The Thoroughbreds Have Been Singing Through Decades of Change
Writer / Megan Arszman
The voice is an awe-inspiring thing, with the ability to make so many sounds, both harmonious and decisive. It can lead a song by way of yelling in a heavy-metal band or creating harmony a cappella.
It’s the simplicity of a cappella that entices the ear to barbershop vocal harmony. And while it may sound simplistic, the effort for a successful barbershop-style sound is as complex as the history behind the groups.
The Barbershop Harmony Society (BHS) started as a fellowship group in 1938. It was started as a way to reignite a passion for men harmonizing together, not only musically, but also in a physical gathering. O.C. Cash and Rupert Hall met with a group of men in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on the Roof Garden on top of the Tulsa Club, where the entire group would sing together, then break off into multiple quartets.
The movement soon made it to Louisville in 1946, where the Louisville chapter, under the leadership of Fritz Dryborough, a local Louisville businessman, was chartered with 33 men. The group grew to more than 300 men in the early 1950s, entertained with annual shows, and existed primarily for singing and fellowship. By the late 1950s the numbers had declined. In 1957 Jim Miller, who was to become a Thoroughbred legend, led a group of 25 men who wanted to do more than socialize. They wanted to focus on the craft of barbershop singing with the purpose of becoming a competitive chorus. 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 consonant four-part chords for every melody note in a primarily homorhythmic (the same word sounds at the same time) texture.”
The Thoroughbreds joined the BHS and competed in what is known as the Cardinal District, which has chorus members in Kentucky and Indiana.
A History of Excellence
After the Thoroughbreds won their first Cardinal District title in 1958, a string of successes soon followed. Their first appearance in the International Convention was in 1959, when they finished eighth. They finished sixth in 1960, second in 1961, and in 1962 won the society’s International.
“That began 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 was full of talent. Rules of the international competition state that the winner must sit out for two years before competing again. The dominance and influence of The Thoroughbreds for the years 1961 through 1992 is remarkable. During that span of more than 30 years the group won seven gold medals, seven silver and three bronze.
In 1978 the Louisville chapter hit a rare exacta when the chorus (The Thoroughbreds) and quartet (Bluegrass Student Union) won gold at the International Convention in Cincinnati. Other Louisville quartets followed, with the Interstate Rivals winning in 1987, the Second Edition in 1989 and Forefront in 2016.
There has been much success though the years, but relatively little recognition in the Louisville area. However, a new relationship with the University of Louisville music department’s archives will help establish a place for The Thoroughbreds and its championship quartets as an integral part of Louisville’s music scene and history.
“It’s been said we’re the best-kept secret in Louisville,” Lovett says. “We’ve been right here since 1946.”
The group has sung for the prestigious national Medal of Honor convention, Derby events, presidential events, sports events, and many other civic and military functions. In addition, the group has presented an annual show for the community for more than 75 years.
More Than Just Singing
The Thoroughbreds are about more than just singing. Like the initial idea behind the founding of the society, The Thoroughbreds are a social group with an intent to provide a place for a fraternity of men who like to sing. Membership is open to any male in the Louisville area looking for a place to belong – a beautiful singing voice is not one of the primary requirements.
“You might be surprised as to how popular barbershop and a cappella singing is today,” Lovett says. “While it may not be in the mainstream of the public thought, it is not a secret society, but one embraced by thousands of men worldwide.”
Nationwide, there are chapters with 150 or more singing members, and, thanks to the popularity of some groups like Straight No Chaser and Pentatonix, there is an ongoing attempt to interest and involve the younger generation.
As with most society groups, the Louisville chapter has seen a gradual decline in membership and participation through the last two decades. Jeff Harper, vice president of fundraising for the Louisville chapter, says the blame is not only on the pandemic (though that hasn’t helped), but also on technology and the course of society as a whole.
“We have so many things that grab our attention these days,” Harper says. “Technology has changed the direction of young people’s social lives.”
While the Barbershop Harmony Society is traditionally a male-only society, there has been talk of opening the society to all genders.
“There are women-only chorus chapters as well, but they’re struggling like we are,” Harper says. “A lot of barbershop groups are moving towards allowing women to join, much like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts have opened up their gender requirements.”
The Thoroughbreds have sung in such venues as the Caesars Superdome in New Orleans, the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City, the Honda Center in Anaheim, and the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, as well as local arenas and venues. Their mission is to continue to share their passion for song and camaraderie. The membership age range goes from early 20s to the oldest member who is 88. Doug Harrington, a member of the award-winning Second Edition quartet as well as a championship director in Sweden and the United Kingdom, joined the Louisville Chapter when he was 10 years old.
“The Thoroughbreds are well-traveled and well-known across the country,” Lovett says. “We have been a part of the Louisville scene not only as entertainment, but in a cultural way for the past 60 to 70 years. That’s something worth keeping around.”
Searching for Sustainable Growth and Song
The COVID pandemic has been detrimental to social groups, especially singing groups like The Thoroughbreds. However, the group is one of few in the country that does not have to rely on renting a facility. The group purchased 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 health of the air within the old church and enabled the group to continue renting out the facility for weddings, gatherings and other events.
Rehearsals are scheduled for every Monday evening at 7 p.m. and are open to the public. Anyone interested in visiting or joining should contact the group via their website or social media pages.
Should you be interested in visiting The Thoroughbreds, you can stop by Jim Miller Hall, located at 10609 Watterson Trail in Jeffersontown, or visit thethoroughbreds.org.