Barbershop Quartets, the First Quartet Named On Records,
and the Most Popular Quartet of the Acoustic Era
The Peerless Quartet, ca. 1923
As every collector of acoustic-era 78s knows,
quartet singing was incredibly popular in the
acoustic era. However, no quartets of the acoustic
era were known as "barbershop quartets."
Promotional literature issued in the early decades of
the recording industry never used the term. Does
anyone know exactly how or when "barbershop"
became an adjective for quartet singing? I have
made only a preliminary investigation into the
matter, and I'll share here what Iíve discovered.
I certainly would love to hear from anyone who has
First, I should point out the lack of clear evidence
that quartet singing had been popular in American
barbershops in the 1890s or that quartet singing was
ever associated with real barbershops. A Norman
Rockwell illustration of a quartet singing in a
barbershop graced the cover of the Saturday
Evening Post dated September 26, 1936. This
famous (and romanticized) illustration is not
especially relevant for anyone investigating whether
quartet singing was actually popular in barbershops
at some point from the 1890s to, say, the 1920s.
Although the term "barbershop quartet" had been
used earlier, it became commonplace only after the
formation, in 1938, of SPEBSQSA (Society for the
Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop
Quartet Singing in America).
As far as I can tell, music historian Sigmund Spaeth
was the first to use the term in books, beginning in
1924 in The Common Sense of Music (Boni and
Liveright, 1924). His chapter "Close Harmony"
refers to "ways of filling out the barber-shops." In
1925 he wrote Barber Shop Ballads and How To
Sing Them (Prentice-Hall, 1925).
The September 17, 1925, issue of Music Trade
Review states, "Under the chairmanship of Dr.
Sigmund Spaeth, whose headquarters will be 437
Fifth Avenue, New York City, a contest committee
has been appointed for the 'National Barber Shop
Ballad Contest.' The competition, which is open to
any quartet, amateur or professional, will give as a
first prize a contract for a tour in vaudeville over the
Earlier references to "barbershop" as a musical term
are rare. The earliest seems to be in the 1910 song
"Play That Barber-Shop Chord," popularized by Bert
Williams in Follies of 1910 and on Columbia disc
A929. The song does not actually refer to
barbershop quartets but "barbershop" is used as a
musical term (it is a type of harmony). The song's
composer was Lewis F. Muir. William Tracey is
given credit on sheet music for lyrics, but Ballard
Macdonald successfully argued in court that he was
the song's originator, which resulted in the song's
publisher paying Macdonald $37,500, forcing the
publisher into bankruptcy.
Two American Quartet records will be of special
interest to music historians who are curious about
how "barber shop" and "barber-shop," later
"barbershop," evolved as an adjective for quartets.
Singing "Play That Barber Shop Chord" for Victor
5799 (recorded in 1910), the American Quartet stops
at one point to interpolate "Sweet Adeline," making
explicit a connection between barbershop harmony
and quartet singing. Describing the number, Victor's
catalog dated November 1910 states, "The barber
shop chord, a name given (we wonder why!) to an
abrupt modulation occurring in a male quartet
rendition, has been the subject of innumerable jokes.
Though of course treated with contempt by jealous
'high brow' musical critics, who fail to comprehend
its beauty, this classic style has delighted vaudeville
and minstrel audiences from time immemorial; and
these startling chords are now made the theme of a
clever darky song, which is given most
entertainingly by Mr. Murray and his fellow
The other American Quartet record with a
"barbershop" reference is "Sailin' Away on the
Henry Clay," issued on Victor 18353 in 1917. It
contains the line, "Hear that barbershop quartet a-
harmonizin'..." In 1931, Vernon Dalhart and Adelyne
Hood hosted for a shaving cream manufacturer,
Barbasol, the network radio show Barber Shop
Chords. It featured Dalhart as Barbasol Ben, Hood
as a manicurist named Barbara, and a barber shop
quartet. Broadcast three times a week on CBS, the
show left the air in October 1931 after six months.
Since Iím on the topic of quartets, I will say a little
about the earliest quartet to be named on records as
well as the most popular quartet of the acoustic era
(the Peerless Quartet).
The Manhansett Quartette (sometimes spelled
Manhasset) may have been the first vocal group to
receive recognition for its recorded work, being
identified by name - the Manhansett Quartet - instead
of the generic term "quartet." The quartet's first
session may have been on September 27, 1891,
when it cut twenty titles for Edison's North
American Phonograph Company. Titles include
"Reception Medley" and "Emmett's Lullaby." It was
not the first quartet to record since an 1890 listing of
North American cylinders includes two quartet
numbers, but the quartets are unnamed.
Original members may have been George J. Gaskin,
one "Girard" (probably Gilbert Girard), John Riley,
and one "Evans." These are named as members of
the Manhasset (note spelling) in an 1892 New Jersey
Phonograph Company catalog described by Jim
Walsh in the October 1958 issue of Hobbies. The
same catalog lists titles by a second quartet, the
obscure Original Bison City Quartet. The
Manhansett quartet was almost certainly formed for
recording purposes. It was not an established concert
ensemble recruited to make records. Singers
changed. John Bieling joined in 1894. Jim Cherry
and Roger Harding were members at one time.
It cut titles for Edison's U.S. Phonograph Company
in Newark, New Jersey. Formed in 1893 to succeed
the New Jersey Phonograph Company, this company
is not to be confused with the later U.S.
Phonograph Company of Cleveland, maker of U-S
Everlasting cylinders. Supervising the sessions was
Victor Emerson, who in 1898 switched loyalties to
Columbia and in 1916 founded the Emerson
Phonograph Company. Decades later, Bieling
recalled these sessions in a letter to Walsh: "The
recording was done with Edison machines, run by
storage batteries placed on shelves. They were
grouped so that the horns into which we sang would
focus as nearly as possible to a center on the
opposite side of the rack. There were usually seven
horns into which we sang. The cylinders, of course,
were wax ones, made by the Edison Company."
The Peerless Quartet was the most successful quartet
of the acoustic era, recording more titles and selling
more records than other vocal groups. It sold more
records than the American Quartet, which is a group
preferred by many record collectors due to the
unique contribution Billy Murray made to American
Quartet records. The Peerless was managed by bass
singer Frank C. Stanley until his death from
pneumonia at age 41 in December 1910. Afterwards
it was led by tenor Henry Burr.
The Peerless basically evolved from the older
Columbia Quartet, of which Stanley had been a
member, though one could argue it evolved from the
Invincible Quartet, which was one of several vocal
groups that Stanley organized and managed. The
Columbia Quartet, usually credited only as "quartet"
on the rim of cylinders and labels of discs, was
formed in the late 1890s and underwent many
personnel changes though Albert Campbell remained
as first tenor. By 1903 the Columbia Quartet
consisted of Campbell, second tenor Henry Burr, a
baritone (probably Arthur Collins on most records
though Bob Roberts may be on some - Steve Porter
was abroad at this time but may have been a
Peerless member from around 1906 to 1908), and
basso "Big Tom" Daniels. Albert Campbell told Jim
Walsh that Daniels sang in the quartet, and the likely
years were 1902 and 1903. When Daniels was
succeeded in late 1903 or early 1904 by Stanley, at
least three of the original Peerless members were
The name Columbia Quartet is announced on very
early Columbia discs but was not written on labels
until around 1905. By 1907 the members adopted
the name Peerless in order to work for other
companies, naturally retaining the name Columbia
Quartet for Columbia records.
Stanley did much of the lead singing upon joining. It
was unusual for a bass-baritone to lead in quartet
singing, which is normally led by the "second tenor"
("first" and "second" indicate the relative pitch of
tenors, not their importance to a quartet - "first tenor"
sings the highest). In male quartet singing, the bass
usually sings the foundation or root of a chord, the
second tenor sings the melody, the first tenor sings
harmony above the melody, and the baritone
completes the chord by filling in the missing link
somewhere between the bass and the first tenor.
An early appearance of the Peerless Quartet name is
in a February 1907 Zon-o-phone supplement
announcing "Where Is My Boy Tonight?" (673).
Company literature identifies members as Burr,
Porter, Stanley, and "Frank Howard," which is the
name often used for Campbell on Zon-o-phone
releases. Jim Walsh states in the December 1969
issue of Hobbies, "...I suspect that the Universal
Male Quartet, which began making Zon-o-phone
records in 1906, was really the Peerless, and that,
since Zon-o-phone records were the product of the
Universal Talking Machine Company, the Quartet
was at first called the Universal Quartet, just as it
was the Columbia Quartet on Columbia discs and
The Peerless made its Victor debut with "Women!"
from Lehdr's light opera The Merry Widow (single-
sided 5392; later double-sided 16424). It was issued
in April 1908. During the 1907-1909 period, the
Peerless also had debut releases on Edison,
Indestructible (as just "Quartet" or "Male Quartet"),
U-S Everlasting, American, Imperial, and other
labels. The first Edison cylinder to feature the name
Peerless Quartette is Standard 10106, issued in April
1909. On it, the quartet performs a comic sketch
called "A Meeting of the Hen Roost Club," which
was written by Cal Stewart, according to the
February 1909 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly.
Announcing the July 1909 release of "Call to Arms"
by the Peerless on Amberol 171, the May 1909 issue
of the trade journal states, "The sketch portion was
written by Albert Campbell."