In July, 50 barbershop quartets and 20 barbershop choruses will drift down the old mill stream to Salt Lake City for their annual national convention. And the Saltaires Show Chorus will be here waiting for them.
The Utah group finished third in last year's competition. This year, sights are higher. In fact, the Saltaires plan to get a running head start with a pre-emptive strike - a June concert.On Friday and Saturday, June 14 and 15, 7:30 p.m., at Taylorsville High (5225 S. Redwood Road), the chorus will be in concert. Tickets are $15, $10, with seniors and students getting a discount at $8. Phone 486-7954 after 5 p.m. for details about the show.
"Barbershop singing is competitive singing," says Ross Alger of the Saltaires. "There are specific rules. For example, you can't do patriotic or religious numbers in competition. And where Utah is known for great singing, we'd really like to win a gold medal for the state this year. Now that John Sasine has joined us, I think our singing has gone to a whole new level."
Sasine, who studied at BYU, recently returned to Utah to manage Utah Recycling. He has been involved with barbershop singing since 1977, having sung with the award-winning Sidewinders and Masters of Harmony.
"An excellent barbershop group is the same as any excellent choir or ensemble," says Sasine. "The best of any artform happens when people are committed to the music and working with intensity. The Saltaires have always had skill and talent. But now we're seeing a deeper commitment to the music itself."
Will the Saltaires win?
Sasine laughs. "It's barbershop style to be less vocal about such things," he says. "I could be coach Lavell Edwards and talk about our personnel, desire and all, but let's just say I'm guardedly optimistic. I do know that the July convention here will the best in recent years."
One group that should do well is the local quartet Nightlife. The foursome is rated No. 1 in nation right now. In the past few years the group has harmonized for people ranging from Bill Hanna of Hanna-Barbera Cartoons to Jane Fonda and Ted Turner. The average age of the members is just 34, though they share 60 years experience in the genre. Nightlife will be at the Taylorsville High show.
As for the Saltaires, Alger says the chorus numbers 59 right now, but they're hoping to get to 100.
"It takes a lot of energy and commitment," he says. "I personally didn't start singing barbershop until I was 50. Then I heard 4,000 voices blending on some of those songs, and I was hooked. It's a type of a cappella harmony that - when done well - produces so many overtones that four singers can sound like an entire chorus themselves."
Barbershop singing is an American phenomenon. In the late 1800s, men actually passed the time in barbershops by singing together. The classic barbershop sound - a four-part chord with diminished and augmented seventh chords and the second tenor handling the melody - came into national vogue in 1910 when the song "Play That Barbershop Chord" became popular. Barbershop quartets were soon showing up on vaudeville.
Women soon joined in the fun, and in 1938 the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Singing in America was formed. There are two women's organizations today, the Sweet Adelines Inc. and Harmony Incorporated.
"Barbershop singing focuses on the older songs," says Alger, "though all types of music can be done in barbershop style, everything from the ridiculous to the sublime."
For the local show, the Saltaires will be trotting out old familiars such as "This Is My Lucky Day," "The Red, Red Robin," "Sunny Side Up" and a medley of Mills Brothers tunes.
The group will also showcase its two competition numbers, a snazzy new version of "Swannee" and "When Day is Done."
In fact, perhaps the only thing tighter than the harmonies in the chorus is the friendship among the members. Barbershop aficionados form a national family. The music bonds people.
When asked if he could think of a barbershop quartet in America that could not perform "Sweet Adeline" on cue, for instance, Alger had to pause just a flash before answering.
"Nope," he finally said. "I don't think there are any."
When it comes to barbershop, you just can't sing in those heavenly choirs of 4,000 strong if you haven't learned all the words.