Thoroughbreds sang for decades of change
Screenwriter / Megan Arszman
The voice is an awesome thing, with the ability to make so many sounds, both harmonious and decisive. He can lead a song by shouting in a heavy metal band or creating an a cappella harmony.
It is the simplicity of the a cappella that draws the ear to the barber’s vocal harmony. And while that may sound simplistic, the effort for a successful barbershop-style sound is as complex as the story behind the bands.
The Barbershop Harmony Society (BHS) began as a fellowship group in 1938. It was started as a way to rekindle a passion for men harmonizing together, not only musically, but also in physical gathering. OC Cash and Rupert Hall met a group of men in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on the Roof Garden above the Tulsa Club, where the whole group sang together, then split into several quartets.
The movement soon moved to Louisville in 1946, where the Louisville chapter, under Fritz Dryborough, a local Louisville businessman, was chartered with 33 men. The group grew to over 300 men by the early 1950s, entertained with annual shows, and existed primarily for singing and fellowship. By the late 1950s, the numbers had dwindled. In 1957, Jim Miller, who would become a Thoroughbred legend, led a group of 25 men who wanted to do more than socialize. They wanted to focus on the art of barber singing with the goal of becoming a competitive choir. They took their name, The Thoroughbreds, from a quartet that had disbanded, and the group destined to change the direction of the Society was on its way. According to the official website, barbershop singing is “a style of unaccompanied vocal music characterized by four-part consonant chords for each melodic note in a predominantly homorhythmic (same word sounding at the same time) texture”.
Thoroughbreds joined the BHS and competed in what is known as the Cardinal District, which has choir members in Kentucky and Indiana.
A history of excellence
After the Thoroughbreds won their first Cardinal District title in 1958, a string of success soon followed. Their first appearance at the International Convention was in 1959, when they finished eighth. They finished sixth in 1960, second in 1961 and in 1962 won the Society International.
“It launched a system of excellence that would set the standard for the Barbershop Society for the next 20 years,” says Troy Lovett, historian and longtime member of The Thoroughbreds.
Indeed, The Thoroughbreds showed that the Louisville area is teeming with talent. The rules of the international competition state that the winner must be absent for two years before competing again. The dominance and influence of the Thoroughbreds from the years 1961 to 1992 is remarkable. During this period of more than 30 years, the group won seven gold, seven silver and three bronze medals.
In 1978, the Louisville chapter achieved a rare exacta when the choir (The Thoroughbreds) and quartet (Bluegrass Student Union) won gold at the Cincinnati International Convention. Other Louisville foursomes followed, with the Interstate Rivals winning in 1987, the second in 1989 and Forefront in 2016.
There has been much success over the years, but relatively little recognition in the Louisville area. However, a new relationship with the University of Louisville Music Department Archives will help establish a place for The Thoroughbreds and their championship quartets as an integral part of Louisville’s music scene and history.
“They say we’re Louisville’s best-kept secret,” Lovett says. “We’ve been here since 1946.”
The group has sung for the prestigious National Medal of Honor Convention, Derby events, Presidential events, sporting events, and many other civic and military functions. Additionally, the group has presented an annual show for the community for over 75 years.
more than singing
Thoroughbreds aren’t just about singing. Like the original idea behind the founding of the society, the Thoroughbreds are a social group with the intention of providing a place for a brotherhood of men who love to sing. Membership is open to any man in the Louisville area looking for a place to belong – a beautiful singing voice is not one of the main requirements.
“You might be surprised how popular barbershops and a cappella singing are today,” says Lovett. “Although not in the mainstream of public thought, it is not a secret society, but a society embraced by thousands of men around the world.”
Throughout the country, there are chapters with 150 or more singing members, and, thanks to the popularity of certain bands like Straight No Chaser and Pentatonix, there is an ongoing attempt to interest and involve the younger generation.
As with most groups in society, the Louisville Chapter has experienced a gradual decline in membership and participation over the past two decades. Jeff Harper, vice president of fundraising for the Louisville chapter, says the blame is not just on the pandemic (although that hasn’t helped), but also on technology and the course of the society as a whole.
“We have so many things catching our attention these days,” Harper says. “Technology has changed the direction of young people’s social lives.”
While the Barbershop Harmony Society has traditionally been an all-male society, there has been talk of opening the society up to all genders.
“There are also female-only choir chapters, but they struggle like we do,” Harper says. “Many hair salon groups are leaning towards female membership, just as Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts have opened up their gender requirements.”
Thoroughbreds performed at venues such as Caesars Superdome in New Orleans, Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City, Honda Center in Anaheim and Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, as well as arenas and venues local. Their mission is to continue to share their passion for song and camaraderie. The age range of members ranges from early twenties to the oldest member who is 88 years old. Doug Harrington, a member of the award-winning quartet of the second edition as well as championship manager in Sweden and the United Kingdom, joined the Louisville chapter at the age of 10. years.
“Thoroughbreds are well traveled and well known across the country,” says Lovett. “We’ve been a part of the Louisville scene not only entertainment but culturally for the past 60 to 70 years. It is something worth keeping.
In search of lasting growth and song
The COVID pandemic has been detrimental to social groups, especially singing groups like The Thoroughbreds. However, the group is one of the few in the country not dependent on renting a facility. The group purchased the church property in Jeffersontown in 1978. A few years ago, the chapter voted to rename the facility Jim Miller Hall in honor of their legendary director.
Recently, the group installed a new air filtration system in Jim Miller Hall that includes ultraviolet light to kill bacteria and viruses. This improved the air health in the old church and allowed the group to continue renting the facility for weddings, gatherings and other events.
Rehearsals are scheduled every Monday evening at 7 p.m. and are open to the public. Anyone interested in visiting or joining the group should contact the group through their website or social media pages.
If you want to visit The Thoroughbreds, you can stop by Jim Miller Hall, located at 10609 Watterson Trail in Jeffersontown, or visit thethoroughbreds.org.