Music in the Barbershop
A CultureMap®
by Gabriel Rosenberg
Published on 6/19/14

The connection between music and hair often calls to mind the shaggy, guitar-toting hippies of the 1960s. But this bond began in distinctly un-hippie territory: the local barbershop, out of which eventually came straw-hatted, mustachioed a cappella quartets and the soulful harmonies of doo-wop. Into the barbershop went barbaric balladeer Sweeney Todd, who warbles as he slices his customers’ throats, as well as merry Figaro, who sings about the joys of cutting hair.

“Play That Barber Shop Chord”  (song | William Tracey)
to  A Cappella

Barbershop music goes back as far as the 16th century, when English barbers strung their walls with citterns—pear-shaped Renaissance guitars—and encouraged customers to jam while waiting their turn. Modern barbershop is purely a cappella. In fact, many instruments, including piano and guitar, are fundamentally incapable of intoning a harmonic seventh chord (a.k.a. the “barbershop chord”), the ringing vocal harmonization of lead, tenor, bass and baritone responsible for those good barbershop quartet vibrations. American vocalists had practiced the chord since the 1870s, but barbershop wasn’t the conventional term until William Tracey’s 1910 song “Play That Barber Shop Chord.”

Barbershop quartets flourished in 1920s vaudeville and minstrel shows, but as these entertainments died out during the Depression, so did barbershop. By 1936 Norman Rockwell’s Barbershop Quartet, like many of his paintings, eulogized America’s “good old days.” The style was revived first in 1938 with a singing contest conceived by the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America, and again in 1962 with Meredith Willson’s Music Man, which features a beaming, mostly mustachioed quartet. Although tirelessly promoted as an authentic American art form, barbershop retains some Rockwellian hokeyness.

“Play That Barber Shop Chord”  (song | William Tracey)
to  Doo-Wop

Excluded from theaters and concert halls in the late 19th century, African Americans found musical fraternity in the local barbershop, where primarily male customers harmonized on spirituals and folk songs. These communities developed the four-part harmonic “barbershop chord”—the distinctive sound of barbershop quartets—though it didn’t get its name until 1910, when William Tracey recorded “Play That Barber Shop Chord” (a future hit for Judy Garland) and vaudeville quartets adopted the song in their repertoire. In the 1940s, barbershop’s simple a cappella chord arrangements reemerged as doo-wop. The Mills Brothers, four Ohio siblings considered to be the first doo-woppers, even boast a direct barber lineage: Their father was both a barber and a singer in a barbershop quartet, and as children they gathered outside his shop, performing for patrons and passersby.

In the 1950s and ’60s, when doo-wop was the dominant black music, barbershops became a hub of civil rights activity. Voter registration booths and soapbox platforms were erected outside, while political strategies were discussed inside. Civil rights activist Al Sharpton paid tribute to this tradition by hosting Sharp Talk (2005–2007), a talk show about African American issues, while sitting in a swivel chair inside a Brooklyn barbershop.

A Cappella
to  Doo-Wop

Doo-wop is an onomatopoeic transcription of a trumpet’s brassy sounds. A plaintive doo-wop, doo-wah is heard in the Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night” (1956) and an exuberant doo-wop, doo-wadda features in the Rainbows’ “Mary Lee” (1955). In fact, the standard examples of doo-wop scatting—the bom-ba-ba-boms, ding-a-lang-a-ding-a-longs and sh-boom-sh-booms—are voiced imitations of various instruments (those are bass, guitar and drums, respectively). The original doo-wop groups lacked instruments, so they built songs around strong a cappella harmonies and filled in for the accompaniment by approximating instrumental sounds vocally, a defining trait that carried over even when record companies provided backup bands.

Doo-wop’s forebears, the Mills Brothers, were the visionaries behind instrument mimicry. (For a particularly virtuosic example, listen to their rendition of “Basin Street Blues.”) As children, the Mills Brothers practiced their four-part harmonies outside their father’s barbershop. When their sole instrumental accompaniment—a kazoo—was lost, one brother cupped his hands to his mouth and mimicked the sound of a trumpet. Soon all four brothers took up a cappella “instruments.” Today, beatboxers push the envelope of instrument mimicry, though their percussion-based sound is decidedly less sh-boom than the warm tones of doo-wop.

A Cappella
to  The Persuasions  (American doo-wop group | est. 1964)

A cappella is Italian for “in the manner of the church,” indicating the rich, vocals-only traditions of gospel and choir music in houses of worship. (True, Psalm 150 counsels, “Praise [God] with the sound of the trumpet; praise Him with the psaltery and harp,” but surely this means outside the church.) Gospel influenced doo-wop, barbershop and other modern a cappella styles; some gospel quartets, such as the New Orleans Humming Four, were even established in barbershops.

Brooklyn-based a cappella quintet the Persuasions were raised singing in the Southern gospel tradition and chose a subtly biblical name for their group: Just as Jesus had to persuade people to follow his teachings, so too would the Persuasions have to convince people to listen to a band without instruments. Starting in the mid-1960s, the Persuasions balanced spiritual songs with secular ones, and gospel with rock, pop and blues. Ironically, Frank Zappa, a musician vehemently opposed to organized religion, discovered them in 1968 when he overheard them playing in a New Jersey record shop. The Persuasions have since recorded many Zappa hits as tribute, including “The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing,” which may be a cappella but certainly isn’t in the manner of the church.

The Persuasions  (American doo-wop group | est. 1964)
to  Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop  (Spike Lee (dir.) | film | 1983)

When Spike Lee was growing up in Brooklyn in the 1960s, the music on the streets was a mix of jazz and a cappella. Lee’s father, jazz musician Bill Lee, has scored five of his son’s films, beginning with Spike’s New York University master’s thesis, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, providing a mournful soundtrack that captures the spirit of the impoverished Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. In Joe’s barbershop, haircuts are secondary: Folks hang out, debate and play the numbers, an illegal lottery that becomes the film’s major plot point. Lee’s hard-knocks portrayal of African American barbershop culture came two decades before the Barbershop film franchise caricatured it.

The Persuasions, formed in Bed-Stuy around 1964, were Brooklyn’s reigning street-corner a cappella group during Spike Lee’s childhood. Lead singer Jerry Lawson (later, briefly, of the GrooveBarbers a cappella group) has explained that the barbershop is the “heart of the community. When you come to the barbershop, it gives you confidence, you feel good. It inspires you to sing better.” Lee showcases the Persuasions in “Do It A Cappella,” his 1990 entry in the Great Performances series on PBS and one of the filmmaker’s rare jazz-less joints.

“Play That Barber Shop Chord”  (song | William Tracey)
to  The Barber of Seville  (Gioachino Rossini | opera | 1816)

The harmony of two voices often connotes romantic love. In the wedding scene from Vincenzo Bellini’s 1831 opera La Sonnambula (“the sleepwalker”), for instance, the tenor and his bride harmonize a duet right after exchanging rings. But opera is not defined merely by harmony; it combines dramatic, commanding solos with recitatives—basically dialogue scenes. The most exciting harmonizing in Gioachino Rossini’s Barber of Seville is between Figaro’s booming baritone and the scraping of his straight razor.

The synchronization of three or more voices—as in doo-wop, barbershop and some folk music—instead suggests camaraderie among the singers. Barbershop quartets are famous for employing the four-part vocal harmonization called the “barbershop chord” (a term coined in the 1910 song “Play That Barber Shop Chord”). Barbershop quartets are a late-19th-century American invention now associated with county fairs and small-town gatherings; opera, by contrast, is a 16th-century Italian export, traditionally the domain of the cultured elite. But neither Figaro of Seville nor the sweet-harmonizing barbershop quartet Figaro, based in Reading, England, fusses over the genre’s origins or audience. They are merry barbers, and “a barber,” as Figaro cheerily sings, “could not wish for a better lot, a nobler life!”

Sweeney Todd  (Hugh Wheeler (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) | musical | 1979)
to  The Barber of Seville  (Gioachino Rossini | opera | 1816)

Some music enthusiasts accuse composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim of ripping off Gioachino Rossini’s Barber of Seville. In both the opera buffa and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a wicked man locks up a young girl, intending to marry her when she comes of age; another man serenades her from below her window; and this same man enlists the local singing barber to work his scheme of rescue and elopement.

Sweeney Todd and Figaro, the title haircutter in The Barber of Seville, occupy opposite ends of the musical barber spectrum: Todd in the warm, blood-gurgling red, and Figaro in the cool, Barbicidal blue. (Incidentally, inventor Maurice King named his disinfectant Barbicide because he hated barbers; the neologism barbicide means “killing of a barber.”) Figaro is gentle, dignified and reliable, singing with joyous gusto, “Ah, what a merry life! What pleasures there are for a barber of quality!” Todd sings perversely of the “precious rubies” his razors drip as he slays his London clientele in wild, insensate revenge upon the world for his 15-year false imprisonment. Todd is neither gentle nor dignified, though technically he is reliable: He promises patrons the closest shave they’ll ever know.