Barbershop quartet shares hobby, songs

Published 12:53 pm Friday, July 29, 2011

Bass Ed Wharton, baritone Mitchell McDow, lead Tom Brown and tenor Steve Callaham make up the Tomcats. They’ve been performing together for three years. (Reporter photo/Jon Goering)

By KATIE HURST / For the Reporter

Pen-striped vests and straw boater hats often come to mind when conjuring images of a barbershop quartet. However, one Shelby County group is taking the “old” out of “old-fashioned” to share this toe-tappin’ music with groups of all ages.

The quartet is made up of bass Ed Wharton, baritone Mitchell McDow, lead Tom Brown and tenor Steve Callahan. The group calls themselves “the Tomcats,” and they’ve been performing together across Shelby County for three years.

The style of their costumes changes as often as the types of songs they sing, Callahan said. However, the barbershop style always remains.

“You can apply barbershop to lots of different styles of music, including rock and pop,” he said. “I think the audience enjoys the interesting blend of the four-part harmony. It provides such a good sound without relying on instruments for support.”

Each of the men play a key role in the quartet, as they each tackle different notes to bring the song together. The lead provides the harmony of the song and is often the part people recognize first, Callahan said.

“The bass is what we call the engine,” he said. “It provides the foundation and it drives the whole quartet. The baritone is sometimes the least popular but stresses some of those notes that make the others sounds bright. It’s often called the missing link to the quartet. The tenor is the sparkle. It puts the twinkle in the song.”

The members of the Tomcats first met through the Central Alabama Chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society. They are all members of the chorus “Voices of the South” and they practice together as a quartet once a week.

“One thing we rehearse is not just to hit the note and remember the words, but to actually say it in the same way,” Brown said.

Using the same dialect gives the performance that unison audiences enjoy, he said. Acting and playing off each other is another essential part of barbershop performances, Brown said. When the four personalities come together, a barbershop performance is much more than just a song.

“You’re able to sing and perform a visual of what you’re doing,” Callahan said. “It tells the story of the song.

“We enjoy what we do,” he added. “We enjoy entertaining people and we enjoy making people happy. It makes the audience sit and reflect back for a while — that’s what it’s all about for us.”

The Tomcats often perform for events, group meetings, churches, schools and even as singing valentines.

“When we deliver singing valentines to offices in our tuxes and red vests, the whole workplace often gathers around and tears flow,” Brown said.

“And the women like it too,” McDow added.

When it comes to other singing groups, the Tomcats said they’re not worried about the competition.

“We’re the best barbershop quartet in Shelby County,” Wharton said. “We’re the only one we know of.”

For more information or to book a performance, call 222-1340 or 566-9529.