Rocky Horror Show

Major Oak Chorus

12 February 14 words: Jared Wilson
"There is an amazing raw power in hearing a song come together by sixty or so enthusiastic blokes all singing their hearts out"
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Photo: Ralph Barklam
The first thing I feel I need to declare is that at no-point during my two months as a member of a barbershop choir did I come into contact with a straw hat, a bow tie or a stripy waistcoat. 
“That’s the Disney image and not really true at all,” 28-year-old chorus director Joe Knight told us. “It’s something that we as a choir have actively tried to set aside. Obviously a lot of people have seen it in cartoons and films, and there’s the vaudevillestyle group called The Dapper Dans that feature at all the Disneyland resorts. The truth, however, is that most barbershop quartets and choirs would not and have never dressed like that. Unless they do it for an in-joke.” 
So, with that primary myth debunked, let’s get down to business. How does it work? A barbershop choir has four main singing parts. The bass sings the lowest notes - think Tom Waits or Nick Cave. The lead sings the melody, which is the way most of us would try to sing a song naturally. The tenor harmonises above the melody in a higher pitch - think The Beach Boys or Bee Gees. Then the baritone completes the chord, picking up whichever notes are left. Most people are familiar with barbershop quartets, with one person singing each part. A choir is basically a muscled-up version of that. 
“To me a barbershop choir singing together is one of the most beautiful sounds you can ever hear.” says Joe, “There’s a fundamental resonance the way the four parts compliment each other. It’s magical”. Joe is a second generation barbershopper, having been influenced to join by his family. “My parents met thirty-something years ago singing barbershop, so if it wasn’t for this I literally wouldn’t be here. They spent many years trying to persuade me and my brother to join. At first there was no way because it was that thing that old men did and because my dad was in the room. But eventually I got sucked in…”
The choir rehearse every Tuesday for two and a half hours in a community hall in Mapperley. It’s the sort of place I haven’t stepped foot in since I was a Scout. There are about sixty chaps in total, from teenagers to pensioners, teachers to tattoo artists. There’s even a farmer called Joe, part of the bass section, who sets up a stall at the end and sells fresh eggs to the rest of us. They’re a million times better that the eggs you get in the supermarket and I end up buying a half dozen each week I sing.
“People come for all sorts of reasons - if nothing else it’s a good way to make new friends and get away from the wife for a few hours.” Joe continues. “I suppose the majority are older guys, as that’s the age group that has the most time on their hands. But we do have teenagers here too. Although we compete nationally, there’s definitely a big social element to what we do too. It has to be fun or people wouldn’t bother.” 
So why is it called Barbershop? “Well”, Joe tells us “there are various stories, but they all centre around the idea that back in the day, your local hairdressers was a place where people gathered. While they waited for a shave or a trim they would look for ways to occupy their time. Having a singalong with the other fellas in the room proved to be a popular choice.” 

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There are some classic barbershop standards, such as Hello My Baby and Sweet Adeline, that have lasted for more than a century. But the chorus mix in some more contemporary and fun classics like The Lion Sleeps Tonight and a Beach Boys medley too. At various times the hairs on the back of my neck stand up - there is an amazing raw power in hearing a song come together by sixty or so enthusiastic blokes all singing their hearts out. As for learning to sing, I took to it pretty quickly - any inhibitions I had were cast aside after the first half an hour. 
The cult of Barbershop is probably bigger than you think too. Each year the British Association of Barbershop Singers hold a convention which is attended by thousands; this year’s is in the place that the 1982 Eurovision Song Contest was held, Harrogate International Centre. Most of the crowd are performers themselves, with over fifty choirs taking part. There’s also an international competition, mainly featuring American acts, which Joe has entered with his own quartet, The Great British Barbershop Boys. 
“We formed through the National Barbershop Youth Chorus, but within nine months we were the British quartet champions. One of the prizes is to represent Britain internationally at the International Convention in America. We went there and came thirtieth, which we were happy with. I’d never been in the top thirty in the world at anything before.” 
Commercially, Barbershop has never had a breakthrough act in popular music and there are performers across the world who are hallowed names among the Barbershop community who then go back to their day jobs working in factories or restaurants. Joe, who works in Human Resources by day, has first-hand experience of this with his quartet too. 
“While we were there we got spotted and Sony Music agreed to sign us. This was in September 2010, but it was on the proviso that we had to get an album of festive songs ready for that Christmas. We only had two in our repertoire at that time, so we put in a lot of hours to rehearse and record another sixteen in six days. All this was done at weekends as we still held down our day jobs.” 
“We followed it up with a national tour that included a gig as a warm-up act at Wembley Stadium for a Saracens rugby match. We sang with Alan Titchmarsh on ITV, which my mum loved, and on The Wright Stuff on Channel 5. It was an amazing time, doing something I loved with my best friends in the world. Unfortunately it didn’t last...” At this point I ask Joe if he’d ever consider taking his quartet on Britain’s Got Talent. I’ve seen a video of his group on YouTube called The Evolution of Song (see above), which has gained a quarter of a million views, proving there is an audience for what they do. 
“We actually did go on Britain’s Got Talent in 2009. There are about four rounds of auditions before you ever get on the television. We sailed through all of those and people backstage were telling us that we were dead certs to get on TV. But Simon Cowell is well known for hating Barbershop as an art form – it sets his teeth on edge. After nine hours of us waiting around he pressed the buzzer on us within ten seconds. That buzzer was the loudest thing I’ve heard in the world – it actually knocked me dizzy. He then looked over at the other judges pointedly and they pressed their buzzers soon after too.” 
Mr Cowell’s loss is the singing men of Nottingham’s gain. Long may the merry men of the The Major Oak Chorus prosper under their talented and enthusiastic director.
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The Lead:
Ronald ‘Big Ed’ Prevezer
Retired Furniture Manufacturer
Age: 79
From: Bradmoor
Joined: Summer 2004

“When I was very young, a teacher at school heard me sing and told me he never wanted to hear me open my voicebox again. So I never considered singing for most of my life. Then, when I was seventy my wife was in the Lace City Singers and the director of that group told me to come along and audition for this. I haven’t looked back since.”

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The Bass:
Roger Williams
Radio presenter with Mansfield 103.2 and Trent Sound
Age: 64
From: Bestwood Village
Joined: Spring 2007

“If you join this chorus you immediately get fifty or sixty new mates. There’s people from all sorts of trades and professions here. My son has also joined, so it’s a really lovely thing to sing along with him. Thankfully he’s a baritone and I’m a bass, so we don’t tread on each other’s toes too much.”

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The Baritone:
Jonathan ‘Podder’ Lee
Head of Finance for Notts Healthcare Trust
Age: 40
From: Sherwood
Joined: Autumn 2012

“I’d played in loads of bands around Nottingham before I signed up for this, but my bandmates had always told me to stay away from the mic. Then I went along to the singing course and it opened all these doors to me. Singing in public and seeing people’s faces as we come on stage is a real joy.”

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The Tenor:
Paul William Jeffrey
Disclosure Officer for Nottingham Police
Age: 58
From: Gunthorpe
Joined: Spring 2006

“I love the harmony when there’s sixty of us singing together and working towards a common aim. It’s like a partnership and we’re all working to create the right sound; when you hear the right overtone it’s such a thrill. My part can be challenging as I’m singing in falsetto most of the time and it’s not really a natural way of singing for a guy.”

The chorus are always on the lookout for new members, so if you’d like to get involved visit their website for more information.

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