Forty years ago this Saturday [Dec. 8], the River Blenders chorus was chartered as a member of Sweet Adelines International. Today, it boasts 86 active members in all age groups and from all walks of life.
It’s a sisterhood of talented women, who have risen to prominence as 14-time Midwest Gateway Region 5 Champion Chorus. But its beginnings were much more humble.
The chorus was founded on March 10, 1976, by Pam Royle, Vicky McKinley and Julie McAllister, all of whom lived in the River Bend subdivision in Chesterfield. Legend has it that the women were simply looking for something to do while their husbands watched Monday Night Football. After months of trying this and that, they realized that what they liked to do was sing.
It’s a common trait among River Blenders, who every Monday night drive to St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville from their homes and offices in St. Louis and St. Charles counties, Illinois and even outstate Missouri for chorus practice.
“We have members who come in from as far away as Jefferson City and Columbia, Missouri,” said Chriss Burkey, who has been in the chorus since 1986. “We all enjoy getting together to sing.”
The chorus sings each year at the Clayton Art Fair among other performances.
At the Art Fair, the group also awards its annual scholarship to high school seniors. “We’ve been doing that for about nine years,” Burkey said.
In addition to singing at various functions around town, Burkey noted that the River Blenders “sang at the ceremony when the city of Chesterfield was chartered [and] for its 10th anniversary.”
There is an audition process for chorus members, administered by Master Director Diane Huber and “set forth in loose form by Sweet Adelines International,” but Burkey says everyone is welcome to “give it a try.”
“Come to a rehearsal and get up on the risers and sing with us … I think it gives you a much better experience of what it is that we do than just coming to hear us sing,” she said.
What the River Blenders do is sing a capella four-part harmony. They do it exceptionally well.
The chorus has sung at the International Sweet Adeline competition 16 times in 40 years. Because of competition regulations, in those 40 years, the chorus would have had only 20 opportunities to compete in Internationals. “And we’ve been on stage 16 times, so that’s a very good record,” Burkey said.
In 2016, they claimed the championship title in the Harmony Classic Division AA in Las Vegas. In 2017, they won the Region 5 Championship. Most recently, Huber said the chorus did “really well at Internationals [in October in St. Louis].”
“We were 23 out of 34 choruses and that really boils down to being 23 out of about 500 choruses in Sweet Adelines because only the best come to the International competition from each of their regions all over the world,” Huber explained.
She said singing a cappella “isn’t particularly easy; it takes some dedication but I’ve had people come in here who didn’t read a note of music and who went home and started teaching themselves how to read their own part on the piano so they could learn their part.”
Jennifer Graham, of Ballwin, is one of those ladies. A five-year member, she got started when “a friend of a friend said, ‘Hey, you like to sing karaoke. Why don’t you give this place a try?’ I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know.’ Then, I came here one night and I was amazed. I went from not knowing anything to learning how to read music and having all these extraordinary experiences with music.
“When I came in, I set a goal. I said, ‘Man, before five years, I’d love to be good enough to at least try to do a quartet and last year, I performed in my first regional competition with a quartet. We weren’t breaking any numbers but we got up there and we did it.
Graham echoed the opinion of half a dozen River Blenders, when she said, “the education is just so good; they bring in coaches from all over the world and they provide schools and retreats that you can participate in.”
“You can just come on Mondays and just get away or you can take the education as far as you want to,” she said.
Ann Keller, of St. Peters, and Peggy Leon, of Lake Saint Louis, were drawn to the caliber of the chorus’ education, music and showmanship.
Keller is part of the visual team that choreographs the River Blenders’ performances.
Through the years, the visual team has brought to life everything from the Bates Hotel to the Flintstones along with plenty of glamour and glitz.
“One year we did a whole theme on Thriller and everybody came dressed as ghouls,” Huber said.
When Keller was asked, “How do you dance on a riser?,” she answered, “Very carefully.”
Keller’s husband, Kevin, is a composer/arranger, and Leon said, “River Blender uses a lot of his charts.”
Like Keller and Leon, West County resident Cindy Hegle “has barbershop in her blood.”
“I joined Sweet Adelines in 1978. My grandfather was a barbershopper, my husband was a barbershopper, my brother was a barbershopper, and I just fell into the pack,” she said. As part of the chorus, she’s had the opportunity to travel – “Hawaii twice for competitions, Baltimore, Houston, New Orleans, Salt Lake City, the list goes on and on” – and she’s met new friends. So has Graham.
“We hosted an Australian and a Canadian chorus before the recent International competition,” Graham said. “We had a little show – we just sang some songs and treated them to some barbecue – and now I have a friend in Australia! We got to talk about cultures, I introduced her to my husband and I got to learn about her life as a Sweet Adeline down in Sydney.”
Graham and her new friend have become modern-day pen pals, sharing news via emails.
“What I love about River Blenders is its the most diverse group of women ever. We have all age groups, all walks of life. We have educators, doctors, attorneys, mothers, just about every career you can imagine,” said Huber, who has directed the chorus since 1989.
Some singing mamas bring their daughters into the flock.
When Denise Lollis moved from Kansas City to St. Louis, she joined River Blenders. Then, she coaxed her daughter Katie into joining.
“She was like, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be great if you would come sing with us. We’ll have so much fun together.’ I got suckered in but I stayed because it is a lot of fun,” Katie said. “I work in a very technical field [she’s an engineer at Boeing] with almost all men, so coming somewhere once a week and meeting other women and spending time in a totally different environment than my technical career is such a nice change from my day-to-day life.
“They say music is a lot like science and math. The way you use your brain is very similar. It all kind of connects in my head.”
Huber stops to listen to the chatter and joyful greetings of the women arriving for rehearsal, then adds:
“They come in happy and leave happier. ”
That’s the power of music.
“Our youngest member is 19 and our oldest member is in her mid- to late-70s,” Burkey said. “None of us own up to anything more specific than that, I guess.” She chuckles. “Up to last year, one of our charter members was still an active member into her 80s.”
“I’m younger than most of the members,” said Kelsey Burke of Eureka. “I’m 27 but I started when I was 25.
“I grew up – in the womb – in River Blenders. My sister and I would come and listen to [our mom’s] rehearsals … but it was never something I thought I’d get into. And then a few years ago, I decided to try it out with her and fell in love with it and don’t think I could ever leave.”
Want to try it out? Check out the “Join” tab on the Rivers Blenders website [riverblenders.org] to learn more.