In Celebration of the Human Voice - The Essential Musical Instrument
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 new 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, Doo Woppers 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 School 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 "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 and Almond Joy; custom promos for "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 travelled far in the sonic solar system since their early collegiate roots, when an enthusiastic a cappella quartet of Brown University graduates started singing Doo Wop 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, Hong Kong, Singapore, Seoul, Switzerland and Germany. 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 Disneyland Tokyo 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."
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Review: How does an a cappella legend sound? Judging by Rockapella's "Motown & More," more sweet, tight, soulful and rockin' than ever! Having grown up 50 miles from the Motor City, this reviewer was weaned on the Motown sound, which dominated the top 40 airwaves with wonderful artists like the Temptations, the Supremes, the Jackson 5 and Stevie Wonder. So here come the hits on "Motown & More," and they are to the original tunes like little Michael Jackson was to himself on "Thriller." Tight Vocal Percussion replaces drum sets, of course, but Scott Leonard's arrangements of standards like "Brick House," "Papa Was A Rollin' Stone," "(Stop) The Love You Save," "My Cherie Amour," "Dancing In The Street," "Use Ta Be My Girl," "My Girl," "Ain't Too Proud To Beg" and "Just My Imagination" (which segues smoothly into a sample of John Lennon's 'Imagine'), is the "& More" here! Let's be frank, Scott, Jeff, George, John & Steven could sing rings around most of the early Motown vocalists, and we're hearing exactly how amazing so-called "covers" can be, when re-invented by one of our favorite, and still one of the premier a cappella bands in the world, Rockapella. We loved this album from start to finish, especially because we have loved Motown ever since we were big enough to reach the faux-chrome radio knob on our '64 Comet. Great stuff!
Review: The perfect gift to us from "America's Leading A Cappella Group, "A Rockapella Holiday" has arrived just in time for Christmas, and we think we saw a fat dude with a white beard joining in with this legendary all-male a cappella quintet, singing bass! The CD follows the critically acclaimed "Bang" as their 14th soulful release, and it features 12 wonderfully arranged cuts that stay true to their trademark Contemporary sound, which melds soul, rock and r&b. Some favorites are "Angels We Have Heard on High," a very silly "Christmas Don't Be Late (The Chipmunk Song)," "I Have a Little Dreidel," "Matunda Ya Kwanzaa," "Jingle Bell Rock," "Ukranian Carol," "Little Drummer Boy," "Christmas Altogether," the very politically correct "Happy Christmas-Hanu-Kwanzaa Holiday," and the heart-tugging "Auld Lang Syne.;" but every song is a stone winner. Arranger and high tenor Jeff Thacher feels the album "finally captured the spirit of our live holiday concerts, from the edge to the warmth to the fun." Rockapella's feeling of wonder at the holidays comes through bigtime in "A Rockapella Holiday," so don't forget to open this very special musical gift from one of our longtime favorite groups!
Review: At last, a collection of mostly new tunes from prolific Contemporary a cappella pioneer, and one of our long-time favorites, Rockapella, swathed in sizzling cool James Bondish graphics by group member Jeff Thacher, who also produced "Bang." New member Steven Dorian joins the all male quintet, taking the place of Kevin Wright. 14 cuts: the fast paced title tune has a funny nod to "Shaft" and sets the table for this very hot album, "Hard Time" has a Dylanesque "get lost" attitude and a driving beat, "Nothin' But" is a classic r&b-type tune that features George Baldi making us believe with his killer bass, joined by John K. Brown's smooth tenor, "Tonight" finally includes on a recording this overtly risque song that the group has used to open their live shows, "Shemibos" is a driving, rhythmic dance gem with John doing a smoking lead, "Malibu Grand-Prix" is a fast-moving ode to the Beach Boys, with the patented Rockapella sense of humor and vocal faux motors revving, "Too Much" is another "get up and dance" winner with a husky lead by John, "Babygirl" again features George's sweet chocolaty bass and is so very fine, "The Shortest Path" is a yummy ballad with another great lead by John, "No Pressure" is an awesome audio-manipulated dance tune anchored by George's creamy bass, and bonus track "A-Punk" originally was released by Vampire Weekend and is simply delicious! Three songs that were first recorded on the album "1man1mike," "4u4now4life," "Tell Me What You Want" and "California Sad Eyed Girl"--all are better versions on "Bang," and all are excellent. Bottom line? "Bang" is one of the best of the year by one of a cappella's elite groups who just keep getting more amazing-don't miss this one!
It's A Small World
Review: From the first notes of "Little Mary Snowflake," as the Rockapella sound washes over our eager ears, we notice a subtle change that becomes much more obvious in the next cut, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." There's a new member of the group, George Baldi (replacing Barry Carl) who sings a growly-mean deep bass on a tight scat-percussion solo. Next comes a couple of new songs, the sweet, romantic "Merry Christmas Darling" and "Love and the Lights." George sings a delicious Crosby-esque lead on the classic "I'll Be Home For Christmas." Then another fresh new Christmas song with some soaring Rockapella blends, "This Christmas Day." One of our favorites, "There's No Place Like Home For the Holidays," is sung as a jazzy, doo-woppy thing with a vocal Salvation Army band solo. "Please Come Home For Christmas," a soulful bluesy lament, features George's hilarious Elvis "romantic mumbling" parody. An upbeat, moving "Rock Around The Christmas Tree" has some surprising harmonic whistling. A driving "Snow Star," another sweet new song, "Peace on Earth," and finally "It's A Small World" is Rockapellized, with sampling, vocal percussion and that sublime, soaring trademark harmony. We loved Rockapella's first Christmas CD, and we love "Comfort!"
Review: The title says it all - this is a cheerful and buoyant CD, one that speaks to the simple pleasures of summer. As chief writer Scott Leonard says in "Smile In My Heart": "no more dark days, only summer always." Rockapella's polished harmonies and solidly-crafted arrangements have always conveyed a fundamental stability - no unexpected dissonance, no gratuitous notes or an intonation falling short. Here, with the addition of new bass vocalist George Baldi, who takes over for the much loved Barry Carl (the two share the bass registers on this CD), the band consolidates their quintessential American appeal with songs such as "Shambala," "Dance With Me," "Summertime Blues" and "Surfin' Safari." Two slower numbers, "Lazy River" and Elliott Kerman's "No Doubt At All," conjure up reminiscences of lazy hot evenings, the relaxed swing feel a gentle reminder of generations past. So leave your cares behind with Rockapella and smile!
Review: One of our most favorite groups (who don't need any introduction, we're sure) graces this holiday season with a dozen songs which cover the entire spectrum of aural moods from past to present. Opening with a sweetly lilting "I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day" which captures the traditional spirit with only a touch of Rockapellan embellishment we proceed to a Thatcherized (clever light vocal percussion), upbeat, Scott Leonard song which has one wondering just which year it became a big hit. It did, didn't it? It must have, it just sounds so familiar. We immediately are segued into an almost vaudevillian "Glow Worm/It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" medley. Through beautiful tradition and several of Scott Leonard's original compositions our heart strings are plucked to a fare-the-well. At the end of this grand recording we have Scott's "Hold Out for Christmas" which has only been released prior to this CD on one of the Rockapella Japanese imports. Then are sent off with our harmony hats in hand by Barry Carl's unbelievable bass and Jeff Thatchers pyrotechnics on "You're a Mean One Mr. Grinch." This seasonal recording will add a sparkle of joy to your holiday.
Review: The release of a new Rockapella CD is an event, a happening, a momentous occasion! Riding high with the excitement generated from their Folger's commercials, these five gifted performers have readied a bumper crop of originals, and included their signature jingles as well. As the most popular and professional of contemporary a cappella groups, Rockapella's sound is readily identifiable, completely polished, and ever buoyant. Produced by Scott Leonard, who wrote or co-wrote most of the songs, each track will feel immediately familiar, due to the consistency of the Rockapella style. Whether the Latin groove of "Doorman Of My Heart," the classically pretty melody of "People Change" or the upbeat "This Isn't Love," the arrangements are saturated with thick harmonies, a luxuriant backdrop that, along with the pulse of vocal percussionist Jeff Thacher, are the quintet's trademark. "Tempted," the sultry rock/soul hit made famous by the English group Squeeze, is the CD's only cover, and it's an outstanding choice. Rockapella is bringing a cappella into the mainstream, and "2" can only further their reputation.
Review: Tight. Exciting. Explosive. This is Rockapella, circa 1999: the freshest, most contemporary vocal band sound ever, and new tracks: "Hold Out For Christmas," and "Moments of You," (the latter song never before released in the U.S.) . The remaining songs were on their "Rockapella" self-titled CD, but have been given a new sheen and a boost in production values. Featuring the charismatic presence of Scott Leonard and the fiery vocal percussion of Jeff Thacher-providing the current that throws the switch on the Rockapella sound-the group has melded into a force that is undeniable. Their popularity owes much to solid songwriting: classic harmonic progressions that are new, yet familar at the same time, and arrangements that saturate the ear, as in "So Much Better," "I'll Hear Your Voice" and "I Am Your Man." Rockapella's notes stack up in perfect formation, creating a Spectoresque "wall-of-sound"; this precision, where each note is crafted and placed, performing its specific role in relation to the other, creates a brilliance of tone that soaks right into the skin. To listen to Rockapella is to be converted to their musical message, which has been impressing listeners throughout the world since they sprung to fame on the PBS children's program, "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?" We have consistently included them in our Hall of Fame; this new song, from their current CD is a mixture of old and new material. We are most definitely the converted! Their many live radio appearances-Rockapella are favored guests of the "Mark and Brian" show on KLOS, and the "Scott and Todd" program on WPLJ-have created a demand that is unheard of in a cappella, and is threatening to break free of earth's gravity. Don't miss this one!