A Note From Your District Historian
Greetings, friends of the Illinois District! I hope you are all having a relaxing summer. Before long, we will be gathering for another convention in Bloomington and my annual historical display! Until then, I’ve got some real gems for you in this issue. From a unique artifact advertising the very first SPEBSQSA convention in 1939 to a pioneer director of the 1940s, to celebrating the 1957 anniversary of a legendary district quartet, to a children’s barbershop chorus from the 1960s, to a chance encounter in 1972 that had an important impact on one of the Society’s most influential arrangers – it is a walk through five decades of barbershop history. As always, I thank the members of my historical committee, particularly Bob Squires and Joe Sullivan, as well as Tom Woodall and David Wright for contributions to this issue. Enjoy!
Illinois District Historian
John Hanson was born in Peoria, Illinois on June 24, 1895, and as a young man became interested in harmony singing. Early in life he went into vaudeville. As a showman and singer, he loved the stage and loved putting together shows. He produced and directed minstrel and variety shows throughout the 1920‘s and 30’s. John also loved singing close harmony in a barbershop quartet.
One of John’s first quartets was called the Templeton Quartet and included his pal Jim Jordan (later to become the famous radio personality, Fibber McGee) on tenor, Bob McConnell on lead, Ed Ellig, baritone and John singing the bass. When they weren’t singing at church and community functions, they could be found on the street corner outside of Duffner’s Soda Fountain or Tompkin’s Saloon, singing their harmonies as long as somebody let them stay.
In 1917, John was called to the Army and served with the 90th Division A.E.F. in World War I, where he was sent to the front lines in France and Germany. The first part of his tour of duty was spent on the battlefield and the last part was spent with the 358th Headquarters Company putting on shows and entertaining the troops in France. After the war and back into vaudeville, John married his piano accompanist, Edith Greene. They had one child, a daughter named Betty.
Around 1934, John and his singing buddies from the small towns around Peoria formed the “Klose Harmony Klub.” In 1940, they learned about a new organization singing “barbershop” harmony and quickly signed up, forming the Peoria chapter of S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A. with 54 members.
Subsequently, the Peoria chapter began sponsoring other chapters around central Illinois and John ended up being their director at one time or another. Soon, John was directing chapters in Peoria, Bloomington, Decatur, and Canton. He taught each chorus the same songs, all by rote, so there was no written music involved.
Because John’s skills as a director were reaching so many men in different chapters around the central part of Illinois, it was only natural that something historic would happen…and it did just that. About 30 of John’s central Illinois chapter members gathered on the balcony over the lobby of the Pantlind Hotel in Grand Rapids, Michigan at the 1942 national convention and decided to join in song. With John as their director, they just happened to all sing the same songs. After the first number they received a big round of applause and someone from the lobby called up…“what’s the name of this bunch?” John Hanson turned to Joe Bunting of Bloomington and asked, “what’ll we call ourselves?” Bunting, on the spur of the moment, shot back, “the Corn Belt Chorus.” And Hanson, a master showman, announced that this was, indeed, the great Corn Belt Chorus from central Illinois. The group was asked to sing at the contest finals that night and it is believed to be the first chorus ever to sing at a national convention.
Over the following year, the group became more organized. Whenever one of the member chapters had a show, the other choruses would converge on that city and join the chorus, which sometimes swelled over the 200 mark. Shows then were held on Sunday afternoons and there was always a big afterglow following. This afforded some of the best interchapter relations imaginable. The chorus uniform was simply a white shirt and black bow tie, with dark trousers and shoes.
Some 15 cities were in the organization at one time or another. They included Canton, Champaign, Charleston, Decatur, Galesburg, Jacksonville, Mattoon, Monmouth, Princeton, Dwight, Springfield, Peoria, Gibson City, and Lincoln. The chorus sang for at least two years as the windup attraction at the Illinois State Fair with Earl Bach and Joe Bunting serving as masters of ceremonies. Perhaps the Corn Belt Chorus reached its zenith at the Fair in 1946 when some 250 singers crowded onto the stage for a concert before thousands of fairgoers.
Despite his reputation as an outstanding director, John also loved singing in a quartet. In 1941, he sang briefly with Glenn Howard in the Capitol City Four from Springfield, placing 5th at the national contest in St. Louis. Most of his quartet years, though, were spent singing with The Gipps-Amberlin 4, named after a well-known Midwest brewery located in Peoria. The group was made up of Hanson singing bass, along with Bob Place on tenor, Mort Wrigley on baritone, and LaVerne Blew on lead. It was at the 1944 Detroit contest that the quartet literally stopped the show with their rendition of “Shine” when the audience demanded an extra bow before the contest could continue. This was the first and only time this ever took place. That year, the group took home a fourth place medal.
John’s influence in the barbershop world didn’t stop with his quartet singing and chorus directing. In 1942, he was named to a Society Board Member position and in 1943, became the Society’s first Master of Ceremonies at the convention held in Chicago that year. It was at this convention that he presented his 150-voice Corn Belt Chorus to the audience, thus planting a seed that would result in chorus contests a few years later.
John Hanson passed away in July of 1954 and left a long and illustrious legacy of barbershop harmony not only throughout central Illinois, but for the District and Society as a whole.
Contributions to this article made by: Betty Hanson Oliver, L. Earl Bach, Charlie Driver, and David Wright
The Corn Belt Chorus with John Hanson, featured on the front page of the Peoria Journal Transcript, May 3, 1943
The Corn Belt Chorus, under the direction of John Hanson, performs on stage in Bloomington, 1947
The Gipps-Amberlin 4 quartet, from L to R – Mort Wrigley (bari), John Hanson (bass), LaVerne Blew (lead), Bob Place (tenor)
The Four Renegades
The genesis of the Renegades – the Up N’ Atoms quartet, 1956. From L to R – Tom Felgen (bass), Joe Sullivan (tenor), Jim Maher (lead), Thom Hine (bari)
The Four Renegades after their 1957 district win – clockwise from top: Tom Felgen (bass), Jim Maher (baritone), Buzz Haeger (tenor), and Joe Sullivan (lead)
The Four Renegades – version 2 with new baritone, Jim Foley. From L to R – Foley, Sullivan, Felgen, Haeger
A newspaper clipping from the Kankakee Journal, March 25, 1963, showing The Four Renegades doing some informal singing after breakfast at the spring convention held in Kankakee that year.
The Four Renegades is one of the most popular international quartet champions of all time and certainly one of the most memorable of Illinois District champions. Most barbershoppers in the Society today have at least heard of this legendary quartet, but not as many know how this famous foursome got their start.
It all began with a group of four young college guys (Joe Sullivan, Tom Felgen, Jim Maher, and Thom Hine). Ironically, they all knew each other earlier as fellow competitors. In the fall of 1955, two quartets, the Eristochords (featuring Sullivan & Maher representing Skokie Valley) and the Up N’ Atoms (featuring Felgen & Hine representing Northbrook) battled it out in district competition earning 5th and 6th respectively. After the contest, the quartets merged – they kept the name Up N’ Atoms with Sullivan on tenor, Maher on lead, Hine on bari, and Felgen on bass.
Shortly thereafter, Thom Hine dropped out, and Warren “Buzz” Haeger joined the group, originally filling in on baritone. Buzz had previously been a member of The Four Tissimos, which won district honors in 1954 and had placed as high as 3rd at the international level before disbanding. At one particular coaching session, legendary coach Lyle Pilcher (see FTV Spring 2022 issue), made a swap with Haeger singing tenor, Sullivan singing lead, and Maher on baritone. Pilch said, “that’s how the quartet sounds best – now sing louder!” At the next rehearsal, the guys settled on their new quartet name and The Four Renegades was born!
In early 1957, the quartet qualified to compete in Los Angeles, CA and surprised the audience, placing 10th in their first international competition. Later that year, the quartet easily won top honors as the new district champion. However, in January 1958, Buzz had to temporarily drop out of the quartet due to work commitments, so the guys recruited fellow barbershopper Clair DeFrew to join on tenor and competed in Columbus, OH, placing 13th. Following that contest, and with the recent departure of Maher, the quartet decided to take some time off. By 1959, though, Buzz was back and the group was looking for the right baritone to complete the group. He knew of a top-notch baritone from Gary, Indiana named Jim Foley who also had Coach Pilcher’s approval.
All of the sudden, the stars aligned and magic was being made. The new sound was distinctive and appealing, and the quartet began singing on a regular basis for shows. Their status as an international competitor was gaining momentum, placing 9th in Dallas in 1960, 7th in Philadelphia in 1961, and as a 3rd place medalist in Kansas City in 1962. The group went down a notch to 4th in Toronto in 1963, but provided a very memorable and humorous performance when the quartet sang, “They’re All Out of Step But Jim” with baritone Jim Foley garnering huge laughs for his portrayal of a choreography-challenged World War I soldier.
Because of personal commitments, Joe Sullivan had to bow out of the quartet following the 1963 competition. The group found a replacement lead, Ben Williams, and learned new songs and routines. They continued their international climb, reaching 2nd place in San Antonio in 1964 and eventually taking the gold in Boston in 1965. Over the next seven years, the group traveled extensively, performed on hundreds of shows, recorded three albums, and became one of the most popular and sought-after gold medal quartets of all time.
With the passing of Jim Maher and Buzz Haeger, Joe Sullivan and Tom Felgen are the only two surviving members of the original group. The quartet definitely made their mark in Illinois District and Society history and we celebrate the 65th anniversary of our 1957 (once and always) district champions, The Four Renegades!
The Four Renegades employ one of their crazy routines with the audience favorite, “They Were All Out of Step But Jim” at the 1963 Toronto international convention.
Ask any barbershopper who they believe has had the biggest impact as an arranger in the Society and they will probably say David Wright. His complex, yet highly energized arrangements are often sought by quartets and choruses alike, especially at the International competitive level. Most barbershoppers have sung a David Wright arrangement at some point and/or listened to his riveting and informative lectures on barbershop history. But did you know that this barbershop legend, who is associated with the Central States District, actually got his first taste of barbershop here in Illinois, specifically the Coles County Chapter?
It was the summer of 1972 and David was attending graduate school at Columbia University in New York. His brother Wayne (who later directed the Sterling-Rock Falls chapter, and served as Illinois District president and VP of C&J for many years) was living in the Charleston/Mattoon area and David and his family came to live with Wayne over the summer while school was out of session. During his visit, Wayne (a member of Coles County at the time) invited his brother to attend a rehearsal. Director Tom Woodall welcomed him into the chapter meeting and David enjoyed the sound. Little did anyone realize at the time that an important seed had just been planted.
In 1975, upon graduating from Columbia, David got his job as a professor of mathematics at Washington University in St. Louis. Brother Wayne encouraged him to get into barbershop locally, which David did – first with the St. Louis #1 Chapter and a few years later with the Daniel Boone Chapter which has since evolved into the Ambassadors of Harmony and the chapter he calls home and arranges for to this day.
Just goes to show the impact you might make when you invite a guest to your next chapter rehearsal!
This issue features a truly unique artifact, not just for those in the district, but for barbershoppers everywhere. From the depths of the vault comes an advertisement to the very first SPEBSQSA contest and convention, held in Tulsa, OK in the summer of 1939. That year, some 23 quartets competed with 15 making the finals held at Tulsa’s Central High School. About 150 individuals were present for the inaugural event. Judges were not barbershoppers at that point – the panel was made up of 2 educators, 1 physician, 1 American Legion state commander, and the Lt. Gov. of Oklahoma. Interestingly, the top spot was awarded to the Bartlesville Barflies of Bartlesville, OK after a sing-off with the eventual runners-up: The Capitol City Four from Springfield, IL (see FTV Summer 2021 issue article on Glenn Howard). Society Founder O.C.Cash humorously summed up the contest by stating, “We’re off in a spray of dust and there’ll be no holding us from now on…”
(Click image to enlarge.)
This issue features an ensemble of talented young children connected with the Arlington Heights chapter. In 1964, director Earle Auge (who also happened to be a local music educator) teamed up with chapter member Jack Musich to organize a mixed barbershop chorus of children (most of whom were children of chapter members) whose ages ranged from second through eighth grade. The chapter received permission from a local park for rehearsal space on Saturday mornings from 10-11am. Earle graciously volunteered his time and the “Arlingtots” were born! Earle designated the older boys and girls to sing bass, the younger ones to sing tenor, the more musically-minded ones to sing baritone, and the rest sang lead. He taught them mostly by rote and enlisted the help of some of the “dads” from the chapter. The kids performed on chapter shows, and even appeared at the 1965 district convention held in Oak Lawn. The group eventually disbanded a few years later when the children’s interests changed and Earle’s workload at school increased. But for a time, the Illinois District could boast of a youth in harmony concept unmatched by most chapters in the Society.
The Arlingtots during a chorus rehearsal.
The Arlingtots during a chorus rehearsal.
The Arlingtots with the Arlingtones under the direction of Earle Auge at a chapter show.