Barbershop quarter makes friendship as important as the music
By Shelley Powers
I can’t shake visions of striped dinner jackets, banded straw hats, and waxed mustaches with twirled ends as I barrel down the interstate.
I’m following Brad Feaster, who sings bass with the Brick Street Barbershop Quartet, and he’s doing about 80. It’s a Monday after work and most folks can’t wait to get home and kick off their shoes—well at least I can’t—but Brad’s braving rush hour traffic and the threat of a speeding ticket to meet up with guys he’s known for decades, all so they can sing in four-part harmony.
We get to First United Methodist Church of Clinton, MS, and Brad literally bounds up three flights of stairs to get to the choir room to join Greg Gibson, Tommy Steadman, and Bill “The Ham” Bacon for practice. The guys, in their 50s and 60s, look nothing like what I had pictured. All are clean-shaven and wearing office attire, except for Bill the Retiree, who’s unapologetically wearing shorts and an untucked athletic shirt. They’re in good spirits; raring to talk about being in the group; and, of course, ready to sing.
“I don’t really care for these guys,” says Brad, with a half-grin, when asked about the friendship with his counterparts.
“I can’t stand ’em,” adds Greg.
Brad and Greg have been in Brick Street since it formed in 1992; Tommy and Bill joined in later years. With nearly 20 years of history, the guys toss verbal jabs at one another as easily as tossing a football. Brad explains that, while the singing is great, the friendship is greater.
“I just like a cappella singing and this is the perfect outlet; plus there’s the friendship,” he says. “We all love music, but we have personalities that just get along.”
And, boy, do those personalities quickly become apparent with this group. Greg—rightfully so as lead—takes the role as alpha, bringing group performances into line with a well-timed gesture or expression. Brad, who I know personally as a cut up at our workplace, becomes a bit more reserved when he’s with his quartet, which is perfect as the bass who provides the foundation for the group’s performances. Tommy the tenor stands tall and lean and seemingly self-effacing, until a song calls for a surprisingly high note and then he shows off like a steam whistle. And baritone Bill, who couldn’t manage to sit still through the interview, is decidedly—and proudly—the group’s purposeful bumbler, who entertains off stage, as much as on.
“It’s just fun,” says Tommy about singing in the group.
“I’ll be honest,” Bill interjects, “I wouldn’t do it if money wasn’t involved, but this guy would do it for free.” He shoves a thumb in the direction of Greg, who bobs his head and adds, “Probably.”
Today the group is practicing the ’50s classic “Sh Boom Sh Boom” to add to their 30-minute show that features a comedy routine akin to the Smothers Brothers and songs spanning from the ’20s to the ’70s. They’re quick to recognize that the barbershop genre, despite Jimmy Fallon’s recent campy foray into the land of quartets, is a niche market.
“This has a limited appeal,” Tommy says. “Most people like it in small doses.”
Greg adds, “Few people will go out and buy a whole album of barbershop quartet music.”
Despite the limited appeal, Brick Street has managed to snag some pretty impressive gigs, singing the National Anthem at Houston Astros, Atlanta Braves, and Mississippi Braves games. They’ve also performed for Sela Ward and Carol Channing, though Greg readily admits they had to fudge their way into the Channing performance.
“We told her security that an admirer hired us to sing for her,” he recounts. “We were the admirer.”
The group was permitted to sing for the entertainment legend under the caveat of “absolutely no pictures.” They agreed and were whisked backstage where they met face to face with “someone who we believed was Carol Channing,” says Greg. She was wearing a wig cap and absolutely no make-up.
But when she opened her mouth, they knew they were standing before showbiz royalty. “Oh. My. Gaaaawwwwd!” Greg does a spot on impression of Channing’s trademark raspy, daffy voice when she realized she was about to get serenaded. “We sang, and she gave each of us a kiss on the cheek.”
And why wouldn’t Ms. Channing be beside herself? Serenading is Brick Street’s bread and butter every February. Their singing Valentines—or “drive-by singings,” as Greg calls them—are personalized performances that can happen anywhere and to anyone.
“We get every reaction possible,” he says, “From tears to people running away.”
They’ve performed casual serenades for people at the office and at private homes, like the time they sang to a woman who answered her door wearing only a towel. “We sang real slow that day,” Bill remembers fondly.
And they’ve performed more heartbreaking serenades, like the one for a husband and his dying wife on their last Valentine’s Day together. “They just sat on the couch, holding hands,” Greg says.
But for the guys, their favorite performances are their after-dinner comedy-in-harmony routines, available for church banquets, corporate events, civic groups, weddings, and anyone else who appreciates good humor and tight harmonies.
“Barbershop quartets are the butt of a lot of jokes. It’s a niche kind of music, but you must do it well,” says Greg, who explains that the after-dinner crowd can be tough, especially once dessert is served. “We have to grab them from the first chord or we lose them.”
Greg, Brad, Tommy, and Bill agree that, while being a ham is a large part of being in the group, humor and ego definitely take a back seat to skill and talent. They explain that the artistry needed for this type of singing requires finding balance between the individual voices so that vowel sounds match exactly and chords “lock” when performing. No one member should stand out from another. “When you feel that chord lock,” Tommy says knowingly, “There’s nothing like it.”
By this point in the interview, the guys are getting restless from all the talk and are ready to get to the singing part of their rehearsal. I listen to a few songs, marveling at the air-tight harmonies and chuckling at Bill’s awkward dancing slapstick routine before I slip out the door and hum “Sh Boom” all the way home. I may have been a tiny bit disappointed that I didn’t see any waxed and twirled mustaches, but I was absolutely impressed with the locked chords and the showmanship of Brick Street.
I have to agree with Tommy, there’s nothing like it.