Written and Photographed by Meg McKinney
Bob Parker keeps a watchful eye and ear on all 50 Warblers during practices, dress rehearsal, and shows.
“The Warblers is a tradition of excellence. ‘Just good enough’ is not good enough,” the director admonishes during a Tuesday night practice.
“Guys, you’re not thinking,” the director says during another practice. “You’re not paying attention. Get your head into this. Yes, I’m treating you like middle schoolers.”
As accompanist Margaret Parker plays a few bars on the piano, the men pick up the pace, improve the tune, and walk, clap, march, wave, and salutes through the choreography for another hour. Magically, they improve and move onto the next number.
Their collection of songs extends from spirituals, to Broadway, to American patriotic numbers, to Duke Ellington’s jazz, to top hits by the Beach Boys and Eric Clapton—all of which they sing with rich tones and strong voices.
Along with good music, The Warblers’ two-and-a-half hour show keeps a quick pace, even when changing formations or during intermission. Birmingham group Three On a String adds home-spun one-liners and musical comedy, similar to vaudeville’s end men role.
The Warblers Club has been an all-male singing group since they formed in 1929 at Woodlawn High School. It transitioned beyond the school’s music program to the Birmingham community in the years following World War II. Woodlawn graduates continued to sing with The Warblers as college students, mid-career managers, or recently discharged from military duty—from World War II through today’s conflicts.
Sprinkled among the grey beards and balding pates are younger men in their 20s and 30s. Bobby Jones, 37, a second tenor, likes four-part harmony and calls the group “clean fun.”
The high retention rate of The Warblers harkens to their youth as well. Many say, “I feel like I’m 18 again,” when they meet and sing again. For 20-year member and baritone Hoke Graham, “Singing with The Warblers is like putting icing on the cake of life.”
“We’re a glee club, as much as we are a fraternity,“ says Larry Harris, a baritone and a Warbler since 1960. “We have to get along, and we have traditions and standards. Now, we have sons of active Warblers who are Warblers.”
The Warblers take their music and their show seriously, but not themselves. This is evident by their self-deprecating humor about their ages. They quickly take off their shoes to practice
walking across the stage floor in white socks for the black light numbers, or they joke about receding hairlines.
Some of their cue cards have stage humor, such as a smiley face. A large R in a circle with a line drawn through is a reminder to this southern singing group to soften the ‘R’ in the word “early” in “What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor.”
Like their migrating avian counterparts, each September The Warblers return from summer break to their Tuesday night practices at the Huffman United Methodist Church rehearsal hall to learn more music, lyrics, choreography, solos, and accompaniment roles for the show held every other June. Through out the alternate years, The Warblers perform at special church events and school programs.
Their songs reflect America’s heritage, but the pace of their shows keep The Warblers Club moving forward.
For more information about The Warblers Club, visit warblersclub.org.