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Great British Barbershop Boys Featured in The Times

It’s the first night of the Natural History Museum’s skating rink and, as a team of workers deal with a puddle forming on the ice with an armada of large mops, four fresh-faced young men warm the night with close harmonies. The Great British Barbershop Boys, a quartet of friends from northern England who sing evocative, unaccompanied versions of old favourites such as Mr Sandman and Santa Claus is Coming To Town, are a good booking for an event such as this. With matching suits, lightly choreographed hand gestures and between-song bonhomie, they go well with the mulled wine and roasted chestnuts.

They’re on early, too, which means that they have time to get a good night’s sleep and clock in the next day for their jobs as teacher (Alan Hughes, tenor), signwriter (Zac Booles, lead), policeman (Joe Knight, baritone) and IT manager (Duncan Blackeby, bass). There is only one problem, if that’s the right word. Sony has just signed The Great British Barbershop Boys for £1 million.

“I was at school the other day,” says Hughes, who looks so young that you would assume he was sitting double maths rather than teaching it, “and the kids were saying, ‘Sir, I saw you singing on telly last night. You must be famous. Lend us a tenor’.”

Barbershop singing has become an unlikely phenomenon: a tradition with its origins in late 19th-century gospel that has enjoyed a huge revival in 2010. This has been particularly striking in the US where, until recently, barbershop was associated with outfits such as the Dapper Dans, who, with their boaters and candy-stripe waistcoats, are as reassuringly uncool as the venue for their resident gig, Disneyland.

Now the barbershop scene features rebel outfits such as OC Times, a Californian quartet that Mark Hale, the veteran barbershop voice coach, describes as “the boys you screw around with when your parents aren’t looking”. After becoming the No 1 quartet in the world at the 2008 international barbershop convention in Nashville, OC Times have become stars — albeit reluctant ones. “I don’t tell everyone I know about the quartet,” says Cory Hunt, a research associate by day. “Explaining barbershop is more trouble than it’s worth.”

That may all be about to change. The Great British Barbershop Boys got their big break after representing the UK at the 2008 international barbershop convention in Philadelphia, where Simon King, now their manager, spotted them. Seeing the commercial potential in a quartet of polite, likeable young men singing harmonies infused with nostalgia, warmth and innocence, King convinced them to audition live in the London offices of leading record companies. It was a gamble that paid off, though the Barbershop Boys themselves haven’t been given much time to get used to it.

“We only got into this as a way of learning songs and having fun,” claims Knight, who appears to have a natural authority that places him as the quartet’s leader. “The Sony deal happened only a few weeks ago, and then they tell us that they want to release our album of Christmas songs for [this] Christmas. It’s a bit scary. I’ve already been on holiday once this year. I haven’t got much time left to take off.”

Such are the pressures of showbusiness. Nobody could have expected that a barbershop quartet, in which a lead sings a melody while three others harmonise, could have become the surprise hit of the season. And the boys are resolute that they didn’t get into this for fame, riches or, if such a thing exists, barbershop groupies.

“It’s a social thing,” says Knight, whose father was in a barbershop quartet and who has been singing close harmony for much of his life. “We met four years ago at the National Barbershop Youth Chorus, became good friends and decided to have a crack at being a quartet. You can’t quite put your finger on it, but hearing voices working together in harmony is an amazing experience.

Booles adds: “Barbershop is on the up. It has something to do with people wanting to get involved instead of sitting in front of the TV. Most importantly, it is inclusive. Everyone can do it.”

Not quite everyone. Ever since not making the choir at school, and being told to amuse myself in a back room while the rest of the class were paid to be in the chorus line for the West End production of Evita, I’ve had an atrocious singing voice. I tell the Barbershop Boys that I’m tone deaf. “There’s no such thing,” Hughes counters. “We’ll teach you how to do a ‘tag’. That’s the barbershop equivalent of a coda.”

That’s something to look forward to, but in the meantime, a little bit of history. “In African-American communities in the 1890s, the barbershop would be like the pub is today — a meeting place,” explains Hughes, the quartet’s resident expert. “Because they didn’t have disposable razors back then, you literally had to go there every day, otherwise you would start to look a bit scruffy. So you would make friends in the barbershop. Singing together was a natural outcome of that.”

The birth of recorded music killed off the original barbershop boom as listening to the radio or phonogram took the place of community singing, but in 1938 an Oklahoma tax lawyer, the appropriately named O. C. Cash, organised a four-part harmony singing session on the roof of a hotel. “It created a phenomenon,” Hughes says. “Police were called, traffic stopped and there were all these people on the street wondering where these amazing harmonies were coming from.”

Cash duly formed the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America, a name later shortened to the Barbershop Harmony Society. As the popularity of barbershop quartets grew, rules on what counted as barbershop singing and what made for an acceptable repertoire developed. The British Association of Barbershop Singers (Babs) now lays down rules for this country’s quartets. There are rumours of a rebel splinter group, the British Order of Barbershop Singers (Boobs), though nobody will confirm its existence.

Today such rules are at the heart of a controversy driving a wedge through the once tightly knit American barbershop community. On the one hand, “Barberpop” upstarts such as OC Times are including shockingly new material — an Elvis Presley song, for example — in their repertoire. On the other, the traditionalist pressure group the Kibbers (the name derives from their motto, “keep it barbershop”) argue that only songs from the early 1900s have a place in this world.

Caught in the barbershop crossfire is the Westminster Chorus, winners of the 2010 Barbershop Harmony Society chorus competition, an annual event held in Philadelphia — the Oscars of Barbershop. The Westminster Chorus, of which the four members of OC Times are a part, formed in 2003 with the goal of getting young people interested in harmony singing again. As such, it faces the unenviable task of keeping the original spirit of barbershop alive while appealing to a younger audience. “The image of barbershop is changing,” says Paul Tabone, baritone for the chorus. “If you want to be cutting edge you need to keep moving forward. In Philadelphia this year I saw a lot of college-age girls in the audience for the first time. I think that’s cool.”

Does this mean that the Westminster Chorus includes Kibber-baiting modern pop in its repertoire? “It depends on what you mean by modern,” Tabone says. “We have been doing some rock’n’roll songs from the Fifties. But the quartet that is really pushing the envelope is a Swedish group called the Ringmasters. They have been performing Beatles songs in competitions.” I ask the Great British Barbershop Boys for their opinion. “These days, you get bands that sing barbershop versions of Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder songs,” says Hughes, eyebrows lifting. “That’s been ruffling a few feathers. Modern songs are fine for a show, but in singing competitions you have to stick to the rules because the melodies for four-chord rock’n’roll don’t really work with barbershop.”

The time has come for the Great British Barbershop Boys to prove that this is a form of singing that we can all enjoy — and more importantly, do. “Barbershop is full of older chaps who were told in their youth that they couldn’t sing,” says Knight, as the quartet prepare to let me join their ranks. “So for 50 years they didn’t sing at all. Then they stumbled upon barbershop, gave it a go and discovered that they could always sing but were never given the tools to do so.”

On that note, we start our exercise in singing a tag. Knight shows me how to sing the word “behind” in D-flat, allowing for an elongated note by taking a deep, lung-filling inhalation before singing with a smile (this helps to control your breath). It doesn’t sound as bad as I imagined. And then something incredible happens. As the quartet harmonise above and below D-flat by singing in the same vowel shape, a mysterious note, which they tell me is a major ninth, is created on top of what we are singing. This is what is talked of reverently in barbershop circles as “the hidden note”. It sounds glorious, celestial even.

“That’s nirvana as far as barbershop is concerned,” Knight says, as we marvel at the wonder of the dominant ninth. “When you sing in a bar with your mates, or with three guys you’ve never met before, and you get the hidden note, it all makes sense.”

Christmas Time by The Great British Barbershop Boys is released on Arista/Sony on December 6

Originally reported in The Times (requires subscription), November 20 2010 12:01AM