You don't need to pronounce that very long acronym (“speb-squ-sah”?), which stands for the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing of America, but maybe they can sing it. Bakersfield's chapter of that organization will demonstrate the wonders of four-part singing this Sunday afternoon.
The Golden Empire Chorus, as the local chapter is known, will present “Beatles, Beach Boys and Barbershop” at the Little Harvey Auditorium, and it couldn’t be a better match of material and performers. The Beach Boys close-knit harmonies, which imitated street-corner doo-wop groups, and The Beatles trademark doubled vocal lines have been perfect vehicles for all sorts of male vocal groups from such dignitaries as The Kings Singers and Chanticleer to championship barbershop quartets to high school groups, and viral videos on YouTube.
Rich Owen, who leads the Golden Empire Chorus, says that barbershop harmonies are a way to get otherwise music-averse boys, teens and young men to sing in public.
“It’s the harmonies; they’re really based on the physics of sound,” Owen said.
Owen explained that one of the reasons barbershop choruses sing without instrumental accompaniment is because the tuning of the quartet is based on how musical sounds fit together in nature, not based on the tuning of a piano.
That natural tuning requires an enormous amount of teamwork to pull off, and create what singers call a “lock” — the moment when all of the voices are perfectly in tune with each other.
“Once that comes together you can hear and feel the lock,” Owen said. “There’s a sensation that comes with lock and a chord, and barbershop singers like to exploit that.”
Despite the appeal, Owen said the group is always in recruiting mode for members. The current group numbers between 16 and 18 singers ranging in age from late 40s to 80s.
“We try to recruit younger singers, but until their children are grown, they just don’t have enough time,” Owen said.
Owen noted that barbershop singing has a long history.
“Its roots are in African-American music from the 1800s,” Owen said.
Those African-American roots include small singing groups in the later part of the 19th century performing harmonized versions of spirituals and popular songs, a tradition that led to such great performers as The Mills Brothers and the Golden Gate Quartet. European Americans also embraced the tradition, and barbershop quartets became a symbol of small-town America as well as urban street corners.
The formal organization of SPEBSQSA was created in 1938 by Owen Cash and Rupert Hall in Tulsa, Okla. An informal association of men interested in singing grew to a national organization, which recognizes some 25,000 registered singing members, and regional and national competitions.
Sunday’s concert will include the society’s Far-Western District champions Hi-Fidelity. The district includes California, Arizona, Utah and Hawaii.
Tickets for the concert are $20 and will support the local chapter’s activities.