Kay Whidden, the last surviving member of The Harpswell Sound, holds a copy of the group’s self-titled 1968 album, with Harpswell Sound in the background. (SAM ALLEN PHOTO)
It’s been nearly half a century since The Harpswell Sound last sang. The barbershop quartet, which once performed all over the state and even won a national singing competition, disbanded in the early 1970s. Since then, three of the four members of the group have, sadly, passed away, but the fourth remembers the group fondly.
“We were all women with children when we decided to sing together,” said Kay Whidden, as she talked about her time in The Harpswell Sound with Syd Sparks, Nan Pulsifer and Ev Weir. Nan was a music teacher in Harpswell, but all four had backgrounds in music.
The quartet got its start in the early 1960s through an informal Harpswell Grange program. For more than six years, they sang together and in other small groups whenever they had a chance. That changed in 1967, when they were encouraged to enter the Grange Quartet Contest.
“It was a barbershop quartet contest that didn’t specify men or women quartets, which was amazing for the time,” Kay said.
Entering under the name the Mermaids, the quartet won the contest at both the state and national levels. Their victory catapulted them to local fame, with the group performing all over Maine and on statewide television as well.
“I was fairly young, but I remember seeing the group sing on television when I was 4 or so,” said David Sparks, Syd Sparks’ son. “The thing I remember most about that is watching them at my grandmother’s house in Brunswick. When they came out on the television screen I waved, because I could see my mother, and I didn’t understand why my grandmother laughed at that.”
Buoyed by their success and the encouragement of their community, the group changed their name to The Harpswell Sound, then recorded and released a self-titled album in 1968.
The album contains both classics, like “Blue Moon,” and original pieces, like the song “I Knew You When.” Soon afterward, the quartet released a single, “Music to Eat Lobster By,” with the B-side “Litany for a Lobster.” Both records contained backup music from the Alex Johns Trio, consisting of Alex Johns on piano, Dick Pettengill on bass and Fred St. Cyr on drums. Johns is also credited as the arranger for many of their songs.
According to the back cover of the self-titled album, at the time of its release, the quartet had 13 children between them. For those kids, The Harpswell Sound was a significant part of their childhood.
“The album was played often at my house, and I knew all the women in the group,” said David. “We actually went one time to sing backup, all of the kids. They got a group of us and went to a Lewiston recording studio to sing ‘John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt.’ It was a huge deal because I didn’t know that the state of Maine was that big when I was a kid.”
Soon after the quartet’s album and single were released, Syd left the group, turning The Harpswell Sound into a trio. David couldn’t remember why his mother left. Kay couldn’t recall either, but said she probably left to run her household and raise her kids.
After the quartet became a trio, the remaining members spent a lot of time traveling to different schools in Maine to both perform and teach music.
“We had a great time with those kids,” said Kay. “I think we did that for about two years as a trio.”
In the early 1970s, Kay left the group to spend more time with her family and community, effectively disbanding the Harpswell Sound. But while they were active, they were minor celebrities in Harpswell.
“It wasn’t like they were the Beatles or anything,” said David, “but it was a really big deal for the whole town of Harpswell, not just for the people that were involved. Everybody went to one church or the other and we all went to public suppers together, and that gave them a bit of status.”
In addition to any benefits the four women garnered from their time in the limelight, David believes the success of The Harpswell Sound was good for everybody in Harpswell.
“It was a collective community boost to see local people doing well. It was nice to look at a neighbor and think, ‘They became somebody.'”