MILAN, Minn. — Fifty years ago, over a cup of coffee at Sherwood Dove’s house near Correll, Minn., a group of nine men figured out how to solve all of life’s troubles.
They formed the Chord-Ayres, an all-male chorus.
They get together on Tuesday evenings in Milan to rehearse, and it matters not what troubles they’ve faced all day or week. “Some nights the tractor and combine can both be stuck in the field, but you go to practice,” said Mike Crosby, one of the original nine who formed the chorus.
The camaraderie, the sense of purpose and the ability to put smiles on the faces of others when entertaining make all of the other troubles disappear, and their time together so special, according to Crosby and the two other surviving charter members, James Boraas of the Appleton, Minn., area, and Dove.
Now numbering over 30 members, the Chord-Ayres will be celebrating the group’s start with an anniversary celebration and performance in the Milan community center gym at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 14. They call Milan home, thanks to the Milan American Legion, which has sponsored the group since the late 1970s.
Their program will feature the music they’re known for: a mix of religious, patriotic and folk melodies.
A simple love for singing is what originally brought the charter members together around Dove’s table in 1969. The three charter members said they had been singing in church choirs and some with another men’s chorus that was disbanding. They just wanted to continue doing what they enjoyed.
The enjoyment of singing is still at the core of what keeps this group together, along with the camaraderie, according to Ted Albers, director of the Chord-Ayres. He started singing with the group in 1971. He figures he has been its director for probably 30 years or more.
Six of the original charter members have died, including founding director Paul Trelstad. The group has lost other members to death or when changes in careers led them to move away from the area. New members have come in to replace those who have been lost, but by and large, most of these singers have been together for much of the group’s history.
At age 76, Crosby is “the kid” among the charter members. Dove, 85, and Boraas, 83, have voices as strong as ever.
The members come from many walks of life, from law enforcement to farming to small business owners. Some make the weekly drive to Milan from locations as far-flung as Watertown, S.D., and Madison, Starbuck and Granite Falls in Minnesota.
They don their tuxedos and hit the road as a group nearly once each month to perform in area churches, Legion clubs, and for benefits. They love to perform in communities where they can be joined by young singers. “We enjoy singing with young people and show them that men can have fun singing good music,” said Crosby.
The Chord-Ayres keep a tradition of an occasional Sunday church run, performing at three to as many as nine churches in a row. “We tell them we’re not going to sit through a sermon and we don’t stay for the collection,’’ said Albers, laughing.
They are famously known for performing on Pearl Harbor day at the Fort Snelling Chapel. It’s a tradition they’ve kept since 1970, missing only two years. Those were the years they performed at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
Singing on the Arizona at Pearl Harbor for the 50th anniversary of the attack remains one of the most rewarding — and emotional — of the memories Crosby, Boraas and Dove said they hold of their years with the group. Everyone who performed at the time still talks about the flowered lei they tossed on the harbor waters and how they watched it form a perfect heart.
There are other memories that will wet the eyes as well. The members have a tradition of singing at the funerals of former members, always performing the song “Friendship” at the procession.
But most of the memories these guys share are made of laughter and smiles. In 1976, they rented four motor homes for a run to Seattle for the National American Legion Chorus competition. “One of the RVs was called the card shack. Does that give you a clue?” said Crosby of the fun they had.
He remembers the singers stopping at a restaurant, where a young lady was in tears because her boyfriend had dumped her. “We sang ‘Baby Face.’ She wasn’t crying when we left,’’ he said.
When they’re not mending broken hearts, they’re keeping whole hearts intact. Albers said the members have always made it a point to keep their spouses and family members involved with as many activities as possible. When the members had growing children, they regularly camped together.
Their annual Memorial Day program in Milan led them all the way to Washington, D.C. Congressman Collin Peterson was the guest speaker for the program in Milan. After hearing the Chord-Ayres sing, he asked if they’d perform in the nation’s capital.
“What was the big hall we sang in?” asked Boraas. It was the Kennedy Center, said Crosby.
They’re proud too of being inducted in 2012 to the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame.
But make no mistake. While they enjoy it all, what matters most of all is the camaraderie they enjoy, said Albers. “You care about everybody, always care about them, and they care about you,” he said.
Because of it, he’s confident their voices will remain joined for years to come. “I think we will just try to keep on going until we can’t do it anymore," he said.