Roy Eckert sits up straight with his hands gently placed on his lap. His eyes widen and he reveals the same hopeful smile whether he’s singing “Hello Mary Lou,” “Over the Rainbow,” or “Wait Till the Sun Shines.”
The joy on his face would make anyone in the audience feel that he really believes the words he’s singing — even “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas” while wearing a short-sleeved shirt in the Boynton Beach Leisureville community clubhouse.
The 80-year-old is a singer in the Boynton-based Palm Beach County Coastmen barbershop chorus that’s coming up on its 70th anniversary.
In the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, the chorus was at its peak and had about 90 members. Now the chorus is down to about 30.
The passionate group — part of the International Barbershop Harmony Society — is working to entice a younger generation to join them so they can perform at the national level they once excelled at. They’ve represented the Sunshine District, which is made up of more than 30 choruses across the state, in six international competitions.
“Once you do it, you get hooked,” said member Wes Osborn. “It’s just getting there.”
Director Mike O’Connell said to reach even 40 active singers would be great.
Barbershop singing is a four-part, a capella harmony of lead, tenor, baritone and bass. The international society has more than 30,000 male singers from across the country, according to its website. The society recently named TV host Mike Rowe an Honorary Life Member. Like the local Boynton chapter, it’s also trying to bring in younger singers with their Next Generation Barbershop program.
The Palm Beach County chorus, which performs throughout the county, practices in Leisureville every week.
Members don’t have to know how to professionally sing. Joe Ramos doesn’t even read music, but is able to keep up by simply coupling a good ear with a good voice.
“I enjoy these people,” Ramos said. “They’re some of the finest people I think I’ve met.”
Singer Eckert has won several medals at international competitions, and has been a member of the barbershop Harmony Society for 55 years. When not in Florida, he also performs with a group in New Jersey.
“I’m still having fun after all these years,” he said. “I’m just still inspired by harmony and always enjoyed singing. The Lord has given me the privilege to be able to sing. I just try to be inspired by the lyric of the song and the message…and just think about the words as I sing them and try to show that on my face.”
Eckert contributes to a foundation that’s a branch of the national society. It helps high school and college students pay for singing schools, workshops and competitions.
“An effort is being made to try to get more youth involved and hopefully many of them will stay,” he said.
The chorus is attracting more members than it has in the past. When singer Osborn joined about four years ago the chorus had only 14 singers. The singers’ average age is 76.
“You have to attract young kids. If you don’t, your group literally dies,” said singer Mike Tarlton.
Director O’Connell said music has changed so dramatically during the past decades that it’s hard to compete with today’s tunes.
But the barbershop chorus, he said, is “a social gathering over the love of music.”