By Drew Lyon
Special to The Free Press
---- — For 41 years, the Mankato Riverblenders have never passed up a chance to break out into song.
They've harmonized at schools, churches, sporting events, weddings, bars, concert halls, nursing homes and businesses. On Valentine's Day, you name the place, the Riverblenders will bring the melody. If circumstances require, they'll even serenade your sweetheart over the phone.
"We'll sing just about anywhere you want us to go," said Riverblenders charter member Jeff Grimmer. "We've sung over the phone to Iraq, and that was really cool. We've sung over a PA system to someone who was out on a route, but he didn't like it at all."
Valentine's Day has been the Riverblenders' busy season for at least two decades. This year, five sets of barbershop quartets will be making the rounds in the Mankato area, crooning standards like "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" and "Heart of My Heart" and doling out cards and long-stemmed roses to unsuspecting Valentines.
"It's a really fun thing," Grimmer said. "Some people cry -- you get the tearjerkers -- some people are happier than others. It goes the full gamut of emotions. Schools are always fun. We sing to women, sometimes men, but with different verses."
For the past five years, every Tuesday night at the Wine Cafe about a dozen of the Riverblenders gather around a table in the spirit of friendship to sing their favorites between bites of pizza and sips of beer. The group rearranges pop classics in the vein of "Wonderful World," "Hello Mary Lou," "Georgia On My Mind" and "I Saw the Light." Guests are always welcome; on a recent February night, Grimmer even dragged a very reluctant and tone-deaf reporter into the singing festivities.
"When we come here to sing, it's just for the fun of it," Grimmer said. "What we do here, 95 percent of the time, is sing songs that we don't sing at rehearsal, songs that we've sung way back 40 years ago. We go around the table, everyone gets their turn to pick a song. And some of them we sing over and over again because we like them so much."
The sudden harmonizing, which usually begins around 10 p.m. often startles some of the bar's patrons.
"I like seeing the look on people's faces when they hear singing," said Wine Cafe bartender Paul Dobratz, "and they ask, 'Where's that singing coming from?'"
The group is cautious of violating a basic tenant of barbershop singing: be subtle, don't overwhelm.
"One of the rules of barbershop is you don't put yourself upon other people that don't want to listen," Grimmer said. "So we're very careful where we go, and most of the people that are down here like to hear us. Some people actually come to hear us, and that's kind of a nice thing, too."
The Riverblenders were founded in 1973 as the Mankato chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society. Bruce Gray, former dean of students at Gustavus Adolphus College, was there at the beginning. By 1973, word was spreading locally that Gray, a Massachusetts native, had barbershop singing experience.
"A guy named Norm Erickson came to my front door one day," Gray recalled, "and said, 'I understand you sing barbershop. We're starting a quartet.' We got four guys together, and we ended up doing very well in competition and did shows all over the Midwest. That started it -- it got in my blood. I just loved the camaraderie."
Grimmer, a Prior Lake native, was attending college in Mankato at the time. His wife spotted a newspaper ad in search of barbershop singers, and encouraged her husband to join.
"So I went and checked it out and stayed," said Grimmer, who started singing in church choir when he was 6 years old. "I just wanted to sing and harmonize a cappella. I realized this is not easy. If you're not all perfectly singing correctly, it can sound pretty bad."
Marked by its tight, four-part harmony style, barbershop quartet singing dates back to the late 1800s. Grimmer says the idiom has staying power, pointing to the recent national success of another local a cappella group, Home Free.
"The barbershop was the place to go and talk about the news of the town," he said. "It was like a community center, and pretty soon guys started singing."
By the early 1900s, barbershop singing had fallen out of favor to radio and vaudeville. But it was revived in the late 1930s and during the 1950s, Mankato had its first Barbershop Chorus chapter.
"It had started dying out, but some some guys decided to get together to save it," Grimmer said. "And it's still around today."
And so are the Riverblenders. In 2013, the group performed 65 engagements, many of them pro bono. They have about 55 members (the youngest is 23), according to group president Arv Zenk.
"Guys last a long time," Zenk said. "I'd say the average member has been around 20, 25 years."
"It's just fun to harmonize," Grimmer said. "When you lock chords, it goes up your legs, it makes you shiver. It can give you goosebumps."
What A Singing Valentine: "The Story of the Rose" Where Any office, home, classroom, restaurant, etc. in the Mankato vicinity. When 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday. Calls accepted until noon on Friday. Cost $40 (precise time appointment at extra cost). Included are two songs, long-stemmed rose, card and pictures. Info Call 469-4085 or 382-9384 or visit singmankato.com