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February 16, 2006

Barbershop quartet is tuned into love

San Diego Union (CA):

Cheryl Brugman was aghast. Before her stood four men in matching black suede vests and scarlet and white ties.

“Oh no!” she cried.

Colleagues began spilling out of their offices into the main lobby to get a look. Even a delivery man turned his head to stare. Then the Rollin' Tones barbershop quartet handed Brugman, 50, a red rose and Valentine's Day card, and launched into a sweet serenade.

By the end, she was in tears.

Across the country yesterday, thousands of singers performed similar barbershop-style serenades for red-faced recipients, said a spokeswoman from the Barbershop Harmony Society, a Wisconsin-based organization with 30,000 members. The silver-haired crooners of the Rollin' Tones belong to the society's East County chapter. Their 12 singing Valentines elicited applause, chuckles and teary thank-you's. Brugman, an engineering technician at Padre Dam Municipal Water District in Santee, was the first to hear the quartet's a cappella renditions of “The Story of the Rose” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.”

Barbershop harmony is a style of unaccompanied singing with three voices harmonizing to a melody. The lead usually sings the melody, while the tenor, baritone and bass sing higher and lower notes to create a rich, distinctive sound. Barbershop melds African-American musical devices, European hymn-singing and an American tradition of recreational music. The style was first associated with black southern quartets in the mid-1870s. The first written use of the word “barbershop” when referring to harmonizing came in 1910, with the publication of the song, “Play That Barbershop Chord.” Was barbershop harmony actually sung in barbershops? Yes, and on street corners (it was sometimes called “curbstone” harmony), at social functions and in parlors.

With at least a dozen colleagues standing nearby, her eyes welled up around the line, “I'm in love with you,” in the second tune. The song, and the sentiment, came courtesy of husband Matthew. “He likes me,” she said simply.

The East County chapter, known as the El Cajon Music Masters, received nearly 100 calls in response to advertisements posted in local papers. The offer? Two “tender love songs,” a card and a rose for $40. Other society chapters around the county offer the Valentine's Day service, as do female barbershop quartets from the San Diego Chorus of Sweet Adelines and a local chapter of Harmony Inc. The Music Masters booked deliveries for 51 men and women on Monday and Tuesday, up from 35 last year. By Monday night, the Rollin' Tones schedule was so full that member Gary Mathews and his wife, Maggie, had to refer calls elsewhere.

All that serenading took some serious strategizing. Mathews, who is president of the East County chapter, used an electronic spreadsheet to chart times, locations and names of recipients, and mapquest.com to plot directions. He bought red roses and cards to present with each singing Valentine.

Maggie Mathews wasn't bothered by the phone calls, or the fact that her husband spent the most romantic day of the year singing to other gals. Teacher Betty Gonia reacted with hugs after being serenaded at Dehesa Elementary School yesterday. Her husband, Bob, arranged the special valentine gift.
“Barbershopping is a hobby they thoroughly enjoy,” she said. “And it's a lot less expensive than golf.”

The Rollin' Tones, who first formed in the 1970s, prefer Western-style garb or Hawaiian shirts to suspenders, stripes and straw boater hats. Gary Mathews, a tenor who is 70, is joined by baritone Gene Rague, 79, lead singer Jim James, 78, and bass Chet Farmer, 62. The four traversed East County in Mathews' blue SUV yesterday, leaving flustered but appreciative recipients in their wake. “There was a lot of fanning of faces with the cards,” Farmer said late in the day. Santana High School biology teacher Cindy Martin's reaction: “Did my husband really do this to me?”

The quartet sang in front of a class of about 30 students and other faculty members who gathered in a corner smiling and laughing. “He's never done anything on that scale before,” said Martin, 33, a mother of three, about her husband, Tom. “So that was pretty embarrassing. However I get him back, it's going to have to be pretty good.”

Posted by acapnews at February 16, 2006 12:24 AM