Straight No Chaser
Straight No Chaser was formed 13 years ago on the campus of Indiana University.

"Toto ... I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore." -- Dorothy Gale, "The Wizard of Oz."

"Toto? Smack at the end of 'The 12 Days of Christmas'? Wha'?" -- Overheard at Straight No Chaser concert.

Fact: laboratory tests have shown that pop group Toto's '80s anthem, "Africa," is a perennial favorite of those who harmonize for a living. Why?

Some chalk it up to the multiple refrains of "I bless the rains down in Africa, I bless the rains down in Africa" being simply irresistible.

Others insist it's the potentially addictive "doo-doo-doo, doo, doo-doo-doo, dooooom" embellishments. Whatever.

Straight No Chaser, the 10-man a cappella group behind one of 2007's biggest YouTube sensations, learned about "Africa's" harmonic popularity the hard way: the song became their calling card.

Founding member Randy Stine, who'll be on the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts stage tonight with his nine fellow Chasers, affirms it "had become the song we were known for."

A running joke among the group's members was trying to find the right time and pasture "to retire the song."

No offense, Toto, but "we'd sung the song so many times, we'd say, 'for this concert, let's NOT sing 'Africa.'"

Then along came a famously witty a cappella arrangement of "The 12 Days of Christmas" by Richard Gregory, an alum of the famed Yale (University)Whiffenpoofs.

Gregory's ploy was to send the well-structured song careening off-course into other holiday standards, with lyrics intersecting and, sometimes, trading spaces. It climaxed with a spectacular head-on collision involving "12 Days," "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and "The Christmas Song."

While working the arrangement, "someone (jokingly) suggested sticking 'Africa' at the end instead," recalls Stine. Much to the group's surprise, if not horror, it fit. Perfectly.

The consequences of that decision are being felt to this day as the group kicks off its national tour tonight on the BCPA stage.

Straight No Chaser began its harmonies 13 years ago on the campus of Indiana University, where the members crossed paths in a show choir. But show choirs will only get you so far. So Stine & Co. figured a hipster a cappella group might be more fun.

They formed one and started harmonizing around campus at assorted functions. Alas, their chosen name, taken from Thelonius Monk's legendary 1967 album, didn't amuse the administration at the dry-as-a-bone campus.

Never mind that Straight No Chaser had less to do with slamming shots than serving as a two-tiered pun on the group's lack of instrumental accompaniment and its raging heterosexuality ("we had 10 straight guys in a singing group," says Stine, when the process of natural selection determines that any all-male choir "will at least have some of the other persuasion").

In the beginning, IU officials would bill them only as "Men's Ensemble" in programs and advertising. Then "Men's Ensemble" wound up playing a wedding rehearsal for a UI Alumni Association member, and all that changed.

Duly wowed, the august alum cleared the way for Straight No Chaser to leap from "the band that dare not speak its name" to proudly serving as IU's official singing ambassadors at functions far and wide.

In 1999, along came graduation and 10 different futures laying in wait. Stine says the intent was to leave Straight No Chaser behind them as an IU institution to be replenished.

Flash forward seven years to 2006: the school decided to celebrate 10 years of Straight No Chaser with a reunion featuring past and present members.

To get everyone in the spirit, Stine assembled a DVD from old tapes of past performances. Several clips found their way, virally, onto YouTube, including a performance of the "Africa"-invaded "12 Days of Christmas."

Within several months, the video had become a 10-million-hits sensation, seen around the world.

Among the witnesses: Craig Kallman, CEO of Atlantic Records, who was so impressed he took time off from his New Year's Day holiday in 2008 and called Stine.

"He's saying, 'no one can give you a better deal than we can,' while I'm Googling his name on my computer as he spoke," Stine says, convinced that he was the target of the first premature April Fool's joke of '08.

When Kallman's credentials popped up on his screen, "my eyes popped out of my head," Stine recalls.

Less than two years, three Atlantic albums, a recently taped PBS special and countless TV guest spots later, the group is one of the most visible a cappella acts in the land.

"We're like 10 brothers almost," admits Stine. "We fight, and there are times when don't get along. Then we make up and get over it."

Not about to be gotten over anytime soon, however: "Africa." Everybody loves it, in or out of the "12 Days of Christmas."

Even Toto guitarist Steve Lukather, who called up the band and said, "I can't believe that old song has been turned into a new holiday classic!"

Believe it, Steve: straight up ... with ne'er a chaser in sight.

On the Web: To take a quaff of Straight No Chaser's viral video sensation, "The 12 Days of Christmas," go to:

At a glance

What: Straight No Chaser

When: 7:30 tonight

Where: Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts, 600 N. East St., Bloomington

Tickets: $23 to $29

Box office number: (866) 686-9541

Ah, cappella!

Great moments in a cappella history:

1909: The Yale Whiffenpoofs and their seminal "Whiffenpoof Song" are born

1931: Three words, The Mills Bros.! (two more: start recording)

1938: The Society for the Preservation and Propagation of Barbershop Quartet Singing in the United States is propagated

1945: Women demand equal propagation time and the Sweet Adelines are born

1954: Pop goes the Adelines sound via The Chordettes' "Mr. Sandman."

1962: The Buffalo Bills steal the show in the movie version of "The Music Man"

1972: The Manhattan Transfer pull into the station, unaccompanied

1981: The Nylons' rendition of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" sets a trend

1983: Billy Joel goes a cappella (almost) with "For the Longest Time"

1988: Bobby McFerrin suggests "Don't Worry Be Happy"

1996: Straight No Chaser begins serving 'em up at Indiana University

2004: B-N-based Chapter 6 becomes first a cappella group to win both International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella and the Harmony Sweepstakes

2008: Chapter 6's Luke Menard makes it to the top 24 finalists of "American Idol"

Local ISU Acafellaz group to hold a cappella lecture

BLOOMINGTON -- A cappella fans can warm themselves up for tonight's Straight No Chaser concert with some home-brewed sounds.

As a prelude to the 7:30 p.m. BCPA concert, Nate Coon, president of Illinois State University's resident a cappella specialists, Acafellaz, will offer a lecture and demonstration on the art of a cappella at 6:45 p.m.

Founded in 1999, the nine-man group is ISU's oldest student-run a cappella group.

They bill themselves as possessing "impeccable musicality, sweet dance moves, tantalizing blue polos and what many call an unhealthy love of vocal percussion."

You can catch them in full harmonic action again this weekend at Saturday night's Tri Sigma Charity Talent Show in ISU's Bone Student Center Brown Ballroom.


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