How it All Began
by Grady Kerr – Society Historian
The family unit was still very musical in the late 1930s with pianos in most homes and singing (harmonizing), still a popular pastime. Many could still remember, first hand, enjoying the old vaudeville quartets and the professionals such as the Peerless Quartet from the turn of the century. The love of close harmony existed even though it was no longer the most popular music of the day.
In 1938 men harmonizing together had not completely died out but it was becoming rarer and certainly much less popular than 30 years before.
There were actually several different groups throughout the country who gathered and sang close harmony for pleasure. The Tulsans, a large city-wide classical and glee club chorus, was a popular outlet of the day. Many new Tulsa barbershoppers would come from this group.
The movement we now enjoy as the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America (S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A. Inc.) can be credited to a meeting in Tulsa organized by Owen Clifton Cash.
Cash was really only interested in getting a few guys together to sing. There was no grand plan, no grand scheme.
He and acquaintance Rupert Hall had met in Kansas City by chance and discussed forming a group. On his return, Cash drafted an invitation and mailed it to the 14 singers they knew might show up and encouraged them to bring guests.
The Song Fest
The date was set for Monday, April 11 at 6:30 PM. Hall, a member of the opulent, rich oil men’s Tulsa Club, had arranged for the meeting to be held on the Roof Garden (up on the roof – in open air – under the stars). The Tulsa Club still exists and is located on the northwest corner of 5th and Cincinnati. Built in 1923, it stands 11 stories tall. It’s across the street (due north) from the Stanolind Oil Building where Cash worked. Closed for many years, it has escaped demolition many times. Its future is still in doubt.
Twenty six men attended and harmonized. Apparently some Tulsa club members below complained of the “noise” so the next week, April 18, they met at the Hotel Tulsa (3rd and Cincinnati). Perhaps an early indication of future growth, 70 men showed up at the second meeting. By the end of May, the newly formed group began meeting at the Alvin Plaza Hotel (7th and Main) and hosting 75 to 150 men. What would later be known as the Tulsa # 1 Chapter, would continue to meet at the Alvin for 37 years.
The popular joke is … “There were 26 men who attended the FIRST meeting April 11, 1938 … I’ve met 150 of them.”
This is the list of those who actually attended the first meeting.
S.M. “Puny” Blevens
J. William Colley
Paul “Happy” Fenton
R.A. “Dick” Hittson
W.A. “Bill” Palmer
Ira T. Parker
Well Timed PR
O.C. Cash was a master craftsman with the press. He would call his reporter friends at the Tulsa Tribune and the Tulsa World and give them such creative material about the new group, they couldn’t help but use it. The clever use of the initials SPEBSQSA (a humorous slap at President Roosevelt’s alphabetical agencies) was only the beginning.
One such event was escalated into a “legal battle” via the press. A “reactionary group” had apparently sprung up and began calling itself S.P.C.D.A.D.P.O.F.L.T. (The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Dumb Animals, Dumb People, and Other Folk of Low Taste). It was reportedly backed, promoted, financed, and advised by the Chamber of Commerce. Their purpose was to consider legal action to “suppress, squelch, obliterate, eliminate, dehabilitate and otherwise bring about the non-existence of the harmless group of tenors, basses, and leads who enjoy their own singing once a month.”
The group, claiming to be fair, agreed to hold off any legal action until after hearing the quartets sing at the Chambers’ May 13th meeting. The performance was predicted to be “just provocation for either mayhem or murder”.
Cash also “publicly” invited Bing Crosby to attend a meeting. Bing wired his regrets and promised to dedicate a song on his next Kraft Music Hall radio show. Crosby and other VIPs were later named to the Society’s Board of Directors. There was also interest in forming a chapter in Hollywood.
Early on it was discovered the group needed some reference for the songs they liked to sing. The biggest problem was … remembering the words. An official songbook of lyrics was produced, and distributed to all members. It contained 161 songs, many of which have not survived the five decades. The book was quickly withdrawn from circulation when A.S.C.A.P. threatened legal action against the Society.
Call The Cops!
The gathering of May 31st was possibly the most important single event in the history of the society. Sixty three singers met on the Mezzanine level of the Alvin. In the heat of the early summer night the windows were opened to the street.
To understand this event one must also be aware of the concern of the police department with spontaneous groups on the streets even years after the panic of the race riots in downtown Tulsa in (1921).
Reportedly, there was such a sound coming from the Alvin, passersby on the way home stopped to listen, and cars began to pull over. Such a commotion was caused, a rare traffic jam resulted. Apparently someone (some have rumored it was O.C.) called the cops. Ralph Martin, a reporter for the Daily World, followed a policeman upstairs to the singers’ songfest to discover the source of the “riot”. Even before the traffic jam was dispersed,
Cash took Martin aside and began writing his story. The next morning, Martin’s “song-by-song” account of the disturbance appeared under the headline of… “No, No Folks – You’re Wrong! That Was Musical History In The Making!”. Cash had taken the liberty to embellish the truth just a bit. He had told Martin that the Chicago Tribune, the Associated Press, as well as Time Magazine had shown interest in the new group formed to preserve barbershop quartet singing.
He told of friends in Kansas City, Oklahoma City, St. Louis and other towns forming similar groups. The story was so “unique” it was picked up by the Associated Press wire and ran in newspapers around the country the very next Sunday.
Those Cash mentioned in the article were surprised to read the report and began to get calls from interested singers. Groups began to spring up all over the country.
. . . The Society was born.
The Society’s second chapter was formed in Kansas City. Cash and friends traveled by rail to install that group on June 18. On July 23rd Tulsa barbershoppers took the “Frisco” to Oklahoma City to install the officers of the newly chartered (July 6th) chapter. They attended The Texas League All-Star baseball game that night.
Charters and memberships continued to be presented. There were no dues, rules, no officers, no headquarters but by the end of the year, eight chapters now including St. Louis, were meeting on a regular basis. Cash decided, if for no other reason than to get more PR, a major event was needed. A national quartet contest to pick “The World’s Champion Barber Shop Quartet” was to be held. Tulsa would be the site with contests being held on the stage at Central High School’s south auditorium.
The dates were set for June 2 (Friday) and 3 (Saturday). The Hotel Tulsa would be the headquarters with a registration of $3 and an invitation to “MEN ONLY”.
By Friday 150 delegates and nearly 50 quartets showed up representing ten states and seventeen cities. Competitors included the Flat Foot Four (Oklahoma City), The Maple City Four (Springfield, IL), Shell Quartet (Arkansas, KS), Topeka State Journal (Topeka, KS), The Industrial City Four (San Springs, OK), The Four Blue Notes (Tulsa), Jayhawkers from Topeka, and The Okie Four with Cash on Bari. The Bartlesville, Oklahoma Barflies won the contest, a trophy, and a $50 check (that’s $12.50 per man).
Rapid and widespread growth had caught the Tulsa group by surprise. During the 1939 Convention a board meeting was held and our first slate of official officers were elected.
It’s rumored that Rupert Hall returned from the men’s room to discover he had been elected the Society’s first President.
O.C. Cash refused any position beyond his self appointed “Permanent Third Assistant Temporary Vice Chairman”.