Flint, MI—Dave Flattley held his newborn daughter in his arms as a barbershop quartet, adorned in peppermint-striped suits and white straw bowler hats, took to the field at Toledo’s old Ned Skeldon Stadium to sing the national anthem ahead of a Mud Hens game on Labor Day weekend in 1992.
As the group walked around the stadium serenading fans, Flattley motioned to them.
“Do you know ‘My Wild Irish Rose?’” he asked them, explaining that his daughter’s middle name was Rose. Little did he know at the time, “My Wild Irish Rose” is one of the fundamental songs almost all barbershop singers learn.
“He says, ‘Well, yeah, we can fight our way through that, but you’re gonna have to help us,’” Flattley said. “I’m like, ‘I ain’t singing in front of all these people.’ He says, ‘Oh no, nothing like that.’ He takes my daughter out of my arms. The quartet formed a circle around her, and they sang ‘My Wild Irish Rose’ to her — just her.
“I’m standing there in front of all these people. I’m crying my friggin’ eyes out, and I thought, if I ever get a chance to do that for somebody else’s baby, I will.”
And in the following 30 years since then, he did. Flattley is now the outgoing chapter president and a baritone singer in the Flint Arrowhead Barbershop Chorus, a group numbering 10-15 men who spend their Tuesday nights raising their voices in harmony. The group has been doing so for decades, tracing its origin back to just a few years after the 1938 founding of its parent organization, the Barbershop Harmony Society.
Throughout those decades, and despite the pandemic hitting the group hard, the chorus’ many longtime members say they have built a brotherhood rooted in their love for music.
“I can go into all kinds of technical aspects of what we do, but it’s the emotional part of it that really matters,” said Doug Lynn, a lead singer in the chorus. “When we sing it right, it makes the hair stand up on your arm.”
When they’re not spreading Christmas cheer, signing Valentines or performing ‘50s doo-wop at shows around Flint, the chorus’ members spend their Tuesday nights rehearsing, writing shows and brainstorming how they’ll top themselves next year.
See, the Flint Arrowhead Chorus — unaffiliated with Flint’s Arrowhead Vets Club — adds a dash of theatrics to their performances, interlacing storytelling with their songs. Throughout the group’s most recent performance at Woodhaven Senior Community in Flint Township, Mich., Doug Lynn told the story of a traveler getting stranded on his drive home for Christmas only to be rescued by a jolly, white-bearded truck driver.
It’s more than just singing to the audience, Lynn said, “You make a connection on an emotional level with them. You really do.”
That’s especially true when the chorus brings its harmonies to elders nearing the final days of their lives, Flattley said. Many times, he and his fellow singers said they have gone to perform at assisted-living communities only to come away with life-changing and humbling experiences.
He recounted once when he, with a different chorus, performed for a husband and wife who’d been married for at least sixty years. The wife was dying of emphysema, he said.
“The guy that was singing lead looks at the two of them and says, ‘Alright, you’ve looked at us. You know what we look like. During the next song, I want you two to hold hands and look at each other,’” Flattley said. “She starts crying. He starts crying. I’m looking out the window. I can’t make eye contact.”
On another occasion, Flattley said he sang for a woman who was experiencing confusion and memory loss as she was going through mid-stage dementia.
“We started singing ‘Heart of my Heart,’ and she turned around, and she was totally engaged,” he said. “She was into the music. She appreciated it … And her husband looked at us and said, ‘You gave me my wife back.’”
Just as the music can create magical moments for those listening, it does the same for those performing it, Flatley said.
“People are singing along, and they’re smiling, and they’re not thinking about their aches and pains,” he said. “And neither are we.”
That love for music has opened doors to friendship all over the country, Lynn said.
“We love to sing, but more than that, it’s the camaraderie that we develop, and the acceptance that we have with each other, and the fact that you can go anywhere and sing with a gold medal quartet.”
When Steve Goulding, one of the chorus’ bass singers, was diagnosed with cancer and required surgery, he missed a few months of practices, he said. He was hesitant to return, thinking he’d missed too much and concerned about his ability to sing after his operations, he said. When he walked into his first practice back, the chorus sang to him “You’re as Welcome as the Flowers in May,” a song that traditionally welcomes new members. They lined up and each shook his hand.
The group hopes to perform that welcoming ritual many more times in the coming years, too. Across the country, membership in the Barbershop Harmony Society has been dropping steadily from its peak of about 35,000, Lynn said. Now, the group numbers about half that nationally, he said.
In 2018, the Barbershop Harmony Society opened its doors to women, allowing its chapters to vote individually on whether or not they’ll allow women to join. For now, the Flint Arrowhead Barbershop Chorus remains all men, but Lynn said he could see that changing in the years to come.
Regardless, the chorus’ core members remain dedicated to keeping their music alive, Lynn said. They couldn’t stop if they wanted to, he explained: “It’s just part of what we are.”
If you’re interested in checking out a rehearsal, the Flint Arrowhead Barbershop Chorus practices every Tuesday evening at 6:30 p.m. at the Carman-Ainsworth Senior Center located at 2071 S Graham Rd, Flint, MI 48532