How the Transiteers brought a cappella singing to Cleveland RTA in the 1960s
A forgotten Northeast Ohio vocal group can be heard again thanks to an exhibit at the Western Reserve Historical Society.
The Transiteers were a group of Cleveland Transit System bus drivers who came together in 1962 to perform.
They cut their first LP in 1967 for locally owned Bounty Records. The live album was mostly spirituals with a few traditional numbers and even a selection from Verdi’s “Rigoletto” - all performed acapella.
The exhibit is the work of Ron Kisner, who grew up in Cleveland and eventually spent five decades as a journalist and in public relations.
“There was a gentleman by the name of Severne Gainer, who was a very talented singer, choir director, [and] he also sang with the Cleveland Orchestra Choir,” said Kisner. “He was one of the first African-Americans to work for the Cleveland Transit System, which later became RTA.”
When Gainer was forming the Transiteers in 1962, one of his first recruits was Ron Kisner’s father, Samuel, who drove until 1980 – just before the group disbanded. When Ron found photos of the group among his family’s possessions, it set him on a seven-year quest to collect artifacts and information.
“Whenever the new rapid stations opened, they were called upon to sing for them,” Kisner said. “They sang at Severance Hall. They sang at churches. They sang a Karamu House. They went to D.C. They went to Pennsylvania. They had a motto: ‘We were a group of like-minded men who came together to promote the Brotherhood of Man and the Fatherhood of God through service and song.’ And I thought that was a fantastic motto.”
Although the group took its music and civic duties seriously, that fantastic motto may seem like it’s at odds with some of the popular songs of the day – with lyrics which wouldn’t be appreciated in 2022.
“They sang a song called ‘If You Want to Be Happy for the Rest of Your Life, Make an Ugly Woman Your Wife,’” he said. “At the end of that song, they would always – there would be all these ladies there – they would say, ‘ugly woman, I'd marry you!’ And they would point someone out. The woman, of course, was aghast. So, they were cut-ups like that.”
Kisner said RTA didn’t seem interested in an exhibit until India Birdsong took over as CEO in 2019.
“I wanted to make sure that this history was unearthed and was brought to life again so that people knew that such a group walked this earth. Such a group was part of the public transit system. Such a group, even though they worked hard and were family men, still found time to perform and to really be able to create what I think and hope will be a lifelong legacy.”
Not only has the exhibit brought recognition to the Transiteers, but it led to the discovery of another LP by the group. And last month, RTA Board President Rev. Charles Lucas presented a resolution congratulating the Transiteers for their decades of service through song.
The exhibit is on view now through August 1.