Billy Surface


The Most Famous Voice in North Texas Jingles

Jim Clancy leads Vocal Majority, a 150-member men's chorus. But you probably know him better for two words: 'Westway Ford.'

My dad is in Vocal Majority, so I had the pleasure of seeing you direct at the Barbershop Harmony Society competition in Philadelphia in 2010. You guys had fog machines, sequined vests, and running front flips. What’s the flashiest performance you’ve ever done? A song called “Running Wild.” We did run wild. The front row had three different costume changes, and then I had a big costume change at the end, from a tux all of a sudden into a sparkly, colorful, wild-crazy shirt. A drum major appears out of nowhere and marches right down the middle of the chorus, out to the front with his big baton, and cuts off the chorus. We try to keep the interest more on singing, but people want to be entertained. Heck.

My guess is that Vocal Majority is kind of like the Cowboys of barbershop. Do you think that’s about right? That’s a cool comparison. We won a lot more gold than anybody has through the years, with a lot of hard work. A lot of teamwork. A lot of people have moved here just to sing with the Vocal Majority. There are guys that come from a five hour drive to get here every week for rehearsal. We had a guy in the early days actually commuted from England, and he finally decided it would be cheaper to move here. He’s still in the chorus today. His name is Graham Smith. There was a guy in New Orleans, in his 80s now, but for all the time he was in the chorus, probably I’ll bet 25 or 30 years, commuted every week from New Orleans. Drove.

How did you get started singing? I was born into a musical family. Mother had a beautiful voice. She actually passed on an operatic career to go into church work, and she pioneered the graded choir program in the Baptist church. My life changed when I heard a group called The Four Freshmen. They brought a brand-new kind of harmony to the world in 1948. I decided if there was any way to sing for a living, I wanted to do it.

Vocal Majority went viral last spring with a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” What was that like? We put it on Facebook right after Leonard had died. Eight and a half million views. We couldn’t believe it. People in other countries—like some I never heard of—want to know more about the arrangement. This Christmas, I think we’re going to sing it.

Do people recognize your voice from the Westway Ford jingle? When I tell people what I do, that’s the one I mention that everybody’s heard, because they’ve been playing it for 30 years, I think. Unfortunately, it was a 13-week buyout, so you get paid so much for 13 weeks. You don’t get anything else for it. I could have retired a millionaire just off of the residuals if it was on scale, but anyhow. What the heck?

Well, that doesn’t seem right. I actually went to Joe Tigue, who owns Westway Ford, after about 20 years of it. I sang it for him. “You’re the guy that did this?” “Yeah,” I said. “Don’t you think you ought to give me a car?” He laughed and all, says, “Well, I can’t do that.” Anyhow, I just thought it wouldn’t hurt to ask.

You’re thought to be the most recorded bass in jingles. How did you get into that line of work? I had a quartet called the Fore-Sites. One summer, we had a gig singing at Herb’s Magic Grill on Lovers Lane. Boy, we were packing them in. The Dallas Morning News and Dallas Times Herald, they both wrote nice articles. One of them, I think it was Don Safran, he said, “You’ll love these guys. They sing beautiful harmony, and they’re so clean they float.” I said, Mama’s going to like reading that. Then, Bill Meeks, he’s one of the pioneers of radio ID jingles, heard us at Herb’s and he said, “How would you guys like to sing jingles?” You couldn’t drive through a town of any size or city without hearing our jingles. They were just everywhere, and any way you went. My son Greg just loved it, and he ended up being president of one of the big companies. Still is.

And Greg is now the musical director of Vocal Majority, is that right? He was in the middle of the front row as a 12-year-old when we won our first gold medal in Indianapolis in ’75. He’s got 12 chorus gold medals and one quartet gold medal, so that’s more than anybody in the whole of barbershopping, because I don’t have a quartet gold medal.

Oh, so I should probably be talking to him and not you. It’s true!

Vocal Majority performs December 21–24 at the Eisemann Center in Richardson.