The Mall City Harmonizers, Kalamazoo’s barbershop chorus, recently celebrated the 75th birthday of the international Barbershop Harmony society.
“The Barbershop Harmony society started in 1938 with a letter from a fellow named O.C. Cash, and he said, ‘Hey, let’s get together and sing some of this barbershop stuff,” says Harmonizers Director David Woolf.
The letter he mentioned, sent to men in Tulsa, Oklahoma where the society was originally based, continued, saying, “What could be sweeter than ten or twelve perfectly synchronized male voices singing, ‘Dear Old Girl!’” Thinking about the music, Cash wrote, “brought back fond memories of a moonlit night, a hay ride and the soft young blond summer visitor from Kansas City we dated on that occasion years ago.”
The Mall City Harmonizers was the 13th member chorus of the society, joining in 1941. Barbershop music has a specific sound. Whether in full chorus or in quartets, performers sing a tenor, a lead, a bass and a baritone part, said the Harmonizers’ President Ludwig Ouzoonian.
“It’s four-part, unaccompanied vocalizations, and we concentrate on harmony – close harmony,” Ouzoonian says.
The Harmonizers have about 20 members that frequently attend rehearsal. Woolf says that’s down from the chorus’ early days, when they had membership numbers in the 50s. One challenge they face is attracting younger singers. Many of the Harmonizers are from an older generation.
“You know, that generation, we’re not going to be around forever, so we need to interest some of the younger generation in continuing to preserve this style. Otherwise it can go away, and we don’t want to see that,” Woolf says.
Woolf’s son, Jonathan, is a student at Western Michigan University. He’s the youngest member of the Harmonizers and got into barbershop his sophomore year of high school.
“The lockage you can get when you are perfectly in tune with your quartet you’re singing with, you can lock it and it just sucks the note right out of your chest,” he says.
Ouzoonian said the Harmonizers would like to reach singers at that age.
“We’re trying to reach out to local schools. We’re evaluating a program that we hope to start later this year in which we can encourage the high school vocal students to form quartets in their school and then compete against different high schools, and then we would provide some sort of prize… and basically that’s, that’s our thrust,” he says.
Until then, the Harmonizers will continue to bust chords for audiences around the area.