Photos courtesy Straight No Chaser
A QUARTER OF a century ago, a bunch of upstart vocalists decided to splinter off from the Indiana University Singing Hoosiers and form their own a cappella group. At first, the goal was mostly to get the attention of coeds. Now, though, the birthed-at-IU Straight No Chaser is a musical sensation, with a string of hit albums, PBS specials, and a 25th anniversary tour that includes four shows at the Murat Theatre December 10–11, one at IU Auditorium December 16, and performances in South Bend, Fort Wayne, and Evansville in between.
Straight No Chaser usually consists of nine or 10 performers at any given time. (“Ten is our sweet spot,” says former member Ryan Ahlwardt.) To get the story on how it all happened, IM separately interviewed five key early members for this oral history, which has been edited for both length and clarity. As you’ll read, not everything was pitch perfect on the road to harmonic success.
JEROME COLLINS: It was sort of a music fraternity—our way of getting away from the choir and doing our own thing. We wanted to have fun with the music we enjoyed. Nothing wrong [with Singing Hoosiers], but we were just bored. We wanted to sing Huey Lewis and Michael Jackson.
RYAN AHLWARDT: Dan [Ponce] handpicked a lot of that original group.
DAN PONCE: I’d always been in love with a cappella music and the college groups that would visit my high school. When I got to IU—one of the best music schools in the world—there was no group like those.
RANDY STINE: Some schools have 10 or 20 groups on campus. We didn’t have that at Indiana.
PONCE: It started sophomore year. Let’s make a group. Let’s start singing.
STINE: A lot of bands are started by friends … but maybe one guy only has been playing drums for a few months. Instead, we built ours off musical ability. One person came to rehearsal and just assumed he was in. Well, no. That’s not how this works. Just showing up doesn’t put you in the band.
STEVE MORGAN: I was the last [of the original members] in. They auditioned every other tenor they could think of. Not quite right. Not quite right. Someone said, “There’s a freshman who sings high …” My audition was in the Singing Hoosiers’ music library, which is a glorified closet. We probably started that week putting together the Dance Marathon routine.
The Dance Marathon
STINE: Dan got the first gig. He had a lot of Greek connections. He spoke to someone who said, “We’ll give you a time slot at, like, 7 a.m. on a Sunday.” That’s a coveted spot, right?
PONCE: The night before the performance, we didn’t have a name. We were sitting in Denny’s and we threw out a bunch of really lame names like The Crimson Knights … just awful.
STINE: Dan walked up to the mic to introduce us and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are ….” Then he turned to us and said, “What name are we going by?” [The name was inspired by the title of a Thelonious Monk album.]
MORGAN: We came in with our five songs we had been rehearsing and practicing for a month.
PONCE: We started a song that was so bad. We were so off. I remember the look we gave each other onstage. That is burned in my memory, what a dud it was. If anyone heard that, they would have said, “No way this group is going to take off.”
MORGAN: But we got good feedback from people who were delirious from standing on their feet for 24 hours.
STINE: It was by no means flawless or fantastic.
MORGAN: It doubled our resolve.
Campus Gigging … And A Chicago Summer
COLLINS: We started out singing in dorms. Singing anywhere to anybody at any time.
STINE: Our first paid gig was probably a sorority moms’ weekend.
AHLWARDT: Sorority girls are your main audience when you’re 18 or 20 years old. You’re really singing for girls and food.
COLLINS: We went dorm storming.
STINE: My dad had been very apprehensive about the whole thing. But then the parents visited for a weekend and they watched a show and it suddenly clicked for him. My dad said that, like sports teams, we needed to practice over the summer. “If you guys disband, you lose the progress you made. Get all of the guys to move to Chicago for the summer.” So I pitched that to the group.
PONCE: We rented an apartment and all lived together and did gigs around the city. It was a blast. We had birthday parties. We opened for Lou Rawls.
STINE: We performed at Navy Pier four to five shows a day on weekends. That led to a gig at the Hammond riverboat casino. So we hit the ground running when we came back to campus in the fall of ’97.
Alumni Hall And Alumni Support
COLLINS: We didn’t know how good we were until we went to another campus, the University of Illinois. Another group got snowed in and we got the call. The crowd went crazy, something we had never seen before. That’s when we hit our stride, had a little swagger. I turned to the guys, Sister Act–style, and said, “We are now a group.” Then there was the first concert at Alumni Hall. There was a long line when we were walking in and we thought there must be someone else also performing.
PONCE: It was the talk of the campus. A sold-out show at Alumni Hall. We’d been a group for a little over a year.
COLLINS: That show put us on the map.
AHLWARDT: The executive director of the IU Alumni Association had been looking for an ambassador group that he could send around the country. He heard us at a niece’s wedding and said, “Meet me in my office on Monday.”
COLLINS: That was a game-changer, getting us to work on material and sing for alumni functions.
AHLWARDT: He knew what it would take to make the group a success on and off campus. He bought us our suits. We recorded our fourth album, with songs by Hoosier artists. [Later,] we went to the IU alumni camp in Wisconsin. It wasn’t just something we did on campus. We went to Florida.
COLLINS: Winter in Florida? This is great!
AHLWARDT: It became year-round.
And Then There Were The Doughnuts
MORGAN: One spring break we had a show lined up in Boston.
COLLINS: A couple of the guys were big fans of The Simpsons and there was a sign in Newburg, New York, that said, “We got doughnuts.”
MORGAN: Some of the guys decided they needed to steal the sign and we got run off by the police.
COLLINS: We did our gig that night and were coming back through that same town at three in the morning. This time, we took it.
MORGAN: But the same cop was pulling a double.
COLLINS: He does a U-ey and pulls us over.
MORGAN: He said, “I let you guys go, all you had to do was not come back.”
COLLINS: We spent the night in jail. Three of us in one cell, singing all night long. The next morning, we got out to see the judge who said, “Would you mind singing for our secretary?” We sang “One Fine Day” and “Still of the Night.” The judge laughed and let us go our own way.
MORGAN: There was an auditorium full of kids at our high school gig that day ready for an assembly but we didn’t have enough material to cover a single song.
COLLINS: I don’t like doughnuts to this day because of that.
The Big Show
STINE: We’d done three headline concerts at Alumni Hall in November ’97, January ’98, and April ’98. And we were going to have another fall concert. But IU Auditorium was closed for renovations, and Indiana Theatre on Kirkwood was being renovated. There was no place to do a show. We begged and pleaded with the music school and made an in-person presentation to the dean with a 20-page spiral-bound proposal to use the MAC [Musical Arts Center]. He looked it over and said, “If you sing at my Christmas party, you can sing at the MAC.” But there was some friction about that. IU Sing was going on and they weren’t allowed to use it.
COLLINS: Dan and Walter [Chase, another original member] were really good at arranging parts for voices.
STINE: We did the Boyz II Men “Silent Night,” and “Carol of the Bells” and “Twelve Days of Christmas” as the close of the first act.
COLLINS: Walt came up with adding “Africa” to “Twelve Days of Christmas.” As much as we ended up hating it, “Africa” became one of our most popular and most requested songs.
STINE: It was the first time we performed it and a crew filmed it. The fact that it would be in the MAC, I pushed to have it videotaped. Some didn’t want to spend the money but I thought we could use it for marketing down the road. I talked them into it.
PONCE: We didn’t miss a whole lot of school. We all graduated with our degrees.
MORGAN: I mean, my last math class wasn’t the best grade I ever got, but we all got through.
PONCE: But we realized we weren’t going to “make it” in the music biz. When we graduated senior year, we passed the group on to undergraduates as a legacy group.
MORGAN: We weren’t breaking through on any mainstream level, so we kind of put it to bed.
PONCE: We auditioned and picked the guys who would succeed us. [After years of sharing the SNC name, the student group is now known as Another Round.] So we went our separate ways. Two guys went to New York to try out Broadway. Five of us moved to Atlanta and tried to make it ourselves. We signed as technically a boy band, Last Call. We signed with RCA Records but then the label dropped us.
AHLWARDT: All those guys had careers but because Randy was unemployed, he had the time to put those videos on YouTube. He’s also the nerdiest of the group so he knew how to do it.
STINE: We didn’t get the footage for three or four years. The video company went out of business but I tracked down the owner and told him we never got the footage. Sure enough, he FedExed them to me on Betamax. I worked out of a post-production house in Atlanta and sat there loading Beta and eventually dumping them onto my computer. They wouldn’t play on Macs, so I called a friend and said, “I’m trying to share. How do I do that?” He told me about a new website called YouTube. That was the first I had heard about it.
PONCE: It was a chance to relive a concert we did 10 years before.
STINE: We were having a 10-year anniversary and we were all going to go down and watch the current group perform. In preparation for that, I had all of this footage and thought I should put it together. I edited together the entire concert. If I hadn’t lost my job, I probably wouldn’t have gotten it done. I put it together for us to have for guys who couldn’t make it to the reunion. It was mainly just for us, not for the public. And because I made DVDs of the concert, the minimum order was like 4,000 or something crazy. I had boxes and boxes of them. The guys joked that I could retile my kitchen with them. I bought ads on Facebook and Myspace to at least make the cost back. I was doing anything I could to rid my house of these CDs.
PONCE: We noticed the video count go up. And up. And up. It was fun to watch it take off, but we didn’t think it was going to lead to anything.
STINE: When we hit 100,000 views in the summer and fall, I sent an email to the guys and said, “Isn’t this funny?” We were up to 7 million by late December.
STINE: I got interviewed by The Wall Street Journal and Crane’s. They acted like I had a formula or a marketing team. I just uploaded it to share and it took off.
PONCE: Then we got a call from Craig Kallman, the CEO of Atlantic Records.
STINE: I asked Dan, “Can you get next week off? We need to go to L.A.”
STINE: They flew us out for the whole Hollywood deal experience. Picked us up in a limo to take us to the Peninsula Hotel. Dinner at Spago. We were the only ones at Spago in full suits. The CEO had a crewneck sweatshirt and sneakers. We looked like we were going to a wedding. The whole thing was surreal.
STINE: We went back to the bar and brainstormed. Then we made some calls.
AHLWARDT: When I got the call, I was just home from teaching a 12-year-old on guitar.
MORGAN: I was still in New York, in Mamma Mia! Dan said, “Are you in?” I said, “I don’t know what’s ‘in’ right now, but yeah, let’s make an album.”
COLLINS: I was in Hong Kong [as Simba in The Lion King]. I said, “Tell me when I get to leave.” I gave my last performance and hopped on a plane. I get to tour the country and the world with eight of my best friends? Sign me up.
STINE: We ended up all flying to New York to sing in the Atlantic offices. It was a little nervewracking. The label that had Bruno Mars and Led Zeppelin was going to sign us? But we figured even if they said no, if all else failed, they were paying for a reunion. We rehearsed in the conference room of the hotel. While in the middle of singing, the CEO walked out. He just left. Our hearts sank. But then he walked in with two people from his legal team and said, “Let’s get contracts signed. An album has to be done by August.”
MORGAN: It took us four to six weekends getting all of it together.
STINE: We were traveling to New York every weekend.
PONCE: Everybody stepped right into their old roles. It was bizarre but strangely familiar.
MORGAN: I had one problem—I had four shows a weekend. So we’d rehearse from 10 to 1, I’d do a show, we’d rehearse a little more, grab dinner, and I’d do another show.
STINE: We all kept our day jobs because we had no other income.
MORGAN: Then we went back to Bloomington and recorded it at Airtime Studios. We knocked out the entire album in two weeks.
AHLWARDT: It took a year and a half to two years for the professional group to really leave the launchpad.
STINE: But any time anyone gets a big head, we always take him down a peg. One of the publicity events was a tree-lighting at The Grove in L.A. Natalie Cole was there. Reality show stars. The performances were great, and it seemed like a big event for us. Then we had a CD signing and they had an area cordoned off for us and a table to sign. We’re sitting there all dressed up and said, “Go ahead, open the gate,” and three people walked through.
STINE: The album had traction, but we were pretty much undiscovered by most people.
PONCE: My dad is a household name in Chicago broadcasting and he brought the president of WTTW to our concert in Chicago.
STINE: But the airing on PBS gave people the opportunity to see what we do live. We saw ticket sales skyrocket from that.
PONCE: It was lightning in a bottle. The IU Alumni Association. The YouTube video. The PBS special. All of these things came together and we were able to launch this mega-national act. If one of those pieces were missing, chances are it wouldn’t have happened.
PONCE: Audiences can tell that we were really close friends. That laughter, that friendship translated into our live performances. That’s the heart and soul. We needed good arrangements but, ultimately, the camaraderie of the group is what stands out.
AHLWARDT: We had an unofficial reunion about a month ago. We rented boats on Lake Monroe. We hit the same bars we used to in college—this time with our wives. We shared the same jokes; some had kids with them. The family is growing.
PONCE: I don’t think there’s any limit to how far the group can go. I think it can be out for 50 years. Christmas music was the way we got through the door—I wish we hadn’t have done two back-to-back—but Christmas is only a percentage of it. We’ve done hundreds of songs in all genres. I don’t see the group ever really breaking up. There’s always going to be some form of Straight No Chaser.
COLLINS: I won’t be happy until I’m sitting with a Grammy.
The Straight No Chaser 25th Anniversary Celebration runs for four shows on December 10–11 at the Murat Theatre.