(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)
UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Singing) Now here's a little story and I heard it firsthand.
WADE GOODWYN, HOST:
That tight, four-part harmony is unmistakable, and it's been around for a long time. Barbershop quartets trace their roots back to the late 19th century. African-Americans would gather in barbershops and on street corners to sing. It was called crackin' a chord. The term barbershop was originally a putdown, but the 1910 song "Play That Barbershop Chord" put that to rest.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLAY THAT BARBERSHOP CHORD")
UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Singing) That soothing harmony, harmony it makes an awful, an awful, an awful hit with me. Play that...
GOODWYN: The verdict was in - close-sung harmony was a national hit. By the end of World War II, women decided to form their own society - Sweet Adelines International.
(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Singing) Sweet Adeline, Sweet Adeline.
GOODWYN: The organization grew quickly, and today boasts nearly 23,000 members in more than 500 choruses. Peggy Gram joined as a teenager 50 years ago and has served as the organization's president. She joins me now from member station KUAR in Little Rock, Ark. Welcome, Peggy.
PEGGY GRAM: Thank you. It's great to be here with you.
GOODWYN: And the Baltimore-based Lustre Quartet with us in the studio. They're here to provide some musical accompaniment with Jenny Harris, Lori Crouter, Lori Dreyer and Kate Morrical - (singing) hello.
LUSTRE QUARTET: (Singing) Hello.
GOODWYN: OK, I believe we've given everyone fair warning. Peggy, tell us about your first memories of barbershop.
GRAM: My mother was a Sweet Adeline. As a matter of fact, she was a 50-year member as well. And I recall her going to rehearsal and coming back and being very excited about getting to sing with this group of women. And things were very different then. When I would go to chorus rehearsal with her when I was 12 or 13 years old, we taught everything by rote because we didn't have printed music. People learned arrangements in their heads and then they sang them back and that's how we learned music. So it was a very, very different world in the 1950s and '60s in the barbershop world than it is now.
GOODWYN: You talked about your mother being excited. When women began singing four-part harmony, was it considered a bit avant-garde?
GRAM: Well, it certainly was not the norm. You know, women still wore pillbox hats and gloves and nylons to everything. You know, the shirtwaist dress was de rigueur and pants were kind of frowned on in public, so it was - you dressed up to go to chorus rehearsal in those days. You certainly wouldn't have been there in jeans.
GOODWYN: We've got Lustre Quartet here. Let's hear a song.
LUSTRE QUARTET: (Singing) This is a lovely way to spend an evening, can't think of anything I'd rather do. This is a lovely way to spend an evening, can't think of anyone as lovely as you. A casual stroll through a garden, a kiss by a lazy lagoon, catching a breath of moonlight, humming our favorite tune. This is a lovely, lovely way to spend an evening. I want to save all my nights and spend them with you and spend them all with you.
GOODWYN: Peggy, do the Sweet Adelines still call this style of music barbershop, even though the choruses are made up of women?
GRAM: Oh, absolutely. You know, barbershop is one of the original art forms that originated in America - the spiritual, gospel music, jazz and barbershop. So yes, it's definitely called barbershop. There are barbershop chords and it's the chord structure and how the arrangements are put together that denotes the fact that it is barbershop and that that's what you're hearing. We build on the overtone series. We like for the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts. We like to hear those chords ring and create overtones. And we get our jollies that way.
GOODWYN: You know, Lustre Quartet, I like to sing. Should we try singing together?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You bet.
GOODWYN: All right, if any listeners out there are using a pacemaker, this might be a good time to turn down the radio.
WADE GOODWYN AND LUSTRE QUARTET: (Singing) I wish you love.
GRAM: That's some pretty sweet bass there, Wade.
GOODWYN: You know, I'm hoping that maybe after this is all over, you know, I might get an invite from the ladies.
GRAM: Hey, you never can tell - guest spots on shows.
GOODWYN: Quintets - I mean, I don't know. Is that not really where it's going?
GOODWYN: Peggy, are younger singers attracted to this kind of music still?
GRAM: Absolutely, as a matter of fact, Neyla Pekarek, who sings with The Lumineers, started out in barbershop and actually still sings with a barbershop quartet and will be competing this fall in our international competition in Las Vegas. And Lorde, who sang "Royals," also started out in New Zealand in a barbershop quartet.
GOODWYN: There's been a resurgence of interest in a cappella music lately. I'm thinking of "Pitch Perfect," movies that star Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson. Is that helping to bring more women to barbershop?
GRAM: It is. There's just more emphasis on singing. If you look at "American Idol," "The Voice," "The Sing-Off" - that a cappella competition - and "Pitch Perfect," a cappella is cool. And Sweet Adelines is a great part of it. As matter of fact, you know, Deke Sharon, who's one of the producers and the arranger of most of the music for the "Pitch Perfect" series, calls the barbershop singers the ninja of a cappella singers.
GOODWYN: Peggy Gram - former president of Sweet Adelines International. Thanks so much Peggy.
GRAM: You're welcome.
GOODWYN: And Lustre Quartet from Baltimore - Jenny Harris, Lori Crouter, Lori Dreyer and Kate Morrical - thanks you, too. Want to sing us out?
LUSTRE QUARTET: (Singing) Flirty eyes - I've got those flirty, flirty eyes. How I wish I had the nerve to look at you and say - I'd say I've got those flirty eyes and, honey, you'd be surprised. These eyes can hypnotize any guy I idolize. And with one little glance, you really don't stand a chance. I'll put you in a trance for romance, sweet romance.
GOODWYN: The group that became Sweet Adelines International first met in Tulsa, Okla., in July of 1945. Sweet Adelines turns 70 this month. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. BJ Leiderman wrote our theme music. I'm Wade Goodwyn.
LUSTRE QUARTET: (Singing) Flirty, flirty eyes - good morning, sir, and how are you today? My heart's a pounding in a lovely way, such a lovely way. My knees are weak. I cannot speak, much to my dismay. Oh, how I wish I had the nerve to look at you and say...
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