One African American’s journey into barbershop singing
A chance meeting while buying a Christmas tree led to an invitation to Bill Young to visit a barerbshop chapter. Now six years later, Bill is initiating a project to reach out to African American churches and community groups with a packet of information to extend an invitation to share harmony
My name is William Young, a 64-year-old retired behavior management consultant from East Lansing, Michigan. I would like to share with you my journey into the world of barbershop singing.
On a cold November day in 2013, my wife, granddaughter and I went to get our Christmas tree. While getting out of our car we noticed a man singing Christmas songs in the Christmas tree lot. As we approached the lot, the man asked my granddaughter to sing along with him. My granddaughter told him that she could not sing, but that I liked to sing, so the man asked me to sing along. The man introduced himself as Al Zaeske, so I sang, I think it was “Silent Night.” After we sang, he said that I had a good voice and that I should come out on Tuesday night to sing with a group of guys that get together and sing barbershop. I then asked what was barbershop. He stated that barbershop was singing a cappella in four-part harmony. I then remembered that barbershop was the guys with the hats, striped shirts, and had curled up mustaches. On the way home, my wife asked me if I was going to go on Tuesday. The rest of the weekend, my wife and granddaughter, who would chime in from time to time, kept asking me if I was going. My granddaughter said, “Papa, you know you like to sing.”
I sang to all my kids and grandchildren when they were growing up. I would sing Motown songs by the Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Lionel Richie and Marvin Gaye. Those were the singers I grew up with and they also looked like me. I had never seen a African American barbershop singer. These Motown singers also harmonized as well. The only difference was they had musicians backing them up.
Anyway, Tuesday came and my wife asked me one more time was I going or not. I kind of thought that she wanted me out of the house. I said “okay I’ll go.” So off I went to the Great Lakes Christian Home where the guys got together and sang. When I walked in there was a sign that said The Capitol City Chordsmen with an arrow pointing in the right direction. I was met by Assistant Director Charlie Martin and Music VP Paul Howe. I told them that a guy named Al Zaeske told me to come out and check out you guys. Charlie asked me if I read music. I said no. He stated that a lot of guys who sing here don’t know how to read music. As I listened, I was thinking how can I get out of there. He then asked me to sing the scale. So I did my do-re-mi thing. He then asked me to match the notes as he played them on the piano. I thought I nailed it. However, he politely said what I was singing was not what he was playing. He kept saying “stay on top of the note.” After several times I was able to stay on top of the note. Better yet, I could hear the difference, and that would not be the last time I would hear that phrase. After that he said that you sound like a barbershop lead. Paul agreed. I said ok, not knowing what a lead was. I guess he could tell by my face that I didn’t know because he started to explain the four parts of barbershop. Lead didn’t sound too bad.
As the rest of the guys came in, they came up to me and greeted me with a handshake and said “welcome.” Once the whole chorus was there and the director, Steve Warner, was about to start, Charlie introduced me to everyone. The whole chorus started clapping. In my mind I felt I was welcomed and I didn’t feel out of place even though I was the only African American in the room.
I was given a guest book and Charlie stood with me and helped me with the songs. As the night went on I wasn’t that much into barbershop music. Then they took a break and I thought that might be the time to leave. However, the guys came up to me and started introducing themselves to me and welcoming me to their rehearsal and thanked me for coming. At that point I felt that I just might belong there. Imagine me singing with a organized chorus for the first time in my life. Even though I didn’t know the songs, I did like the way they harmonized together. They had seen me walk in with a cane and saw that I could not stand for long periods of time, but said if I needed to sit it was okay. I was starting to think this might work. Then the director said “Let’s do ‘Muskrat Ramble.’” I listened to them sing that song and saw the joy on their faces and heard the harmony. That did it for me. I told myself that I would come back if not just to learn that song.
After that rehearsal was over they had a business meeting and I was introduced again. They ask me if I enjoyed myself. I told them I did and that I would be back. They told me that they had learning CDs for every song they were singing. Each learning track had each part highlighted on the CD. At the end they taught me what they call a barbershop tag. It was a short song emphasizing all four parts to create harmony. Charlie stood behind me and we both sang lead. It was cool to hear all four parts. Anyway I came back for the next month. I was able to sing a few songs now --songs they called “Polecats.” They told me that all Barbershoppers would know these songs no matter where I was at in the country. I had made up my mind to join the Capitol City Chordsmen.
I was given information about the Barbershop Harmony Society (BHS) and the Pioneer District and the chapter, and each one’s role in the barbershop arena. I was provided the songs to choose from to sing with three other guys to get in. They assured me it wasn’t an audition. They just wanted to make sure I was comfortable singing my part. At that time they told me they were getting ready for their annual show at the Wharton Center for Performing Arts on the Michigan State University Campus. Anyway, I was able to sing my song and was ready to sign up with BHS. It was late December. I waited until January to send in dues to BHS. In February it was official. I was a member of the BHS and the Capitol City Chordsmen.
Now it was time to focus on the music for the annual show at the Wharton Center. I worked with Charlie, Paul, Steve and many others in the chorus. I sang for my family, co workers. I sang in my car. I sang in my basement, I sang at work on break, I sang until I was told to stop,( and that was putting it politely.) Even the ones who care about you get tired of hearing the same songs over and over. Barbershop songs are not for everyone, believe it or not.
To make a long story short. I sang at the Wharton Center that March. It was an experience of a lifetime. Not just for me but for my family and friends as well. Man, I was as the Temptations would say, “On Cloud Nine.” I performed with the Capitol City Chordsmen Chorus, a chorus that has been singing for over 75 years in the mid – Michigan area, on the same stage where I had seen The Lion King and Phantom of the Opera.
That was over six years ago, years which have included ten district competitions, six annual shows, and over twenty-five performances around the mid-Michigan area. Until I met Al in that Christmas tree lot, I would have never known anything about the Capitol City Chordsmen, BHS, or the Pioneer District, as well as barbershop singing.
As an African American, this type of music was never in my community. I only speak for myself. The more I research barbershop, I notice a few African Americans in top-ranked international quartets and choruses. One year we had 2016 International Quartet Champion Forefront on our annual show. I had the opportunity to speak with bass Brian O’Dell, the first African America man to win a quartet gold medal. I asked him why there weren’t more African Americans in barbershop. He said that he was working with BHS to address that issue. I was glad to hear that. I was also somewhat star-struck to see him and the whole quartet in person. I had only seen them on YouTube. I have noticed that there are more African Americans and people of color in barbershop. I have also noticed a few more African Americans in the Pioneer District recently.
My journey has been a very life-lifting experience. I have developed life long friendships and have learned a lot about barbershop singing. I realize that there is much more for me to learn. Barbershop singing is a life unto itself. Everyone’s journey into barbershop is different and unique. However, I have noticed and have experienced a few things. Everyone in our chorus and at barbershop functions and events I have been around care about each other. It doesn’t matter what chapter you’re from barbershoppers are always willing to sing with you and talk with you. Everyone helps each other in and outside the rehearsal room. The same chorus members you compete against in the morning at competitions, you’re singing with that night. It’s a brotherhood that brings us closer together in sharing ideals, experiences and life lessons through conversations and singing.
I encourage other African Americans to share their journey with other African Americans and people of color in your communities, churches, and everywhere you go. It’s only through our journeys that we expand our knowledge of things that aren’t that different. I believe that when its comes to music we’re more alike then different. I realize that when I sang “My Girl,” “Under The Boardwalk,” and “Georgia On My Mind,” and of course, “Muskrat Ramble.” I am proud to be one of the lead singers with the Capitol City Chordsmen in Lansing Michigan, under the direction of Kaleb Lenneman. So if you’re in the Lansing, Michigan area, stop in on a Tuesday night at 7:00 p.m., at the Great Lakes Christian Home, on the corner of Washington and Holt. I can assure you, you will be welcome. So embrace your journey and most importantly, KEEP THE WHOLE WORLD SINGING.