The Peoria Barbershop Chapter continues a longstanding tradition famous for its memorable ballads, folk songs and popular melodies.

The turn of the last century was well known for its barbershop quartets: men young and old, iconically clad in bright colors and vertical stripes, singing popular songs of the era, sans instrumental accompaniment. Movies have long portrayed these groups singing spiritual hymns on street corners, serenading young lovers, or keeping gentlemen company during an afternoon shave.

Indeed, barbershop quartets are prime symbols of the “good ol’ days,” having originated in the late 1800s and reached the zenith of their popularity between 1900 and 1919. They found their beginnings in American barbershops, which often served as centers for community activities, especially in the African-American community. While waiting for their haircuts, the men would harmonize on popular songs of the day, paving the way for a new musical style. After fading away somewhat during the Roaring ‘20s, a revival of the a cappella style began to take shape in the late 1930s, and continues to this day.

More than eight decades later, the Peoria Barbershop Chapter, alsoknown as the Pride of Peoria Chorus, brings the “good ol’ days” home to central Illinois, exposing the community to their unique singing approach. The chapter is one of 700 affiliated with the Barbershop Harmony Society, historically known as the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America, an international organization that promotes barbershop music as an art form and counts more than 30,000 members in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Asia.

Formed in 1942, the Peoria chapter features a number of barbershop quartets within its ranks. Its mission is to preserve the educational, social and artistic integrity of barbershop harmonies, provide vocal instruction and coaching for its members, and promote philanthropic initiatives throughout the community. All the while, the group brings awareness of its craft to the community through memorable performances.

“Barbershop singing was the start of something new,” explains Ken Krancher, chorus director, who joined the group in 1979. “It was the dawn of something really significant that enhanced musical ideas and principles. We are blessed to be a part of something that is creating such lasting impact on our community, as well as the members of our group.”

Meet the Members
Well known for its camaraderie and distinctive sound, the Peoria Barbershop Chapter includes a current membership of nearly 30 men. Krancher, who has sung with the chapter for 34 years, says his involvement has taught him a lot about “what and how to sing.” Among his colleagues, Paul Tolley, one of the lead singers, has been involved for over 20 years, and Robin Meredith, who joined in 1997, for more than a decade and a half.

“Paul and I grew up together,” says Meredith. “We sang in the church choir when we were teenagers. One day, he invited me to the chorus’ annual Sing-In-the-Park event. I really started becoming interested and told Paul I wanted to get involved. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.”

The group is always looking for ways to boost participation, and no formal music education is required—just a heart and a love for singing. “We don’t hold a formal audition,” Meredith adds. “Men are free to participate at their own level of interest. We have our experts, but the majority of members are novice singers, many of whom do not read music. That’s the beautiful part. If you can carry a tune, we can teach you the music!”

A Special Blend
With its rich harmonies, simple melodies and lyrics dating to the 1920s, ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, the Peoria Barbershop Chapter showcases a very distinctive musical form. “Barbershop music is characterized by four-part chords for every melody, and each of the four parts has its own role,” says Krancher. “Generally, the lead, Paul, sings the melody; myself, the tenor, harmonizes above the melody; and the bass sings the lowest harmonizing notes while the baritone, Meredith, completes the chord, usually below the lead.”

The quartets have been known to capture the attention of audiences with such numbers as “Sweet and Lovely,” “Daddy Sang Bass,” “Let the Rest of the World Go By,” “Hello Mary Lou,” “Home on the Range,” “Pretty Baby” and “Happy Trails.”

“We sing a wide variety of songs,” Meredith adds, “and our audiences recognize quite a few of them. We enjoy singing for families and individuals, young and old.”

The Barbershop Experience
The Peoria Barbershop Chapter has a broad vision to fulfill each member’s purpose for joining, whether camaraderie, fun, fellowship, musical knowledge, competitive experiences, personal growth or philanthropy. “All BHS chapters donate to local charities,” Krancher notes. “The Peoria chapter donates to Easter Seals and the South Side Mission, and we sing at their events. We also provide funds for children with hearing issues.”

In addition to its charitable work, the chapter shows off its rich harmonies in a variety of unique settings, including semi-annual contests; retirement community and nursing home events; birthdays and anniversaries; performances at churches, weddings, service clubs, businesses and private homes; and numerous other venues. In addition, former soldiers in the group gather to entertain on Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day with celebrations at Springdale Cemetery. “The Peoria Chorus has sung patriotic songs during the ceremonies at Springdale for many years,” says Meredith. “It’s a privilege to be able to honor our veterans with our music.”

During the summer, the chapter hosts a Sing-in-the-Park at Glen Oak Park on the last Saturday in August. “[We] have been hosting free concerts at the Glen Oak Amphitheatre for over 50 years,” Krancher says. “The event features neighboring quartets and choruses.”

In late October, the Pride of Peoria Chorus and its quartets host themed shows featuring talented local performers staging classic barbershop songs. This year, Meredith served as show chairman and wrote the script, calling on his theatrical background, which includes performances with Corn Stock Theatre.

Cupid’s Song
Another main attraction is the group’s Singing Valentines, an annual program offered by barbershop quartets from the Pride of Peoria Chorus for residents of the Tri-County Area. Singing Valentines began in 1995 with the purpose of surprising a loved one or special friend with a cluster of flowers, box of candy, special card and a cute bear—all for a reasonable fee.

“After we sing a couple songs, we take a picture with the recipient so they will remember their special day,” says Krancher. “Prior to Valentines Day, a person can call to request a time on either February 13th or 14th between 11am and 7pm to set up the event.

“We’ve made a lot of great memories over the years,” he continues. “On one occasion, we were supposed to sing to someone named Terry. We walked into the office where Terry worked, expecting to find a woman… But when Terry came into the room, we saw that he was six feet, four inches tall, wearing an outfit that was very dirty from his job. We all smiled and sang ‘I Love You Truly.’ I’ll never forget the look on his face!”

Over the years, the chapter’s musical talent has been something the community can count on to bring joy as well as comfort. On one Valentine’s Day, a young man’s father requested the quartet sing for his son, who had suffered an accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down. “As we sang, you could see the son had tears in his eyes, and the father was very touched,” Krancher recalls. “It’s not always the songs themselves. Sometimes, it’s the emotion behind them that really has an impact.”

“The Peoria Barbershop Chapter has provided hundreds of area residents with a wonderful venue for enjoying music,” adds Meredith, “and we hope to continue doing what we’re doing well into the future.” a&s

The Peoria Barbershop Chapter rehearses every Thursday from 7 to 9pm at Northminster Presbyterian Church, 10720 N. Knoxville Ave. in Peoria, and invites the public to attend.To arrange a performance or Singing Valentine, call (309) 472-1413, or for more information, visit prideofpeoria.com.