become a phenomenon that has obviously caught the BHS eye. The age span in the group runs from 9 to 93. A week after the San Antonio Inaugural, Artie was featured at the Mid-Winter Convention in Nashville, directing the Southwestern District’s “Senior Moments” chorus. There, FIH's Paul Gowen was honored as the oldest participant in the entire senior chorus contest.
The justifiable pride is evident when Artie says, “ Paul joined us as a first-timer two years ago, when he was 91.”
Equally significant, about 10 percent of FIH is age 16 and under. Most are sons and grandsons of members. However, they have an increasing number of young men who have been attracted to the group by non-family sponsors.
But notes their ball-of-fire founder, “We do absolutely nothing to promote youth involvement in our community. We haven’t invested a single dollar, nor a minute of time in this effort. We do, however, get the dads and grandads hooked on preserving the old songs, sung in traditional barbershop harmony, and they, in turn, invite the youngsters to become members of the Friends In Harmony family.”
And Tom Shillue joined us
A celebrity who was right at home in our midst during the weekend was Fox Network's Tom Shillue, an 18-year BHS member known to us as a member of the Scollay Square quartet. But the Bronx-based comedian, commentator, actor and longtime close friend of the Boston Common has made a major national TV splash with Jimmy Fallon's Ragtime Gals.
They've become so popular, the BHS has had to recognize them despite the, uh, edgy nature of their songs. Who can forget those barbershop classics, “Bitch Better Have My Money” and “Sexual Healing”? Shillue sings bass but learns all four parts to help Fallon and the quartet/quintet of various famed guests – Tina Fey and Steve Carell come to mind – learn their parts.
So it was little wonder to see Tom tagging and woodshedding around the Hilton at all hours, just like one of the gang. That's because he is.