Founded in 1938 by Owen Clifton Cash, the Society for The Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America was an organization with a mission. Mr. Cash was worried that people had ceased to sing the “old songs” – so he set about the business of preserving old music, and to make sure that the pastime of singing in four-part harmony didn’t fade away.
Fast forward 78 years, and you find a guy like Warren Fuson (E&H ’73) serving as the chapter president for the SPEBSQSA chapter in the Research Triangle of North Carolina. “There are 800 chapters world-wide,” says Warren, “and you can find chapters in up to 11 different countries.” This is especially noteworthy because the rules are that Barbershop music has to be sung in English.
Warren reflects that this type of singing is a distinctly American tradition. “There are only three indigenous American musical art forms. The other two, blues and jazz, come from the same roots and became popular around the turn of the last century. Scott Joplin, W.C. Handy, Jelly Roll Morton, and even the great Satchmo himself sang in barbershop quartets in their youth.”
Warren says there was a time when singing together was just what people did for entertainment. “Before recordings and radio, folks gathered in parlors and played the violin and piano and sang songs together. After recorded music became popular, people started to lose interest in making their own music. O.C. Cash wanted to preserve that tradition.”
Warren was a Concert Choir member during his student days, and he glows when speaking of former director, Chick Davis (Dec., ’52). He never lost his love for singing, and for over 40 years he has sung with church choirs, community choirs, and he even sang a bit with the Army while in basic training. But he was looking for a real challenge. And when he saw a bumper sticker that said SPEBSQSA, he asked a few questions and he’s never looked back.
He serves as a contest judge, is an officer at the district level, and will soon be competing at the International Barbershop convention in Nashville (July, 2016) – where the top 30 choruses and top 50 quartets in the world will be competing before a crowd of nearly 8,000.
Warren gives upwards of 50 hours a week to this hobby – work that includes the obvious practice time with his 2 choruses and 2 quartets, but also a lot of administrative time to make the organization run smoothly. He and fellow chorus members also do perform publicly to raise money, and they volunteer time to bring a cappella singing to local high schools and middle schools. “It’s not like other types of singing. Half the guys who do this can’t even read music; it’s ‘ear singing.’ You’ve got to know how to tune properly – listen closely – and harmonize. If you do it right, you can produce overtones that make 4 people sound like 5 or 6.” These are guys who just genuinely love to sing – and are likely to gather in random stairwells to belt out a tune together.
According to Warren and his wife, Andy, “Barbershop is a brotherhood of the kindest, most sweet-spirited, romantic, big-hearted men you’ll ever want to meet. If your car breaks down, you can call one of these guys and get not only a ride but also help with the repair, overnight lodging, and breakfast in the morning!”
And most likely, a song.
You can hear a bit of Warren’s group singing at this YouTube link.
Caption: Warren is standing second from the right in both photographs. He is singing in the far right section in the video.