The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory
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High notes, high drama, and high jinks collide as elite collegiate a cappella groups compete to be the best in the nation
Journalist Mickey Rapkin follows a season in collegiate a cappella, covering the breathtaking displays of vocal talent, the groupies (yes, a cappella singers have groupies), the rock-star partying (and run-ins with the law), and all the bitter rivalries. Along the way are encounters with a cappella alums like John Legend and Diane Sawyer and fans from Prince to presidents.
Bringing a lively new twist to America's fascination with talent showdowns, Pitch Perfect is sure to strike a chord with readers.
For Denise Sandole, the forty-seventh annual Grammy Awards was something to celebrate. She was working for AOL Music at the time, as a senior manager in sales, and her boss had invited her to the star-studded ceremony. It was February 13, 2005, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, and she wore a polka dot dress from BCBG. “You never know if there will be a next time you attend the Grammys,” she says.
Denise was sitting upstairs in the balcony when a then unknown singer named John Legend came out onstage to introduce his mentor, Kanye West, who was nominated for a handful of awards that night. Legend himself would be nominated for eight Grammys the following year, but for now anyway he was just that handsome, well-dressed young man standing center stage. Upstairs, meanwhile, Denise was screaming like a crazy person. The thing is, she and John Legend were best friends, and they’d been sending text messages back and forth all evening. Long before John Legend would collaborate with Snoop Dogg and Alicia Keys, he’d collaborated with Denise Sandole. Back in 1997, onstage at Carnegie Hall, Denise Sandole and John Legend competed together in the National Championship of Collegiate A Cappella.
As an undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania, Denise Sandole majored in psychology, though her mom likes to say she majored in a cappella. Denise and John met “on the a cappella audition circuit,” she says, in the mid-nineties, when the two joined the Counterparts—the university’s oldest coed a cappella group. The Counterparts had been primarily a jazz ensemble. (Denise was no stranger to jazz—her father, Dennis Sandole, had mentored John Coltrane.) But the group’s new music director pushed for a more pop sound, and with Denise and John Legend in the stable, the Counterparts suddenly had the talent to pull it off. Prince’s “One of Us,” featuring John Legend (né John Stephens) on the solo, quickly became the Counterparts anthem.
This change was not without collateral damage. Two members of the Counterparts actually quit in protest, feeling as if the musical left turn away from jazz somehow betrayed the wishes of the group’s founding fathers. “Aca politics,” Denise says. To make matters worse, a rift soon developed between the Counterparts and UPenn’s other coed a cappella group, Off the Beat—who’d built their reputation on pop music. But the campus embraced the new sound, showing up to Counterparts gigs in record numbers. The animosity only intensified when the Counterparts decided to compete in the National Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (the NCCAs), pitting them squarely against their heavily favored rivals, Off the Beat. To everyone’s surprise, in February 1998, the Counterparts triumphed at that regional quarterfinal round—and it was more of the same at the regional semifinals. The Counterparts’ set included three songs: “One of Us,” “Route 66,” and the Sophie B. Hawkins one-hit wonder, “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover.” Denise sang that solo—this little girl belting out the angst. “That song put me on the a cappella map,” Denise says. Against all odds, the Counterparts were headed for the finals of the NCCAs on April 26, 1997, at Carnegie Hall.
How do you get to Carnegie Hall? In this case, you rent two yellow school buses and fill them with your Ivy League a cappella entourage.
The excitement was short-lived. Denise remembers the precise moment she knew the Counterparts had lost at the National Championship of Collegiate A Cappella. In their own shows on campus, the Counterparts regularly performed silly skits, told bad jokes, that sort of thing. “We always tried to be funny,” she says, acknowledging that the group’s humor was always hit or miss. When it came time to compete in the NCCA finals, she says, “We wanted to be true to ourselves.” And so, onstage at Carnegie Hall, in front of two thousand eager a cappella fans, Denise’s friend Sloan Alexander of the Counterparts dropped his tuxedo pants, revealing a black lace garter belt underneath. “He made some joke about running late, and how he wanted to get dressed up for Carnegie Hall,” Denise says. This had been a gross miscalculation on their part. “We thought, We’re a college group. We entertain our peers! But that was wrong. We were there to entertain the judges.” There was a long, deadly silence from the audience. “We knew right then,” Denise says. “We’re like, oops, wrong crowd, wrong crowd.” She acknowledges they should have played it safe, “like the group that won.” That would be the Stanford Talisman. “They did, like, world music. They were very politically correct. We went for the bathroom humor. And we were outclassed!”
A cappella is Italian for “like the chapel,” and it describes perhaps the oldest form of music, the kind made without any accompaniment at all. That a cappella began with Gregorian chant in the church shouldn’t come as a surprise—what’s closer to God than the unadorned voice? The music then traveled. In time, the Puritans would embrace shape-note singing and a book of vocal spirituals called The Sacred Harp. Call-and-response singing from Africa, meanwhile, would mingle with these vocal traditions to become American gospel. Somewhere along the way, what began as a service to a higher power went secular. Then it went pop. This is how:
In 1931, the Mills Brothers recorded Swing It, Sister. The sleeve read: “No musical instruments or mechanical devices used on this recording other than one guitar.” Uh, then where did that trumpet come from? Harry Mills, as legend has it, forgot to bring his kazoo to the studio one day, which is how he figured out he could do a passable trumpet solo with just his lips. Still, some critics remained skeptical.
On September 26, 1936, Norman Rockwell’s “Barbershop Quartet” appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. Two years later, at a hotel in Kansas City, two traveling businessmen from Tulsa would form the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America, affectionately known as SPEBSQSA. (Both Bing Crosby and Groucho Marx were later members.) Despite the name, they took themselves quite seriously, calling barbershop singing “the last remaining vestige of human liberty,” reports Gage Averill in his book Four Parts, No Waiting. In the fifties, when Disneyland Park fi rst opened, Walt Disney himself installed a barbershop quartet, the Dapper Dans, to perform on Main Street six days a week. (When the original Dapper Dans left for a spot on The Mickey Finn Show, Disney kept the name and found four new Dans.)
Barbershop most certainly had its roots in Africa, in the chanting and the close harmony—though that genre of chant would come to be known as mbube (pronounced EEM-boo-beh) thanks to the success of Solomon Linda’s 1939 song “Mbube.” You may be familiar with this tune. Pete Seeger and the Weavers covered “Mbube” in the 1950s, singing wimoweh instead of mbube. And thus “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” was born.
In 1952 Sam Cooke sang with the Soul Stirrers—perhaps the first mingling of a cappella gospel and rock ’n’ roll. In 1954, the Chordettes (the first big female barbershop quartet) released “Mr. Sandman.” Barbershop further crossed over in 1962 when the Buffalo Bills appeared in The Music Man. In 1968, Frank Zappa released the Persuasions’ first album, A Cappella.
In the seventies a group called the Nylons first got together in, of all places, a Toronto delicatessen. In 1981, the Manhattan Transfer released Mecca for Moderns, concluding the album with an a cappella track, “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” which won a Grammy for Gene Puerling. In 1983, Billy Joel’s “For the Longest Time” blew a cappella wide, paving the way for Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” in 1988. Doug E. Fresh brought beatboxing to the mainstream (or closer, anyway) with the 1986 track “The Show.” (“I am the original human beatbox,” he sang.) That same year, Paul Simon released Graceland, a collaboration with South Africa’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo (who, themselves, went on to tour the States, performing on Saturday Night Live, even recording a jingle for MTV).
A cappella continued to assault pop music. In 1990, Spike Lee produced a documentary for PBS called Do It A Cappella, which introduced the world to four very white guys called Rockapella, who would soon land a gig as the house band on the PBS kiddie show Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?, introducing a whole new generation to a cappella music. (The show was not entirely altruistic, for the record. Up in the control room, employees would bet on which kid would win, says Sean Altman, then the lead singer of Rockapella.) One year later, Boyz II Men had a number-one hit with “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday.” In 2004, Toxic Audio started an open-ended run off- Broadway at the John Houseman Theater.
Which doesn’t really explain how a cappella became one of the most celebrated pursuits on our nation’s college campuses.
There are more than twelve hundred collegiate a cappella groups in the United States alone. And the good ones, well, it’s not what you think. A cappella has come a long way in the one hundred years since it evolved from glee clubs into a tradition that is hugely popular (some eighteen thousand active participants), considerably profitable (the Harvard Krokodiloes earn, conservatively, three hundred thousand dollars a year, which funds the group’s adventures), and much publicized (a cappella groups have appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman). It’s not what you think. Today the music is less barbershop than Barbershop 2: Back in Business.
The gold standard remains the original, the Yale Whiffenpoofs— the very first collegiate a cappella group, founded in 1909 after a drunken night of singing at Mory’s, a New Haven supper club. Nearly one hundred years later, the Whiffs still perform there every Monday night. And their influence has been felt well outside of New Haven. The group’s signature tune, “The Whiffenpoof Song” (the name comes from a mythical fish), was later covered by Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. Senator Prescott Bush—President George W. Bush’s grandfather—was a member of the Whiffenpoofs. So was Cole Porter. Over the years, the Whiffs have traveled the world, entertaining the likes of Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama. The Whiffs have even performed on Saturday Night Live. (The producers ran each kid’s SAT scores across the bottom of the screen in a CNN-style crawl.) A recent addition to their clip reel: In late 2002, Aaron Sorkin—a big Whiffs fan since childhood—flew the entire group out to Los Angeles to tape a Christmas episode of The West Wing, where members of the Whiffs report Sorkin was jumping around the set yelling, “I can’t believe the fucking Whiffenpoofs are here.”
The Whiffs aren’t the only a cappella group at Yale. Actually, there are now at least fifteen on campus. One, the Baker’s Dozen, is known around New Haven as “the drinking group with a singing problem.” The BDs briefly eclipsed the Whiffenpoofs in name recognition when, on New Year’s Eve 2007, they were assaulted outside a party in San Francisco—a story that made international news. The San Francisco Chronicle ran this headline: “New Year’s Nightmare for Visiting Yale Singers.” The New York Post followed with the cheeky: “Yale Songbirds Are Pummeled.”
Collegiate a cappella had been strictly a guy thing until, in 1936, the first all-female collegiate group was born at Smith College. They called themselves the Smiffenpoofs—perhaps the birth of a cappella’s notorious obsession with puns. (The most egregious pun in all of a cappella may be the Harvard Law School group, Scales of Justice. Their motto: “Because justice is blind, not deaf.”) The first coed group was founded in 1973 at Princeton. They’re called the Katzenjammers—which is German for both “a loud, discordant noise” and (perhaps more apt) a “hangover.”
You’d be hard-pressed to find a thing about a cappella—the snapping, the matching khaki pants—that your typical college kid would suggest is cool. Especially not the human beatbox, that guy (or girl) imitating a snare drum and a bass with a sh-sh-k-tssh- sh-k-ts. Even in the late 1930s, the Whiffenpoofs were already considered to be uncool. So uncool, in fact, that a rival singing group, Yale’s Society of Orpheus and Bacchus (the SOBs), was started with the express purpose of mocking the Whiffs. But cool is nothing if not relative. On campus—though it’s crass to say— a cappella will get you laid. “At Duke, it’s not as cool as being on the basketball team,” says one of the Duke University Pitchforks, the university’s celebrated all-male a cappella group. “But it’s close.”
A cappella is the kind of frenzied subculture that over four years—just like a fraternity—might make your name on campus. But some will spend the rest of their lives denying it. “A cappella,” sighs James Van Der Beek, the onetime star of Dawson’s Creek and Drew University’s 36 Madison Avenue. “I thought it might catch up with me.”
Even before his TV career took off, Van Der Beek was a big man on campus. He tells a story about the time this girl heard him perform Sting’s “Englishman in New York,” and invited him to hand-deliver a copy of the group’s CD to her dorm room. Madison Avenue frequently took road trips. Van Der Beek recalls a memorable tour of SUNY Binghamton. Due to extenuating circumstances too difficult to explain here (something about the number of cars and available seats), one member of his a cappella group needed to spend a second night at Binghamton, hitching a ride back to Drew University the next morning. That man, the group decided, should be James Van Der Beek. Why? “Because, of all the guys in the group,” he says, laughing, “they felt like I’d have the best chance of finding a place to sleep that night.” And he did.
Mira Sorvino, Diane Sawyer, Art Garfunkel, Jim Croce, Anne Hathaway of The Devil Wears Prada, Prison Break’s Wentworth Miller, actress Rashida Jones (Quincy Jones’s daughter), The O.C.’s Peter Gallagher—they all got their start in collegiate a cappella.
Full disclosure: Osama bin Laden sang in an a cappella group. Lawrence Wright, in his Pulitzer Prize–winning book, The Looming Tower, writes of bin Laden’s teenage years and the man’s “desire to die anonymously in a trench in warfare”—to be just one of the guys. “It was difficult to hold on to this self-conception while being chauffeured around the kingdom in the family Mercedes,” he writes. “At the same time, Osama made an effort not to be too much of a prig. Although he was opposed to the playing of musical instruments, he organized some of his friends into an a cappella singing group. They even recorded some of their tunes about jihad, which for them meant the internal struggle to improve themselves, not holy war. Osama would make copies and give them each a tape.”
Not everyone could be so lucky. Debra Messing was rejected by an all-girl group at Brandeis. Worse, Jessica Biel was dismissed by Tufts University’s coed a cappella group, the Amalgamates. It’s shocking (or maybe not) how seriously these groups take themselves— that they’d turn down a Hollywood starlet like Biel. How bad could she have been? Still, it begs the question: In collegiate a cappella, where does the line fall between serious pursuit and goofy joke? It’s blurrier than one would think.
After school—but before winning Grammys—John Legend went to work for the Boston Consulting Group. But it didn’t take, and he quit to concentrate on his music full-time. Some a cappella alums wind up on MTV. But most never sing again—at least not professionally. In the summer of 2007, John’s friend Denise Sandole sang a Gloria Gaynor song at a friend’s wedding.
These days, Denise rarely listens to the old Counterparts albums— though they were very well received at the time. (“One of Us,” which appeared on their disc Housekeeping, was selected for the Best of College A Cappella series in 1998, which is sort of like the Now That’s What I Call Music! series for collegiate a cappella.) Alums from the Counterparts, the ones in New York anyway, get together now and again for a night of karaoke. Still, even they are far from a cappella apologists, winking at the very thing that brought them together. “At karaoke, no one sings old Counterparts songs,” says Denise, now a thirty-year-old grad student in psychology at Yeshiva University. “That’s an unspoken rule. Though we love to reminisce.” But what is it that drives people to such great lengths to excel at something they may spend the rest of their lives mocking?
Perhaps they are smart to deny it. Because a cappella has become a go-to pop culture joke. In the 2006 season premiere of NBC’s The Office, one of the characters (played by Daily Show vet Ed Helms) bragged about singing in an a cappella group at Cornell called Here Comes Treble. A cappella would become a long-running joke on the show, reaching fever pitch when Helms serenaded a co-worker in 2007 with ABBA’s “Take a Chance on Me”—backed by his old a cappella group on speakerphone. (The group sang, “Take a chance, take a chance, take a chance,” beneath his solo.) A cappella popped up elsewhere on NBC on Tina Fey’s 30 Rock, and even on Broadway in 2007 in Young Frankenstein, with a Whiffenpoof joke. In the movie The Break-Up, Jennifer Aniston’s brother sang in an a cappella group called the Tone Rangers, which was played for laughs. The film’s co-writer, Jay Lavender, had firsthand knowledge of collegiate a cappella. As a student at Holy Cross, his sister started a coed group, 8-Track. Jay calls a cappella a “subculture,” which is how outsiders generally refer to a small group of people doing something they find unintentionally hilarious. He still laughs thinking about the time his sister berated the members of 8-Track for going fl at, shouting, “Quarter tones matter, people!” These stories are comedy gold, Jay says. A joke on The Office is one thing, but even the Ivy League brats who inherited the a cappella legacy may be turning on their own. In 1995, some Yale students led an organized revolt against the a cappella scene; on tap night, as new members were being selected, water balloons rained down, blotting out the moon. (The university has since taken steps to control tap night, in part keeping the date a secret.) More recently, in 2007, the snarky blog IvyGate sponsored a contest to find the Worst A Cappella Group in the Ivy League.
So where does the impulse to step out in front of a group of identically dressed men and hum into a microphone before a crowd of thousands come from? What is the appeal of the human beatbox to screaming fans of bestirred coeds who seem to lose their senses at the unaccompanied rendition of Hootie & the Blowfish’s “Hold My Hand?” And what of the crisis some face after graduation, suffering from the hangover of so much adulation?
“Why a cappella?” or maybe more specifically, “Why not?”"Finally, a journalist with the courage to investigate the cutthroat world of college a cappella. . . .Rapkin has the perfectly bemused and giddy tone to tell these stories with the reverence they deserve."
-New York Post
"Rapkin's book reveals a world with as much discord as harmony."
"Look out, barbershop quartets. Mickey Rapkin uncovers the dirty truth behind collegiate a cappella groups."
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