The History of Cottontown Chorus

Barbershop in Bolton began in 1979, when four men from the local church choir decided to ‘give it a go!’ Their names were: George Denton, (Bass); Terry Smith, (Baritone); Walter Marriner, (Lead) and Brian Turner, (Tenor). Together, they were known as The Four Strops. The quartet sang mainly for their own amusement and entertainment, occasionally getting invitations to sing-outs. They sang in old folk’s homes, church halls, in fact, wherever they were asked to perform, they’d be there.

Soon after their formation, other church members became interested. Soon, from the quartet, came the foundations of a chorus. For one reason or another, Walter and Brian left the group. Terry stayed on as founding Chorus Director, George as founding Chairman. They decided on the chorus name at an early meeting; proud of their Northern roots. The Cottontown Chorus soon grew in numbers and in November 1980 took their first steps onto the contest stage; albeit as mike-warmers at the Northern Preliminary Competition, held that year at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. (UMIST)

The chorus continued to flourish and, following the next five years of contest, and none qualification, they finally made it to Convention in 1986. A proud moment for Terry Smith, who’s dream had just been realised. Further qualification followed until, in 1992, Bolton BHC broke into the top 10. It was at this point Terry decided to hang up his pitchpipe, which was taken over by Simon Wilson, a chorus member. Simon led us on our first trip ‘over-the-pond’, to Boston, Massachusetts, where we spent a week singing to our ‘American cousins’. Hopefully the first trip of many to come! Simon maintained our position at contest and then decided his family commitments were getting too great for him to do justice to the chorus.

Enter Mick Dargan, a chorus member since the early days and long time deputy CD to both Simon and Terry. Taking over in February 1998, he had just three months to teach two new songs for Convention. (He didn’t want to just go and wave his arms in time with the chorus!) Their previous placing was maintained. Mick was now looking forwards to the next contest, which would be ‘up here in t’ North’, Blackpool in fact. The contest was an open competition. No qualification was needed. There were forty competing choruses that day! Singing ‘I’ll Be Seeing You’ and ‘The Old Piano Roll Blues’, the chorus came in 6th. The highest placing ever.

The next Convention was at Brighton. The Chorus came 4th. The following year was in Glasgow, where the Chorus missed out on the Gold Medal by TWO POINTS! (But we didn’t half enjoy the thrill of coming in the top three for the first time!)

The following year saw The Cottontown Chorus compete at Bournemouth where we again took Silver. The next two conventions would see us on ‘home turf’ at Harrogate. We saw a drop down the rankings to third place in 2003 and then reclaimed our second place slot twelve months later. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride! Actually, Mick Dargan often had the opinion that if he could spend the next ten years only ever picking up the second place trophy he would be happy. Not because he didn’t want to win but because it would show a degree of consistency. It was not to work out that way however.

During 2005 we travelled to Brighton having spent quite some time in the company of Doug Harrington, John Grant and Sandra Lea-Hunter. We were ready to sing; and dance; our way to the British Championship. Singing ‘Mississippi Mud’ and ‘When Day is Done’, we finally took the Gold Medals! Who said Bolton men can’t dance? Five weeks later we competed at Llangollen Eisteddfod. From the moment we went on stage, with our ‘cotton-slave’ costumes on, we had both the judges and audience members spellbound. Winning the Barbershop Class, we then waited for 12 hours in the baking North Wales sunshine trying to avoid the bars and food halls, all so we could do it all again during the evening’s ‘Choir of the World’ contest. Unfortunately, we were pipped to the post by a Welsh youth choir. It was nice to hear the many comments, all along the lines of ‘Had the judges been listening to the audience to gauge the winners, we would have walked it!’

The chorus made a decision at the 2005 Annual General Meeting that, having sampled the delights of Canon Slade School Chapel as their temporary rehearsal venue for the run-up to their first BABS Championship, they would like to return there on a more permanent basis. Formalities and discussion over, the majority of the chorus voted to accept the change. Many of those voting against the proposal stayed at the original venue. In effect, The Cottontown Chorus had split and was going to have to build up from a much smaller chorus from the one which had won the Championship only four months earlier. In actual fact, both parts of the split still thrive within the town. The Cottontown chorus still maintains their future commitments of ensuring they are the best they can be and the newly formed Phoenix Knights of Harmony still enjoy singing together but in a much-less driven way.

We were still determined to attend our first International Convention, to be held in July 2006 in Indianapolis. With grit and determination and a lot of fund raising, we managed to get there. Severely depleted in numbers, we more than made up for that by altering our learning ethos. We realised that singing well is more fun than singing not so well. Our fun was suddenly being gained by singing better than we had ever done before. Ok, our placing at international wasn’t quite as high as we’d have hoped but to be there sharing a stage with choruses and quartets who were our barbershop heroes was a blast!

Once back home we set off on the next big adventure. Singing ‘South Rampart Street Parade’ and ‘The Sunshine of Your Smile’, we took the 2007 Championship in a new venue for BABS – Scarborough. A decision was made not to accept the invitation to the 2008 International. Many members were still paying for the previous trip!

At the 2008 BABS Convention in Cheltenham, Mick Dargan announced his retirement as Chorus Director. A post he’d proudly filled for the last ten years, he decided that he’d achieved all he set out to achieve way back in 1998. A Bronze, three Silvers and two Gold Medals was quite a haul and Mick had led the Chorus to beyond what they could have dreamed of ten years earlier. 2001 Quartet Gold Medalist, (with Matrix) Neil Firth, had been Mick’s deputy for a number of years and was asked to fill the void left by Mick’s retirement. He took the reins in May 2008. Work was immediately started on two new songs for the next Convention. ‘Red Head’ and ‘You Don’t Know Me’ were chosen as the songs to take us on to the next level, and take us there they did! Lot’s more dancing lessons from Sandra Lea-Riley (Note the name change following her marriage to Chorus member, Tony Riley) and singing tuition from Royce Ferguson (International Quartet Champion, 1998 with Revival).

Singing at Llandudno in 2009, The Cottontown Chorus again took top spot. As in previous years, the chorus were invited to travel to USA to represent BABS at the International Convention. Philadelphia was the destination in the summer of 2010. Singing the songs that had gained their third domestic Gold, the chorus worked harder than they had ever previously done. Weekend rehearsals were determined by the music team to be the most valuable use of time in the run up to this contest. Time, which later proved to be a small price to pay for the club’s result at International. We were placed 14th overall with 9th in Singing and 10th in Music producing an overall average score of 83.5%* so the Chorus were particularly thrilled with their efforts.

*Footnote: The 80% mark is the line between a B+ level score and an A level score.

In the period 2001 – 2013 our achievements have been as follows:

  • 2001 British Association of Barbershop Singers Silver Medalist
  • 2002 British Association of Barbershop Singers Silver Medalist
  • 2003 British Association of Barbershop Singers Bronze Medalist
  • 2004 British Association of Barbershop Singers Silver Medalist
  • 2005 Men’s European Barbershop Silver Medalist
  • 2005 British Association of Barbershop Singers Gold Medalist
  • 2007 British Association of Barbershop Singers Gold Medalist
  • 2008 International Gold Medalist at IABS
  • 2008 BBC Radio 3 Adult Choir of the Year
  • 2008 Manchester Amateur Choral Competition winning chorus
  • 2009 Men’s European Barbershop Silver Medalist
  • 2009 British Association of Barbershop Singers Gold Medalist
  • 2011 British Association of Barbershop Singers Gold Medalist
  • 2013 British Association of Barbershop Singers Gold Medalist

Back to Blighty, the chorus worked on increasing their repertoire and, later on in the year, started the task of tightening their grip on the British Championship trophy. Having won three consecutive Championships; 2005, 2007 & 2009, we wanted to become the first chorus to win four consecutive championships. (A point worthy of comment, British Champions must take a year out of competition each time they win so, if the current pattern continues, we only compete during the odd years.)

Mindful of the US judges’ comments in Philly, where they told us to avoid using other groups’ material, we asked British arranging guru, Dr Liz Garnett, to work on providing us with a pair of modern arrangements of familiar songs. Singing a medley of Mary Poppins songs alongside the ballad Feed the Birds we hit the Llandudno stage with our chimneys, sweeps’ brushes, sooty faces and flat caps. The audience loved it! Winning our fourth consecutive Gold, we had planned to travel again to USA. Unfortunately, Portland, Oregon, being just a bit too far away to get a full chorus over.

2013 saw us in Bournemouth. Singing Put Your Arms Around Me Honey and How Deep is the Ocean? We gained our 5th Gold. Much work has been done bringing our repertoire up to date with songs such as Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror (arr. Dave King), Queen’s Fat Bottomed Girls (arr. Simon Hunt) and various Meatloaf songs (arr. Dr Liz Garnett) All these songs were sung at the 2013 Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers Convention in Llandudno. Standing ovations seemed to be the norm throughout the set, and all arranged by British barbershoppers. We look forwards to introducing these songs to unsuspecting audiences at the 2014 Barbershop Harmony Society (BHS) International Convention when we travel  to Las Vegas. Much fund-raising and saving by members means we’ll have around 65 on stage at the MGM Grand Hotel. Whilst there we’ll also be competing in the International Chorus Competition. We’re currently busy learning the songs for that competition so, with a great deal of excitement and anticipation, singing songs arranged especially for us by American icons, John Brockman and Jay Giolambardo we’ll be proud to be representing Great Britain singing . . .

Well, you know the story. If I told you I’d have to kill you!