Perfect harmony: The Liberty Sisters
PUBLISHED: 11:21 03 April 2017 | UPDATED: 11:21 03 April 2017
Fran Mcelhone meets up with Devon vintage vocal trio The Liberty Sisters
You’re bound to know a few of the songs in their repertoire, and if you don’t, they’ll have you on your feet doing a boogie woogie (or tapping your feet at least), within minutes anyway.
Vintage vocal trio, The Liberty Sisters, is Clare Fairburn, Vikki Hewitt, and Helena Gater – or as they prefer to be known, Rose, Ruby and Dolly.
I meet up with them at their weekly, evening rehearsal at Clare’s Clyst St Mary home. Outfits, including floaty floral tea dresses, glamorous floor length winter gowns, and military uniforms reminiscent of a bygone age, are hung up and there are all sorts of pretty accessories and gadgets lying around. Turns out, tonight is more of a costume pow wow.
“We’re here to talk about seamed hosiery this evening,” Clare tells me. “And I wanted to show the girls this,” she adds waving something that looks half hairbrush half hair roller around. “This was a great gadget I found,” she says, starting to wind her hair around it. “It makes no hassle victory rolls! Our top priority is making sure our singing is perfect, but we want to make sure we look nice and authentic, on a level with having fun,” she adds.
The ladies found each other through their mutual love of music, singing and close harmony.
Their sound is melodious, beautiful and wistful. Their singing invokes happiness. And they’re a rarity too; the group is thought to be the only close harmony vintage group south of Bristol.
“Close harmony has its roots in Gospel,” says Clare, the tenor of the group, who met Helena and the original Ruby, Vicky Parkes, at St Thomas and Sidmouth gospel choirs, and who together formed the group last spring.
“I’ve known Vikki for a while so when the first Vicky said she was moving away, I knew she’d be perfect. We all absolutely love harmony singing.”
Close harmony is characteristic of the 1930s and 1940s and therefore reminiscent of Second World War Britain. Their name, they tell me, represents the fight for freedom witnessed in the 1940s.
“Harmony singing means you connect with your fellow singers on a different level,” says Vikki, the alto, who lives in Exmouth. “It’s like a sandwich that makes a lovely complete sound. The aim is to make it sound easy even when it’s not.”
“The first time a song works and it clicks, it’s an emotional moment,” adds Clare.
“Music started to jump in the 30s and 40s,” continues Vikki. “It was very cheerful music. And all the songs have a story. Not like today, don’t get me started on that! And they have such humour. There are so many really wonderful songs, and even if people haven’t heard them, they can connect.”
The girls have many well known songs in their repertoire including Lullaby on Broadway, Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree, as well as some emotive classics, The White Cliffs of Dover, We’ll Meet Again and Goodnight Sweetheart.
“For us, one of the big driving forces is seeing people enjoy themselves and being part of the party,” says Clare. “We find people are quick to get up and dance. When you look out and see them smiling, it’s so uplifting.”
“You see couples coming out of their shells, and people who were sitting at the back get up and dance,” Vikki says.
“The performance side of it is wonderful too,” adds Helena, the mezzo soprano. “It allows you to take on a whole different persona.”
The girls choreograph their routines themselves and their songs are a mix of original and personal arrangements. Their plan is to increase the repertoire to 1950s, 60s and 70s tunes too.
Clare, 61, who has been a charity fundraising manager for the RNLI, grew up in a family that loves music. “My father never let us be without music,” she says. “I’ve always sung, and if I’m not singing out loud, I’ll be singing in my head! All my life I’ve wanted to do more harmony singing, it’s what I love most.”
Vikki is classically trained and spent her teenage years gigging in Exmouth, Exeter and Sidmouth. Not long after graduating from the Academy of Contemporary Music the 26-year-old was headhunted to become one of 70 Rock Choir leaders countrywide.
“I would harmonise to anything,” she says. “It’s something you just find yourself doing, you can’t help it!”
Working mum-of-four Helena, 27, from Exeter, grew up in a musical family and has been singing on stage since she was five years old. She is also classical trained. “Harmony has always been my love,” she says.
After forming last spring, in a short space of time the group was getting booked up, with private functions including weddings and public events. More recently they performed at a wake for a gentleman in his 90s.
“We asked his widow if they’d like us to wear our black velvet outfits,” Clare tells me. “But she said, no, wear your uniforms, he would have liked that. When we started performing, it really warmed up the room. You could see people start to relax and it seemed to really lift their hearts, it was lovely to see.”
You can see The Liberty Sisters at Darts Farm Classic Car Show in aid of the Estuary League of Friends on 4 June and at Dawlish Cycle and Heritage Day on 28 May.
Who is Buttercup?
The Liberty Sisters are often seen with a bright yellow 1953 GMC pickup truck called Buttercup – imported from California by Clare’s husband Harry a few years ago.
“It should have been called Honey because when she arrived we found honeycomb in all of her cavities!” reveals Clare. “We looked online at the address where she came from and saw that she had been stored in someone’s back yard in the middle of nowhere for several years, and used as a beehive.”