A set of pipes over a series of tubes
Hollywood true story: Lana Turner was spotted sipping a soda at a drug store in Los Angeles in 1937 and became a movie star. Internet true story, 2008: years after graduating from college, a member of an all-male a cappella singing group from Indiana University posted a video of the group’s 1998 performance of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” on YouTube. Seven million viewers watched the video that December, including an executive at Atlantic Records who quickly signed the ensemble. Straight No Chaser, the group, soon recorded a bestselling Christmas CD and has been touring ever since. “We went viral,” said Charlie Mechling, one of the singers, in a recent phone interview. “It boggles my mind.” The group performs at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Monday, May 10.
While Straight No Chaser has had a few TV appearances, including a PBS holiday special, the group’s success continues to be fed largely by the internet. You can listen to the singers’ music or buy it online. You can read their tour blogs or send a message on their website, become a fan on Facebook, read Twitter postings from all 10 members of the group, visit their MySpace page, watch their videos, purchase a ring tone for your cellphone, or buy tickets for their shows.
Mechling reports that of the original members, now in their 30s, six are full-time touring musicians (four dropped out to raise families or continue other professions). Four replacements were selected from more recent incarnations of the Indiana University group by the same name — the undergraduate Straight No Chaser ensemble is now a tradition at the school. Mechling worked as an actor. One member was a field reporter for a televised Chicago news program; others worked for Sprint, Snapple, and banks. “We’re like brothers,” Mechling said. “It’s a grueling schedule, and it’s hard for me to be away from my wife a lot. And sometimes we fight. But every time we get up and spend two hours onstage, all the frustrations go away, and it makes it all worthwhile.”
Barbershop and doo-wop are popular modern forms of a cappella music, but as demonstrated by the ultra-smooth stylings of Straight No Chaser, 10 men can create a sound that is an orchestra in itself. And judging from the success of vocal genius Bobby McFerrin’s new album, VOCAbuLarieS, which reached No. 1 on the Billboard Contemporary Jazz chart, a cappella is clearly in.
Straight No Chaser’s name is taken from a Thelonious Monk standard. Indiana University, known for its music school, didn’t have a tradition of a cappella groups like many of the Ivy League schools back East. A student, Dan Ponce (still performing), started the group as an outgrowth of the Singing Hoosiers choir, in the hopes that a cappella groups would become a part of the musical fabric of the school. Little did anyone know it would become a career.
With a Twist, the title of the group’s newly released CD, is an apt description of its approach to music. On one cut, the group combines the Jason Mraz song “I’m Yours” with the rhythmic version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” popularized by Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. The Sinatra classic “You and Me and the Bottle Makes Three” is combined with the Beyoncé hit “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” The new CD is a “good mix,” Mechling said, “with classics as well as hits from the ’ 90s.” Barry Manilow even makes a guest appearance on the Straight No Chaser version of his song “One Voice.”
Musically, the sound is smooth and well blended, with soloists who could be American Idol stars. Theirs is a unique blend of old-fashioned