Heartsongs: Music group shows talent, fellowship

Published on Wednesday, 5 February 2014 23:56 - Written by BETTY WATERS,blw@tylerpaper.com

Barbershop singing is their specialty. The youngest is 19 and the oldest is almost 90. Forty active members of East Texas Men in Harmony, a chorus based in Tyler, collectively drive about 2,500 miles from 23 different towns across East Texas every Thursday to rehearse.

When they entertain, their voices blend accompanied by appropriate facial expressions and choreography in a complete performance of barbershop singing.

Their concerts of barbershop songs sung in a cappella style, performed three or four times a year, draw crowds.

Members of East Texas Men in Harmony said they are drawn to participate in the chorus by their love of barbershop music and by the bond of “brotherhood” they feel toward each other.

Jim Duane Lunday, of Mineola, co-founder and treasurer, recalled he and a couple other barbershoppers put ads in newspapers announcing that the chapter was being organized in 2006.

“We started off with astounding success and had our first meeting in Lindale and stayed there about a year,” Lunday said. Then the group relocated its weekly rehearsals to Green Acres Baptist Church in Tyler.

“All I did was get a bunch of guys together that wanted to sing, and other people took the ball and made something wonderful out of this,” Lunday said. “We perform all over the greater Tyler area. We recently came back from contests in Dallas with two first-place awards.”

The singing and the comradeship keeps him involved, Lunday said. “A number of guests have come and said they could feel the love, the brotherhood in this room,” Lunday said during a recent rehearsal.

Irv Engebrecht, of Lufkin, a board member, became enraptured with barbershop singing after attending a concert in Lufkin 37 years ago. “I fell in love with the sound and I’ve been going to barbershop ever since,” he said.

He sang for a while with groups in Nacogdoches, Kilgore and Houston before joining the East Texas Men in Harmony.

The sound, mainly the rhythmic ringing cords without the benefit of a musical instrument, and singing all a cappella along with the friendships are what he likes, Engelbrecht said.

As chapter president, Richard Howell said, “It’s quite an honor to lead these guys. We have a strong board of about 12 fellas. We guide the chorus, where we go and what we are going to do (and) performances.”

Howell said, “Once you get hooked on barbershop harmony, it just gets in your blood, and it’s so enjoyable to sing barbershop harmony. It is totally different than (other) choral music because of the chord structure of the music. It’s so enjoyable to listen to.”

He cited the “brotherhood of the guys” as a side benefit. “When somebody gets sick or someone is in need, we are always there for them to help,” Howell said.

East Texas Men in Harmony sing a variety of old-time barbershop songs but their repertoire runs the gamut of all types of music from gospel to modern music that’s been rearranged for barbershop harmony, such as a Beatles song, Howell said.

People really enjoy their rendition of Lee Greenwood’s song “God Bless the USA” and it usually brings them to their feet, Howell said.

Stephen Beals said barbershop harmony is four-part harmony based on minor sevenths and very similar to classical music.

The only female in East Texas Men in Harmony is their new director, Diane Bottoms.

“The cords and notes are sung in a way that they will lock together as a cord and ring to where you hear notes that nobody’s singing,” she said.

Ms. Bottoms added, “I think the one thing that keeps (everyone) coming back is that this is a brotherhood with a sister … friends that love each other dearly. They will do anything for each other and the extra thing they get to do is sing together and when everybody is singing together and loves each other and doing the best they can do, it is the most phenomenal thing you can imagine.”

That was best shown last October when they went to a contest in Dallas and performed with passion only five weeks after having lost to brain cancer their former director, Stan Borum, who had been director since inception of the chorus, she said.

They competed in the southeast division contest of the southwestern district composed of Texas and four contiguous states of the Barbershop Harmony Society International. Headquartered in Nashville, Tenn., the society has about 700 chapters scattered around the world and about 27,000 members.

Ms. Bottoms is the only female director in the southwestern district. Whatever she asks the East Texas Men in Harmony to do, they give 100 percent effort to make it happen, she said.

“The thing I like the most about these guys is that they are dedicated to this art form from the youngest member to the oldest member and to seeing more people become involved in it,” Ms. Bottoms said.

“This is an art form that started years ago literally in the barbershop when guys would get around (a barber’s chair) and start singing. That’s why it’s called barbershop (music) and it has developed into choruses singing and competing.”

She added, “I am humbled to be their director.”

East Texas Men in Harmony are always looking for more men to join. “We want to grow this chorus,” Howell said. “It doesn’t make any difference if you’ve never sang barbershop before; we will teach them to sing barbershop harmony.”

Interested men can just show up at Door 18 for rehearsals at 7 p.m. Thursdays at Green Acres Baptist Church.

Wilson Renfroe, vice president, said, “We are more than a choir standing there and singing like a church choir. We work to express the song in the way we look in our faces. Sometimes we do different choreography and that match the song. The only instrument we have is a pitch pipe.”

Renfroe, describing himself as one of the newcomers in the chorus, said, “I love singing with excellence … I like the sound. It’s a happy sound.”

Ms. Bottoms said, “It’s a sound that will actually go inside you and just surround you and go through you. You get goose bumps. You are just like, ‘Wow.’ The audience sits in anticipation and when these guys start singing, they raise the hair on your arms by what they are singing and how they are singing.”

If barbershop singing is done well, it can be one of the most satisfying things, but it can be a difficult thing to do as well, Beals said, citing the precision that it takes for everyone to sing together.

Russell Zumwalt had sung all of his life but had never done barbershop singing when he joined East Texas Men in Harmony after attending a their Fourth of July performance.

“I’m loving it,” he said.

Bill Simonds, treasurer, said, “It keeps you young. It’s the only hobby I know of where teen-agers and guys in their 90s can do the same thing and enjoy each other.”

Chorus member Jim Beasley also described barbershop singing as “a wonderful hobby like an avocation,” and said, “If you like to sing, this is the place to be. We enjoy a wide range of music. We sing a lot of older songs and Beatles songs, some religious songs and some patriotic songs.”