Back in 1993, Homer Simpson joined his friends Barney, Apu, and Principal Skinner to form the musical group the “Be Sharps.” Although barbershop quartets haven’t traditionally been the forte of 90s music, Homer and crew became a national sensation. They became massively popular, drawing the attention of the Grammys and none other than George Harrison of the Beatles, thanks mostly to their hit song “Baby on Board.”
More recently, a capella music became in vogue thanks to Beca (played by Anna Kendrick) joining the Barden Bellas and winning the National A Capella Championship in the film “Pitch Perfect.”
A local group in Geauga County, the Johnnycake Ridge Singers hope to make a capella music (barbershop in particular) popular again. I sat down with the person in charge of the group’s marketing and outreach, Kevin Harrison, to find out more.
What is Barbershop Music?
Because many people’s exposure to this kind of music is through pop culture like The Simpsons, I wasn’t sure if barbershop was a distinct and unique form of singing, or if it was a colloquial term for a capella in general.
It turns out that there is a specific definition for this kind of singing. Apparently, barbershop is classified as a form of a capella close harmony, where consonant four-part chords accompany each part of the melody. This is the reason why most barbershop groups are quartets – there’s the lead who sings the melody, the tenor who sings above, the bass sings the low notes, and the baritone completes the chord.
With the Johnnycake Ridge Singers, however, four is just a number. Right now, there are about 15 regular members of the chorus, although Kevin hopes to make it bigger and better. He mentions hearing groups that are 50+ strong, which can create a dazzling and jaw-dropping effect when everyone is harmonizing together.
A (Very) Brief History of the Chorus and Barbershop
The Johnnycake Ridge Singers were chartered in 1948 as the Painesville Chapter of the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America (S.P.E.B.Q.S.A., Inc.). The title, told the purpose of the organization, to preserve four-part, close harmony barbershop style singing. Over the years, the society’s name has been changed to the Barbershop Harmony Society, and the name of their chorus has changed to the North Coast Chapter, home of the Johnnycake Ridge Singers.
When you look at the current crop of members, the idea that this kind of vocal singing is from a bygone era seems to be on display. Kevin is the youngest member by quite a few decades, although that hasn’t deterred him from loving every minute of his seven years with the group.
Barbershop for a New Age
For this style of music to thrive into the future, it has to attract younger members. That’s what Kevin hopes to do, thanks to his outreach program through social media like Facebook. That being said, the current members of the Johnnycake Ridge Singers are quite the fun group of guys.
Helping to lead them into the future is their new director, Peter Clausen. Peter graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Music in 1969, and barbershop has been a passion of his. He currently sings or directs for a wide array of different groups, including the Cleveland Orchestra Choir.
With strong leadership and a drive to appeal to the younger generation, Kevin hopes to increase membership in the coming months and years. I asked him why young men should join the Johnny Ridgecake Singers, and this is what he told me.
Fun and Casual
Anyone who can sing can join the group. The great thing about barbershop is that you don’t need to read music. Instead, you just have to harmonize with the lead singer and know your role.
Even then, the discipline of the group is much more relaxed than you might assume. These guys may be advanced in years, but they are definitely young in spirit, and they know how to joke around and have fun during rehearsal. Coming to practice is more about hanging with the guys than it is mastering a craft.
A Unique Experience
If you’ve ever thought about joining or playing in a band, then you might want to give the Johnnycake Ridge Singers a try. Singing in an a capella group might seem a little outdated at first, but once you get into it, it’s a rewarding experience. When the Johnnycake Ridge Singers get up and do their thing, everyone takes notice. Personally, my only experience with barbershop was seeing quartets on TV, but once I listened to a full chorus, I was blown away. If you think you know barbershop, think again.
As I mentioned, hearing a barbershop chorus is so much more intense than listening to a quartet. The harmony is much more resounding and impactful, which is why the Johnnycake Ridge Singers can make a splash at any public venue.
Right now, the group sticks mostly to venues like churches and assisted-living facilities, but as they grow and expand their membership, it wouldn’t seem out of place to hear them at county fairs or public festivals. Barbershop is one of those things that everyone can enjoy, and the experience is unique enough to be a draw all by itself.
Booking the Johnnycake Ridge Singers
Kevin is also the go-to man for bringing the barbershop chorus to your event or venue space. They have some videos on the Facebook page, although a small screen and speakers don’t do them justice. You have to see them up close to appreciate the harmonizing that these guys do.
Joining the Johnnycake Ridge Singers
If you’re interested in joining the group or checking them out, they rehearse on Thursdays between 7:30-9:30 pm at the Word of Grace Church in Chesterland. You can also contact Kevin directly at 440-867-3177.
Check them out on Facebook.