Brantford’s Oldest Continually Performing Chorus
 

History

BRANT MEN OF SONG
By
Bob MacMillan & Larry Marsh

It began in the Brantford Golf and Country Club parking lot. Bob McIntosh and Frank Holton were both leaving the club house when McIntosh approached Holton with a proposal that he conduct a new choir. Frank was agreeable as long as his duties were only musical Bob and his associates were happy to handle the administration and so the longest running choir in the history of Brantford was born: no small feat in a community that has been called the "City of Choirs".

Bob McIntosh was a young clarinet and saxophone player just beginning his law career. Late in 1960, he set up a practice in Brantford and a residence in Mount Pleasant where he began barbershop singing at the Octagon house. He, Art Bennett, Herb Lacy and Ed Plant: all wanted to expand their musical repertoire to include songs from Broadway musicals.

Frank Holton was at this time phasing out his involvement in choirs. He had founded the Cockshutt Male Choir in 1935 followed by the Universal Ladies Choir in 1936. These had been followed by the Universal Mixed Choir, the CKPC Choir and the Frank Holton Mixed Choir. However, by 1961, Frank's involvement in musical education in the schools was increasingly absorbing his time and he had phased out the Frank Holton Mixed Choir, but he was not averse to conducting the new choir as long as he did not have to handle the administration. By 1968, even this limited function would be too much and Frank would relinquish his conducting duties with the Men of Song, as it was then called. But for now, he was happy to accept the offer.

It was agreed that the choir would be about sixteen members and would not enter the competition circuit. The music was to be a blend of sacred music, show tunes with a dash of semi-classical. A list of prospective choir members was drawn up. They were voice tested by Holton and at the October 2, 1961 meeting sixteen successful applicants formed the original choir.

Next came a new name for the choir. Hereus Choir, The Canadairs, The Holton Male Chorus, The Holton Choristers were tossed around. Frank wanted to call the choir the Song Men. It is a mark of the man that a male chorus from Toronto called The Song Men had repeatedly beaten his Cockshutt Male Chorus in competition and so he wanted to honour them by naming the new choir after them. However, copyright law said it was not to be and so the name became Men of Song. This name would last until after both Bob McIntosh and Frank Holton had left the choir and it had changed its character.

Holton asked a high school student, sixteen year old Jim Hibbard who was already an accomplished piano and organ player to be accompanist. He later went to the University of Western Ontario and on to a flourishing career in London Ontario. Although none of the four originators had sang previously under Holton others made the transfer from Frank's earlier choirs. Laverne Jones had sung with the Cockshutt Male Choir indeed he had been a soloist. George Sherrell had sung in the Universal Mixed Choir and Harold Edgar in the Frank Holton Choir.

Strangely enough the Men of Song sang their first performance on March 25, 1962 not in Brantford but at Wesley United Church in Galt as Cambridge was then known. Brantford had to wait until March 31, for the second concert at the Y's Men's Club in Brantford.

As early as 1965, Frank Holton, his duties in the public school system becoming heavier, was asking that a replacement be considered. In September of 1966, the pressures of his law practice caused Bob Mclntosh to resign. In September of 1967, Jim Hibbard resigned to pursue his studies. Finally in September 1968, Frank Holton, after several requests to be relieved of his duties, resigned.

Jim Schofield, a tenor in the choir, took over as a temporary conductor. His stint lasted until 1975. George Sherrell became President and it appears that Bruce Johnson became accompanist. He was replaced in 1971 by Gary Woodward who was organist at Marlborough United Church.

Under new leadership, the choir took a new direction. It became much larger and moved toward a greater association with other choirs. It won first place at the Greater Toronto Kiwanis Music Festival in 1970. Although it was the only choir in the division it had to earn enough points to be given the honour. In 1971 it joined the Associated Male Choruses of America and on April 28, 1973 played host to an Associated Male Choruses of America "Big Sing", at the Civic Centre. Twelve choirs from Michigan, New York, Ohio, Ontario and Pennsylvania participated.

Somewhere between 1969 and 1973 the name of the choir was changed to The Brant Men of Song and an LP, The Brant Men of Song was produced.

This period also saw the birth of the Brant Belle 'A' Dears. On a bus ride back from a District Sing some of the wives of the Brant Men of Song thought that they would like to form a choir. In March of 1971, Della Sherrell, wife of George, and George's sister Iris Norton held a meeting at the Sherrell house. The result was the Belle 'A' Dears. Initially Jim Schofield took on the duties of Choir Director and Gary Woodward was the accompanist. Then in the spring of 1973 Woodward became Director and Sheelagh Jackson was hired as accompanist.

For most of their existence, the two choirs have been separated administratively but combined musically. The result is, in effect, three choirs: a male chorus, a lady's choir and a mixed choir.

In 1975 Gary Woodward added the Brant Men of Song to his duties as director and Patricia Bohemier, became accompanist for both choirs. Perhaps it was because of wanderlust on the part of Woodward but more likely it was his administration skills that made this the time of the two choirs' most intensive touring.

The proposal to have a tour of the British Isles was made in 1974 and over the next two years the choirs raised about $48,000 through a remarkable fundraising program that included member payments, concerts, merchandise, bazaars and grants.

On July 2 and July 3 1976 two groups left on Wardair flights for Gatwick (London) to begin a three week tour of Britain. For Gary Woodward and Sharon Wiley now Woodward, this was their honeymoon as they were married at Marlborough United Church just a few days previous to departure.

The first stop was Ebbw Vale, home area of choir member Graham Morgan. The community's church bells rang out a welcome as the buses arrived. That evening the Brant Men of Song and the Brant Belle' A' Dears opened their concert, which was emceed by Mel Plant, with the Welsh National Anthem which they had practiced diligently before arriving. The concert was followed by a luncheon after which the Ebbw Male Chorus entertained the Canadians in an "Afterglow".

The tour continued through Conventry, Chesterfield, and Keswick in England and Edinburgh, Largs and Ayr in Scotland and the Ambleside Festival. The Tithebarn Methodist Church in Keswick was so small that Woodward had to conduct the choirs from the second pew.

In 1977, the choirs stayed home where the Brant Men of Song hosted a "Mini Sing" of district choirs at St. Michael's Place to celebrate Brantford's Bi-Centennial.

1978 saw the choirs off on a tour again, this time through Western Canada. The tour of the Prairie Provinces and British Columbia was more for pleasure than for business. While the choirs touched down in Winnipeg and Calgary and toured through the Rocky Mountains to Vancouver and Victoria, they held concerts only in Selkirk, Winnipeg and Parksville on Vancouver Island. The concert at St Vital United Church in Winnipeg was special for Pat Bohemier as this was the church she grew up in. Her mother attended the concert, perhaps better described as a church service in a kind of cantata. Pat played the piano while Gary Woodward played the organ.

In July of 1981, the choirs were back on the road, this time touring the Maritimes. This time the concert schedule was much more ambitious with stops in Halifax, Pictou and Baddec in Nova Scotia, Kensington in Prince Edward Island and St Andrews in New Brunswick.

The two choirs' final tour was to Florida, USA, in 1984 singing in Holiday, Mease Manor and Fruitland Park.

Mixed among these tours and continuing long after them were numerous Associated Male Choruses of America "Big Sings". A favourite among the various destinations for these was Wellsboro in Pennsylvania.

In 1986, the Brant Men of Song celebrated their 25th anniversary and Brantford celebrated with them. Brantford Parks made a floral display at Cenotaph Park on Brant Avenue. The design was by George Sherrell. The Expositor devoted a half page spread on them. Strangely, the Brant Men of Song did not highlight their anniversary with a concert of their own, but instead accepted an invitation from the Wellsboro Men's Chorus to participate in their Ruby Jubilee in Wellsboro Pennsylvania U.S.A. For some time Gary Woodward who was also Head of the Art Department at Herman Fawcett High School had been working through a supervisor training program which often meant he had to attend classes out of town. Finally it happened in 1987 that he had to attend classes in St. Catherines on the same night as choir practice. Rather than disrupting everyone's schedule by changing the practice night, he resigned and Pat Bohemier took over directorship of both the Brant Men of Song and the Brant Belle 'A' Dears. Elsie Hall who had been an accompanist for the Cockshutt Male Choir became accompanist for both choirs.

This arrangement did not last very long. Bohemier was also teaching at St. John's College and Hall had just assumed Secretary-Treasurer for the Kiwanis Festival. The work loads were too heavy.

Bohemier and Hall accidently met Adera Holton in a mall parking lot: another parking lot turning point. They asked Adera if Frank would assume directorship of both choirs. Instead Frank and Adera joined forces with Frank again becoming conductor of the Brant Men of Song and Adera holding the same position for the Brant Belle 'A' Dears. John Anderson became accompanist for the Brant Men of Song and Marilyn accompanist for the Brant Belle 'A' Dears.

It was one of the most enjoyable two years in Frank's career. He was to recall later. Their first Spring Concert which occurred at Colborne Street (now Heritage) United Church was one of the most gratifying that Frank ever had. Everything dovetailed perfectly and after one song Frank savoured the delight that ''the choir had not missed a note."

After Frank Holton again retired from the choir there were two Directors: Geoffery Bullivant and Raymond Dawdy.

In 1996, Scott Millward, an organist for thirty-five years and an organist and Choir Director of St James Anglican Church in Paris for 28 years, took over duties as Director of the Brant Men of Song and in 1997 assumed the same duties for the Belle' A' Dears.

While Scott says that "for the first little while, it was just maintain the status quo and try to build numbers in the MOS," he did bring new ideas during his tenure as Director. They include:
1. 'CABARET' - as a new spring show and dinner format that proved to be very successful and well received by all.
2. 'ANNUAL CHARITY EVENT' - a fall show designed to showcase talent of all ages in and around the Brantford and surrounding area. This event was extremely well received and successful, as much money and food were donated to charities through this show.
3. 'VALENTINES SHOW' - this show also proved for the most part, to be well received (sold out each year) and a great fundraiser.
4. 'GOSPEL CONCERT' - though Scott departed before he could conduct this concert, Amy Groleau continued Scott's work, for the pleasure of an appreciative audience.
During Scott's tenure, the Men of Song travelled to Welsboro, Pennsylvania for a Big-sing, and participated in a number of "sings", mostly in Ontario. He says, "I was pleased with the quality of work that the Men were doing when I left and I know that their dedication was there for the Men..."

As of February 2008, Amy Groleau assumed the position of Director as well as accompanist. Amy brings twelve years of experience in men's choral music in Brantford. Members are fortunate to have a director as dedicated and accomplished as Ms. Groleau.

Amy continued Scott's work, and brought forth some changes of her own. In her first year, the Men of Song did performances at Valentines Day, a Gospel Concert, Cabaret, at Flamboro Downs, at Harmony Square, the Brantford Airport, Charity Show, and Christmas Show. The group joined the reorganized Associated Male Choruses of Ontario in a Big-sing in St. Catharines, and participated with AMCO choruses at the Prince of Wales horse race in Toronto. For the 2008 Christmas Show Amy forged a link with the Brantford Symphony for future years when a brass ensemble played with the Men of Song and Belle A Dears. Amy showed confidence and skill in her duo role of Director/Accompianist.

In many ways the Brant Men of Song have returned to their roots. Outside events have helped to precipitate this. The Associated of Male Choruses of American went bankrupt and has yet to recover. The Associated Male Choruses of Ontario has become less active. At the same time the Brant Men of Song and the Brant Belle' A' Dears have refocused on entertaining people in Brant County and surrounding communities. The two choirs have been able to create a flexible program in which audiences are treated to the music of a male chorus, a ladies chorus and a mixed choir. The music continues to be a versatile mix of sacred, folk, show, movie and popular music with a dash of classical. The two choirs have established a schedule which includes a charity concert which doubles as a showcase for emerging Brant County talent, a Christmas Concert, a spring concert for the Belle' A' Dears and a Cabaret for the Brant Men of Song.

Bill Schatz was appointed Director of the Brant Men of Song in 2011, and Amy continued in her role as Accompianist. Bill began his music career early, with organ, piano and voice lessons under Harry Urstadt. Before attending the University of Western Ontario. Bill's music traiing involved extensive world-wide travel. He has done CBC and CTV recordings with the Cambridge Kiwanis Boys Choir, and the K-W Symphony, as well as CD recordings with teh CKBC, the Renaissance Singers Arcady, and the Brott Festival Choir. He has appeared as a solo performer with these groups. Bill was the Musical Director for hte Kitchener-Waterloo Singers, an amateur choir in the KW area for nearly 10 years. He is now the Head of the Arts Department at Pauline Johnson Collegiate & Vocational School in Brantford.

The attendance at the concerts suggests that the two choirs have worked out a winning formula.

Proud member of the Associated Male Choruses of Ontario.