This Longhorn Barbershop Quartet Hasn’t Stopped Singing for 50 Years

The 40 Acre 4 at the 1976 International Barbershop Contest in San Francisco.

Hanging around the UT campus in the 1970s, students were surrounded by sounds of change—protests against the Vietnam War on Congress Avenue, the continuing permeance of rock ‘n roll, hippies on the Drag … or, if one were in the right place at the right time, they might instead hear the old-timey harmonies of a barbershop quartet.  

Jay Steinfeld, Marshal Goldberg, Rick Robertson, and Mike Ryan were students at The University of Texas in 1973 when they formed a bond through harmonies, contests, and goofy outfits. They haven’t stopped singing together since as members of the 40 Acre 4.  

A barbershop quartet features four singers—a lead, a tenor, a baritone, and a bass—but the resulting harmony of voices can create six distinct tones. While these quartets were cultural mainstays in musicals, they aren’t often found on college campuses made up of some guys in their early 20s. 

“Most barbershop quartets are old goats, as we are now, but in those days, we were the young bucks,” Ryan, BS ’77, says. “It was just fun to sing and try to put some new life into some old barbershop-type situations.”  

Thus, the 40 Acre 4 started on “kind of a lark,” Steinfeld, BBA ’76, says. He was walking down the stairs of a fraternity house when he heard some interesting voices rising from below—members of the Longhorn Singers, a singing group on campus, putting on an impromptu show. Arthur Rose, a member who was part of a campus barbershop quartet at the time, thought Steinfeld had the chops to join Longhorn Singers. Goldberg, Ryan, and Robertson joined Longhorn Singers as well, and they collectively formed the 40 Acre 4 in 1973. Soon enough, the group was taking their tunes around Austin.  

Goldberg, Robertson, Steinfeld, and Ryan in Ryan’s apartment, 1975.

“We’d sing anywhere,” Steinfeld says. “We would sing in a restaurant … and people would look around going, ‘Do I hear some harmony?’ And it was us.” The improvised restaurant concerts even occasionally became a meal ticket for the 40 Acre 4, as fellow diners would buy them dinner in exchange for the free entertainment. It didn’t take much for Steinfeld, Goldberg, Robertson, and Ryan to draw a crowd once they’d started up.   

“You didn’t need to have a bunch of instruments—you could just start singing in the corridor and suddenly you’d have people interested,” Robertson, BBA ’76, JD ’78, Life Member, says. “It was just fun.”  

Eventually, the Austin chapter of the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America (SPEBSQSA, for short) took these four “young bucks” under their wing, teaching them the ways of barbershop quartets and encouraging them to participate in contests—an idea the 40 Acre 4 hadn’t considered. It didn’t take long for the four students to earn spots in contests and showcases across the country. It all culminated in the 40 Acre 4 qualifying to compete in the 1976 International Barbershop Contest in San Francisco with more than 40 other quartets, piling into Ryan’s parents’ truck for the nearly 2,000-mile journey. 

“Rick and I sat up front in the cabin with my parents, and Marshal and Jay both laid on a mattress back there and opened the windows between the two,” Ryan remembers. “We’d sit there and sing back and forth and talk back and forth. I look back on it as really a very enjoyable time that helped us to bond, and that has helped the bond last as long as it has.”  

After performing in front of thousands at that competition in San Francisco, the 40 Acre 4 drifted apart as they got married, went to grad school, and pursued careers that didn’t involve their overalls. But a few years later, Steinfeld thought his son’s bar mitzvah called for a reunion performance, so he gave his fellow singers a ring. 

“It was like no time had passed it all,” Goldberg, BA ’76, says. “When we got back together, it was like getting back on a bicycle and just remembering how it felt to be 13 and cruising through the streets with the wind blowing through your hair. Mike brought out the pitch pipe, and he blew the first note of the song ‘Susie’s Fella,’ and right away we were back into it.”  

Since then, they’ve never passed up a chance to slip back into old harmonies. The 40 Acre 4 have granted performances at family weddings, bar mitzvahs, or reunions over the years, and even in a production of The Music Man in 2012 as part of McKinney Summer Musicals. Ryan jokes that he has a recording ready for his wife to play at his funeral in case he’s the first to go.   

The 40 Acre 4 and Arthur Rose performing at Robertson’s son’s wedding in 2015.

“We were together at such a formative time in our lives,” Goldberg says. “At the time it just seemed like life as usual. But now as we look back on it, those were really special years. And I think we had a sense of that at the time, but here we are now in our late 60s, and we look back at those times when we were in our late teens and early 20s, and it’s just a part of who we are now.”  

And after spending countless hours practicing, traveling, performing, and perfecting songs together, that’s a bond that isn’t soon forgotten.   

“Being in the quartet has not only been fun, but it’s been this thread, and not just with the four of us, but with our wives and our families, that keeps us together, no matter what,” Steinfeld says. “It’s embedded in us. It’s part of us. We are the 40 Acre 4.”   

Credits: Courtesy of Rick Robertson and Jay Steinfeld


No comments

Be the first one to leave a comment.

Post a Comment