No greater honor can come to any man but to be recognized by his colleagues.
As the remarkable quartets so honored by the Hall of Fame in the past can attest, our greatest satisfaction stems from those individuals who approach us to confide how they were inspired to sing barbershop harmony and join this wonderful Society.
How apropos that the theme of this year’s International convention was “It’s the Music!” A similar expression printed on a sign – MUSIC IS THE MASTER – greeted us when we met with a musician friend of ours in 1971.
The Boston Common were blessed to have befriended an eloquent devotee of four part close harmony early on in our development. From the outset, he encouraged us to use the barbershop quartet medium as a means to learn music.
He would play fresh arrangements on an old pump organ in his basement, and we’d record them for rehearsal. Three or four weeks later, after we had met on our own to fashion the song for ourselves, we’d return. After a brief discussion of some finer points of music, he’d ask that we sing the song for him. We would oblige, and on occasion he’d tear up either because he was pleased, or perturbed, by something we did. Sometimes he’d laugh, then explain to us why what we did in one spot was musically incorrect or “in poor musical taste.” After his admonishment, we asked “then what should we do?” He’d shrug his shoulders and state, “I don’t know. But now that you know what you shouldn’t do, try something else.” We never made the same mistake twice. Why? Because we came to understand why it wasn’t acceptable. Lou Perry helped us to understand the whys of music versus the hows, to contribute to the art form, and to be creative.
That little story hints of the reason why The Boston Common came to be known for its distinctive sound and style. He allowed us to be ourselves. We had a teacher who introduced us to musical concepts, not a coach. And certainly not a judge/coach since it was our belief (and supported by Lou) that quartets who seek instructions from judges not only can be accused of compromising the system, but risk surrendering their individuality. Besides, there’s something about that practice that simply doesn’t pass the smell test.
Much like fingerprints differentiate individuals, so, too, do barbershop quartets differ from one another. At least they should. But when quartets adopt the strict parameters defined by the overseers of the art form, they tend to sound alike and hone a formula that becomes easy to beat and replicate. Worse, they help reduce the art form to a craft.
Pull out the early recordings of the 1950’s and early ‘60’s finalist quartets. Those quartets had their own distinguishing sounds as well. It wasn’t difficult to differentiate the Sun Tones from the Four Rascals or Easternaires or Nighthawks or Playtonics or Confederates.
We experimented early on with different sounds. We learned of the importance of a solid lead/bass match, and of the magic role of the baritone (e.g. to sing with and enhance the bass). And because of the sound we generated, our tenor was able to sing in full voice that in turn, helped create an even bigger sound. We thought of it as “expanded sound” (see: Vocal Majority) since it appeared to us (from inside the quartet) to feel like a dry sponge acts as it expands when tossed into water. As a point of interest, the popular description of expanded sound used by coaches/judges might better be defined as “extended” sound since the tones generated are more vertical than broad or voluminous.
We also learned songs that would aid us in improving on our weaknesses. For instance, “Back In Dad and Mother’s Day” was the first (of several) songs that helped us to improve our collective sense of rhythm.
There were other discoveries we incorporated into our songs and singing style. If invited to do so, any of us would welcome the opportunity to share those insights. Throughout our competitive years, however, few persons bothered to ask. Rather, we were lectured as to how we could win the gold medal sooner if we’d only do as they say. But it wasn’t about the medal. It was, and remains, the music.
Another distinguishing trait of the quartet was our spontaneity. One example is the year we were standing in the wings at the international competition, ready to follow the quartet ahead of us who was just beginning their second song, which as it turned out was to be our first song. Stunned, we looked at each other and agreed, “looks like we won’t be introducing ‘Little Girl’.” Our lead, Rich Knapp, calmly said, “Well, then let’s do such-and-such,” a song we hadn’t even considered for competition.
Then there was an earlier competition when we began singing “I’m Alone Because I Love You” in a key lower than intended. So, without warning, Rich used a solo note to raise the pitch a half. We found it added tension to the song so we kept it in.
We shared a mantra that guided us throughout: “The song comes first.” We would put all else aside – beginning with the toughest foe, our selves – and strive to stay within the song. Probably the finest example of how well that mantra served us was during the final song of our final competitive performance in Salt Lake City, 1980. We had only been singing “That Old Quartet” for five months and had been working it without fully understanding it. We wanted this to be our final contest song since we had decided prior to the convention that this would be the last time we’d compete. Following “Who Told You,” we paused individually and to a man prayed, “the song comes first!”
Thus began that performance. Two amazing developments occurred. We spontaneously made two edits to the song, in unison. Totally changed the interpretation, together. We virtually became the song. (“Be the ball, Danny.”) If ever a state of grace can be experienced in music, that moment was ours, that night, in Salt Lake City.
We thank you for the honor bestowed on us.
“And if someday we ever meet again, I will smile and stand in line. Just to sing one song, just one more time, with that old quartet of mine.”
THE BOSTON COMMON
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