PALM HARBOR — Anyone wandering by the Palm Harbor Community Activity Center on Monday evenings is in for a treat: the sound of singing.
In four-part harmony, a dozen or so barbershop singers known as the Crystal-Aires launch into old-fashioned favorites.
Wes Branch, who founded the group here in 1980, has been singing barbershop music for 45 years, beginning in his native Virginia. At age 80, he remains a true aficionado.
"The harmony appeals to me," he said one recent evening at a rehearsal.
As president, he allied the group with the Barbershop Harmony Society, headquartered in Nashville, Tenn. From that parent society, barbershop groups around the country gather songs that lend themselves to the barbershop sound.
"We have basic songs that everyone in barbershop learns so you can go anywhere to sing them," Branch said.
Barbershop music has a distinctive style. It utilizes four male voices — lead or straight melody, with bass, baritone and tenor carrying the harmony. The music emphasizes long vowel sounds.
"In barbershop, you hold the vowel as long as you can," said Jack Rickert, 83, who drives up from Largo to direct the singers.
The resulting sound is smooth and soothing.
Rickert said that music from the 1890s through the 1920s works best.
The songs are classics, readily recognizable by seniors. Favorites include Sweet Adeline, Heart of My Heart, My Wild Irish Rose and Hello Mary Lou.
Branch noted that one of those oldies, Down by the Old Mill Stream, goes back to the roots of barbershop music.
Many more modern songs don't lend themselves to the barbershop style, said Rickert, but a few have proved adaptable. That evening, for example, the men gave a rendition of For the Good Times, by composer/singer Kris Kristofferson.
The singers appear to have found their home in barbershop.
Fritz Weizel, 83, who grew up in a musical family in Pittsburgh, moved to Palm Harbor 25 years ago, bringing his musical ear along.
"It's a unique and challenging way to sing," he said. "You hear the pitch pipe and then you're on your own with no accompaniment."
Donning white pants and shoes, along with blue knit shirts, singers with the Crystal-Aires perform at clubhouses, nursing homes, churches and social events. They don't charge to entertain nonprofit organizations.
For $50, they also provide singing valentines delivered to homes or offices on Valentine's Day.
Branch said that going to the Barbershop Harmony Society conventions reminds him of what is special about barbershop.
"No one cares about your job, your politics or your religion," he said. "We all have a common interest in singing and the fellowship you can derive from a group like this."