Their sound is sweet and their history vast, as the Stockton Portsmen Barbershop Chorus enters its 65th year of providing harmonies and melodies throughout the 209 area.
The non-profit was first chartered in October 1954. As was customary, the all-male group began with 33 members. Over a decade ago, however, the local chapter saw fit to be a bit more inclusive and opened membership up to women, and six years ago their bylaws were changed.
“Originally, adding women was to include some close friends that were helping us out when we were short on people,” Stockton Portsmen Director Bill Litz stated.
The chorus currently has 45 members, eight of whom are women.
The bylaw change was a bit ahead of its time for the Barbershop Harmony Society. In June 2018, the BHS also became inclusive with an “Everyone in Harmony,” directive.
“We are still singing in what would be the “men’s range,” but we have taken advantage of the extra range the women have,” Litz continued, “doing some eight-part arrangements that use women in the women’s range.”
The addition has also proved fruitful in terms of competition, as the Stockton Chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society was awarded First Place honors last fall in the Far Western District Mixed Barbershop Chorus competition.
According to Portsmen Chapter Secretary Derick Sturke, the chorus was invited to participate in the fall contest, based off a spring division contest earlier in the year.
“The Portsmen were judged by the BHS panel and were awarded First Place under the umbrella of the BHS subsidiary Mixed Barbershop Harmony Association,” Sturke said.
The achievement by the 209 vocal artists was not just exciting for the local chapter, but for the Barbershop community as well.
“For eight decades this was men only and maintained an orientation of a service club,” Sturke shared, noting similarities to a Kiwanis or Rotary organization. “The BHS has evolved, not unlike society as a whole, to where gender divisions are less important and once male-only groups are now integrated.”
It’s an evolution which is both appreciated and embraced by members like Susan Atkins, now heading into her second year as a Portsmen member.
“I was performing in ukulele groups and wanted to improve my singing voice,” she said of her discovery of the Stockton Chapter. “The Stockton Portsmen were the perfect group for me to learn from. In the short amount of time that I’ve been a member, I personally enjoy the collaboration of working with our board and feel that we have all benefitted from working together.”
Atkins additionally shared she feels the chapter now benefits with the BHS being known as a co-ed “mixed” chorus, which allows competition benefits.
“When the Stockton Portsmen chose to be co-ed years ago they gave up the opportunity to compete,” she said.
While the competition is an exciting piece and indicative of how well the group represents the 209 area, the members also enjoy performing in a large capacity throughout the northern 209 area.
They can be found performing the National Anthem at Stockton Ports baseball games, as well as for the Stockton Kings G-League basketball team and varying other events. They also participate in holiday performances as well as serenade opportunities.
On Valentine’s Day each year the group offers Singing Valentines, dispatching Barbershop Harmony Quartets to perform for loved ones in the Stockton, Tracy and Manteca areas. For a nominal fee the quartet serenades the recipient with two love songs, presents a fresh rose and a personal message from the sender.
“Money raised goes to chapter operations,” Sturke stated, listing the varying incidentals a group of its type encounters. “As well as monies raised can go to promotion of youth harmony and other chapter outreach programs.”