They call him Mr. Barbershop – and not the kind that will cut your hair.
Ninety-year-old Raman Briggs never had a formal music education. He grew up during the Great Depression when money was tight.
He got his education the old fashioned way, through lots and lots of experience.
He came from a musical family. He and his siblings would sing inside their western Wisconsin home while their mom played piano. But he got his big break in high school.
Briggs and three of his classmates formed their own barbershop quartet solely to perform during the school’s amateur hour. No, they weren’t performing in the talent contest. Their teacher wanted them to provide entertainment while the judges deliberated and chose the winner.
He remembers it like it was yesterday. They sang “My Grandfather’s Clock.”
“My grandfather’s clock was too large for the shelf, so it stood ninety years on the floor,” they crooned. “It was taller by half than the old man himself, though it weighed not a pennyweight more.”
Briggs told me it was kind of a funny performance.
“I was the clock pendulum,” he said, chuckling. “The guys would push me back and forth and I’d say, ‘tick, tock, tick, tock.’”
Afterward, they listened as the winners were announced. The judges told the crowd that the young lady who played accordion had won second place.
Briggs was shocked, to say the least.
“I couldn’t believe anyone was better than her,” he said.
He was even more surprised when the judges said his quartet had won when they hadn’t even competed. The audience started clapping, though.
“I guess they approved,” he told me.
That was the beginning of his barbershop quartet career. In the seven decades since then, he’s performed in more quartets than he can even keep track of.
He once joined a quartet aboard a ship headed to Okinawa, Japan, during World War II with two other enlisted soldiers and an officer, a big no-no at the time.
The four men hid behind the ship’s funnel and sang quietly, hoping no one would catch the enlisted guys fraternizing with the officer. As they sang, though, the ship’s captain walked by and ordered them to his office.
They all thought they were toast.
When they got there, though, he quieted everyone on the ship and told the group to sing.
These days he performs in a quartet in Kokomo called the Sometimers with Tom Gillam.
“We call ourselves that because sometimes we remember the music,” Gillam said, with a laugh. “And sometimes we don’t.”
Gillam stopped by my office last week to brag about his friend.
He said Briggs was instrumental in bringing barbershop quartets to prominence in Kokomo. Briggs started his first quartet here back in 1959 or 1960.
Less than a decade later, he formed the Kokomo chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society.
“Barbershop Harmony has remained one of Raman’s top priorities in life,” Gillam said.
Briggs even led the creation of the chapter’s Youth in Harmony Scholarship.
This year, the chapter renamed that scholarship after the man who championed it. It’s now called the Raman C. Briggs Barbershop Harmony Youth Scholarship.
Briggs said it was such an unexpected honor but a dream come true for him.
Gillam said it’s well deserved.
“Now when he’s gone, there’s something to remember him by,” he said.
For now, though, Briggs will just keep singing.
There’s something about barbershop music – the a cappella style – that’s just so beautiful to him. The quality is so much better than what you can achieve with instruments, he said.
It’s also more difficult sometimes, but he likes the challenge.
“You learn something every time you sing,” he said.
[friday] editor/ can't carry a tune