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'Doo-Wop-a-Doo' Will No Longer Do

Sunday Arts & Entertainment, New York Times, June 22, 1997
Kurt Eichenwald

Wes Carroll never learned to play a snare drum or pound timpani. But that didn’t stop him a few months back from abandoning his job as a computer consultant so he could commit himself full time to being percussion.

No, not a percussionist. The percussion itself.

Mr. Carroll, 26, uses his voice and body to provide the beat for Five O’Clock Shadow, an a cappella group from Boston. With an assortment of tongues and clicks, lip smacks and where-did-that-come-from noises, Mr. Carroll’s astonishingly precise drumming imitation creates a rhythmic foundation once unheard of in a cappella - music made with only the voice.

And Mr. Carroll is not alone. He is part of a growing wave of performers whose vocal imitations of everything from percussion to trumpets to electric guitars - along with a vocal kaleidoscope of sounds unique to the voice - have opened up new vistas for a cappella music.

Once the domain of doo-wop singers and barbershop quartets, a cappella has been transformed in recent years into a vibrant and rapidly changing form of music incorporating virtually any style. And with that change has come an a cappella renaissance - including a bigger audience, more sales of recordings and more radio play.

"Comparing what a cappella used to be to what it is today is sort of like comparing folk music and Pearl Jam," Mr. Carroll said. "A cappella today is still using the same core instrument - the voice - but in ways that are totally different than the past."

Go to a modern a cappella concert and the change is obvious. Old favorites like "Under the Boardwalk" or "Down by the Old Mill Stream" are scarce. In their place? A cappella versions of songs by rock groups like Stone Temple Pilots and the Who. Melodies of composers like George Gershwin, or classical works by Mozart or Bach, also make appearances. And then there are original a cappella compositions, and, more recently, improvisational harmonies.

"We’ve found that there aren’t really any limitations in a cappella," said Carrie Johnson, who sings with No Strings Attached at the University of Illinois, Urbana.

The sea change was evident at Carnegie Hall in April, at the annual national championships for college a cappella groups. The winners, Talisman, from Standard University, performed four numbers, three of which were in African languages and dialects. Among its singing techniques was one that wedded a traditional bass part with what sounded like the percussive beat of a conga drum.

With its new-found diversity, a cappella music, while still and industry subculture, is experiencing unparalleled growth. There are more professional and amateur groups than ever, growing from about 100 in 1985 to more than 700 today, according to the Contemporary a Cappella Society. And the number of American a cappella recordings has grown from just 14 in 1985 to more than 400 last year. And a cappella performers have also released recordings everywhere from Cuba to Italy, from Malaysia to Sweden.

At the same time, a small a cappella industry has emerged, complete with recording labels, national competitions, and a community of musicians sharing techniques and arrangements. Indeed, on Saturday, professional and amateur singers will gather at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston for two days of seminars and concerts at the twice-a-year "A Cappella Summit."

For groups that have been performing for more than a decade, the change has been palpable. Many of them, like the Persuasions and the Nylons, are now revered in the a cappella world and are seeing growing interest in their music.

"When we started doing this, there were about three professional grouts," said Richard Greene, a bass for the Bobs, a professional a cappella group that formed in the early 1980’s. "But now there is an entire movement out there."

The catalyst for the movement, recording executives and performers agree, were an unusual combination of a single singer and the technology of the Internet
The performer, Bobby McFerrin, is an accomplished musician who burst onto the a cappella world in the early 1980’s. Often appearing alone on stage, McFerrin sang multiple parts in a cappella renditions of popular and original songs. If a rhythm was needed, he produced it with his voice or by slapping his body.

"He started making people aware of what you could do with one voice and one body," said Barry Carl, who sings bass with Rockapella, one of the most accomplished contemporary a cappella groups "He pointed to a new direction for vocal music, so people started listening with a fresh set of ears."
Mr. McFerrin brought a linguistic complexity to the sounds used in the backup of a cappella songs. Old faithfuls like "doo-wop" and "ooo-waa" were shelved, in favor of a far broader range of sounds that created new rhythmic possibilities.

"A sound like ‘doo-wop-a-doo’ is like a toddler talking," Mr. McFerrin said. "As I sang more and more, I used different types of sounds, different types of consonants, so now when I sing I do use something that sounds like a language."

How complex are the sounds used by Mr. McFerrin in his music? Put it this way: it is virtually impossible to write down a complete set of them here without making an error in emphasis or dynamics.

As young singers were attracted to Mr. McFerrin’s music - particularly after "Don’t Worry, Be Happy," his No.1 hit in the late 1980’s - many began emulating his techniques and experimenting with the voice’s vast potential.

"His playfulness with the music opened the door for people, and they took the ball and ran with it." said Deke Sharon, president of the a cappella society and part of the House Jacks, a professional group. "So, even though he’s never done an a cappella grunge song, it comes from that same tradition of playfulness."

In essence, Mr. McFerrin’s example led a cappella arrangers to throw out vocal music’s old playbook. "People are using sounds that have been shunned in the past," like the sounds associated with the letters R and L, said Anna Callahan, author of "The Collegiate a Cappella Arranging Manual" (Angharad Publications). "And they turn out to by pretty useful when trying to imitate instruments."

Mr. McFerrin’s style has also given new life to older techniques like the use of falsetto voice. "In the old doo-wop songs, they were almost mocking the falsetto sound," said Scott Friesen, a tenor with 16 Feet at Swarthmore College. But Mr. McFerrin "let it be its own voice in a gentle way, and I incorporated that style into my music."

Mr. McFerrin’s style was reinforced by other groups, like the Nylons, who had an a cappella hit in the late 1980’s. That kind of success nudged the recording industry toward experimenting more with a cappella, singing groups like Boyz II Men and Take Six. And the growth of rap music, with its human-beat-box routines, popularized vocal percussion even more.

That, in turn, helped fuel the growth of college and high school groups. And, with widespread access to the Internet on college campuses, those a cappella groups congregated on line into a virtual community of singers.

The Internet "was instrumental in networking college a cappella groups to each other," said Adam Farb, president of Smoking Fish Records, which produces an annual recording of the best of college a cappella groups.

With the on-line sharing of musical arrangements and techniques, Mr. Farb said, the skills of the college groups improved, invigorating the entire field. "The growth and change of the college groups really helped spring the professional a cappella community to life," he said.

Even today, the a cappella community thrives on the Internet. The a cappella society, for example, runs a Web page that provides listings of known groups, performance schedules and the names of representatives around the world willing to assist a cappella singers. And a large distributor of the music, Primarily a Cappella Records, runs an on-line buyers’ club ( The company, offering some 500 recordings, expects $1 million in sales this year.

"I have spent zero money on advertising," said John Neal, president of Primarily a Cappella. "And still we’re up to some 40,000 names on our data base."

Where now for a cappella?

For some, a cappella can go only so far imitating other styles. After all, if a cappella simply keeps growing more similar to instrumental music, shy not listen to the real thing?

"A cappella has to go beyond mere imitation, and is starting to," said Andrew Chaikin, who provides vocal percussion for the House Hacks. "There is a lot of potential, and eventually, it will come into its own."

To some extent, a cappella performers said, the trail is again being blazed by Mr. McFerrin. After several years of orchestral conducting, he returned this year to a cappella with the release of a new album, "Circlesongs." In it, Mr. McFerrin leads a group of singers in improvisational songs that create beautiful and haunting harmonies using sounds on the cusp of language.

"I have been turned around by making music in this way," he said. "I have rededicated myself to working in this format pretty much to the exclusion of everything else."

But the potential of improvisational a cappella appears to reach beyond Mr. McFerrin. At a recent breakfast at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Manhattan, Mr. McFerrin met with a number of amateur and professional a cappella singers to discuss their craft. The conversation was laced with examinations of musical history and singing technique.

Then, after devouring the eggs and waffles, this group of strangers broke into a four-minute song. The harmonies were beautiful, the meaningless sounds almost lyrical. And all of it was being made up, right there on the spot.


Billboard Magazine Commentary, 8/23/97

What do you think of when you hear the phrase "a cappella"? Doo-wop groups singing oldies on a street corner? Barbershop quartets wearing striped jackets and straw hats? High school choirs performing madrigals? Classical ensembles intoning English church music in cathedrals? If so, you're not alone, and you're not entirely wrong. But you're not current either.

Over the last decade, there has been a surge of new a cappella groups that are somehow different from these old stereotypes. After the pioneering music of the Nylons, the Bobs, the Flying Pickets, Todd Rundgren, Bobby McFerrin, and Take 6 in the '80s, there has emerged a new style of contemporary a cappella in the '90s. The new umbrella term for these groups is "vocal bands."

So what makes a vocal band different from a barbershop quartet, a doo-wop group, or other types of a cappella ensembles? There seem to be a few defining characteristics, as follows:

They sing with microphones, a mixing board, and a good sound engineer as essential pieces of the show. Barbershop quartets and classical groups, such as the King's Singers, perform a cappella truly "in the style of the chapel" - unaided by electronics. Many contemporary vocal bands, in fact, use electronic assistance to achieve amazing effects with their voices, including vocal percussion that sounds like a full drum set, wailing blues guitar solos, and bass undertones.

They perform like a band. With the benefit of mikes and monitors, they no longer need to huddle to blend, as other a cappella groups must. They fill the stage, providing a complete audiovisual experience as they move and dance to the groove as they sing. In other words, they have as act like a band.

They sound like a band. The growing use of vocal percussion along with creative arranging (an essential component for any successful vocal band) can make five of six voices sound like there's nothing missing from the traditional pop music experience. One of the most common comments when people hear vocal bands for the first time is, "I can't believe there's no music!" This drives vocal bands crazy, as, of course there's plenty of great music, there's just no instruments!

They tend to perform a very diverse repertoire. With the unlimited palette of vocal instruments, a single vocal band can credibly perform rock, world music, jazz, blues, R&B, show tunes, and spirituals in one show. The ability to create music "out of the box" is part of the attraction for artists to the new genre. The variety of music is certaily one of the attractions for audeinces. But that diversity is enormous marketing challenge for the established music industry, which is accustomed to narrowly defined genres, retail bins, radio formats, and demographics.

So like most new music genres as they are emerging, it is hard to find music by vocal bands in stores. A customer may find the Bobs and the Nylons in pop, but where's Rockapella? When viewers of "The Today Show" learned that SoVoSo was the most recent champion of the Harmony Sweepstakes national a cappella contest, did they find the group's debut album filed under jazz? When The New York Times wrote about Five O'Clock Shadow's vocal percussionist, did customers even know where to look?

Not surprisingly, specialty catalogs currently fill the gap. But given the incredible attraction this music has for audiences around the world (as this is already a global phenomenon), it can be hoped that it is only a matter of time before the rest of the music industry recognizes that something new, something big, something lasting has emerged.

Vocal bands are ready to take their place in the greater music industry.

Copyright 1997 Billboard magazine

A Cappella Summit joins voices in harmony

From Correspondent Rusty Dornin
November 17, 1997

SAN RAFAEL, California (CNN) -- If classical music is your true love, the phrase "a cappella" might bring to mind the high, airy voices of the Vienna Boys Choir. If modern music is more your speed, maybe you think of "Don't Worry, Be Happy" songwriter Bobby McFerrin.

The two styles may have different audiences, but they harmonized together at the West Coast A Cappella Summit this weekend.

"When a lot of people think of a cappella music, they think of just choral music or doo-wop or barber shop. But actually, every style of music you'll hear -- jazz, reggae, pop, rock, classical," said Deke Sharon, an a cappella singer and presiden tof the Contemporary A Cappella Society.

In a cappella, a style of music where the voice is the only instrument, singers might sing words without accompaniment, or they might imitate the percussion and horns that they left by the wayside.

"It's just kind of a magic thing that happens," said Brian Lance of the Blenders. "It's just pure vocals, it's just pure and raw."

Now that the a cappella movement has grown beyond barbershop, audiences are growing as well. The style even has its own record label -- Primarily A Cappella. Don Gooding, the label's founder, said he had about 1,000 customers at the beginning. Five years later, they have about 20,000.

Young singers

A cappella fan Taherera Smith applauded the genre's full range, from the chants of quiet minor melodies to foot-stompers. "It's really caught on over the years, and I only think it's going to grow," she said.

Sharon agreed. "With most instrumental music, people sit back and watch. But with a cappella concerts, everybody's always singing, they're clapping, humming along. That's the wonderful thing with this kind of music is that everybody gets to share in it," he said.

Gooding took a more simple view: "This is the most fun you can have
legally while singing."

Copyright CNN, 1997.

Harmony Contest Instrumental in Growth of A Cappella Music

By Philip Elwood

San Rafael - The Harmony Sweepstakes A Cappella Festival Champions for 1994 are the Trenchcoats men's Quartet - Portland/ Seattle regional winners in preliminary competitions. Wearing black fedoras, black trenchcoats and pants, black shoes and shades- black of course - and singing a disparate set of songs, such as Devo's "Whip it," Hoyt Axton's "Joy to the World" (Three Dog Night's hit) and "Stray Cats (strut)," the Seattle based group knocked out the crowd, and the panel of judges, with their musicality and performance style. They were voted "favorite group" by the fans, and top performers by the judges - who included famed arranger, Gene Puerling, producer-performer Todd Rundgren, Promoter - producer Don Holiday, singer Raz Kennedy and this writer.

Performing here on Saturday before a sold out Marin Veteran's Auditorium Audience of a cappella fans, the trenchcoats combined crisp and complex original harmonies, strong lead and ensemble singing, and superb Devo style choreography - especially on "Whip it." Kerry Dahlen, Jamie Dieveney, Joe Mele and Doug Wisness have perfected original routines and arrangements on all manner of material and are well known in the greater Northwest. In the midst of "Whip it," the quartet, with their trenchcoats, fedoras and shades tossed aside, interpolated "working in the coal mine," also Devo's, and featured a whistled last chorus.

This was the Harmony Sweepstakes A Cappella Festival's 10th anniversary show and the event's founder, Lisa Murphy-Collins, was duly honored. From it's modest beginnings, the event and the whole a cappella singing community have expanded, now including regional directors of comparable events in Boston, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia and Portland/ Seattle.

Taking second place honors was Vox One, three men and two women, from Boston, whose five part harmonies and voice blends were the most adventurous and distinctive of the evening. Their three numbers (each group had 12 minutes on stage) included original arrangements of "Edelweiss," "Could you Believe," and "Missin' You," also an original tune. The Trenchcoats' strong voices and catchy rhythmic shifts won the top prize but Vox One's subtle harmonies (sometimes too dense) made them obviously a candidate for a top award.

"A Perfect Blend," a veteran quintet of Philadelphia's in the r&b/gospel vein (four men, one woman- a stunner named Katrina Triowery) are vintage stuff, ca. Late 1950's. The voice blend, the beautiful choreography - pre-Motown foolishness, just great supperclub routines - make the group inimitable. Their original arrangements of "Who's Loving You," "Oh What a Night," and the sermonish "Just Two Kinds of People" are astonishingly smooth and well balanced, and some of their harmonies (including what we used to call "cascading chords" or arpeggios) are as good as I have ever heard.

Winners of the "Best Arrangement" award (bestowed by the judges) was the Blindman's Bluff Quartet from Chicago, whose marvelous vocal arrangement - interpretation of " Amazing Grace" from bagpipes to folk to rock to rap brought the crowd to its feet, cheering and stomping. Blindman's Bluff also won the "Best Original Song" award for their harmony display piece "Dreamweaver." This was an attractive power voiced group with almost overwhelming rhythmic enthusiasm - a sure winner in future years.

All the groups participating had already won regional awards (whose trophies were awarded at the Saturday ceremonies) and thus all were first rate singing ensembles. Alphabetically, the other competitors were The Banned From Northern California; The Diners From Denver and Things to Come From New York.

Winners all - as were those in the audience. A wonderful night of song.

Interested in a cappella, and the Harmony Sweepstakes? Write PO Box D, San Anselmo, 94979 or phone (415) 455-8602


"Since 1980 the number of collegiate a cappella groups in the U.S. has tripled, and since 1990 the number of professional groups has quadrupled."



"What a cappella groups leave out in instrumental accompaniment they make up for in imagination and technique."



"A cappella fans are a unique breed of people. They reside in all corners of the globe, are as loyal as Deadheads, and are fiercely enthusiastic about their music."

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