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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 additional information!

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 Keith-Albee circuit."

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 conspirators."

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 together.

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 cylinders."

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."