Joseph P Hudson
Every once in a while you meet someone who seems perfectly suited to his role—someone who is not only a master at his profession but so comfortable, confident, and happy in it that people will follow him into places they never thought they would go. Such a man is Joseph P. Hudson. And the wonder of it is that most of the 28 men in the chorus that he leads are old enough to be his father or grandfather. At 25, Joe is believed to be the youngest director in the 30,000-member Barbershop Harmony Society. Nevertheless, his talent and judgment often seem as seasoned as those of directors a generation older.
Maybe that's because he found his calling so early.
"Joe made his debut in the Franklin School, in Stratford, Connecticut, where I was the principal," says Garrett Stack, host of "American Jukebox" on WMNR Fine Arts Radio. "As a third-grader, he starred as the Mayor of Munchkinland in The Wizard of Oz. He was a natural. He just loved performing."
He certainly did. When he was six, he became fascinated with the country music his dad played on the radio, and began imitating Garth Brooks. Soon, he was winning roles in musicals and commercials around Connecticut and New York.
As a high-school senior in 2001, Joe represented Stratford (Conn.) High School at the Connecticut Music Educators' Western Region and All-State Music festivals. The following year, he entered Western Connecticut State University to study music education. There, he developed his voice, a malleable tenor that fits everything from opera to Broadway musicals and, of course, barbershop. Among the opera roles he played at WestConn were Sir Joseph Porter in Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore, King Kaspar in Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors, Lippo Fiorentino in Weill's Street Scene, Prince Orlofsky in Strauss's Fledermaus, and First Man in Armor in Mozart's Magic Flute. He also plied his talent on the trumpet and trombone in two WestConn instrumental groups: the Jazz Ensemble and the Symphonic Band.
At band practice, Joe's life took a new turn. There he met bassoonist Elizabeth Ehli, an elementary-education major who had grown up in Danbury. Later, she showed up in the seat next to him in a choral music class. Liz is a female tenor. They began talking. She liked his kindly manner; he liked her sense of humor. Soon, she helped him get a part-time job at the Lake Avenue Stop & Shop, just down the hill from the WestConn campus, where she ran the flower department while he worked the deli counter. A romance blossomed.
Meanwhile, in 2002 Joe discovered the Mad Hatters. By far the group's youngest member, he soon became a chorus favorite, in part because of his wacky jokes and infectious enthusiasm. He rapidly became a section leader, an assistant director, and in 2004, when former director Joel Knecht moved to Trumbull, our director. Since the job was part-time, Joe also continued slicing provolone and ham for his customers at Stop & Shop.
One day while Liz was at work, she looked up to see a dozen men in red polo shirts striding down the produce aisle. They stepped into her department and stood in an arc before her. In walked Joe, dressed in black tie and tails. Someone blew a pitchpipe, and Joe directed them in the sweetest song she had ever heard:
I'll be loving you, always,
With a love that's true, always.
When the things you've planned
Need a helping hand,
I will understand, always.
Not for just an hour,
Not for just a day,
Not for just a year,
She had already guessed what was up. As he dropped to his knee and opened the little white box, she rushed into his arms. There, between the azaleas ($5.99) and the African violets ($2.99), he whispered:
"Will you marry me?"
Not long afterward, Joe graduated from WestConn with a bachelor's in music education. Suddenly, he heard about a full-time job opening—one that seemed too good to be true: the directorship of the Danbury High School Choirs. It was a plum appointment in the state's largest high school, right here in Danbury.
When the Mad Hatters heard about the opening, many of us believed it was destined for some older, more experienced educator, not a youngster fresh out of college. But when Joe told us he was going to apply anyway, we went to bat for him. A flurry of calls and letters went out in support of his candidacy. Here's some of what we wrote:
• "Hudson knows what greatness sounds like. He also is quick to identify what, in a performance, stands between mediocrity and greatness—and more important, how to explain it to his singers."
• "Even though he's a twenty-something leading a group of executives, scientists, educators, a doctor, several Ph.D. engineers, and others who are two or three time his age, Joe is a commanding figure, never intimidated and always respected.”
• "Although he insists on high standards, he has a unerring instinct for the right moment to inject humor, self-criticism, or praise that keeps everyone in top singing mood. He's a hard taskmaster, but his burden is light."
• "These are remarkable qualities to find in someone so young. I think they will serve him even better with 14- to 18-year-olds than with us Hatters—not just because high-school students are nearer his age, but because they stand on the threshold between play and work, which is exactly where Joe (and I suspect all great artists) must live."
We didn't know whether our testimony would help or not. Other candidates were probably marshaling their own cheering sections. Typically, Joe never asked us to help. Quietly we lobbied; quietly we waited.
Then, after a summer of suspense, Joe walked into our Tuesday, August 15, rehearsal with a big grin on his face. "May I please introduce myself?" he said. "I am Joseph Hudson, director of the Danbury Mad Hatters—and director of the choral department at Danbury High School!" Our little band went wild with cheers and applause.
The news was doubly good. It kept Joe with his beloved Hatters. It also linked us with younger talent—something all barbershoppers need in order to replenish their membership. And conversely, it won the Danbury High School Choirs a new cadre of well-connected supporters. "This," said one of our baritones "is what I call synergy." Before long, high-school students began showing up at Hatters rehearsals—and Hatters at high-school concerts.
Joe and Liz married on December 29, 2006, in St. Peter's in Danbury. On hand once again were the Mad Hatters, dressed in black tuxedos and red satin bowties and cummerbunds. At a nod from the priest, they sang the Lord's Prayer in stirring four-part harmony. Tears glistened in Joe's eyes. But after the ceremony, he couldn't resist a joke: "You performed at my proposal, and now you're here at my wedding," he said. "But I'm sorry, you just can't come along on the honeymoon!"
It's been about 10 years since Joe took command of the Mad Hatters, but he has already made his mark on this venerable Danbury institution. Membership has risen and contest scores are up. The group's artistic prowess is maturing, too, as Joe's coaching evolves from technical instruction to matters of heart and soul. "You cannot move an audience to tears with this song," he told us during a lackluster rehearsal of "Over the Rainbow," "until you connect to them instead of singing at them. Sing your story, and the audience will hear its story, too."
Joe now is the teacher of K – 6 Music in Ansonia, CT. While at the school, his band has doubled in size, he does at least 2 concerts a year, and soon, he will be a director of a play production.
He is now not only a husband, but a father. Liz and Joe welcomed little Anthony Joseph into the world on November 27 of 2012. He has been to a few of our performances and always smiles when we sing it right…who knows, maybe a contest judge in the making?
In his spare time (we don't quite understand how he has any), Joe enriches his musical experience by performing in musical and theatrical productions around the state. He's played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, Moonface Martin in Anything Goes, Nicely-Nicely Johnson in Guys and Dolls, Alonso Smith in Meet Me in St. Louis, General Bullmoose in Li'l Abner, Fagin in Oliver! and various characters in 45 other productions.
But Tuesday night with the Hatters is still Joe's favorite part of the week. He's grown up with these men, some of whom are now past 80. They kid around with him. ("We like to think of Joe as the son we never wanted," Immediate Past President Bob Bradley jokes at singouts.) They share their troubles and joys with him. He's become not only a great director, but a wonderful friend.
—Terry Dunkle, Mad Hatter bass