It's a slate-black night, the streets sopped, hard rain pounding, as several dozen men gather in a spacious backroom at a Miller Road church. The members of this little-known clan are clad in white pants and primary-color shirts adorned with fish. The leader summons three of his compatriots to the front of the room and blows into a pitch pipe. Then comes harmony, smooth as can be.
These are not mystery men; their mission is not covert. But as the guy with the pitch pipe, Gene Cokeroft, notes, "We have 50 years of history, and no one knows about this." He is referring to the Miamians' brand of barbershop harmony, a vital pre-electronic-age form of entertainment that emerged in the late 1800s, subsided, and was resurrected in a big way in 1938. Today in North America, the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America includes some 1800 registered quartets, 800 choruses, and 34,000 members.
The Miamians faction of SPEBSQSA is composed of 36 men of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds. (There's a distaff version called the Sweet Adelines as well.) Group director Cokeroft and president Sterling Waiters envision expansion and a higher profile. Judging by the mellifluous music ringing through the church on this stormy night, and by the Miamians' success in statewide competitions and national rankings, growth is inevitable.
"Because it's a hobby, no one puts forth a lot of effort to promote it," says Waiters, a onetime church choir singer in Fort Lauderdale who joined the barbershop gang four years ago when he moved back to Miami. "It's word of mouth and we want to change that. My commitment is to get us better known." He cites a Texas chapter that has 150 members, recordings on the market, and a degree of national fame as the sort of outfit he'd like to see here. "The number of voices," he adds, "increases the musicality."
There are two configurations: quartets, which feature a tenor, bass, baritone, and melody (or lead); and choruses, which gather on risers for full-force harmony. With perfect tuning, tags that create overtones, and plenty of seventh chords, this brand of a cappella singing can be as sweet as honey.
It can also be unpleasant when not performed precisely. Cokeroft and three cohorts demonstrate during a guest night at the church, when several outsiders have gathered to hear about the Miamians and listen to them croon. When the elements are separated, the result hardly sounds like singing. But when the bass, baritone, tenor, and melody are combined, that old sum-greater-than-parts saw is clearly evidenced. When one of the four singers goes slightly off-key, the result is like dropping a cockroach into cake icing.
This music draws from African influences, European hymn singing, and the American tradition of recreational singing. Black Southern quartets such as the American Four and the Hamtown Students coined the term barbershop to describe style in the 1870s. In 1910 it received its brand via the song "Play that Barbershop Chord." Tunes such as "You're the Flower of My Heart, Sweet Adeline" and "My Wild Irish Rose" are culturally ingrained.
The nation's fascination with radio decreased the form's popularity, but in 1938 an Oklahoma tax attorney named O.C. Cash was talking with a man named Rupert Hall. The subject turned to harmonic singing, and the duo formed an organization. On April 11, 1938, Hall, Cash, and their friends conducted a song fest on the roof of the Tulsa Club. Perfect pitch has had a legion of purveyors since.
Close harmony provides a potent antidote for those who are repulsed by the studiofied, instrumentalized bastardizations by chart-topping flashes such as the Backstreet Boys or 'N Sync. The Miamians prove that a cappella group singing can be impossibly sweet without being syrupy.