With a song in their hearts

The Chordlighters find harmony in performance

By Jenny Elig, with reporting by Shelby Rizzi

Scientific studies have shown that singing — more specifically, singing in groups — soothes fried nerves and raises levels of elation in the singers. These physical responses serve as something of a reward; think of the phenomenon as an evolutionary pat on the head to the singers for working so well together.

Tuesday evenings at Franklin’s Grace United Methodist Church are full of rewards. Each week at 7 p.m. men’s voices join in four-part harmony as The Chordlighters barbershop chorus rehearses. Together for 30 years, the group performs in and around the southside, producing a sound that hails back more than 100 years.

“Barbershop music is designed to take its audience on an emotional journey,” says chorus director Bob Kendall. “To me, barbershop music has the power to make the world a better place. Our audiences like to hear our message of hope. They like to be reminded that the world is still full of good people.”

RNK_2180The Chordlighters are the Columbus-Greenwood chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society. The group in its current incarnation was formed 30 years ago when the Columbus Chordsmen and the Greenwood Gaslighters joined forces. “Both chapters were kind of struggling with membership, and we decided to get together and merge into one chapter,” says member Tom Fricke, who has been singing barbershop-style music for 49 years. Fricke has been with The Chordlighters for the entirety of the group’s existence. The name was a portmanteau of the original names; today, members are scattered about the southside, including Franklin, Beech Grove and Greenwood.

Opening refrains

It begins with a solitary note, blown on a pitch pipe, a short hum of a tone from which the singers find their notes. The 25 active singers find their place in the chord with no other accompaniment.

Barbershop-style music is made up of four parts: lead, tenor, baritone and bass. The lead sings the melody, the tenor harmonizes above the melody, the bass sings the lowest harmonizing notes, and the baritone completes the chord, usually below the lead. Barbershop choruses, such as The Chordlighters, follow the same structure as quartets, but with more singers. During performances, group members sing as a whole or break into quartets for select songs.

Barbershop-style harmonies go back a little further and were born of the spirituals of the late 19th century, Fricke says. If barbershop quartets seem distinctly American, it’s because they are, he says. Barbershop Harmony Society (aka Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America, that is, SPEBSQSA), of which The Chordlighters are a chapter, was formed in April 1938 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, by friends Owen Clifton Cash and Rupert Hall, two guys who just wanted to get their friends together to sing. The Barbershop Harmony Society, now based in Nashville, Tennessee, is the world’s largest all-male singing society, with 22,000 members across North America. If you count affiliated men’s and women’s organizations in more than a dozen countries, that number rises to 80,000 worldwide. The organization operates with the mission of preserving and encouraging the performance of barbershop music. The Barbershop Harmony Society is arranged in 17 districts across the United States and Canada; Indiana is in the Cardinal district.

The Chordlighters are open to any man who wants to sing. The admission policy has yielded a diverse group, composed of men of varying ages with careers ranging from farmers to businessmen. “We do have a couple of high school-age guys,” Kendall says. “Our oldest members right now are probably in their mid-80s. It’s economically diverse, too. The guy who picks up your trash is standing next to your doctor.”

To join the group, potential members first show up to practice. Along with group practice each Tuesday, members receive CDs of the songs so they can practice on their own. Song selections come from a variety of sources; the group’s repertoire ranges from the 1930s to the 1980s. Fats Waller’s “Lulu’s Back in Town” might be followed by Billy Joel’s “For the Longest Time.” Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” sung in four-part harmony, is always a crowd-pleaser.

For the sake of song

Chordlighters President Gordon Morrow has been with the group for 10 years; he started in the bass section before switching to baritone. Singing in a barbershop quartet is his hobby and his preferred form of escapism, Morrow says. “It’s the opportunity to escape our everyday work-life and get together with a bunch of guys and make harmony,” he says. The group puts on three or four shows a year. In May, they celebrated The Chordlighters’ 30th anniversary with a show of assorted love songs.

The Barbershop Harmony Society offers its chapters plenty of opportunities for competition, Morrow says. Competing was one of the factors that brought Kendall into the mix. As he aged out of competitive sports, he found that barbershop quartets fed several of his needs: camaraderie, the desire to perform and the drive to compete. Kendall directs the Chordlighters; he also sings with the Late Shift, The Arrangements and Replay. These quartets have all placed in Barbershop Harmony Society’s annual international competition.

“On the barbershop quartet circuit, (Indiana is) honestly pretty hot right now,” Kendall says. “The last two international quartet champions have come from Indiana. It’s the best-kept secret.”

But competing is not a Chordlighters priority, Morrow says. “We are just more about doing our shows,” he says. “There is the joy of making harmony, singing to audiences and touching lives with the magic of music.”

Marc Hagn, a Franklin-based Chordlighter, has been with the group for nine years. “If I have one regret, it would be not joining The Chordlighters sooner,” he says. Being involved with the group transcends performing, he says. One of Hagn’s favorite memories with the group was a trip to a hospice center, where the chorus sang for patients. “We ended up being there for hours, going from room to room, and people were just crying, in a good way,” he says.

Another group favorite is the Singing Valentines. During the month of February, members deliver valentines in song format, Kendall says. It’s the group’s biggest fundraiser and also a chance to see just how much of an emotional impact four-part harmonies can have. One Valentine’s Day saw a quartet singing a valentine to a burly, intimidating firefighter, he says; the recipient burst into happy tears as the quartet sang.

“Barbershop is about amateurs performing live music for live, and usually small, local audiences,” Morrow says. “This is about enriching lives of the performers and the audience through an experience that can’t be had watching TV.”

Photography by Renee Knight // See more photos at http://hnemediaphotos.zenfolio.com/p762837535