Rockapella

Rockapella

Gleefully, they are NOT your childhood Rockapella. Rather they’ve become one of the world’s most sophisticated and lasting pop vocal groups. With the wild success of the TV smash “Glee” and a cappella groups reigning in the Corner of Cool on college campuses, there is clearly a hunger for exciting live vocal performance. A single concert opens a window on practically the whole history of vocal music from vintage Mills Brothers through jazz and rock to current Hip Hop.

The little miracle that keeps the crowds coming back year after year and constantly draws new fans is Rockapella’s astonishing full-band sound. A sound that seems to be impossible coming from just five guys with microphones. No instruments, no tracks, no mirrors – and their hands never leave their wrists. “We’re making every bit as much music as the whole ‘Glee’ chorus – but with only five guys,” says Rockapella’s human beat-box Jeff Thacher.

We make it rock and make it interesting,” explains Scott Leonard, the group’s chief songwriter, arranger and architect of their evolving dynamic sound. USA Today summed up the lasting appeal like this: “The best musical instrument of all is the human voice – if you’ve seen Rockapella you know that’s the truth.”

The current Rockapella line-up features Scott Leonard (since 1991, High Tenor), Jeff Thacher (1993, Vocal Percussionist), George Baldi III (2002, Bass), John K. Brown (2004, Tenor) and Steven Dorian (2010, Tenor). This line-up marks a regeneration of Rockapella whose talents cover a broad entertainment spectrum and are keenly focused on musical excellence. “People have a hard time believing it’s just us making all of that music. It’s still those same elements that make modern band music: percussion, bass, melody and harmonies,” says Scott.

Bang pretty well says it — that’s the explosive title of their latest CD [their 20th!] which showcases 13 pistol-hot original songs with at least one composition by each of the members — plus a bonus cover of Vampire Weekend’s “A-Punk.” With a Bang, the quintet of Rockapellas deliver tight harmonies, soulful vibes and arrangements more akin to Stevie Wonder or the exciting perfectionist finals of “American Idol” than merely style-kissin’ cousins of callow boy band boppers, DooWoppers or even Barbershoppers. Says George, “With Bang, Rockapella has kind of risen to the occasion when it comes to competing with R&B or jazz or anything in that realm that is actually being played on the radio.”

So far there have been a dozen men who have belonged to Rockapella since its inception. The changes over time have naturally brought about a strengthening of talent with fresh entertaining possibilities. “As each guy has moved on or retired, the group has technically gotten better and closer to perfection,” explains most-senior member Scott. “Whenever we lose a guy it’s bittersweet because you miss that special thing that he added to the recipe. But then you are able to go and find exactly who you think best fills that slot with maybe additional talents and a fresh personality in the mix.” With their smooth dance moves and mellifluous Motown harmonies they are probably as close as you might come in the 21st Century to charisma of The Temptations.

Rockapella had the foresight in 1993 to upgrade with the powerful full-time addition of mouth drummer Jeff, who can magically summon a world of percussion sounds from snare drum whacks to shimmering cymbals to the meaty-beaty bop of a kick-drum. You really have to witness it to appreciate its magical mysterious cacophony. “People often ask me if it hurts,” observes Jeff, who is a graduate of the Berklee College of Music and is also a producer for other artists. “It doesn’t exactly look pretty but the ends justify the means.” As one of the pioneers of the form, he was the inventor of the use of special acoustic pick-ups that could capture his guttural throat sounds along with the brass-instrument-style “spitting” sonic effects captured by the hand microphones that are the trademark of modern “beatboxing.”

Another bonding element in Rockapella is that all of the singers are veterans of the Disney talent-development enterprise. “Disney is a breeding ground for good performers – it’s like the Hamburg Club was for the Beatles,” says Steven, the group’s newest member, who starred in Disney’s Festival of The Lion King. “You have to bring your ‘A’ game at least 3 or 4 times a day within 6 hour shifts, five days a week at Disney. You can’t get tired. You have to take care of your voice. You’ve got to stay in shape so you can get in there and survive and be consistent.” [Thank you, Walt!]

Naturally, Rockapella is a moniker that describes their artful meld of rock and a cappella. The group is best known in the US as the innovative entertainers whose clever wit, shtick and tunes were the jet-thrusters for the 295 episodic voyages of the PBS kid-TV smash Where In the World is Carmen Sandiego? The 10 million kids (and parents!) who tuned in weekly during its heyday from 1991-1996 have created a powerful family fan base for the group. The show’s theme song is STILL the group’s most downloaded song. “It’s almost like our national anthem,” laughs John Brown.

The versatile group has been all over the entertainment map appearing early on in the PBS Spike & Co.: Do It A Cappella special hosted by Spike Lee. They’ve also guested with Whoopi Goldberg on her TV specials. “These guys knock the shit out of me; they’re amazing,” she Whoops. The Rocka-resume also includes jingles for Folgers coffee, Almond Joy, & many other products, custom promos for NBC’s The Today Show, and an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

The group has also stretched out occasionally of late into the instrumental world, accepting an invitation to perform with the Boston Pops Orchestra. “It was something new for us,” says Scott, who helped to create special arrangements for the concerts for BOTH Rockapella and the Pops. “It’s a thrill to have that wall of sound coming from behind you. Besides it gave me a chance to satisfy my urge to arrange for new instruments and indulge my fascination for Glenn Miller-style Big Band arrangements that I loved growing up.”

Rockapella has indeed traveled far in the sonic solar system since their early collegiate roots, when an enthusiastic a cappella quartet of Brown University graduates started singing DooWop on New York City’s street corners in 1986. Over the decades Rockapella has evolved into a high energy concert performance troupe that travels the globe giving at least 80 concerts a year. “It is not just about the pretty notes and the nice singing,” comments John, who is a veteran of Broadway shows – and is a mean tap dancer to boot. “It is a whole thing: the presence we give off, the little comedy bits, the timing and interacting, both during and after the show.” Adds George, “Concerts give us the chance to be both creative and spontaneous since something new may happen to us during the day that we can bring into the show.”

Because of the universal appeal of vocal music, Rockapella attracts an avid international following that takes them regularly to such exotic locales as Japan, Singapore, Germany, Switzerland, Hong Kong, & Seoul. The group often performs a song or two in the native tongue of the country they are visiting. Their stardom is particularly luminous in Japan, where Scott began his professional music career performing at Tokyo Disneyland and enjoyed a solo career that eventually led to Rockapella’s first recording contract. “What we do is really trans-cultural; we are ambassadors,” says Scott, who has become fluent in both Japanese and German to better connect with the audience. “When you make that extra effort to connect with people with their language and show an awareness of their own customs and popular music, they are yours forever.” - rockapella.com

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