Skip the chocolates and the flowers and get straight to the heart of romance with a singing valentine from the South Shore Men of Harmony, who for decades have been delivering the musical messages to loved ones.
The members split into quartets for the occasion and — dressed in red shirts, dark suits, and holiday-appropriate ties — arrive at homes, workplaces, and restaurants to sing three love songs in close harmony to the chosen person. The usual medley includes the barbershop quartet classics “Heart of My Heart,” “I Love You Truly,” and “Let Me Call you Sweetheart.”
“We tell them so-and-so is bringing a valentine to you, and we’re it,” said the Rev. Wendell Verrill, a retired Roman Catholic priest who sings with the group. “We hand them a rose and start singing. People are astonished; the response is uniformly excellent. Although if we do a man at his job site, it can be a little awkward at first.”
Verrill said the singing valentines typically are ordered by husbands for their wives, although sometimes wives make the calls, as do children, friends, and work colleagues. The cost for a singing valentine is $60.
Verrill, who grew up in Hingham and lives there again after many years away, said one of his favorite singing valentines was for a couple living in assisted living. The man looked very familiar, and Verrill asked if he’d ever driven a school bus.
“It turns out, he was my first bus driver, and after he asked my name, he said ‘oh, you’re Ruth’s son.’ And then he started rattling off all the names of the kids I went to school with from the neighborhood,” Verrill said.
Ken Siroonian, the group’s music director and a Rockland resident, said that in the past the quartets have performed as many as 100 times on a Valentine’s Day, although recently they usually average about 20.
Sometimes, he said, snowstorms have made it impossible to get out and forced postponement of the holiday experience.
Siroonian said the tradition started with the national Barbershop Harmony Society — more formally known as the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America — which has approximately 20,000 members in 700 chapters in the United States and Canada.
The organization dates back to 1938 and was initially only for men; women were admitted in 2018, although there are also two sister barbershop singing associations for women alone.
Siroonian said the idea behind barbershop quartets offering singing valentines to the public was two-fold: to raise money to help pay for a chapter’s expenses, and to promote the style of a capella music the membership loved.
“When we show up at a restaurant or a workplace or school and say we have a singing valentine from your loved one, [people] cry,” Siroonian said. “It’s very romantic.”
He added that “sometimes people are embarrassed, but it’s all good. I can’t recall anybody not liking it.” At workplaces, he said, “all the co-workers are always amazed, and a little jealous.”
He remembered going into a school in Quincy to sing to a teacher, and having the class listen along — and then sing a few songs for the quartet. “It was adorable,” he said.
The South Shore Men of Harmony started in Scituate in 1951 and now practices, every Tuesday night, at the Hingham Community Center. The membership was close to 100 in the 1960s and 1970s, but is down to about 20 active members and 10 inactive ones, according to Verrill.
“It’s mostly older men,” Verrill said. “I’m 82 and our secretary is 85. I’ll be charitable and say the average age is 55.”
The group is always looking for new singers, especially tenors, and welcomes any women who can sing in that range, Verrill said.
Verrill said he sang in a barber shop quartet when he was in seminary but hadn’t done anything like that for decades. After he retired, he saw something in the local newspaper about South Shore Men of Harmony and called to see if he could join. He was a little concerned that his vocation might make people nervous, he said.
But he soon discovered that the group had an Episcopal priest and a rabbi, as well as a church organist, a cantor, and a lay chaplain for a veterans’ group.
“We seem to be a pretty spiritual bunch,” he said. “So, singing with us can be an uplifting experience.”
Anyone interested in learning more about the South Shore Men of Harmony, or in booking a singing valentine, can contact Verrill at 781-749-4417 or Siroonian at 339-205-8352.
Johanna Seltz can be reached at [email protected]