Up Front

75 Years of Song

Mall City Harmonizers celebrate diamond anniversary

"How do you hit all the high spots of 75 years in a couple of hours?” asks Michael Sobel, president and vice president of marketing for the Mall City Harmonizers, a male a cappella chorus that has been bringing tunes to Southwest Michigan since 1941.
The answer will ring forth in song at the Harmonizers’ Diamond Jubilee concert, set for 7 p.m. Sept. 17 at Western Michigan University’s Dalton Center Recital Hall.

“We’ll sing iconic songs that represent the history of those seven decades,” says Sobel. Among the tunes will be the group’s signature song, “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo,” which Glenn Miller and His Orchestra recorded 74 years ago and which the chorus sings at every performance.

The Harmonizers sing in barbershop style — a sound that, according to Harmonizer literature, involves “unique tuning” known as “chord busting,” “ringing chords” or “the angel’s voice” that can be attained only with human vocal cords.

The barbershop genre grew out of the minstrel shows of the late 1800s. It became “official” in 1938 when Owen C. Cash of Tulsa, Oklahoma, convinced his musical colleagues to create the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America Inc. (SPEBSQSA). Three years later, men in Kalamazoo formed the nation’s 13th chapter. The parallel women’s singing organization, Sweet Adelines International, was founded in 1945.

Today SPEBSQSA is known as The Barbershop Harmony Society. The local male chorus chose its current moniker in 2010. “We wanted to have people link us with Kalamazoo’s nickname, the Mall City,” says past president Ludwig Ouzoonian.

The name is apropos. One of the Harmonizers’ favorite venues is the Kalamazoo Mall, specifically for Art Hops, where they roam like minstrels, to the great delight of passersby.

In addition to the main chorus, whose 25 members range in age from late teens to 70s, the Harmonizers include three barbershop quartets: By Design, the facially haired Four Got To Shave and a younger foursome known as Remix.
The chorus performs more than twice a month, says Sobel, who estimated its annual audience at more than 15,000 in 2015. Big events for the chorus include the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts Fair in Bronson Park, WMU basketball games, holiday sing-outs and occasional appearances at Kalamazoo’s New Year’s Fest. The group also offers Singing Valentines and Christmas caroling every year.

The Harmonizers also perform for military personnel at the WMU ROTC Military Ball and for veterans of World War II. “There’s an organization in Southwest Michigan, Talons Out Honor Flight (associated with the national Honor Flight Network), that flies World War II vets to Washington, D.C., to visit the World War II Memorial twice a year,” Sobel says. “They leave the Kalamazoo-Battle Creek Airport at 6:30 a.m., and we’re there to sing ‘God Bless America,’ the ‘Armed Forces Medley’ and other patriotic songs. This is a great honor for us.”

In addition, Sobel says, the group has donated to other programs supporting military men and women. The Harmonizers donate money to Broncos for Heroes, which is WMU’s ROTC program that sends care packages to U.S. military members overseas. In 2015, the chorus gave more than $1,000, including proceeds from its annual Holiday Harmony show.

“Even though we are nonprofits, barbershop choruses have some altruistic purpose,” says Sobel.

For their Diamond Jubilee concert this month, the Mall City Harmonizers will be joined by members of barbershop choruses from Grand Rapids, Lansing, Battle Creek, Holland and Muskegon. More than 50 male voices will join in song and the concert will also feature Patch Chords, a humorous, award-winning quartet, and The Gagie School's Good Vibes Chorus.

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Mall City Harmonizers’ Diamond Jubilee concert

When: 7 p.m. Sept. 17
Where: Dalton Center Recital Hall, Western Michigan University
How much: $15, or $12 each for orders of five tickets or more
More info: barbershopharmony.org