For Denise Sandole, the forty-seventh annual Grammy Awardswas something to celebrate. She was working for AOL Musicat the time, as a senior manager in sales, and her boss had invitedher to the star-studded ceremony. It was February 13, 2005, at theStaples Center in Los Angeles, and she wore a polka dot dressfrom BCBG. “You never know if there will be a next time youattend the Grammys,” she says.
Denise was sitting upstairs in the balcony when a then unknownsinger named John Legend came out onstage to introducehis mentor, Kanye West, who was nominated for a handfulof awards that night. Legend himself would be nominated foreight Grammys the following year, but for now anyway he wasjust that handsome, well-dressed young man standing centerstage. Upstairs, meanwhile, Denise was screaming like a crazyperson. The thing is, she and John Legend were best friends, andthey’d been sending text messages back and forth all evening.Long before John Legend would collaborate with Snoop Doggand Alicia Keys, he’d collaborated with Denise Sandole. Back in1997, onstage at Carnegie Hall, Denise Sandole and John Legendcompeted together in the National Championship of CollegiateA Cappella.
As an undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania, DeniseSandole majored in psychology, though her mom likes to say shemajored in a cappella. Denise and John met “on the a cappellaaudition circuit,” she says, in the mid-nineties, when the twojoined the Counterparts—the university’s oldest coed a cappellagroup. The Counterparts had been primarily a jazz ensemble.(Denise was no stranger to jazz—her father, Dennis Sandole, hadmentored John Coltrane.) But the group’s new music directorpushed for a more pop sound, and with Denise and John Legendin the stable, the Counterparts suddenly had the talent to pull itoff. 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 membersof the Counterparts actually quit in protest, feeling as if themusical left turn away from jazz somehow betrayed the wishes ofthe group’s founding fathers. “Aca politics,” Denise says. To makematters worse, a rift soon developed between the Counterpartsand UPenn’s other coed a cappella group, Off the Beat—who’dbuilt their reputation on pop music. But the campus embraced thenew sound, showing up to Counterparts gigs in record numbers.The animosity only intensified when the Counterparts decided tocompete in the National Championship of Collegiate A Cappella(the NCCAs), pitting them squarely against their heavily favoredrivals, Off the Beat. To everyone’s surprise, in February 1998, theCounterparts triumphed at that regional quarterfinal round—andit was more of the same at the regional semifinals. The Counterparts’set included three songs: “One of Us,” “Route 66,” and theSophie B. Hawkins one-hit wonder, “Damn I Wish I Was YourLover.” Denise sang that solo—this little girl belting out theangst. “That song put me on the a cappella map,” Denise says.Against all odds, the Counterparts were headed for the finals ofthe NCCAs on April 26, 1997, at Carnegie Hall.
How do you get to Carnegie Hall? In this case, you rent twoyellow school buses and fill them with your Ivy League a cappellaentourage.
The excitement was short-lived. Denise remembers the precisemoment she knew the Counterparts had lost at the NationalChampionship of Collegiate A Cappella. In their own shows oncampus, the Counterparts regularly performed silly skits, toldbad jokes, that sort of thing. “We always tried to be funny,” shesays, acknowledging that the group’s humor was always hit ormiss. When it came time to compete in the NCCA finals, she says,“We wanted to be true to ourselves.” And so, onstage at CarnegieHall, in front of two thousand eager a cappella fans, Denise’sfriend Sloan Alexander of the Counterparts dropped his tuxedopants, revealing a black lace garter belt underneath. “He madesome joke about running late, and how he wanted to get dressedup for Carnegie Hall,” Denise says. This had been a gross miscalculationon their part. “We thought, We’re a college group. Weentertain our peers! But that was wrong. We were there to entertainthe judges.” There was a long, deadly silence from the audience.“We knew right then,” Denise says. “We’re like, oops, wrongcrowd, wrong crowd.” She acknowledges they should have playedit safe, “like the group that won.” That would be the StanfordTalisman. “They did, like, world music. They were very politicallycorrect. We went for the bathroom humor. And we wereoutclassed!”
A cappella is Italian for “like the chapel,” and it describes perhapsthe oldest form of music, the kind made without any accompanimentat all. That a cappella began with Gregorian chant in thechurch shouldn’t come as a surprise—what’s closer to God thanthe unadorned voice? The music then traveled. In time, the Puritanswould embrace shape-note singing and a book of vocal spiritualscalled The Sacred Harp. Call-and-response singing from Africa, meanwhile, would mingle with these vocal traditions tobecome American gospel. Somewhere along the way, what beganas a service to a higher power went secular. Then it went pop. Thisis how:
In 1931, the Mills Brothers recorded Swing It, Sister. Thesleeve read: “No musical instruments or mechanical devices usedon this recording other than one guitar.” Uh, then where did thattrumpet come from? Harry Mills, as legend has it, forgot to bringhis kazoo to the studio one day, which is how he figured out hecould do a passable trumpet solo with just his lips. Still, somecritics remained skeptical.
On September 26, 1936, Norman Rockwell’s “BarbershopQuartet” appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post.Two years later, at a hotel in Kansas City, two traveling businessmenfrom Tulsa would form the Society for the Preservation andEncouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America, affectionatelyknown as SPEBSQSA. (Both Bing Crosby andGroucho Marx were later members.) Despite the name, they tookthemselves quite seriously, calling barbershop singing “the lastremaining vestige of human liberty,” reports Gage Averill in hisbook Four Parts, No Waiting. In the fifties, when Disneyland Parkfi 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 MickeyFinn Show, Disney kept the name and found four new Dans.)
Barbershop most certainly had its roots in Africa, in thechanting and the close harmony—though that genre of chantwould 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 Weaverscovered “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, theChordettes (the first big female barbershop quartet) released “Mr.Sandman.” Barbershop further crossed over in 1962 when theBuffalo Bills appeared in The Music Man. In 1968, Frank Zappareleased the Persuasions’ first album, A Cappella.
In the seventies a group called the Nylons first got togetherin, of all places, a Toronto delicatessen. In 1981, the ManhattanTransfer released Mecca for Moderns, concluding the album withan 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 forBobby 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, acollaboration with South Africa’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo(who, themselves, went on to tour the States, performing on SaturdayNight Live, even recording a jingle for MTV).
A cappella continued to assault pop music. In 1990, Spike Leeproduced a documentary for PBS called Do It A Cappella, whichintroduced the world to four very white guys called Rockapella,who would soon land a gig as the house band on the PBS kiddieshow Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?, introducing awhole new generation to a cappella music. (The show was notentirely altruistic, for the record. Up in the control room, employeeswould bet on which kid would win, says Sean Altman,then the lead singer of Rockapella.) One year later, Boyz II Menhad 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 ofthe 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’snot what you think. A cappella has come a long way in the onehundred years since it evolved from glee clubs into a traditionthat is hugely popular (some eighteen thousand active participants),considerably profitable (the Harvard Krokodiloes earn,conservatively, three hundred thousand dollars a year, whichfunds the group’s adventures), and much publicized (a cappellagroups have appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman).It’s not what you think. Today the music is less barbershop thanBarbershop 2: Back in Business.
The gold standard remains the original, the Yale Whiffenpoofs—the very first collegiate a cappella group, founded in 1909after a drunken night of singing at Mory’s, a New Haven supperclub. Nearly one hundred years later, the Whiffs still performthere every Monday night. And their influence has been felt welloutside of New Haven. The group’s signature tune, “The WhiffenpoofSong” (the name comes from a mythical fish), was later coveredby Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. Senator PrescottBush—President George W. Bush’s grandfather—was a memberof the Whiffenpoofs. So was Cole Porter. Over the years, theWhiffs have traveled the world, entertaining the likes of MotherTeresa and the Dalai Lama. The Whiffs have even performed onSaturday Night Live. (The producers ran each kid’s SAT scoresacross the bottom of the screen in a CNN-style crawl.) A recentaddition to their clip reel: In late 2002, Aaron Sorkin—a bigWhiffs fan since childhood—flew the entire group out to Los Angelesto tape a Christmas episode of The West Wing, where membersof the Whiffs report Sorkin was jumping around the setyelling, “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 singingproblem.” The BDs briefly eclipsed the Whiffenpoofs in namerecognition when, on New Year’s Eve 2007, they were assaultedoutside a party in San Francisco—a story that made internationalnews. The San Francisco Chronicle ran this headline: “New Year’sNightmare for Visiting Yale Singers.” The New York Post followedwith the cheeky: “Yale Songbirds Are Pummeled.”
Collegiate a cappella had been strictly a guy thing until, in1936, the first all-female collegiate group was born at Smith College.They called themselves the Smiffenpoofs—perhaps thebirth of a cappella’s notorious obsession with puns. (The mostegregious pun in all of a cappella may be the Harvard Law Schoolgroup, Scales of Justice. Their motto: “Because justice is blind, notdeaf.”) The first coed group was founded in 1973 at Princeton.They’re called the Katzenjammers—which is German for both “aloud, discordant noise” and (perhaps more apt) a “hangover.”
You’d be hard-pressed to find a thing about a cappella—thesnapping, the matching khaki pants—that your typical collegekid would suggest is cool. Especially not the human beatbox, thatguy (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 alreadyconsidered to be uncool. So uncool, in fact, that a rival singinggroup, Yale’s Society of Orpheus and Bacchus (the SOBs), wasstarted with the express purpose of mocking the Whiffs. But coolis 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 onthe basketball team,” says one of the Duke University Pitchforks,the university’s celebrated all-male a cappella group. “But it’sclose.”
A cappella is the kind of frenzied subculture that over fouryears—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’sCreek and Drew University’s 36 Madison Avenue. “I thought itmight catch up with me.”
Even before his TV career took off, Van Der Beek was a bigman on campus. He tells a story about the time this girl heardhim perform Sting’s “Englishman in New York,” and invited himto hand-deliver a copy of the group’s CD to her dorm room. MadisonAvenue frequently took road trips. Van Der Beek recalls amemorable tour of SUNY Binghamton. Due to extenuating circumstancestoo difficult to explain here (something about thenumber of cars and available seats), one member of his a cappellagroup needed to spend a second night at Binghamton, hitching aride back to Drew University the next morning. That man, thegroup decided, should be James Van Der Beek. Why? “Because, ofall the guys in the group,” he says, laughing, “they felt like I’dhave the best chance of finding a place to sleep that night.” Andhe did.
Mira Sorvino, Diane Sawyer, Art Garfunkel, Jim Croce, AnneHathaway of The Devil Wears Prada, Prison Break’s WentworthMiller, actress Rashida Jones (Quincy Jones’s daughter), TheO.C.’s Peter Gallagher—they all got their start in collegiate acappella.
Full disclosure: Osama bin Laden sang in an a cappella group.Lawrence Wright, in his Pulitzer Prize–winning book, The LoomingTower, writes of bin Laden’s teenage years and the man’s “desireto die anonymously in a trench in warfare”—to be just oneof the guys. “It was difficult to hold on to this self-conceptionwhile being chauffeured around the kingdom in the family Mercedes,”he writes. “At the same time, Osama made an effort not tobe too much of a prig. Although he was opposed to the playing ofmusical instruments, he organized some of his friends into an acappella singing group. They even recorded some of their tunesabout jihad, which for them meant the internal struggle to improvethemselves, not holy war. Osama would make copies andgive them each a tape.”
Not everyone could be so lucky. Debra Messing was rejectedby an all-girl group at Brandeis. Worse, Jessica Biel was dismissedby Tufts University’s coed a cappella group, the Amalgamates. It’sshocking (or maybe not) how seriously these groups take themselves—that they’d turn down a Hollywood starlet like Biel. Howbad could she have been? Still, it begs the question: In collegiatea cappella, where does the line fall between serious pursuit andgoofy joke? It’s blurrier than one would think.
After school—but before winning Grammys—John Legendwent to work for the Boston Consulting Group. But it didn’t take,and he quit to concentrate on his music full-time. Some a cappellaalums wind up on MTV. But most never sing again—at least notprofessionally. In the summer of 2007, John’s friend Denise Sandolesang 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. (“Oneof Us,” which appeared on their disc Housekeeping, was selectedfor the Best of College A Cappella series in 1998, which is sort oflike the Now That’s What I Call Music! series for collegiate acappella.) Alums from the Counterparts, the ones in New Yorkanyway, get together now and again for a night of karaoke. Still,even they are far from a cappella apologists, winking at the verything that brought them together. “At karaoke, no one sings oldCounterparts songs,” says Denise, now a thirty-year-old gradstudent in psychology at Yeshiva University. “That’s an unspokenrule. Though we love to reminisce.” But what is it that drivespeople to such great lengths to excel at something they mayspend the rest of their lives mocking?
Perhaps they are smart to deny it. Because a cappella has becomea go-to pop culture joke. In the 2006 season premiere ofNBC’s The Office, one of the characters (played by Daily Showvet Ed Helms) bragged about singing in an a cappella group atCornell called Here Comes Treble. A cappella would become along-running joke on the show, reaching fever pitch when Helmsserenaded a co-worker in 2007 with ABBA’s “Take a Chance onMe”—backed by his old a cappella group on speakerphone. (Thegroup sang, “Take a chance, take a chance, take a chance,” beneathhis solo.) A cappella popped up elsewhere on NBC on TinaFey’s 30 Rock, and even on Broadway in 2007 in Young Frankenstein,with a Whiffenpoof joke. In the movie The Break-Up, JenniferAniston’s brother sang in an a cappella group called theTone Rangers, which was played for laughs. The film’s co-writer,Jay Lavender, had firsthand knowledge of collegiate a cappella. Asa student at Holy Cross, his sister started a coed group, 8-Track.Jay calls a cappella a “subculture,” which is how outsiders generallyrefer to a small group of people doing something they findunintentionally hilarious. He still laughs thinking about the timehis 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 IvyLeague brats who inherited the a cappella legacy may be turningon their own. In 1995, some Yale students led an organized revoltagainst the a cappella scene; on tap night, as new members werebeing selected, water balloons rained down, blotting out themoon. (The university has since taken steps to control tap night,in part keeping the date a secret.) More recently, in 2007, thesnarky blog IvyGate sponsored a contest to find the Worst A CappellaGroup in the Ivy League.
So where does the impulse to step out in front of a groupof identically dressed men and hum into a microphone beforea crowd of thousands come from? What is the appeal of thehuman beatbox to screaming fans of bestirred coeds who seemto lose their senses at the unaccompanied rendition of Hootie& the Blowfish’s “Hold My Hand?” And what of the crisis someface after graduation, suffering from the hangover of so muchadulation?
“Why a cappella?” or maybe more specifically, “Why not?”