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Pitch perfect: the quest for collegiate a cappella glory / Mickey Rapkin.
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For Jane and Lenny
What amazed me was the amount of time the Whiffenpoofs demanded from them, the way their membership in the group seemed to define their entire identity. Most of their time outside class was consumed by Whiffenpoof functions; even their vacations were given over to the Whiffenpoof tours. It was true that they got to sleep with Whiffenpoof groupies and visit great Whiffenpoof places—you couldn’t brush your teeth next to one of them without hearing about their latest junket to Monaco or Bermuda—but it still didn’t seem like a worthwhile trade-off to me. The way I saw it, no amount of sex or travel would compensate for the humiliation of belonging to a group with such a stupid name.
Joe College: A Novel
by Tom Perrotta
Copyright © 2000 by the author (St. Martin’s Press)
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 certainly 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 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
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 (NCCA), pitting them squarely against their heavily favored rivals, Off the Beat. To everyone’s surprise, in February of 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
,” she says, acknowledging that the group’s humor was always hit or miss. When it came time to compete in the NCCA finals (the name was a deliberate take-off on March Madness and the NCAAs—more on that later), 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
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,
They were very politically correct. We went for the bathroom humor. And we were outclassed!”
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? 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 first 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
(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
. 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,
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
—the first a cappella album to win Grammys in both pop and jazz categories. 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
, 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).