Local singer earns gold with successful barbershop quartet

by Charles Cassady

Close-harmony vocal quartet Quorum won the 2022 International Quartet Contest, with member and Independence resident Gary Lewis making Barbershop Harmony Society history.

The Barbershop Harmony Society is a nonprofit that offers programs and resources in music education, publishing, performance and community outreach, according to its website.

In addition to Quorum taking first place, Lewis became the first singer in the 85-year history of the society to win gold in three different voice parts. He previously won as baritone of the quartet Max Q in 2007 and tenor of the group Platinum in 2000. His most recent win was for bass.

“I started singing at a young age, starting with the church choir,” said Lewis, adding that at seven years he was considered strong enough to join the adult choir.

Lewis and Jacob `Puck’ Ross, of Brecksville, comprise half of the close-harmony vocal quartet Quorum, which also features Chris Vaughn, of New Jersey, and Nathan Johnston, of Florida. Lewis only lacks the gold for lead singer (Vaughn holds that slot, for whom Lewis does the bass notes, while Ross sings tenor).

Both Lewis and Ross grew up in Toledo and are also brothers-in-law, having married sisters in a prominent Cleveland music-radio family. In addition to his singing in Quorum, Lewis is the director of the now 19-year-old “everyman’s chorus” ensemble, Men of Independence, in which Ross also performs.

Rehearsal sessions of the Men of Independence are open to visitors (including ladies, although performers are all male) every Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at the Independence United Methodist Church, 6615 Brecksville Rd.

Since forming in 2014, Quorum has taken multiple awards home from the Barbershop Harmony Society. In 2021 the group self-released their debut CD “Lovely Day.” Due to COVID lockdown conditions, Quorum’s members had to record their parts separately in different parts of the country, combining them digitally using audio-editing computer software.

The “Pitch Perfect” comedy films have made audiences aware of the popularity of a cappella singing, but before that was doo-wop. And before that was “barbershop,” dated by some sources as far back as the 1600s in England, known there as “barber’s music.” The style saw waves of popularity in America, pulling its playlist from the American popular songbook of yesteryear and occasionally, Broadway.

“Barbershop has been called `the Black Belt of a cappella singing,” said Lewis. “It’s basically four parts, and the melody part is not necessarily the highest voice.”

Lewis, like Ross, makes his living as a music educator. He works in the Solon school system, while Ross leads choirs in North Olmsted at the middle and high schools.

While many other vocal groups hit high notes with a soprano lead, barbershoppers strive for a more distinctive sound known within music circles as the “circle of fifths,” as well as hitting a unique seventh chord, that’s actually been renamed the “barbershop chord.”

In non-technical terms Lewis summed up the music’s appeal with an insider term, “‘Lock-and-ring’ … when the voices come together that create a sound that is extended as though it is more than four people.”

Said Lewis, “We’ve gone to every convention that we’ve been able to.” But in recent years that scene has been silenced. 2021 was supposed to be the year the Barbershop Harmony brought its convention to Cleveland, but the entire event has been rescheduled to 2024 due to the pandemic.

“The venue will be Public Hall downtown,” said Ross. Non-members are welcome, and can expect special performances, classes and workshops, and, of course, the competitions for barbershop idols.

During the long coronavirus intermission, Quorum not only issued their first full-length recording, but also collaborated with song satirist and accordion virtuoso “Weird” Al Yankovic.

In creating a new American Greetings product, the “SmashUp” video birthday card, Yankovic is joined by various music groups singing customizable, personalized birthday wishes. The actual session took place in August 2021.

“‘Weird’ Al wanted a barbershop quartet,” said Lewis. “All they did was record the audio. It was still a ‘Wally World’ experience for me. Al was in the studio recording and producing with us.”

It was not the first brush with a media star for Quorum. In 2017, at the Barbershop Harmony Society’s convention in Las Vegas, the group was among those joining TV host/podcaster/author Mike Rowe in performance. Rowe, best known for the “Dirty Jobs” franchise, is also an avid four-part-harmony vocalist. He was inducted as an honorary member of the society.

What will be the next twists around the candy-stripes of the barber pole? Listeners can follow Quorum online at quorumquartet.com. Men of Independence can be heard on Sept. 13, rendering the National Anthem at Progressive Field before the scheduled Major League Baseball game. For more information visit menofindependence.com. ∞

Photo: Quorum members Puck Ross, Chris Vaughn, Gary Lewis, and Nathan Johnston accept trophies as 2022 International Gold Medal Champions. Photo submitted.