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Every voice is heard

A cappella groups have gotten people's ears with many a style

Ben Folds plays with the Newtones of Newton South High School, who made it onto his new ''University A Cappella'' album. Ben Folds plays with the Newtones of Newton South High School, who made it onto his new ''University A Cappella'' album. (Gaul Porat)
By Adam Conner-Simons
Globe Correspondent / April 26, 2009
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For years, a cappella has kept a low profile, hidden in ivy-encrusted college campus centers, dismissed as derivative mimicry, and relegated to the annals of history as novelty tunes sung by overgrown choirboys. Matters haven't been helped by Folgers commercials, children's game shows, or the endless parade of jokes on shows like "Scrubs," which has not-so-subtly derided the art form as "ear rape."

Yet suddenly, the world of contemporary a cappella has gone pop, graduating from its collegiate comfort zone to the realms of film, television, and yes, even rock 'n' roll. On Tuesday, Ben Folds will unveil "University A Cappella," a collection of his piano-rock songs covered by student a cappella groups (including the Newtones of Newton South High School). May marks the release of the second album from the former Indiana University group Straight No Chaser, who, after being plucked from YouTube obscurity by Atlantic Records last year, proceeded to top the iTunes charts and sell 100,000 records of its Christmas debut. "30 Rock" scribe Kay Cannon is writing a screenplay for a recently optioned feature-length comedy based on GQ editor Mickey Rapkin's book "Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory." Even reality TV is getting in on the action, with NBC recently giving the green light to an a cappella competition show called "The Sing-Off."

Folds, who hand-picked groups for his album through an open contest posted on his My-Space page, was astounded by what turned up. "I never realized that it was such a big scene," Folds says. "It amazes me that college kids are voluntarily getting together and arranging difficult harmonies and counterpoints for my songs."

This flurry of activity is happening at an appropriate time for the genre: This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first college a cappella group, the Yale Whiffenpoofs. Music performed without instruments has been around for thousands of years, of course, but a cappella in its current form has spawned an estimated 1,200 college groups nationally and at least 60 in the Boston area, according to figures from the Contemporary A Cappella Society of America. As Rapkin puts it: "It only took a century for a cappella to become an overnight sensation."

An expanding audience
The genre has flirted with the spotlight before, thanks to acts like the Persuasions and Sam Cooke's Soul Stirrers, but the first true watershed moment occurred in 1988 when Bobby McFerrin's single "Don't Worry Be Happy" became the first a cappella track to top the Billboard charts. McFerrin's success, not to mention Rockapella's prominent presence on the popular children's show "Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?" were, ahem, instrumental in expanding the audience for groups like Take 6 and the Nylons and cultivating the college a cappella movement. Many notable artists, in fact, began their careers in college a cappella, including John Legend and Sara Bareilles (whose recent single "Gravity" was originally performed with her UCLA group Awaken).

Where the early-'90s boom signaled modern a cappella's emergence as a potential force in pop music, the myriad projects in 2009 suggest its arrival as a business venture. There's certainly money to be made: The Harvard a cappella group the Krokodiloes makes upward of $300,000 a year from record sales and international tours, while websites like Primarily a Cappella (www.singers.com) often top $1 million in annual sales of songbooks and CDs. "It's accessible to a wide range of demographics that includes everyone from 7-year-olds to senior citizens," says Dan Ponce, a founding member of Straight No Chaser.

Part of this mainstream explosion stems from the decidedly pop-centric turn that contemporary a cappella has taken. The term comes from the Italian phrase meaning "in the style of the chapel," but nowadays a cappella has more or less exited the church to explore genres that include rock, soul, and hip-hop. Even Irish folk singer Maura O'Connell is joining the act, releasing a first a cappella album, "Naked With Friends," in June.

"Groups are creating these multilayered, textured vocal arrangements to capture the current sounds on the radio," says Deke Sharon, founder of the Contemporary A Cappella Society of America and member of the group House Jacks. "This isn't your grandfather's a cappella."

Indeed, while traditional barbershop quartets and doo-wop groups have lost fans over the years, the more recent popularity of collegiate a cappella has helped the genre increase its "cool" factor. According to Helen Day, whose Wellesley College group the Blue Notes recorded with Folds but didn't make the album, an a cappella group is "almost like a fraternity or a social club these days." Sharon says a cappella has earned acceptance by its simple ubiquity. "It's gotten to a tipping point where just about everybody knows somebody who is doing it," he says.

With its high concentration of colleges, Boston is as accommodating a city as any for a cappella. According to Cristin Grogan, who serves as program coordinator for the weekend radio show "All A Cappella" on Emerson College's WERS, fund-raising for the program has increased every year, and not just from college-age listeners. "It's increasingly being recognized less as a niche market and more as an art form," she says.

'Publicity suicide'
But just because contemporary a cappella has caught people's attention doesn't mean it's an easy sell from a label's perspective. When the House Jacks got signed to Tommy Boy Records, Sharon says that using the dreaded a-word was "publicity suicide." "If a group applies itself, they can make a living," says David "Stack" Stackhouse of the Boston outfit Five O'Clock Shadow. "But it's a really hard lifestyle."

One of the problems a cappella groups face is the inherent challenge of performing exclusively with vocals. "There's so many colors in synthesizers and other instruments," says Rockapella's Scott Leonard. "You don't have the same range of frequencies with voices." Technology, unsurprisingly, has helped erase the gap: The vocals on the Tufts Beelzebubs' album "Code Red" - the "Sgt. Pepper" of the genre - are so meticulously manipulated that it may take a few listens to realize that the record is not, in fact, instrumental. That level of production, however, raises the inevitable question: What's the point? "I'm sure some people would just think, 'Why listen to a guy make guitar noises when you can go out and listen to the real thing?' " says GQ's Rapkin.

The genre's legitimacy is affected by its dependence on cover songs. Virtually all college groups, and many professional ones, mainly sing other artists' tunes, and members of the community warn that relying too much on appropriation threatens a cappella's future. "Some careers have been built on cover tunes, but they're few and far between," says Sharon. "People will respect it more when more great original pop tunes come from the a cappella format."

A cappella groups admit that sticking to what they do best - tight harmonies, high energy, and a healthy helping of humor - is what will keep the art form alive. And in these uncertain economic times, there's something to be said about the homemade, back-to-the-basics charm of a cappella. "If we go into a long depression or a nationwide drought, people will still sing," Folds says with a smile. "That's what they do."

Upcoming shows

Check out these concerts by Boston-area college and professional a cappella singing groups.

May 1 | The Harvard Krokodiloes at Arts First Weekend. 12:30 p.m. Harvard Square, Cambridge. Free.

May 3 | Ball in the House featuring Mosaic 6 p.m. Kennedy's Midtown (42 Province St.) $5.

May 8 | The UMass Dynamics' spring concert. 7:30 p.m. Mahar Auditorium (119 Presidents Drive, Amherst). Free.

May 9 | Rockapella with the Plymouth Philharmonic Orchestra. 8 p.m. Memorial Hall (83 Court St., Plymouth). $20-$50.

May 14 | MIT Resonance spring concert. 8:30 p.m. MIT (Maclaurin Building at 222 Memorial Drive, Cambridge). Free.

June 13 | Five O'Clock Shadow 7:30 p.m. Steeple Coffeehouse (15 Common St., Southborough). $17.