The History of Cottontown Chorus


(BABS = British Association of Barbershop Singers)
(IABS = Irish Association of Barbershop Singers)

2001 BABS Male Chorus Silver Medal
2002 BABS Male Chorus Silver Medal
2003 BABS Male Chorus Bronze Medal
2004 BABS Male Chorus Silver Medal
2005 Men’s European Barbershop Silver Medal
2005 BABS Male Chorus Gold Medal
2005 International Eisteddfod - Barbershop class winner
2007 BABS Male Chorus Gold Medal
2007 International Eisteddfod - Barbershop class winner
2008 IABS International Gold Medal
2008 BBC Radio 3 Adult Choir of the Year
2008 Manchester Amateur Choral Competition winning chorus
2009 Men’s European Barbershop Silver Medal
2009 BABS Male Chorus Gold Medal
2011 BABS Male Chorus Gold Medal
2013 BABS Male Chorus Gold Medal
2015 BABS Male Chorus Silver Medal
2016 BABS Male Chorus Gold Medal
2017 European Barbershop Bronze Medal
2018 BABS Male Chorus Gold Medal
2019 BABS Mixed Chorus Gold Medal (as 'A Kind Of Magic')

2023 BABS Male Chorus Gold Medal

1979 to 1985

Cottontown Chorus owes its foundation to a group of four men from a local church choir who decided to give barbershop music a go back in 1979.

George Denton (Bass), Terry Smith (Baritone), Walter Marriner (Lead) and Brian Turner (Tenor) formed 'The Four Strops' quartet, singing mainly for their own amusement but also to entertain occasionally at old folks' homes, church halls, and similar events. Other church members soon got hooked and the quartet became a bigger chorus.
Astley Bridge Conservative Club
Although Walter and Brian eventually left the group, Terry remained as founding chorus director and George took on the role of chairman. Proud of their northern industrial heritage, they decided on the stage name of 'Cottontown Chorus' at one of the first committee meetings, and singing numbers were big enough by November 1980 to enter a contest, albeit only as mic-warmers -- the BABS (British Association of Barbershop Singers) northern preliminary chorus contest, which was held that year at the University of Manchester Institute of Science & Technology.

1986 to 2000

Although the chorus flourished, it wasn't until 1986 when Terry's dream of reaching the competition's qualification stage was realised, and Cottontown finally broke into the top ten in 1992. It was at this point that Terry retired and member Simon Wilson took on the role of chorus director.

Simon was instrumental in organising Cottontown's first trip over to the US where the chorus had a great week sharing songs with American cousins in Boston, MA. Simon maintained Cottontown's position in the national contest but needed to step down when family commitments got too great for him.

The baton passed to long time deputy chorus director, Mick Dargan. Taking over in February 1998, he had just three months to teach two new songs for BABS national convention, yet was able to maintain Cottontown's placing of the previous year.

Mick now pressed the accelerator pedal. 1999's contest in Blackpool was an open one (meaning that no prior qualification was needed any more) and Mick led the chorus to its highest ever 6th placing out of forty competing choruses, with renditions of 'I'll Be Seeing You' and 'The Old Piano Roll Blues'. The following year's convention at Brighton saw the chorus climb again to reach 4th. The first ever podium position was finally celebrated in 2001 when Cottontown missed out on gold by just two points at Glasgow.

2001 to 2005

Silver prize reached - but now the realisation dawned that those last few championship points are the hardest to win. Cottontown took silver again at Bournemouth the following year, but then dropped to bronze at Harrogate in 2003 before returning to silver, again at Harrogate, in 2004.

Mick was philosophical; whilst never giving up hope of the top spot, he did say that even if the chorus achieved second place for the next ten years, it would at least show consistency! Always the bridesmaid, never the bride ?

Cottontown's first gold medal Clearly, considerable extra effort was needed, so the decision was taken to employ the services of Doug Harrington, the late John Grant, and Sandra Lea-Hunter to help style our next song package of 'Mississippi Mud' and 'When Day Is Done'. It worked - Cottontown sang and danced its way to the gold medal at Brighton in 2005!

Moreover, the package was taken to the International Eisteddfod five weeks later at Llangollen where it was met with rapture by both audience and judges - so much so that we took the winner's medal for the Barbershop Class. A wait of several hours then ensued in the baking hot North Wales sunshine - doing our best to avoid the temptation of the bars and food halls - until we did it all over again in the main 'Choir Of The World' contest. Sadly, we got pipped to the post by a Welsh youth choir, but we loved the tributes we were paid: "Had the judges been listening to the audience to gauge the winners, you lot would have walked it!".

2006 to 2007

Reaching a pinnacle sometimes brings unforeseen consequences. The run-up to its first gold medal had seen the chorus trial a change of rehearsal venue from Astley Bridge Conservative Club to a different acoustic at Canon Slade School Chapel - and a motion was proposed to make the move permanent. A majority voted in favour but many others preferred the status quo and stayed at the original venue under the name of Phoenix Knights Of Harmony.

The split meant that Cottontown would face a long period of rebuilding the depleted numbers. In addition, there was a more immediate problem to tackle: winning gold meant that Cottontown had been invited to its first ever international convention at Indianapolis in July 2006, and this was an invitation it was determined NOT to turn down.

With determination and a lot of fund raising, we managed to get there; the placing was, perhaps inevitably, not as good as had been hoped, but the reduced singing forces actually underwent a positive change in learning ethos that has stuck with the chorus ever since: putting in extra effort to sing at the very best of one's ability is far more enjoyable than 'just singing'.

In this context, Cottontown also took gold in 2007 at the new Scarborough convention singing 'South Rampart Street Parade' and 'The Sunshine Of Your Smile' (N.B. a chorus winning gold in one year cannot compete the next year). Again BABS asked Cottontown to represent the UK at the 2008 international convention but there was little surprise when we had to turn this down since many members were still paying for the previous trip!

2008 to 2010

At the 2008 BABS convention in Cheltenham, Mick Dargan announced his retirement as Chorus Director, a post he had proudly filled for the last ten years. He felt he’d achieved all he'd set out to do back in 1998, and one bronze, three silvers, and two golds was surely testament to that.

Neil Firth, 2001 quartet gold medallist with 'Matrix', had deputised for Mick over several years and began his tenure in May 2008. Neil's first task was to take 29 chorus members to Sligo in October for the Irish Association of Barbershop Singers international chorus contest; it went well, Cottontown taking top spot with a score of 75.5%.

Work then started immediately on a choice of two new songs - ‘Red Head’ & ‘You Don’t Know Me’ - and, with new vocal coaching input from our US friend Royce Ferguson (International Quartet Champion, 1998, with 'Revival'), the chorus went on to take top spot for the third time in its history at the 2009 BABS convention at Venue Cymru, Llandudno.

Simon Hunt directs Fat Bottomed GirlsBy this time when assistant chorus director Simon Hunt, having been granted permission by Dr Brian May, had penned his now famous barbershop arrangement of 'Fat Bottomed Girls'. Cottontown, of course, couldn't resist adding the odd touch of choreography to the performance, and the song has been such a firm favourite ever since that the now legendary recording of it on YouTube has received over half a million views to date, as well as this comment on 10th April 2011 by the great Queen guitarist on his own website:

"We need to smile !! I defy you not to smile at this !! hee hee ... nice one, boys !! Bri"

In another notable event in September of that year, we were thrilled to be asked to appear in a special Macmillan Nurses evening charity show on the hallowed stage of the London Palladium, preceded by a very enjoyable impromptu sing-out during the day amongst the tourists at Covent Garden.

Members' bank accounts had refilled sufficiently by now, allowing the executive to commit to an international convention trip to Philadelphia in 2010 where we would compete using our two UK winning songs. Determined to improve on its previous US result, the chorus now worked harder than it had ever done before, particularly using weekend rehearsals as a valuable use of time to hone skills. Not only did we thoroughly enjoy the week in America, but the improvement turned out to be staggering: we were delighted to be placed 14th overall, 9th in the 'Singing' category, and 10th in the 'Music' category.

2011 to 2014

Returning home after Philadelphia, there was more food for thought. Our overall score of 83.5% had broken the 81% 'glass ceiling' where a B+ level chorus becomes recognised as reaching the hallowed A level. But that brought new responsibilities & challenges: comments to us by US judges in Philly suggested that, to keep progressing, we must move away from the typical approach of singing songs that other groups had already done, and be more creative with repertoire.

With this in mind, we commissioned British musicologist, Dr Liz Garnett, to work on providing us with a pair of modern arrangements of familiar songs. And so it was that we returned to the Llandudno stage with our red brick chimneys, sweeps' brushes, flat caps and sooty faces, singing a medley of Mary Poppins songs alongside the ballad 'Feed The Birds'. The audience loved it, and we secured our fourth gold medal; yet another US convention, this time in Portland, Oregon, would have been just a little beyond our means!

Cottontown performs James Bond medley at InternationalWe continued to stretch ourselves, not just with more challenging songs ('Put Your Arms Around Me' and 'How Deep Is The Ocean' won us our fifth gold medal at Bournemouth in 2013) but also with some newer and original arrangements such as 'Man In The Mirror' (arr. Dave King), various Meatloaf classics (arr. Dr Liz Garnett), as well as arrangements created for us by much respected friends in the US, such as 'Come Follow The Band' (arr. Steve Tramack), 'From Russia With Love' (arr. John Brockman), and 'James Bond Medley' (arr. Jay Giallombardo). Indeed, it was the combination of 'James Bond Medley' and 'From Russia With Love' which 62 of us performed at the 2014 international convention in Las Vegas.

2015 to 2017

Our unbroken run of gold medals came to end at Llandudno in 2015 when we sang the two songs we'd taken to Vegas the previous year; our score of 80.3% placed us second behind the 80.9% achieved by Great Western Chorus. Writing about it in her music blog ('Helping You Harmonise'), Dr Liz Garnett said:

"Competition at the top is getting very tough, and it’s feeding through to some very solid achievements in the middle rankings too. There is always an interesting debate about how wise it is to approach the arts through contests, but on this occasion I heard the argument in favour put as succinctly as could be from a member of new chorus champions Great Western Chorus. Having pipped Cottontown Chorus into second place after their unbroken string of gold medals, he said, ‘We are this good because Cottontown made us’.

Another striking sign of health over the weekend was the variety of repertoire we heard. There were a few songs/arrangements we heard more than once, but not many. And there was a lovely range from the traditional to the new: traditional songs in familiar guises, traditional songs in new arrangements, and newer songs coming to the barbershop stage afresh."

We picked ourselves up again in Harrogate the following year, taking our sixth gold with 'If You Love Me, Really Love Me' and 'Come Follow The Band'. We accepted the invitation to represent the UK at international convention the next year despite the somewhat unfortunate coincidence of it being in Vegas again - somewhere a little further east might have helped getting a few more of our guys there, as well as a chance to visit somewhere different !

Like a bat outta hell - Cottontown's "rock" set, complete with motorcycle!2017 was a busy year for us. Apart from preparing to be UK convention mic-coolers and our summer trip to the US, it also happened to be the 150th anniversary of our home town newspaper, the Bolton News. It joined forces with Bolton FM radio to organise a contest called 'Sing Bolton, Sing' presented at Market Place, the main shopping mall. So many budding hopefuls applied that the heats, starting in January, ended up running every Saturday for 20 weeks, and we too threw our hat into the ring despite the difficulty of singing in busy shopping malls ! We were delighted to get through to the final in May where we won the third prize of £1,000.

The end of June soon came and we arrived in Vegas with our song set of 'Come Follow The Band' and 'If You Love Me, Really Love Me', enjoying (or enduring ?) similar temperatures to three years ago when it was typically still 88°F at 8pm and up to 104°F during daylight hours.

Barely had we returned from America when we were informed of the sad news that a stalwart of the chorus, Michael O'Neill, had passed away at the age of 80.

The start of December back in Lancashire tends to be a tad chillier than that; we'd accepted an invitation to appear at "Bolton's Got Talent" - an evening of eight acts entertaining a Bolton Hospice fund-raiser and hosted by celebrity Peter Kay at Bolton Wanderers FC Macron Stadium. Dressed up as 'down and outs', our spot included one of our favourite songs, 'Brother Can You Spare A Dime'.

2018 to 2019

National convention returned to Harrogate for 2018. With the help of the gorgeous ballad 'Young And Foolish', emotionally played out as a father/son cameo on stage by Simon Bond and Dale Thompson, together with an energy-sapping 'Charleston' show tune, we were delighted to be awarded our seventh gold medal. That left us with a quandary for 2019: too soon after the previous Las Vegas trip to finance another foray to the US, but neither were we eligible to compete as a male chorus because we were now champions.

Instead, we ventured down a new path that was fun and different: we joined forces with the ladies of Amersham A Capella and entered the Mixed Chorus competition, a new BABS event instigated in 2017. The combined ensemble, with the Queen-inspired name "A Kind Of Magic", put a total of 106 singers on stage, stunningly clothed in red and black, and our set of 'Footloose' and 'Somebody To Love' won first place. In the male chorus contest, our swansong as retiring champions featured performances of 'Tonight, Tonight' and 'Somewhere', the first two of what would become a trio of West Side Story favourite songs to be added to our repertoire.

Autumn soon came round again and we started our usual preparation of two new songs for an eagerly anticipated Harrogate 2020 convention - 'I Got Love' and 'They Didn't Believe Me'. We took some external coaching and more had been planned for March 2020 from our good friend David Wright.

Perhaps turn-of-the-year news about a virus spreading through a province of China seemed too remote to be on the radar for many of us - little did we realise what was about to happen. By the time David Wright arrived in Bolton from the US, the world was a very different and dangerous place; to his eternal credit, David finished our allotted coaching then flew back, arriving home only a couple of hours before the US closed its borders to prevent the spread of a pandemic...

2020 to 2023

COVID meant that remote/virtual singing over the internet was the only feasible way to keep going as a club - the technical restrictions of this made us all realise how very much we missed rehearsing and performing in each others' physical presence.

A period of fifteen months was now to ensue where, like all similar singing ensembles, we focused on the need to keep going at all costs. Rather than just keeping current repertoire on the boil, it was a useful time to acquire new material, e.g. the third of our West Side Story songs, 'Something's Coming'.

Sadly, despite strenuous club efforts to maintain enthusiasm, a small handful of members lost interest either temporarily or permanently. However, in June 2021, the government finally relaxed the COVID rules enough to allow us to sing outside as a large group - that first real rehearsal together under a stand at Trafford FC felt quite surreal - and we eventually returned to our indoor venue at Turton School later in August.

Activity ramped up sooner than we had expected and we happily agreed to an invitation to perform two sets at the Sedbergh Music Festival in June 2022; this gave us an extremely welcome opportunity to rehearse and then perform a wide selection of our repertoire.

Of course, BABS had been obliged to cancel the 2020/2021 contests and target 2022 as the return to the regular annual convention routine. But, for our music team and executive committee, it became clear that it would take us many months to return to our pre-pandemic strength and we took the view that we would attend convention but not compete. This was the first public performance of our new repertoire song 'Running Up That Hill', written by Kate Bush of course and arranged for us by Alison Crutchley of the White Rosettes ladies chorus. There was a massive dose of serendipity here: we received the song shortly before Kate Bush's music went through a sudden massive resurgence, especially 'Running Up That Hill', and we milked the coincidence for all it was worth !

In early October, we accepted an invitation to mic-warm for the Irish convention, and we jetted over to Killarney where we enjoyed a thoroughly enjoyable weekend, doubtless inspired by numerous pints of Murphys and Guinness. Songs performed included 'How Deep Is The Ocean', 'I Got Love', 'They Didn't Believe Me' and 'Somewhere'.

On our return, there was an unexpected opportunity for us to promote our hobby to a national audience. Cottontown's very own in-house quartet "The Sectionnaires" (Andy King, Paul Tatton, James McCollom and Alex Edwards) appeared live on BBC Radio 1 on 25th October, where they were asked to put pop lyrics to four-part harmonies in a quiz hosted by DJ Vicky Hawkesworth in Bolton; thanks go to Jim Kearns for helping to organise that one.

Planning got under way for the 2023 convention at Bournemouth, including external coaching visits from David Wright and Joe Cerutti. The choice of upbeat song had been firmed up: 'Song For The Older Guy' was a choreographed re-arrangement of the 2003 version of 'Song For The Little Guy' by Toronto Northern Lights, but with new lyrics penned by former member Duncan Smith. This took a tongue-in-cheek review of Cottontown's past and told how it was perfectly possible for an ageing chorus to compete with young counterparts. There was initial indecision about a choice of ballad, with two or even three possible options but, helped by a vote from the membership, we finally settled on a very moving arrangement of 'The Party's Over'. We also kept in our sights a Jimmy Webb medley of 'MacArthur Park' and 'Didn't We' arranged by Jim Clancy & Larry Wright, plus an arrangement of Coldplay's 'Viva La Vida' from our very own musical director, Neil Firth.

Given that it had been five years since we last competed, and with fourteen guys (representing virtually a third of the chorus) attempting their first competition with Cottontown, we totally put aside thoughts as to what we would score or what position we would finish in. We knew for sure that we would be up against some seriously stiff competitors who would also be upping their own games, but the only thing that mattered to us was entertaining everybody who would see/hear us perform these songs at some time during the weekend.

It paid off. There was a pin-drop 5-second silence at the end of the ballad before someone in the audience dared to release the tension with some applause, and the upbeat song finished our set with a standing ovation. So many people approached us afterwards with spontaneous expressions of thanks for how we had moved them. The undoubted mountain of preparation we had put in was as much emotional as it was technical, and we had already achieved our objective regardless of the official results. When those were finally announced, our efforts were somehow validated by receiving the LABBS-sponsored 'Best Performance' award; but three minutes later came the discovery that we had also won our eighth gold medal.

As much as it was a joyful and extremely sunny Bank Holiday celebration of music, it was also tinged with bitter sadness. Literally hours before we took the stage, a dear member of ours passed away shortly after being admitted to a hospice. One such loss is one too many, but we dedicate our achievement to a total of no less than six good Cottontown friends who we lost in the past four years:

Dr John Kelly - April 2020
Terry Jowett - August 2021
Terry Mansfield - Easter 2022
George Denton (Life President) - April 2022
Kev Peachey - May 2023
Ray Cope - June 2023


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