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The story behind the Legacy Quartet Championship

The story behind the Legacy Quartet Championship

Steve Armstrong talks about the search for the “Uncrowned Champion,” a quartet that almost-but-never-quite won it all. Sign up for premium access to the online event, to be held Saturday, August 22, and Saturday, August 29, 2020.

Steve, how did you get this gig? Tell us who you are and why you’re here.

I’m currently serving in the role of chair of the Society Contest & Judging Committee. Because of my leadership role in judging, BHS reached out to me and asked if I could be involved in selecting who the participants would be and figuring out how we would go about judging these groups.

I assembled a team of smarter people than me to help: David Wright, Jim Bagby, Jim Henry, and Mike Slamka. In that group, including myself, we had international champion quartet singers, champion chorus directors, and we had judges, and all are people who really have a keen interest in barbershop history. We’re all old enough to remember most of these quartets, either having seen them live or having heard them on recordings. Some of them predate most of us, but it was kind of fun to dig into the past and our heroes from years gone by.

Knowing the people you’re talking about, those are all very historically-minded people—not just famous in their own right and in their own day, but who really have that sense of continuity across our long history as a Barbershop Harmony Society. Can you talk a little bit about how you looked at that across the span of time?

Roaring 20's

The idea was to find the “Uncrowned Champion”: the quartet that came so close and didn’t make it. We started by looking at contest results and quartets that had come close, that had come in second or third, particularly if they were in the medals multiple times. There were some quartets that had a long history of being in the medals or being in the Top 10 year after year, but maybe never got up as high as second. For instance, The Roaring 20's got up as high as third one time, but they were always in the Top 10, usually in the medals. Then you have another quartet like B&O Connection, who had kind of a short life on the international stage; I think they came in seventh the first year, and then third the next year, and they sure looked like they were going to win the thing soon, but just didn’t stay together. We had both of those sorts of things to consider.

139th Street Quartet, with Larry Wright as lead

Once we established the quartets we wanted to include, sometimes we had to figure out which version of this quartet. A really fun one to talk about was 139th Street Quartet, because they were around for so long with four different lead singers, [all of whom won medals with the quartet. They came in second early on with Jim Meehan singing lead; then two bronzes with Larry Wright on lead; then John Sherburn won two bronzes and silver as lead; and Dan Jordan earned a bronze as their lead.] The line-up through most of the 1980s, with Larry Wright on lead, is probably the combination most people think of when they think of 139th Street Quartet, so that was the combination that we ultimately decided to go with. It was that sort of thing that we had to wrestle with: not just which quartets, but which version of those quartets, and then what were their peak years.

That’s like saying, “Which was the best Yankees team?”

Yeah, I’m a big baseball fan, and when you’re looking at inducting players into the Hall of Fame, you’re looking at both career impact, but also having a high peak— at their best, how great they were. We were trying to balance both of those things with this.

A lot of people are going to ask, “This is a good lineup, but why didn’t you include _____.” How do you find that threshold? How do you find that cut-off point?

First of all, we decided to make it look similar [to an international contest], and that we would have a Top 20 to start, and then we would advance to our Top 10. That limited us to 20 quartets and a mic tester, just because of tradition. We knew there would be some challenges. We have all these reels of video and audio, but we don’t really know what’s on them, particularly when we get back further and further into our history.

We wanted to include quartets like the Clef Dwellers, who came in third, second, second, third, in four consecutive years, but that was back in the early ’50s, and we don’t know if we’re going to have that; or the Four Chorders, that great quartet from Ontario that came in second. We don’t know if we’re going to have content for them. So we decided we would first pick the Top 25 quartets and it became pretty easy to kind of sort that out.

We also excluded quartets that were current or recently current, because it would be kind of weird if they were named the Uncrowned Champion and then came back and won!

Vaudeville

Some quartets had a lot of singers in common. For example, the Nova Chords were a great quartet from the Mid-Atlantic District, but two of the same singers are also in Vaudeville, so we decided we would just choose one of those quartets. Ultimately we had to draw the line somewhere, so let’s just assume the quartet that you wanted was number 26 and we just couldn’t include them.

Let’s go, Chordiac Arrest! You raise an interesting point, as you’re talking about quartets back in history, where we may or may not even have audio recordings of them. Part of the process you had to go through would be relative impact in their era and relative quality. How do you actually compare the vocal production of 1952 with the vocal production of 2019?

Yeah! And the style of barbershop, the style of delivery, those sorts of things. It’s going to be really interesting. The truth is, we didn’t have to compare them. All we had to do is come up with the Top 25. It’ll be our barbershop fans who will get to decide that.

When you listen to some of the old-time quartets, they may not sing with the same smooth delivery, and may not be quite as musical as what we are now, but they could ring chords. In many cases, they’re better than our more recent champions. It’s going to be really interesting to see what our barbershop fans value and what they place weight on.

The Nighthawks

I’m from Ontario. I’m a huge Nighthawks fan, of course, and they had a very distinctive style, even for the time and it’s quite different from what we hear now, so when you compare a quartet like the Nighthawks with someone like Riptide, very much representative of the current time, I can’t wait to see how people sort all that out.

Do you think that a modern audience is going to find that distinction, or really celebrate that?

There may be some kind of recency bias built into this because it sounds more like what [the listener] is used to or is already a fan of. I think people are also going to dig hearing these quartets that really paved the way.

In 2017, my chorus, the Toronto Northern Lights did a tribute to the Scarborough Dukes of Harmony at international. It’s an idea we kicked around for a while. It’s a very different style of music and style of choreography; we use the hat routine, and that sort of thing. We weren’t sure people would like that. But the audience reaction was really great, and I had people come up to me and say, “I was around a bunch of teens and young 20s, and they didn’t know who the Dukes of Harmony were, but they got it! They got what was going on, and they really loved it!” I think our fans and Barbershoppers are really going to get a kick out of it.

That’s very cool. There’s an affection for that kind of throwback feeling— which by the way, they’re not in this—

They might win!

Speaking personally, who are you most excited to see?

There’s two quartets. I already mentioned one. —[Steve's aside: Are we risking me creating any bias or prejudice towards a group?]— I joined in 1976. The first two recordings I bought were the Oriole Four, a Bourne Barbershop product that had a book that went with it, which I bought so I could learn the songs; and I bought the Nighthawks recording. [Years later], one of the songs my chorus had the greatest success with was “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime,” which was done partly in tribute to the Nighthawks, who we have viewed as the greatest quartet never to win for us in Ontario. We’re really hopeful that maybe we’re finally going to get our first champion here in Ontario!

When I phoned Mike Slamka to be on the team, he said “Yeah, I’ll do it, but I already know who’s gonna win,” because Mike is from Pioneer District and he’s convinced that it’s going to be The Vagabonds. They were great! When you listen to them sing “At the End of a Cobblestone Road” or the Shillelagh medley, that is some of the best singing I’ve ever heard. I think they’ve got a chance against the Nighthawks, but I know where I’m going to vote.

Then quartets like The Easternaires and 139th Street, and the Roaring 20's and The Sundowners —oh what a great quartet that was! It’s just going to be so much fun just to hear this, and hopefully see them. We’re really really trying hard to get video for all these groups.

This is going to prove to be a really great moment for both people who have memories of these quartets in the past, and people who are brand new to barbershop. We have this oral tradition of saying. “You should have seen that moment when…” This will really generate excitement around the legacy and the heritage of what was passed down.

People may not realize that we have these archives stored in the basement of Harmony Hall and they’ve been sitting there without us having a reason and funding to digitize them. There are performances that have not been seen since they were live. One of the really exciting benefits of this entire project is that we’re digitizing not just those quartets, but everything that’s on that reel, so we’re getting access to so much of our history that we haven’t been able to get to up to this point.

We are really grateful to all 17 Districts of the Barbershop Harmony Society, who are underwriting this project, and of course, all the people who are going to subscribe and watch it.

It’s free, if you want to just watch it on YouTube. But as you said, this is what’s providing that access to so much more content that’s been locked up for years. So we really, really hope and expect that people are going to sign up for the premium activities. Tell us a little bit about the chat rooms and the other end of the voting, where we actually have a voice in choosing who the champion is.

I mentioned my team, but I should actually thank Michael Black, Ontario District President, especially when it came to the chat room stuff. I said BHS reached out to me — I should have mentioned that was actually Dustin Guyton, the Volunteer Manager. It was his brainchild in the first place, so he deserves credit for that.

There will be a series of chat rooms, and three or four rooms for each of these types. They’ll have two or three hosts in each room and there’s three different flavors of room. So if you just want to chat with past quartet champions, there’s a room called Chat with the Champs, [where various champs will rotate through all the rooms, so eventually you’ve talked with a dozen gold medalists.]

You could go to a room that is filled more with historian types, or judge types, people who have really kind of studied the barbershop style and its evolution. Lastly, if you just want to hang out with some people that are more fun to be with than judges and historians (and it’s hard to believe that there are such people, but, you know, let’s just assume), there’s a social room that you can go to with people who are fun to hang out with. It sounds like a lot of fun. I hope people really enjoy that aspect of it and the chance to talk with some of their heroes. There may even be some people who actually sang in some of these quartets or walked the boards right before or after them, who can give us some inside scoop, which would be really neat.

I am stoked for this. I can’t tell you enough how much we appreciate all the work that your team has done sorting through so many choices— arguing, I’m sure, and having the same kind of bar bets that everyone else is going to have.

This was the most fun kind of barbershop work that any of us have done in quite a while. You can just imagine how much fun it would be to dig through that and have those little arguments and settle on what it’s going to be. Now we’re about to select what songs will go in each round, so we’ve got some fun stuff to do yet, but it is just super exciting. We can’t wait for this to happen in August.

I hope everyone jumps on board and does this. It’s a great way to kind of make up a little bit of what we’ve lost in cancelling the LA convention, and celebrate our history at the same time.

Brian Lynch is Public Relations Manager for the Barbershop Harmony Society.