35 years bringing Harmony to West London

35 years bringing Harmony to West London
Type of post: Chorus news item
Status: Current
Date Posted: Sat, 23 Mar 2019

This year Capital Chorus marks 35 exciting years as one of the leading choirs for men in West London, singing close harmony in the Barbershop-style.. The early days saw the chorus rubbing shoulders with American diplomats, breaking singing taboos on the London Underground, and experiencing the odd fashion disaster, But the spirit of commitment to performance, the craft of singing, and to having fun were there from the very start. In the following article our Chairman, Paul Gordon, himself a founder member of Capital Chorus, reflects on how it all began.

Our story starts in the summer of 1983 when Phil Jones, a member of the Carshalton Barbershop Harmony Club, decided to try to start a chorus in the West London area near his home. He contacted Ian Stone, the British association of Barbershop Singers (BABS) membership secretary, who was singing with the Chesham Barbershop Harmony Club. The “Dynamic Duo”, together with some other barbershop singers based around London, decided to hire a room at Rooks Heath School in South Harrow for a few Wednesday evenings to see what happened.

Word of this wonderful music spread and chords could soon be heard echoing around the school each week as the embryonic chorus discovered the delights of tags and polecats. However, Christmas was fast approaching, which meant a break from Wednesday night rehearsals and the risk that the new singers would forget about this strange new hobby during the festive season.

January soon arrived and the first Wednesday evening saw a queue of eager singers waiting to try this Barbershop lark again. It now looked like it was going to be feasible to officially form a new Barbershop Harmony Club with a name, a constitution, a committee, subs, and lots of administrative stuff to accompany the singing. After thinking of various possible names for the new club and its chorus (including Harrow, Middlesex and London) “West London Barbershop Harmony Club” and “Capital Chorus” were decided upon. An exciting and vibrant club committee was formed, and on Monday, 13th February, the committee met at the Ballot Box public house to formally start our 35 year journey.

Show poster from the 1980s

By May 1984 the club was obviously a going concern, so an approach was made to BABS to apply for membership of this strange organisation, which seemed to be affiliated to a mysterious American group known as SPEBSQSA, which made it all seem slightly worrying to the uninitiated.

However, a visit to one of our rehearsal evenings by John Wiggins on behalf of BABS put our minds at rest. He confirmed that we were singing good barbershop, had a proper club structure and constitution in place, and said if we’d like to give BABS some money a couple of times a year then we were in.

We were officially welcomed to BABS with a “Chord of Accord” at their AGM on 23rd September, and the new singers all received BABS membership certificates in January 1985.

First Performances

Our first public performance was on Wednesday, 20th June, 1984. We were guests of the Lissenden Players for an Old Time Music Hall evening at Lauderdale House in Highgate, North London, and we sang an assortment of exciting songs.

Other performances soon followed, including the first ever public outing of a quartet from the club, at a charity performance in Newham, East London. The quartet members were all part of the group of established barbershop singers who founded the club.

Capital Chorus became one of the first groups to legally perform on the London Underground  when Capital Radio teamed up with London Transport to host “The Great Capital Underground Caper” on 27th September, 1986. Entertainments and events were held at 18 stations across the network in aid of the Help a London Child charity appeal. Capital Chorus sang at King’s Cross Station as part of the event and then may have gone on to do a bit of impromptu busking elsewhere….

Capital Caper underground in 1986 Capital Caper leaflet

Perhaps the most significant performance of our first year was our appearance as mike-warmers for the BABS Southern Prelims. Phil Jones directed the chorus as we sang a rather splendid renditions of “Wait till the Sun Shines, Nellie” and “Sweet Adeline”. We almost wore matching uniforms, but someone managed to mislay their beautiful light-blue tank top on the day of the contest, resulting in a not-quite-matching bright-yellow tank top appearing in the front row and, yes, the judges noticed it. (The wardrobe malfunction, however, was nothing compared with the saga of the beautiful “made-to-measure” green and silver lamé waistcoats that made their debut at the 1985 prelims.)

American Links

For a few years we had close links with the American Society in London and the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square which brought about some very prestigious and extremely enjoyable performances.

A regular event was the US ambassador’s 4th of July Garden Party at his official residence, Winfield House (known to its friends as Woolworths Towers) in Regents Park. We performed free of charge but were amply rewarded with an afternoon of spectacular entertainment and ceremony, as well as more free food and drink – including a doggy-bag – than we could possibly consume. 

Another American Highlight was the 1996 Election Night where we performed at the US Embassy until the early hours of the morning. Once again, the free food and drink came non-stop as we mingled with famous politicians, journalists and celebrities. Parts of our performance were broadcast on TV and radio news and current affairs programmes around the world.

 Early Successes

Music feastivals have always been a regular part of musical life at Capital Chorus. We’ve taken part in a number of local festivals and have often travelled around Southern England to participate. Winning at these festivals quickly became something of a habit for us and we have numerous awards to our name. Very occasionally there may be a second competitor in our class, which makes winning an award even more of an achievement!

Capital Four quartet at Ealing Music Festival 1985 Capital Four's winners certificate

The first festival ever entered by members of the club was the 1985 Ealing Music Festival. A quartet, Capital Four, got together for the first rehearsal at 6pm on Tuesday, 30th April. At 6,30 they were on stage and by 6,45 they received a winners’ trophy, having thrashed the two other competitors in the “trio, quartet or quintet” class. To say that the judges were extremely impressed would be something of an understatement, and to say that the quartet had a few beers afterwards would also be understating the facts ever-so-slightly….