Harmonic Convergence

By Tim Gillis

What started off as a dreaded delay on a flight to New Orleans turned into a savvy career move for Port City Sound, a local barbershop quartet en route to the Barbershop Harmony Society’s annual national midwinter meeting.

“There was an equipment problem on the plane. They were having problems with the radio,” recalled Jim Simpson, who sings bass. “We were sitting there on the tarmac. The flight attendant came over and said ‘I understand you guys are a barbershop quartet; how about some entertainment?’ And we’re never shy about singing.”

Simpson, Walt Dowling (lead), Fred Moore (tenor), and Jim Curtis (baritone) burst into “Any Time at All,” a love song that features a Dowling solo, and “Under the Boardwalk,” while the flight attendant recorded a video of them. The resulting YouTube post has gone viral, with more than 3.5 million hits and mentions in the Huffington Post and New York Daily News.

The guys from Port City Sound are members of the Downeasters Chorus, a group of 65 local singers. The chorus is affiliated with the BHS, an international group with more than 23,000 members. The Downeasters have several established quartets, including Exchange Street, Senior Discount, Back Bay 4, Porch Time, and Curtain Call.

This Valentine’s weekend, several of these guerrilla groups of lovesong singers will be delivering music and roses around town.

The quartets will play Cyrano de Bergerac and serenade loved ones. They’ll perform at local businesses whose bosses want to brighten the workers’ day and at senior centers where the golden oldies they croon are in high demand. On Saturday, Valentine’s Day, they’ll deliver to residence doorstops and at restaurants towards the evening. Port City Sound will perform at the Salt Water Grille in South Portland on Saturday night.

“It’s a surprise singing Valentine,” said Tim Wyant, another barbershopper. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s a nice surprise.”

Wyant sings tenor with Porch Time. For the Valentine festivities, he’s assembled two other members from the quartet called Fore River Four – Jim Johnston (baritone) and Dave Marstaller (bass). “And we have a ringer at lead, David Cole,” he said.

They plan to perform “Heart of my heart” and “Let me call you sweetheart” for the Singing Valentine offer – two tunes and a rose. At a regular barbershop performance, each quartet will sing its own repertoire of up to 40 songs. They take requests, although most people in the audience ask for love songs.

In 1984, Wyant answered an ad about singing in a barbershop quartet, “and I’ve been singing for ‘em ever since,” he said. “It’s a real mix, the people who do this. Some have singing professionally for years; others join as complete newbies and start singing from scratch.”

Barbershopping started in 1930s and became huge in the 1950s. “Like the bridge clubs, though, the demographic is aging. Kids today are more interested in gadgets,” he said. But there is a renewed interest on college campuses in a cappella groups, and men’s choruses are starting to get a lot more college age members. The Downeasters boast a few youngsters, although one dropped out this past year to play football.

“We have two high school kids in the chorus,” Wyant said. “Tom Peterlein (of New Gloucester) and Sam Holmquist (of Gray). We’ve got them singing in the center in the front row. They’ve got great face, involvement, delivery – all the non-vocal parts of a singing performance, and they’re both good singers.”

Claudine Weatherford, Wyant’s wife of 33 years, tolerates his singing, he said. “But I wouldn’t be so bold as to say she likes it.”

(l to r) George Feinberg, Mike Soper, Miles Hunt, and Ryan Norfleet of Exchange Street

(l to r) George Feinberg, Mike Soper, Miles Hunt, and Ryan Norfleet of Exchange Street

Exchange Street, another of the quartets making the Valentine’s Day rounds, practiced this past week at a member’s home in Scarborough. Ryan Norfleet, the tenor, welcomed me in to meet the group. Miles Hunt (lead), Mike Soper (bass), and George Feinberg (baritone) were warming up in the living room. Norfleet’s kids were reading quietly on the couch in the den.

Their coach, Chris Howard, has been working with Exchange Street for about a year now. “I sit in and offer advice where I can – individual fixes as well as being able to make suggestions from my perspective as someone from the audience,” said Howard, who at age 29 is younger than the members of the quartet and one of the youngest in the Downeasters. “One of the things I really enjoy about working with them is they show up to rehearsal every week with a main goal of getting better,” he said.

Hunt, an attorney, has been in the Downeasters for six years. “Singing is one of my outlets. It’s a wonderful hobby to have,” he said. “You meet a lot of people. It’s like a big brotherhood.”

The Downeasters are all male. Harmony Incorporated and Sweet Adelines are all-female chorus groups. “They do a lot of shows together, all in the barbershop style,” Hunt said.

After the Valentine’s Day gig, the chorus turns its focus on prepping for the Barbershop Harmony Society International Chorus Competition, held this July in Pittsburgh, Pa., rehearsing once a week in Cumberland under the direction of Jack Baggs. (For more information, visit http://www.downeasters.org.)

This will be just the second time a team from Maine has been in the competition.

“Eight to ten thousand people converge on the city for a week. People come from as far away as Sweden, New Zealand, Spain,” said Hunt, who also competed with the 2010 team. “They’ll be barbershoppers singing all over the place – street corners, restaurants, everywhere you turn.”