Rockapella (Contemporary Musicians)
Appearing on a children's television show, recording nationally broadcast coffee commercials, and releasing a number of records through its own label before signing a record contract, Rockapella has taken an unusual road to success. Then again, Rockapella is an unusual group. Making music solely with the voices of its five members, the group has consistently amazed and delighted audiences with songs ranging from doo-wop to updated Christmas carols. Wildly popular in Japan and with a fan base that stretches from six-year-olds to their grandparents in North America, Rockapella has survived numerous personnel changes and musical trends to become one of the most recognized a cappella groups since the days of the barbershop quartet.
Rockapella had its origins in the High Jinks, a male chorus that performed around campus at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Like many college a cappella groups, the High Jinks specialized in traditional songs along with humorous parodies and some original material. In the mid 1980s, two former singers with the High Jinks, Sean Altman and Elliott Kerman, decided to form an a cappella group when they found themselves in New York City after their graduation from Brown. They recruited some other recent alumni to the new group, but getting the group off the ground was a difficult process as several members came and went during Rockapella's first few years. Altman also sang with his rock band, Blind Dates, while Kerman sang in jazz clubs; some of the other members fit their Rockapella duties into their graduate school schedules or full-time professional careers. As Altman recalled in an interview with the Contemporary A Cappella Society online, "In the early years of the group, we had members who were, for example, 75% computer programmer/25% Rockapella member.... Each of us has worked jobs outside the group at times, in order to pay the rent."
In 1985 and 1986, most of Rockapella's performances took place on the New York City streets where they often sang outside of an ice cream shop collecting quarters. According to band legend, they usually spent the proceeds on dinner at a local Chinese restaurant, paying for the meal entirely with change they had collected on the street. By 1987, however, Rockapella found more lucrative work at weddings, bar mitzvahs, and corporate retreats throughout the New York City region, typically performing about 20 times a month. The band also began to change its repertoire, adding more a cappella arrangements of pop songs along with more traditional fare. In 1988, Rockapella got its first big break when it appeared on the Regis Philbin Show, at that time broadcast only in New York City. After the show went national as Live with Regis and Kathie Lee, the group made another appearance after co-host Kathie Lee Gifford enjoyed the band's performance at a dinner party. The appearance marked the beginning of Rockapella's national exposure.
Rockapella's second big break came in 1990 while the band was still playing most of its dates around New York City's music and comedy clubs. A demo tape of the group's rendition of the calypso standard "Zombie Jamboree" secured the band a place on a Public Broadcasting System (PBS) special produced by film director Spike Lee called Spike Lee and Company: Do It A Cappella. Rockapella's track was included in the soundtrack album from the special as well. Following up the success of the special, the band was invited to participate in another PBS project, a new show called Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?, a television adaptation of a computer game testing geographical knowledge. While the project confirmed Rockapella's successeaning that its members could now give up their day jobst also led to another turnover amongst the band's ranks. One member decided to continue with his law studies instead of staying on with the band. High tenor Scott Leonard, who had worked for two years in a rock band at Disneyland's Tokyo theme park, joined Rockapella as his replacement. Leonard also assumed many of the group's songwriting duties, a crucial role in its Carmen Sandiego responsibilities.
By the end of 1990, Rockapella had settled on a permanent lineup. Along with Leonard and founding members Altman and Kerman, Barry Carl had become the band's bass vocalist in 1989. After completing his degree in music at the Juilliard School, Carl had sung for four years with the New York City Opera. In 1995, after appearing with the group on a number of Carmen Sandiego episodes, Berklee School of Music graduate Jeff Thacher joined Rockapella as the group's "vocal percussionist," creating rhythms and beats with his voice. Altman amicably left the group in 1997 to pursue a solo career, and the group recruited tenor Kevin Wright as his replacement.
As a popular children's show on PBS from 1991 to 1996, Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? brought Rockapella into an estimated ten million living rooms around the United States each day. The show featured Rockapella singing musical clues to geography questions, with the members also performing in various skits. By the end of its five-year run, Rockapella was one of the best-known groups among the preteen set. Carmen Sandiego also attracted one of the highest percentages of adult viewers for a children's show as well. Reflecting on the experience in 1997, Thacher told the Celebrity Cafe online, "When you're working in the music industry, you've got to take what you can get... But the cool thing is that all the kids that watched it are now in college, or just out of college, and now are fans. And the moms of those kids still love us, too. So we've got this built-in audience that we're trying to reach and let know that we're still out there." Using the forum of a kids' television show had another side, however, and some of the band's members worried about being taken seriously by the general public. "If someone had told me it was going to make us stars with a lot of twelve-year-olds," Altman admitted to the Brown Alumni Monthly, "I would have thought about [taking the job] more seriously."
Rockapella also recorded backing tracks for two national ad campaigns television commercial for Folger's Coffee and a radio ad for the Almond Joy candy barhat increased its exposure in the United States. Given the demanding schedule of Carmen Sandiego and the band's concert dates, however, it was not until 1995 that Rockapella released its first full-length album, Primer, which it distributed itself. The band also released albums of cover songs in Japan, where its popularity surpassed that in the United States. In 1999, Rockapella signed a deal with independent label J-Bird Records that resulted in Don't Tell Me You Do. Featuring original songsost written by Leonardhe album ranged from R&B to doo-wop to gospel and dance-oriented tunes. "We feel this album is our best foot forward, the one we would like to be our bench-mark in for the U.S. market, because it will be the first experience many of us have," Carl explained to the Philadelphia Inquirer. "What we're looking for is mainstream acceptance, so that a cappella is not something over in the corner somewhere."
The group's second album on J-Bird, Rockapella 2, appeared in 2000. Comprised mostly of original material, Rockapella 2 also featured a cover version of the Squeeze hit "Tempted" as well as two versions of its Folger's commercial as bonus tracks. "This record, I'd say, is heavier on upbeat, happy, fun songs, but there are good ballads," Kerman told the Daily Bruin. "Our music is generally played on ACdult contemporaryadio, but we've been crossing over to top 40 and hot AC, which is sort of more urban AC." Clearly, the band's fan base had grown from its Carmen Sandiego days and Rockapella was succeeding in its goal of making a cappella music a mainstream genre.
Rockapella also released a Christmas album in 2000 and followed it up with a concert album and accompanying PBS television special in 2001. In addition to its recording, television, and commercial projects, Rockapella remained a regular on the concert circuit, especially on college campuses. Describing the band's popularity, Kerman told the Daily Bruin: "I think anybody would enjoy the show. [Rockapella] is entertaining and that's the bottom line. We're an entertaining group that loves good music, so we do good songs." While the band has not yet matched the success that fellow artist Bobby McFerrin achieved in the 1980s with his hit "Don't Worry, Be Happy," it is well on its way to being recognized as the leading band in the a cappella field.
(Contributor) Spike Lee and Company: Do It A Cappella, Elettra, 1990.
(Contributor) Zappa's Universe, Verve, 1991.
(Contributor) Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?, Zoom Express/BMG Kidz, 1992.
(Contributor) Carmen Sandiego: Out of This World, Zoom Express/BMG Kidz, 1993.
Primer, self-released, 1995.
Lucky Seven, self-released, 1996.
Rockapella, self-released, 1997.
Don't Tell Me You Do, J-Bird, 1999.
Rockapella 2, J-Bird, 2000.
Rockapella Christmas, J-Bird, 2000.
In Concert, J-Bird, 2001.
Brown Alumni Monthly (Brown University, RH), May 1996.
Daily Bruin (University of California-Los Angeles, CA), May 3, 2000.
Entertainment Weekly, January 10, 1992, p. 78.
Philadelphia Inquirer, November 21, 1997.
Celebrity Cafe, http://www.thecelebritycafe.com/interviews/rockapella.html (July 3, 2001).
Consumable.com, http://www.westnet.com/consumable/2000/04.12/revrocka.html (July 3, 2001).
Contemporary A Cappella Society, (July 4, 2001).
J-Bird Records, (July 3, 2001).
Rockapella Official Website, http://www.rockapella.com (July 3, 2001).