Here’s to the Nighthawks and the Pacificaires, we love that Sundowners sound. To the Vagabonds and all of the greats that never won the crown. Here’s to everyone who’s done their best, but seen their fortunes fall. Here’s to the losers, bless us all!
The Best Who Never Won...
On August 22 and 29, the barbershop world gathered online to watch the best quartets that never won—then voted. Hall of Famers 139th Street Quartet finally got the win that had eluded them for 20 years.
Winning an International gold medal is not easy. Just ask any of the members of the 19 quartets that have placed second at least once over the years but never won. Yet each year, many great quartets spend countless hours in rehearsals, coaching sessions and quartet preliminary contests, only to finish without gold. Year after year.
Perhaps the best-known quartet that never won the coveted gold medal was 139th Street Quartet, which won eight International medals during its 1976-1996 International contest career. On August 31, 2020, that all changed. Voters made 139th Street winner of the Legacy Quartet Championship (LQC) top among 20 video contestants in the Society’s celebration of the best that never won. The quartet was ecstatic. “I got to hear from people that I hadn’t heard from in forever,” said bari Pete Neushul. “The best thing about it is that if you win, you are champs for a year. Legacy Champion is forever.”
Bass Jim Kline had been driving across the Golden Gate Bridge when he was texted the news. He had to pull over. “I’m still on Cloud 9,” Jim said. He later added, “I’m not sure I would have put us at first.” All four 139th Street quartet lineups included Jim, Pete, and tenor Doug Anderson—only the leads changed. Doug unfortunately passed away before he could enjoy the news. Jim had called Doug, who was gravely ill with cancer, minutes after the LQC Semifinal had ended. “He was very pleased and smiling,” Jim said about his past tenor, who had enjoyed watching both 139th Street as well as Doug’s prior Far Westerners quartet compete. Doug passed away that very evening.
Watch the Legacy Quartet Championship Semifinals
AUDIENCE AND ARTISTRY
It is fitting that it was not judges but the audience who declared 139th Street the winner. Always audience-focused, the quartet changed the face of barbershop over the course of 20 years. “A lot of quartets today kind of pattern their show after what the 139th Street Quartet did,” said Mike Slamka, lead of 2009 champion Crossroads and 2003 champion Power Play. “They were just such a great show quartet.”
It is difficult to find any quartetter from the 139th Street era who doesn’t talk about their influence. “And it’s not just their comedy,” said LQC committee member and BHS Social Media Manager Amy Rose. “Their DNA is in so many quartets.” Many quartets that topped 139th Street in contest had been some of their biggest admirers. Jim Bagby, bari of 1986 champion Rural Route 4, said his quartet would often adjust its backstage pattern to watch 139th Street’s sets from the wings. “You knew the audience was going to have such a great reaction,” he said.
“Great, great quartet!” “You’ve never seen a quartet like them before,” said Jim Henry, bass of 1993 champion The Gas House Gang and 2009 champion Crossroads. He grew up in awe of the quartet and “wore out” their albums. As a youth at an International Convention, one year Jim learned the hotel room where 139th Street was rehearsing. He eavesdropped from the hallway through a glass held to their door. “They were young, their songs were clever and creative, and their sound was extremely unique,” he said. The quartet had “a charisma that oozed” because it was always about the audience for them. “They were being themselves and let the chips fall where they may.”
Johnny Sherburn, the quartet’s third lead from 1988-1991, verified that the quartet never sang for the judges. “All we wanted to do was connect with people,” he said. “That’s all.” “We just did the art. We were just trying to be original, have fun, and be entertaining,” said Jim Kline. “We would have loved to have won, but we never were the best quartet in any of those contests … until a week ago.”
GREAT FROM THE BEGINNING
The 139th Street Quartet was formed in late 1975, shortly after Pete and Jim had respectively stopped singing with The Great Stage Robbery and Crown City Good Time Music Company. That’s when highly decorated quartetters Doug Anderson and Jim Meehan, tenor and lead of the retiring Far Westerners quartet (also part of the LQC), invited Pete and Jim to a try-out rehearsal. “We sat down around a table, we sang one song, and went, ‘Okay, that’s it!’” said Pete.
The quartet exploded into the competitive ranks, debuting at 10th in 1976 and winning silver in 1977. They were the presumptive favorite heading into Cincinnati in 1978 when the quartet received a letter from an Arrangement judge who would be on the panel. The quartet had recently recorded Doug Anderson’s arrangement of an obscure song called, “Don’t Put a Tax on the Beautiful Girls.” This judge had researched the song and noted that Anderson had somewhat altered the melody line. While the small modifications would be okay today, they were illegal at the time. The judge wrote that if the quartet competed with that song, he would disqualify it. The quartet “took umbrage” with the letter, Jim said, and two months before the contest declared they would sit out.
“All of a sudden, the place explodes,” said Pete. Society President Roger Thomas asked the quartet to reconsider. Judging chairman Ed Waesche declared that the judge was out of line for contacting the quartet rather than the judging chairman. Waesche declared that the song would be penalized but not disqualified if it were used. The quartet’s three harmony singers voted to compete after all, but their top-level lead was adamant that the judge should be dismissed from the panel—which wasn’t going to happen. As “a man of principles,” Pete explained, Meehan felt strongly to stick with the quartet’s public declaration to withdraw. He and the other three could never change each other’s minds, and a week before the contest Meehan quit the quartet. Because the trio still had their air and hotel reservations, they attended as guests. “That was a sad, sad, contest for me,” Pete said. “If we had been singing with Jim Meehan, I’m sure we would have won that year.” Soon after, Meehan moved to Sacramento and dropped out of barbershopping. The four never got together again to sing, although they remained friends.
THE QUARTET’S COMPETITIVE RENAISSANCE
Shortly afterwards, Dan Jordan, who would years later become the quartet’s fourth lead, introduced them to Larry Wright of the famed Sundowners quartet (yet another competitor in the LQC). Jim said their first rehearsal with the seventh-year Barbershopper, who had recently moved from Chicago to L.A., was “a little rough” compared to singing with powerhouse Jim Meehan. “Right from the start, we knew we didn’t have a great mix of voices,” Larry said. “I didn’t sing as high and bright as Jim Meehan. I was trying to sing notes that I couldn’t sing.” Those concerns started to disappear by their second rehearsal. So confident did they become, in fact, that only years later did Jim tell Larry that Meehan had made overtures to rejoin the quartet, but that Jim had strongly stood by his new lead.
The quartet’s peak popularity and artistic growth came during Larry’s 10 years. He and Pete wrote a lot of the lyrics and songs, with Doug as primary arranger. After a disappointing sixth-place finish in 1988, the quartet felt its competitive window closing as the sound seemed headed in the wrong direction. The harmony parts voted to replace Larry with Johnny Sherburn, tenor of 1985 champion New Tradition. Larry was understandably upset, although the quartet did again move up through the ranks. After taking third in 1989, the quartet was the presumptive favorite in 1990. But they earned silver a mere 20 points behind the retooled and massively improved 1989 semifinalist Class of the ’80s, which had renamed itself Acoustix.
After a fifth-place finish in 1991, Johnny stepped back due to his wife’s surgery. His natural replacement was Dan Jordan, champion lead of New Tradition and for years an occasional fill-in for Larry or Johnny on chapter shows. Though the quartet improved to 4th place with Dan in 1992, the foursome finished 6th (1993), 12th (1994), and 25th (1996) before retiring from contests. In late July 2020, Dan suffered a serious stroke and has been in rehabilitation since. His long-time friend Rayma Powers said that Jordan has had virtual visits from many of his long-time barbershop friends, including his current quartet The Gangbusters, and a visit where he and Jim Kline sang “Yesterday” as a duet for Dan’s speech therapist. Dan was elated by the quartet’s victory.
Although Jim said that winning in 1978 would have been nice, “We had the next 10 years of wonderful music making with Larry Wright.” He joked about the virtual contest, saying, “Quite frankly, we all got used to losing, but we were excited to have another opportunity to compete. I was totally flabbergasted by the win.” Though he had long lived with the disappointment of having tried so long without winning, the journey was “wonderfully fulfilling.” “We didn’t need a gold medal to make this just a fabulous hobby for 20 years.”
Watch the Legacy Quartet Championship Finals
About the Author
Tony Scardillo is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, N.Y. and a member of the Westchester Chordsmen.
He is currently writing Swan Songs, a history of the gold medal quartets.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2020 issue of The Harmonizer.