Battle to save Leeds Male Voice Choir

DWINDLING BAND: Leeds Male Voice Choir is looking for new members.
DWINDLING BAND: Leeds Male Voice Choir is looking for new members.
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Leeds Male Voice Choir went from a group of singing miners to the Royal Albert Hall. But as Grant Woodward discovers, its future is now in jeopardy.

FOR nearly a century the Leeds Male Voice Choir has belted out everything from grand opera to classic pop hits.

In its pomp it packed out a dozen concerts a year, appeared on TV talent show Opportunity Knocks, wowed audiences at the Royal Albert Hall and even released its own album.

But these days there’s a cloud hanging over its future. A number of members have recently passed away and its ranks are thinning fast.

All of which makes secretary John Lockett fearful that the choir may not survive long enough to celebrate its centenary in five years time.

“It came down rather suddenly about a year back,” he says. “We lost six members and we’re now down to 18 singers.

“The other problem we’re having is that no one is booking us for concerts, probably because there’s no money about these days.

“I’ve got a list a mile long of people we used to sing for but they don’t invite us back any more.

“It would be desperately sad not to make it to our centenary. That’s why we’re fighting like mad to keep it going.”

Founded in 1916 as the Broome Excelsior Male Voice Choir by miners from Middleton Broome Colliery in south Leeds, it changed to its current name in 1948.

“They sang in the Broome Pit Social Club to start with and it all grew from there,” says John, 74, who joined the choir in 1968.

“I was invited to join by some friends, came down and I have never left.

“Not long after I joined we were invited by Thames Television to go down and sing with Hughie Green on his show Opportunity Knocks.

“We didn’t win but we took part and that was the fun of it.

“In the late 1960s and into the 1970s we also took part in the Thousand Voices concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in London. They were fantastic weekends, even though it was bloody hard work.”

But times have changed. The choir, which charges £100 a concert, hasn’t had a booking for 18 months.

In the past there were shared concerts with other male choirs but they too have slowly but surely fallen by the wayside.

They still rehearse once a fortnight at their base at St Mary’s Church Hall on Town Street in Beeston – “to keep ourselves in trim,” says John. Two members travel all the way from Wetherby every other Thursday to be there.

However, without new members or some concert bookings, its fate is left hanging in the balance.

“There are two things we’re desperately short of and that’s money and singers,” says John, a former RAF engineer who lives in Bramley. “We’re not getting an income but we still have to pay our rent and the money is slowly running out.

“We’re not getting any younger either and we really need some new blood coming in. Some fresh singers would help immensely.”

The choir has five or six first tenors, two second tenors and the rest are basses and bass baritones.

“We make a nice sound,” says John.

“We sing everything from Negro spirituals and religious songs to Rodgers and Hammerstein numbers, as well as male voice choir standards.”

The choir’s conductor Michael Grant joined in 1969 and remembers the group’s heyday well.

“We had a strong connection with our twin city of Dortmund and had exchange visits with their Dorsfeld Mannorchor male voice choir. Sadly that has faded away.

“I also remember going down to the TV studios in Twickenham to record Opportunity Knocks with Hughie Green. They were great times.”

At the age of 62, Michael, a stamp dealer who lives in Roundhay, is still considered one of the junior members.

“There are two of us who joined within a few months and we were the youngest at the time. We joke about it that after 40 years we’re still the youngest.

“There are some large male voice choirs around now but they tend to be in more rural areas of the county.

“Being a big city there are many other musical groups around and mixed choirs in Leeds seem to be struggling for men as well.

“Unfortunately we’ve shrunk through members passing away. Maybe we haven’t pushed ourselves enough to try to encourage new people to come along.

“Other choirs have celebrated their centenaries in the last ten years or so but unfortunately we just missed out. Who knows if we’re going to get there, it would be very sad if we didn’t.

“It has been such a big part of my life. To me it means camaraderie, being able to entertain and coming together once a fortnight to learn together.”

The choir used to join ranks with Thornhill Male Voice Choir in Dewsbury, but that group folded shortly after Christmas.

It leaves the Leeds Male Voice Choir desperate for new members.

An open night is being held this Thursday at St Mary’s Church Hall in Beeston in the hope that potential recruits will come along.

“We’re inviting members of the public to come along, even bring their families with them if they like, and we will sing a couple of songs,” says John Lockett.

=“Any gentlemen who are interested in coming along can sing with us. Everyone knows the national anthem so we will probably do that, along with one or two other things.

“One thing we don’t do is give auditions. We never have done.

“We want any gentleman of any standard. If they have sung in church choirs in the past that would be a help, but if you can’t read music it’s not a problem because it’s quite easy to learn.”

Without an injection of new voices the choir faces an uncertain future.

Given its dwindling membership and money worries, John fears it may not otherwise see out the year.

“When it started as a colliery choir there was a ready made group there and we have tried our best to keep it going,” says Michael.

“It would be a shame if a city the size of Leeds didn’t have a male voice choir, especially one that has survived for 90 years in various forms and through different social changes. I think it would be a great loss to the city and its heritage.”

l Leeds Male Voice Choir’s open night will take place this Thursday from 7.30pm at St Mary’s Church Hall, Town Street, Beeston. For more information call John Lockett on 0113 2560450.