There was no warmth outside the walls of the First Baptist Church of Mesa on Thursday night. Winter won’t start for another two weeks, but the temperature — cold enough to cause the ears to tingle and burn a little — was a reminder the line between seasons is flexible.
It was a much toastier environment within the confines of one of the church’s community rooms in both physical sensation and hospitality. Accounting for the latter was the East Valley Lamplighters, who spent three hours Thursday evening inside the church conducting its weekly rehearsals.
Lamplighters are anachronisms, a profession that ceased to exist once lamps transitioned from gas to electric. But the East Valley Lamplighters, a collection of male chorus singers from the East Valley and beyond, keep barbershop music from joining their namesake through performances of a rather difficult art form.
“They call barbershop the kung fu of harmony because it’s the hardest thing you can learn,” said Mesa resident Dale Weatherford.
Weatherford is the founder of the East Valley branch of the Lamplighters, which he began in the early 1990s to create a more casual barbershop experience than the one he experienced with a Scottsdale group. What began with about a baker’s dozen has grown to around 30 in the ensuing years.
They perform as a large ensemble and as separate quartets with a lead, tenor, bass and baritone. The main occasion for splitting into the traditional quartets comes during Valentine’s Day.
Every Feb. 14, Lamplighter members will travel from place to place to perform at the behest of a husband or boyfriend. They’ll enter the business where the wife or girlfriend works dressed in traditional barbershop attire and present the woman with a bit of candy, a little note, and a serenade of two sentimental songs.
“Then the woman cries and we leave,” Weatherford said.
Chats with Weatherford and two members of his quartet — Chandler resident and bass Jerry Fox and Gilbert resident and baritone Bob Shaffer — accompany the rest of the Lamplighters rehearsing a few Christmas standards in preparation for their next set of shows. They have three lined up for Dec. 14: one at 3 p.m. at the Tumbleweed Christmas Tree in Chandler, a second at 5 p.m. at Mercy Gilbert Medical Center, and a finale at 7 p.m. at Upland Drive in Chandler.
A thorough list of upcoming performances is available at the Lamplighters’ website: evbarbershop.com.
Preparation is vital, and requires members to nearly every Thursday evening — chorus member Roy Murray called it their “bowling night” — practicing for performances somewhat large (Arizona Diamondbacks games in the summer), and, often quite small.
There are a few factors that keep the members coming back and staying out until 10 p.m. on Thursday nights (cold or warm). Some of which belongs to those smaller performances, like the Valentine’s Day songs that can cause women to swoon as the singers say “I love you” on behalf of a couple’s other half.
“We don’t get the gold medal internationals, but we get the gold medals for the small moments,” Fox said.
Continuation of their amateur singing careers provides a second motivation for all three. Whether it was through church groups or other formats, Fox, Shaffer and Weatherford have always found a way to let loose of the proverbial song in their respective hearts.
This one isn’t the final reason, but the camaraderie among the members does make for an appealing incentive. They take their business seriously — they’ll repeat line after line until they get it right — but an opportunity to earn a good laugh isn’t bypassed.
The proximity of members’ respective ages help — of the 25 who attended Thursday’s rehearsal, 23 were at least in their early 60s — but Shaffer, who will serve as the Lamplighters’ next president, said members depend on one another to keep practicing beyond the three-hour time frame.
“If you don’t sing your part right, you hear it,” he said.
The last chat ended and then it was time to go and let the Lamplighters finish its rehearsal uninterrupted. But a person can’t leave without receiving a solid goodbye — this one came from quartet lead Bill Johnson — and a question of much import.
“Do you sing?” he asked.
“I make the showerhead cringe,” Johnson said.
You respond with a light smirk and a strong handshake as you head back into the cold.
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