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COVER STORY : Barbershoppers and Sweet Adelines raise their voices, in four-part harmony, in an American tradition that's gone global. : Mary was a bashful little flapper, And Johnny was her beau. Every time that Johnny tried to kiss her, She'd blush and she'd cry, "Oh, no! Oh, no!"

April 16, 1993|JEFF PRUGH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The song is so shamelessly outdated that it's easy to wonder if the lyrics had been carved into stone tablets.

And the 40 fellows who sing, "Mary, You're a Little Bit Old-Fashioned"--barbershop style--hark back to a time that their elders warmly reminisced about, a time of rumble seats, straw hats and bicycles built for two, to say nothing of straight razors and shaving mugs.

Just who do these mostly middle-age guys--called the Valleyaires--think they are, impersonating their turn-of-the-century vocal forebears and figuratively thumbing their noses at the contemporary clatter of rock and rap and heavy metal?

Why do they gussy up in black tuxedo jackets and white bow ties, white trousers and white suspenders, singing to hundreds of spectators (and often among themselves) homespun songs ("Lida Rose," "Coney Island Baby" and "By the Light of the Silvery Moon") that mesh with today's music scene about as well as, say, Perry Como sharing a concert stage with Guns N' Roses?

Well, it's all part of a revival that cries out to hear America singing again--from a cappella barbershoppers and Sweet Adelines singers to nouveau doo-wop recording stars such as Boyz II Men. They're raising their voices in dulcet, four-part harmony above the din of synthesizers, chain-saw guitars and high-voltage amplifiers.

And for many barbershoppers, it simply comes down to singing somewhere besides the shower.

"It's kind of like my safety valve from my work," says Stan Dean, 58, of Van Nuys, the group's president and an insurance salesman. "You come here and sing, and you can't help but be in harmony with yourself."

Listen to Don Ribeiro, 62, of Canyon Country, who, as singer and speaker, excels at keeping his baritone voice down to the roar of a Boeing 747.

"Believe it or not, I was an absolute introvert before I got into barbershopping," he says during a rehearsal break one evening at the Bernardi Multipurpose Center in Van Nuys. "I've been in this organization for 30 years, and I've never seen a fight--or anything that even resembles a fight.

"Nobody yells at you. You come down here to get away from that."

Indeed, for a bunch of amateurs, the Valleyaires sound good enough to take their show on the road professionally, whether they sing in quartets at hospitals and civic clubs or at full strength in choral shows or events such as the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America (SPEBSQSA) regional competition, scheduled all day May 1 at Glendale High School's auditorium.

Those hundreds of a cappella voices in at least 11 such groups in the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys alone--from the Valleyaires to their women peers in Sweet Adelines International groups such as the Verdugo Hills Showtime Chorus (130 strong), the West Valley Chorus (80 members), the Valley Harmonettes (30 members) and the Valley chapter (25 members)--bask in revivals of a uniquely American art form that is now heard 'round the world.

And that's not counting professional chorales such as the mixed 12-member L. A. Jazz Choir, a past Grammy nominee based in Woodland Hills, whose repertoire includes big band music and a cappella ballads.

"You're hearing a lot of harmony in mainline pop music now because the essence of melody is something people always return to, even when we also hear rap and heavy metal," says Linda Duffendack Mays, the group's business manager and a choral director. "Since music is such a feelingful experience for everybody, people will always take home with them the melody and harmony."

Barbershopping--by men and women--has taken giant leaps in popularity since mid-century, when some critics dismissed it as "four drunks singing under a lamppost."

And Sweet Adelines-style singing has entertained millions ever since the international organization's birth in the late 1940s when, as the Valley chapter's only remaining charter member, Bea Thomas, 74, recalls: "Somebody said it was a nice little organization that keeps those ladies off the street."

As long ago as 1960, barbershopping started going global. Before the Cold War's end, a touring Soviet Union barbershop quartet won raves locally despite garbling some songs ("Chattanooga Shoo Shoo "), says John Krizek of Burbank, a longtime Valleyaire.

"One reviewer," Krizek says, "was so impressed that she asked, 'How can you nuke somebody when they can sing four-part harmony to "Lida Rose"?' "

What's more, a cappella singing flourishes worldwide in various other forms, including those performed alongside barbershopping four weeks ago at a regional Harmony Sweepstakes in Hermosa Beach.

They include doo-wop (born of early 1950s black stylists who sang on street corners, making beautiful music out of doo-wops , she-bops, ram-a-lamas and other nonsensical syllables), gospel, jazz, blues, pop, New Wave and country, among others.

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