A barbershop trifecta: three generations in harmony

Andy, Jim and Matthew Richards love making barbershop harmony.
Andy, Jim and Matthew Richards love making barbershop harmony. (submitted photo)

What could be better news to a father and longtime barbershop singer than to have his son and grandson announce they were joining him in singing?

That's what happened a few months ago to Jim Richards, 89, of Roseville, who found out his son Andy, 57, of New Brighton, and grandson Matthew, 29, of Blaine, were joining his barbershop chorus, the Minneapolis chapter of the Commodores.

Having them share in his love of singing is something he's longed for for quite a while.

"One of the neatest things is that everyone comes up to me and asks how it feels to be singing with the boys. Everyone's jealous," Jim says. "It's just wonderful singing with them. We practice every Tuesday night. 

"When you've spent a major portion of your life doing this, and then to have your own values supported by your son and grandson who now do it, too, it's very bonding and wonderful."

Barbershop singing is four-part harmony unaccompanied by musical instruments. Matthew sings baritone, Jim sings bass and Andy sings lead. During the Tuesday practices each may also be in different quartets and group combinations. 

Not how you remember barbershop

"We grew up hearing barbershop singing -- we've attended shows for years and years -- but it was always my father's gig," Andy says. "About 10 years ago, I attended a practice meeting but it wasn't me -- it was kind of old fashioned and I'm a rock 'n' roll guy [with] 20 years in a rock and roll band -- so nothing happened until last April.

"Dad's almost 90 -- he's not a young man -- and the timing was just right so we wanted to do it then," says Andy. His kids are grown up, and his band isn't performing as often. And Matthew had just earned his master's degree in software engineering and is established in his job.

"He's been trying to recruit us (off and on) for years," Andy says of his father. "So we decided to join together."

The first time they walked into the Minneapolis Commodore chorus practice, they found 80 men singing words and harmonies they'd learned by heart years ago. "It was a little intimidating," Matthew recalls. "It was a completely new world and we probably wouldn't have done it without each other."

And they discovered things had changed since the last time they checked out the barbershop scene.

"I don't know why I didn't like it all these years, but they are changing some of the music," Andy says, to which Matthew adds, "They are making the style more varied and contemporary and full of energy. ... And there are quite a few jokesters in the group."

Legend in harmony

"My dad's a legend, and I felt intimidated being the legend's son," Andy says, adding that his father is noted in the Barbershop Hall of Fame in Nashville, has judged international competitions of quartets and groups, and for many years, taught a week-long class on the physics of harmony. Jim has won medals in several international competitions and was international president of the Barbershop Harmony Society.

Aside from this, Jim earned a Ph.D. in physics from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and enjoyed a long career as a senior research physicist at 3M, where he was involved in making a generator that was sent to the moon in the Apollo program.

Matthew says he felt intimidated by his grandfather's accomplishments and hopes to live up to his legacy.

Andy and Matthew are musically inclined as well.

"Andy has music in his soul," Jim says. He plays guitar and sings in the band, 2nd Generation, and also plays bass in a Beatles cover band. He doesn't read a note of music, but does it all by ear. And with his theatrical bent, Andy has worked at Comcast for 28 years producing ads for commercials on cable TV.

Matthew is a software engineer at Infinite Campus in Blaine, working on software to manage student data for K-12 schools. Many people he works with have a musical background, and he has encouraged a few to join barbershop. Matthew was involved in a variety of musical activities at Irondale High School as a youth. Currently, he is one of two captains for the SKOL drum line for the Minnesota Vikings, and he sings in with a small group of singers age 35 and younger.

Upcoming ventures

For an additional challenge, Andy and Matthew signed up for the Harmony Brigade Extreme Quartetting meetup, where 80 men from around the county get together in February to learn very complicated music and then are matched up with people they've never known to sing in the quartets' contest.

"And the Commodores are also pushing me musically," Andy says. 

Matthew adds, "It's a wonderful challenge. We would get bored if it were too easy."

Jim and his group recently performed at a food bank in Lakeville, and he says, "We sang and stole the show because we sang music people could relate to instead of classical barbershop."

Jim will be attending the midwinter convention in New Orleans where 200 choruses of ages 15 to 25 from all over the country will be competing to experience the joy of harmonizing together.

"It's intoxicating to sing and get good feedback from the audience," Jim says.

Both Andy and Matthew are loving barbershop's four-part harmony -- making chords with other men both in the large chorus and in quartets -- the same joy Jim has found in his 50-plus years of singing barbershop.

Jim's wife Ebie, who is his number-one fan and supporter, says, "Barbershopping has been a wonderful journey for us -- for our whole marriage. We"ve been all over the world. 

"The surprising bonus is the boys joining, too. There aren't many three-generation groups," she adds.

Pamela O'Meara can be reached at pomeara@lillienews.com or 651-748-7818. Check out a video of the Commodores performing here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BFFI3P4SL44&t=72m25s


Twenty-six men in Tulsa

Barbershop singing, with its complex, interwoven harmonies, can be traced back to professional stage performers in the mid-1800s. Even with musical instruments widely available, there was something mesmerizing about the sound of unaccompanied voices building their own rhythms and chords. 

Later, people of all ages and talents gathered to sing harmonies around a piano or a campfire, but these days, most people are consumers of music Ñ listening to music by others rather than producing their own, says barbershop singer Jim Richards of Roseville. 

But he treasures the do-it-yourself nature of barbershop singing.

"In 1938, during the Depression, people asked what you could do that was fun," Jim says. "Singing was a natural and didn't cost anything." 

That year, 26 men invited their friends to sing in Tulsa, Oklahoma. About 125 men showed up and began singing on the rooftop garden of the Tulsa Club. 

Pedestrians and people in cars stopped to listen and created a traffic jam. The police were summoned, with newspaper and radio reporters hot on their heels. 

The next morning, the story was national news, and the interest in barbershop singing exploded everywhere. In 1944, the all-male Commodores started up in the Twin Cities. 

As rich three- and four-part harmonies propelled groups like the Mills Brothers and the Andrews Sisters into the Hit Parade, barbershop singing attracted 20- and 30-year-olds. In the late '40s and '50s, barbershop was still drawing the younger set.

However, as singing around the piano or the campfire faded, barbershoppers struggled to get young folks interested, though they've tried various kinds of outreach.

The Harmony Foundation raised money to make sheet music available to schools at the time they were cutting the arts, Jim recalls, adding that scientifically and annectdotally, there's a high correlation between musical ability and academic success, something Jim's grandson Matthew Richards has observed in his office as well.

For more information about the Commodores, email info@minneapoliscommodores.org or call 952-334-1369 (Dan Williams - president). Men don't need to be experienced singers to join the chorus. All men are welcome.


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