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Listen to Barbershop Album Recorded by Emmanuel Students 65 Years Ago

Mar. 26, 2024

 

Emmanuel College students Howard Mills, Hugh McKervill, Norm Thomas and Bob Burrows perform at a Victoria University graduation event in 1959. (All photos courtesy of Bob Burrows)

Emmanuel College students Howard Mills, Hugh McKervill, Norm Thomas and Bob Burrows perform at a Victoria University graduation event in 1959. (All photos courtesy of Bob Burrows)

The Rev. Dr. Bob Burrows tells the story of The Four Collars, a barbershop quartet of Emmanuel College students who recorded an album in 1959. Sixty-five years later, you can hear it online for the first time.

“In the first few days of our studies at Emmanuel College in 1956, two members of the first-year class, Hugh McKervill and Norman Thomas, indicated that at the University of Waterloo they had been active in barbershop singing and really hoped they might find interested singers to join them here. Ron Evans and I volunteered, and before long we were singing together almost every day, making use of the breaks between lectures and other spare moments. Hugh was tenor, Ron was lead, Norm was baritone and I was bass. We sang gospel, spirituals and popular songs. Every few days Norm would indicate that he had heard a new song on the radio and we had to learn it right away! 
 
After we had been rehearsing for a couple of months, Ron was sick with the flu and unable to be at school for a couple of weeks. Howard Mills agreed to fill the gap on a temporary basis. One day, as Ron started feeling better, he wandered over to Emmanuel and stood in the hallway outside the lecture hall where we were rehearsing. When we finished that day, Ron came into the room and said: ‘Howie, you have to stay there. The blend is fantastic!’ Howard officially replaced Ron in the quartet, and Ron, who loved music more than any of us, was our strongest supporter during the next two years. We sang at evening church services in the Toronto area, and one weekend sang at a church in London, accompanied by classmate Ted Van Petegem as guest preacher. We were also asked to sing at many events across the University of Toronto campus.

A newspaper clipping from 1959.

A newspaper clipping from 1959.

As we began our final year at Emmanuel, we learned that there was to be a barbershop competition for Canadian universities and it would be held at U of T’s own Hart House. We decided to enter and spent hours rehearsing the two numbers we had chosen. We were surprised and thrilled that we were tied for first place with a quartet of medical faculty members at McGill University. 
 
As a tiebreaker, both groups were given 15 minutes to prepare a third song for the 800 people in the audience. We had no idea what to do, never expecting this situation. We finally decided to sing the spiritual Steal Away even though it was not in classic barbershop style. We could hardly believe the result: The Four Collars were announced the winners of the Canadian Inter-University Barbershop Quartet Competition! 
 
Following this unexpected triumph, we decided to make a recording of both religious and secular songs. One hundred copies of the LP were made, and after most sold in a few weeks another 50 were produced, a few of which may reside in the various storerooms where old records end up—but I have one of only two confirmed copies behind glass on my wall! 

Hugh, Bob, Ron and Norm perform at their 45th Emmanuel College reunion in 2004.

Hugh, Bob, Ron and Norm perform at their 45th Emmanuel College reunion in 2004.

“There were 32 students in Emmanuel’s graduating class of 1959. Though our numbers are smaller each time, we still hold a reunion every five years, which until recently have included a few songs from The Four Collars. Sadly, Howie Mills died in 1993, so when we had our 35th reunion the following year, Ron Evans returned to the quartet in his former spot as lead. As we approach our 65th anniversary, our days of singing together may be at an end—but we are still in regular contact from Halifax, Hamilton, Minden and Vancouver.”

The Rev. Dr. Bob Burrows attended Victoria College and received his BA from U of T in 1956, before completing his Master of Divinity at Emmanuel College in 1959. In 2001, he received an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from Victoria University in the University of Toronto, in recognition of his many decades of service to the United Church and his community, including his work as minister and captain of a mission boat based at Ocean Falls, B.C.


The Four Collars’ 1959 album was recently digitized for the first time. Hear it in full on SoundCloud. The 2024 Emmanuel College Alumni/ae Day is on Monday, May 13. Visit here to learn more and register.

Are you an EC alum interested in sharing your story? Please email joe.howell@utoronto.ca

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