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Singers young and old gather for barbershop contest

By Eliot Caroom/For the Star-Ledger
(Article originally published at www.nj.com)

RAHWAY — Before Elvis, The Beatles or American Idol, there were barbershop quartets. On Saturday night, dozens of men (and they were all men), young and old, matched vocal cords in Rahway, performing in one of the country’s older singing styles.

The event was the 49th annual contest sponsored by the Rahway Valley Jerseyaires, the local chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society, an international umbrella group that promotes the music.

Eliot Caroom/New Jersey Local News ServiceOn Saturday night, dozens of men from around the region, young and old, matched vocal cords at a barbershop quartet contest in Rahway, performing in one of the country’s oldest singing styles. From left, the members of Dean’s List: tenor Bob Seip, lead Walt Ulrich, bass Ray Walker and baritone Alan Hardy.

Barbershop music is marked by a distinct style, explained by the Jerseyaires’ musical director, Rich Taylor, as “homophonic, consonant, four-part harmony.” In other words, four voices sing a tune at the same pace, but with distinct, complementary parts.

The contest brought teams with names like “Skipped a Beat” and “Tagnabbit,” from around the state and the region, including Princeton, Edison, Manhattan, and Levittown, Pa.

About 100 people gathered in the auditorium of Roosevelt School to watch the competition. All joined in to sing the national anthem at the program’s outset. Then the battle began.

The strictly a capella groups sang crisp, distinct renditions of traditional songs focusing on subjects like unrequited love and nostalgia for times past. Barbershop music has been around since the 1870s, according to Taylor, and many songs date to turn of the 20th century.

Teams like Dean’s List, a group of older men with about a century of barbershop experience between them, competed against upstarts from the Rahway area, including Alex McCoy and Ryan Brown of Wholesale, who once performed barbershop at Cranford High School, according to Taylor.

After first prize was awarded to Tagnabbit, a quartet of singers in their early 20s, the members of Dean’s List mulled their defeat.

“Of course, it’s a little disappointing,” said lead singer Walt Ulrich of Edison. But the group had fun and was impressed by the number of young men singing.

“There’s a pretty big influx of youngsters,” said bass Ray Walker, of Spotswood, as he considered the college-age singers.

49th annual contest for novice barbershop quartets

Fans in the audience, including Kathy and Al Muller who first met in a choir 50 years ago, were also glad to see a new generation raising their voices.

“I think it’s absolutely terrific to see young people involved,” said Kathy Muller of New Brunswick.

Taylor, who has watched McCoy and Brown sing since they were in high school, agrees.

“We’re planting the seeds,” Taylor said, “So that when they’re out of college, and they have their own families, they’ll remember they enjoy singing and seek out a barbershop quartet.”