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10 men a-singing

A cappella sensations Straight No Chaser return Wednesday night to Illinois State University's Braden Auditorium with their "I'll Have Another ... 20th Anniversary Tour."

If we could turn back time ... say, 20 years ago to the campus of Indiana University, located in that other Bloomington to the east, we'd find ourselves in perfect harmony.

That was the year when a band of brothers in a slick campus show choir decided they needed to ramp up the hipness factor a notch or two.

Their solution: an all-guy a cappella group that traded in the oft-disparaged term "show choir" for something more enticing ... like, say, Straight No Chaser, pilfered, with all due respect, from Thelonius Monk's legendary 1967 album.

Just one hitch, though: the after-hours name didn't amuse the administration at the bone-dry 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 founding member Randy 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 an IU 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.

"I was kind of the dreamer of the group," Stine recalls 20 years later, as Straight No Chaser winds up its 20th anniversary touring year with a string of holiday shows keyed to their new album, "I'll Have Another ... Christmas Album"; among those dates a Wednesday stopover in  Illinois State University's Braden Auditorium.

"Back in college, I kept pushing after graduation for us to strike out on our own and to make it professionally," Stine says. "When it didn't happen for us, I was still trying to carry the torch, hoping and wishing something could happen."

Undeterred, Stine trouped on with a non-Straight No Chaser group "for a short time, but they had a disastrous work ethic, so I quit. Then someone I was dating said 'you've got to get back into music,' and the only way I could see doing that is if I got the old group back together again."

Dream on?

By all means: "A month later, the video went viral and the CEO of Atlantic Records called us."

Stine is referring to something that had begun a year or so earlier (2006), when IU decided to celebrate 10 years of Straight No Chaser with a reunion of 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 their trump card: A post-modern rendering of "The 12 Days of Christmas," which, at one point, is invaded by "The Christmas Song," "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and, above all, their version of pop band Toto's '80s hit, "Africa."

The latter tune had become the group's somewhat overworked calling card back in the day ... to the point that the guys were trying to find the right time and pasture "to retire the song."

Then along came "12 Days," featuring the witty arrangement by Richard Gregory, alum of the famed Yale (University) Whiffenpoofs.

"Someone (jokingly) suggested sticking 'Africa' at the end instead." Much to their surprise, if not horror, it fit. Perfectly. 

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

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

The rest is history, with Straight No Chaser, in its 20th year, a world-wide phenomenon that has spawned a fiercely loyal brigade of fans known as "Chasers."

"It's crazy," Stine confesses. "To us it still feels a little bit like we just left college not that long ago ... certainly not 16 or 17 years ago. Time has passed so quickly."

Now, here they are, fully into marriage, parenthood and encroaching middle age. 

"It's kind of startling to realize that when I was in high school and college I was a big fan of the Dave Matthews Band, who are celebrating their 25th anniversary this year ... and that we're only five years behind them. That's shocking."  

Speaking of fans, the 10 men a-singing have collaborated with everyone from Elton John to Stevie Wonder to Dolly Parton to Sir Paul McCartney, all of whom have professed to be fans of Straight No Chaser themselves.

The group can chalk up that latter crossing of paths with Sir Paul, showcased on SNC's "Under the Influence: Holiday Edition" album three years ago, to dreamer Stine.

"The guys at Atlantic asked us if we'd like to do an album of duets and work with other artists," Stine recalls. "They said to give them a dream list of artists and they'd see what happened."

McCartney's name was not on the initial list, says Stine, "because what are the chances of that?"

When a holiday edition of the "Under the Influence" album was proposed, Stine crossed the name at the top of his bucket list off and suggested a duet with McCartney on his Wings classic, "Wonderful Christmastime."

Thank heavens for Stine's penchant for dreaming: Sir Paul said by all means. 

"The way I've always seen it," says Stine, "is that it never hurts to ask."

Follow Dan Craft on Twitter: @pg_dcraft


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