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A Tribute to Joe Liles

A Tribute To Joe Liles

Joe Edward Liles (1930-2021) made an indelible mark on barbershop, the Society, and on the countless lives he inspired with his music.


Brief obituary

Harmonizer feature story

BONUS: Joe Liles—In his own words

Extended stories from...

The Joe Liles Tag - with tracks by Adam LeFebvre

Featured performances playlist

Featured performances

Great performances of Joe's music

As featured in The Harmonizer

Read the full story in the November/December 2021 Harmonizer

BONUS: Joe Liles—In his own words

Joe speaks with Lorin May, editor of The Harmonizer, in an interview from 2016.

The Joe Liles Tag

Tom Gentry writes: "This tag was supposed to be a surprise for Joe, printed along with an article honoring him. A tag of Joe’s choice would have appeared on this page as usual, and my duties would not have begun until 2022.

When Joe’s health took a turn for the worse, I sent this tag to his wife, the wonderful Kay, to show him. No way was he not going to know that tens of thousands of Barbershoppers would see, and many would sing, this tribute to our hero."

The Joe Liles Tag - TTBB

Joe Liles Tag, by Tom Gentry, TTBB - PDF






The Joe Liles Tag - SATB

Joe Liles Tag, by Tom Gentry, SATB — PDF






The Joe Liles Tag - SSAA

Joe Liles Tag, by Tom Gentry, SSAA — PDF

The full-length stories

At eight pages, Joe's Harmonizer tribute was longer than most features... but Joe was larger than life. Your editors struggled mightily to capture the essence of many contributors, and still left way too much good stuff on the desk, unpublished. Here, at full length, are the stories of appreciation as submitted.

An inspiration as an arranger, musician, leader—and most of all, as a friend, by David Wright

I am honored to write a few lines in tribute to my friend, colleague, and mentor Joe Liles. I first met Joe at Harmony College in St. Joseph, MO, in the late 1970s, where he was a constant presence. I took many of his classes and eventually developed a treasured friendship with him. Joe joined the Society’s staff in 1975, served as Musical Services Director 1982-1988, Executive Director 1988-1996, and was inducted into the Society Hall of Fame in 2007. In 2005 a special award was named in his honor, the Joe Liles Lifetime Achievement Award, of which I am honored to be the recipient in 2015. At the time I met Joe, he was a judge in the former Arrangement Category, later becoming a judge in the Singing Category with the change of judging systems that occurred in 1993. Joe was one of the ones who encouraged me to become a judge.

For well over four decades Joe Liles has been a leading arranger, composer, and musical leader in the barbershop world. His catalog of arrangements and compositions is truly vast, and his music has been sung by both male and female barbershop ensembles. His music displays an elegant simplicity, as he did not indulge in any complicated agendas, making his songs and arrangements accessible to groups of all levels. That said, they were sung successfully by top quartets and choruses. It is in this capacity, as arranger and composer, that I confine most of my remarks, as others will discuss Joe’s considerable other accomplishments.

Joe began arranging in the 1970s, perhaps earlier, and continued to arrange existing compositions throughout his life, producing a huge catalog of recognizable songs arranged expertly in the barbershop style. But he eventually became a composer as much as arranger, and gave the barbershop world a variety of new songs, all arranged with his adept expertise. This seems to be where his true love lay. Though his songs were not elaborate, they were never trite. Every song had some twist or feature that made it memorable and unique, and Joe often dared to write things that stepped a little beyond the standard practices of barbershop at the time.

One of the earliest of his original songs that I learned was “Goodbye Means the End of My World”. It was at Harmony College, early 80s, and Joe was directing the full student body in the theater. When the chorus of the song arrived at the climactic major triad on “world”, I nearly jumped out of my seat. That kind of usage of triads was not at all common then, but it served the music perfectly in this context. Joe’s songs always had a “hook” - a word he often used - that set them apart, and quite often the hook was some aspect of the harmony. This had a powerful impact on me as a young arranger.

Many of Joe’s works were uniquely his, but he also collaborated with others, especially on lyrics. He developed a productive working relationship with Barbershopper Frank Marzocco that resulted in quite a few original songs, including “I Miss Mother Most of All”, “Fun in Just One Lifetime”, and “Bring Back Those Vaudeville Days”. His one collaboration (to my knowledge) with veteran arranger Val Hicks gave us “I Didn’t Want to Fall”, which has been sung at all levels by male and female ensembles, and helped win a gold medal for Jokers Wild in 1994.

His songs could be somber as in “I’ll Never Write A Love Song Any More” (a wonderful song) and “My Heart Is Aching for You”, or light and funny, as in “I Can’t Recall Her Name” and “I’m Still Having Fun”, the latter a huge favorite senior’s quartets. He wrote numerous songs for more than four parts, usually double quartets, such as “Sing Out, Sing Out”, “Let There Be Music, Let There Be Love”, and “Teach the Children to Sing”.

One of his most successful songs was “The Moment I Saw Your Eyes”. This delightful earworm features an unusual seventh chord in its main strain “heaven” and an unusual major triad on “saw your eyes”. The song is truly unusual, catchy, and appealing. It was sung by top groups like the Gas House Gang, but also by countless others, male and female, much less accomplished. It is fun to sing and not difficult. In this way Joe Liles provided hours of pleasure to barbershoppers everywhere.

And that was his gift to us. Joe was a strong believer in the power of music and its promise to heal the problems of mankind. He wanted to get more people singing. He was a promoter of barbershop in all organizations worldwide, for people all ages, races, nationalities, genders, and economic classes. In this sense he was an early advocate of Everyone in Harmony long before it was an official policy of the Barbershop Harmony Society. Joe Liles loved to see people singing and enjoying barbershop harmony. It was his life’s goal.

I loved Joe Liles. To me he was an inspiration not just as an arranger and musician, but as a leader and, most of all, as a friend. We won’t soon find another like him.

Joe was always part of my journey, by Kevin Keller

As a 43-year member and a student of our Society’s history, it is difficult to put into words the depth and breadth of Joe Liles’ contributions to our Society. He is easily one of the top five most influential members of all time. Joe’s reach is everywhere in our Society’s history, and it is most certainly in the music we have sung for decades. It is not only with great arrangements but also with original songs. Quartets and choruses of every level and gender have sung some of Joe’s songs and arrangements, including “The Moment I Saw Your Eyes”, “I Miss Mother Most of All”, “I Never Meant to Fall in Love”, “Where Have My Old Friends Gone?”, “Somethin’ About Ya”, and so many more.

I first became exposed to Joe Liles arrangements early in my barbershop career. Starting my barbershop journey in a typical chorus singing around a 50, the real struggle is finding material that is engaging for both the performer and the audience. Joe had a wonderful gift of making everything singable for any level of performer. My first chorus always sang Joe’s music. He was always aware of the singer and arranged with the singer in mind. And yet, he was able to introduce a lot of creative musical ideas such that performers of all levels wanted to sing his music. What a gift. It seemed like every year he had created a new song with an overlay that made for wonderful openers and closers, involving all performers on a show.

After he retired from the Society’s Executive Director position (now CEO), he worked for the Society on the Music Publications side. Not many people realize how far-reaching his vision was in all areas of barbershop and that included music publishing. He was decades ahead of his time. He saw the vision of online music purchasing long before the rest of us (never say a man of that age can’t master a computer and the internet!). He drove the shift in what sort of music the society would (and does) publish. He moved us towards publishing songs and arrangements that people wanted to sing. He gave a young Tim Waurick an opportunity to start recording learning tracks for the Society. He constantly saw opportunity and pushed us towards it. I was lucky to be on his music publications committee for a few years and to spend time with a visionary such as Joe is a treasured opportunity I will always cherish.

If you knew Joe, you knew he was always driven by both his love of barbershop harmony and Barbershoppers as well as his strong faith. Every original song spoke of fun, hope, musical harmony, harmony amongst all people, the joy of music, and of love. His humanity constantly poured from his soul in his music, his words, and his actions.

Joe has been one of the most important people in my barbershop journey; he gave of himself to everyone regardless of who they were or weren’t. Early in my career he freely gave of his time to me even though I was a nobody. He made everybody a somebody and made them feel truly valued. To find myself merely in his presence was a blessing. Our Society would look nothing like it does without Joe being a part of it. He will be missed by all of us, but his spirit will live on not only in all of us, but in his music. To quote one of his song titles, “Let There Be Music! Let There Be Love!”! I think Joe would wish all of us here on earth to follow that adage.

BONUS: two more stories that didn’t make the cut

Joe. Research assistant.

I was in SPEBSQSA for 2 years and went to Harmony College for the first time in 1980. He taught beginning conducting which I took from him. Absolutely wonderful. That fall I started college, and our instructor told us we would have to write a research paper on any aspect of 20th century culture that we wanted to write on. Of course, I chose barbershop quartetting. I called Harmony Hall and Joe flooded me with information and research that I could use. I was a nobody, a face he had only met, and here he was taking his valuable time to help me. I have always helped any student since that moment who has reached out to me for any reason to continue that legacy. I know what it meant to me.

Joe. Outside expert.

In 1987, the National ACDA met in San Antonio and the Vocal Majority performed there (I was with them at the time). In 1988, I decided to quit work and went to grad school at Ohio State. At OSU, everyone auditions and then they tell you what groups you are eligible for. I had a voice back then so Maurice Casey and Jim Gallagher fought over me since I couldn’t do both select choir and glee club that quarter. I did select choir for Maurice my first quarter. On my “resume” (background), I listed I had sung with the VM but who knows what a VM is? In 1989, I started singing with both groups. The Glee Club sang for the Ohio MEA or ACDA in February. Prior to that, I had been trying to convince Jim Gallagher that the barbershop music could be updated and had made other comments which were met with either disdain or indifference. Who was I as a student to offer suggestions? At the Ohio conference, Joe Liles was there representing the society. I went to the booth and struck up a conversation with Joe. Now, he barely knew me but of course, we’re all brothers. He knew my face and knew I had sung with the VM the past few years. I asked Joe to attend the concert if he could get away. Not only did he appear, he was smack on the front row. There was no one else to man the booth so he left it unmanned to come hear us because I asked him. That was truly special. I wasn’t able to see him afterwards but about 15 minutes later Jim Gallagher comes and finds me. It turns out that Jim knew Joe and his relationship with the Society. Jim had been at the 1987 convention where the VM sang and wanted to know how to get a hold of Jim Clancy for one of his arrangements. Joe said, “Why, Jim, you have one of Jim’s right hand men singing for you.” “What????!!!”. “Yes, Kevin Keller, he was one of the section leaders and musical leaders of the VM while he was there”. None of which was true, btw. I just held down my spot. After that, I became Jim G’s right hand man. I fixed the charts that needed fixing and he asked my advice the rest of the time I was there!

My big brother, by Tom Gentry

Joe Liles was the big brother I never had. (Darryl Flinn is my other big brother, but this is about Joe.) From the time he hired me to work at Harmony Hall, back in 1985, until his recent death, Joe was a mentor, an inspiration and a constant presence in my life. Come to think of it, he still is all of those things.

This tribute to Joe will be rather different from others you will read and hear. Just a dissertation shy of a doctorate in Theory and Composition, Joe was a marvelous composer and arranger. His artful use of words—some of them of his own creation—and word sounds was unsurpassed in the barbershop world. So here are some examples of Joe’s lyrical creativity.

Quite a while ago Joe arranged the Roy Clark song “Think Summer” for our 1969 quartet champ, the Mark IV. He was directing their San Antonio Chordsmen at the time. Each A section of the song ends “Come on, come on, think summer.” To the last one, right before the tag, Joe added “because it’s funner.” Clever, eh? (Though this is not really a pun, Joe was widely known as the punniest guy around.)

In-rhymes were one of Joe’s trademarks. His “America the Beautiful Overlay,” which was written to be sung along with “America the Beautiful,” featured these quick-hitters:

“Let freedom ring, awakening”
“Standing tall, with one and all”
“So we’re together for the good and building brotherhood.”

And from the soaring “Teach the Children Sing”:

“A bird with no wings, a harp with no strings”
“Joy, transcending, sets ev’ry ear bending to hear voices blending so strong.”
“Radiant faces, a rainbow of races”

By the way, in this song Joe called what would normally be labeled the Verse and Chorus the Preamble and Vision. How strong!

In addition to rhymes, Joe liberally employed alliteration, assonance (repeated vowel sounds) and consonance (repeated consonants). We just had a fine example of this: “Radiant faces, a rainbow of races. . . .”

Most folks would agree that Joe’s biggest hit was “The Moment I Saw Your Eyes,” introduced and popularized by The Gas House Gang in the men’s barbershop world and Rumors in the women’s. When Joe and future wife Kay met at an afterglow, neither one in the market to settle down, the sparks nonetheless flew. He described his feelings with this spark-ling use of word sounds, including another made-up word:

“Gosh-o, seems so”
“What was once”
“Well, when did it”
“I’m hot to handle, human candle”
“To explain, my brain’s on fire, and the flame is burning higher.”

These are just a few examples of Joe’s masterful use of the English language. But to what end did he employ this skill? These song titles tell the story:

“Fun in Just One Lifetime”
“Sing Out, Sing Out”
“America the Beautiful Overlay”
“I’m Still Havin’ Fun”
“Teach the Children to Sing”
“The Moment I Saw Your Eyes”
“Let There Be Music! Let There Be Love!”

The last word of the last title on this list pretty much sums things up: love. Very few people, inside or outside barbershop, have spread as much love as Joe Edward Liles did—and continues to do through his music and our memories. So let us be inspired by his loving example.

Also, with Joe on your mind and in your heart, be sure to make your life fun—or better yet, “funner”!

Joe Liles, the reason I am a Sweet Adeline today, by Lori Lyford

In 1983 I attended the All-Northwest MENC convention in Seattle, WA. I had purchased a ticket to a banquet, but I almost didn’t go because I’d be going alone and didn’t know anyone there. I was not going to throw away the money I’d spent on that ticket, so I did the hardest thing for me and walked into a room where I didn’t know anyone and looked for a place to sit. I spied a gentleman who looked kind and friendly, so I joined him. Our small talk led me to find out he was there to “keep an eye on the entertainment” who happened to be Grandma’s Boys, a Barbershop quartet. I mentioned that my brother was in Barbershop and I tried attending the local Sweet Adelines chapter where I was teaching, but I didn’t have a great impression and didn’t think barbershop was for me. He said, “There is a special performance tomorrow by the Lakeside Chorus of Sweet Adelines. If you’d like to go see them, I’ll meet you there and after the class I’ll introduce you to their director Zoe Thompson.” He gave me the information about when and where, then we enjoyed the rest of the meal, and the entertainment was wonderful!

True to his word, Joe met me there the next day and we sat together on the aisle. I was amazed from the moment the Lakeside members came in down the center aisle, and they just kept coming…over a hundred members! The singing, song selection, and energy was so captivating and entertaining. I thought, “So THIS is what Barbershop can be!” After the performance he took me up to meet Zoe and she told me the local chapter I had visited was looking for a new director and that I really should apply. She left quite an impression on me, and I thought seriously about what she said. In a couple of weeks I became the director of the Rolling Hills Chorus from North by Northwest Region 21 of SAI. I directed there for ten years and for the past 28 years I’ve served as the director of the Scottsdale Chorus in Golden West Region 21 of SAI. In the last 12 years of my teaching career I taught High School Choir at Chandler High School where I was able to introduce hundreds of young men and women to the Barbershop art form.

I often wonder what my life would be like today had I not gone to that banquet in 1983 and sat down by Joe Liles. I do believe it was all meant to be. Joe changed my life, and I will forever be grateful to him for his kind and enthusiastic outreach.