Among other things, college is a time of experimentation. It’s a chance to dabble in extra-curricular activities that, by necessity, get left behind when the world of mortgages, kids and 9 to 5 jobs intrudes, right? Not always. Just ask Dan Ponce and the other nine members of Straight No Chaser, who never dreamed an a cappella group they started for fun at Indiana University would reunite them a decade after graduation and turn into a full-time career.
Straight No Chaser was born in 1996 when Ponce, then a sophomore at the Bloomington school, hand-picked the original members from a show choir he was in. Although he began with simple goals, it wasn’t long before he knew he was on to something special.
“I just wanted it to be an a cappella group like other schools had,” Ponce told Pollstar. “In the Ivy League, at University of Michigan and University of Illinois, there are several a cappella groups. Indiana University didn’t even have one. But we soon discovered that we were a lot different than other groups.”
Randy Stine, another original member, explained Straight No Chaser viewed themselves as a pop band that just happened to use their voices for instruments.
That mindset, coupled with a wicked sense of humor and material drawn from a wide variety of genres, led to packed campus events, followed by sold-out headlining concerts, three albums and opening spots on tours with artists like Lou Rawls.
However, as everyone who’s been to college knows, the good times don’t last beyond senior year. So in 1999, the graduating members of the group chose their replacements and moved on, thinking their time in Straight No Chaser was finished.
But fate had different plans. In 2006, Indiana University decided to host a reunion concert featuring the original members. Stine dug up footage from a 1998 show and posted a clip of the group’s version of “The 12 Days of Christmas,” which features an interpolation of Toto’s “Africa,” on YouTube.
Within days, the video went viral and was viewed on monitors, including that of Atlantic Records Chairman/CEO Craig Kallman, more than 10 million times.
Kallman contacted Stine, who thought he was being punked, and invited the group to New York City where they worked out a deal and signed a contract.
Straight No Chaser’s fall 2008 Atlantic debut, Holiday Spirits, was so well-received that an eight-city tour was booked to test the waters. Six of the shows sold out almost immediately, which came as a revelation.
“After the success of singing to sorority girls, we weren’t sure if it would translate beyond college,” Ponce explained. “We were surprised to learn that we had hundreds, if not thousands, of fans in cities where none of us has roots.
“A cappella is really a niche genre. It’s been humbling to see the public embrace it. I think the key to that happening is our show is a concert that everyone can enjoy – from kids to senior citizens.”
Manager David Britz of Stiletto Entertainment sees the group as a unique reminder of a different time.
“It’s not your everyday artist development story,” Britz told Pollstar. “I think in this era of pop and processed music, people are really interested in something that’s organic and vocal and real.
“It’s not only real music sung by people who can really sing, they’re also able to impart humor and entertainment into what they do. It’s almost a throwback to the Rat Pack where you had guys who could sing and had a natural camaraderie.”
The Agency Group’s Andrea Johnson and Larry Shields, who handle SNC’s day-to-day business, told Pollstar they weren’t shocked at the public’s response.
“I studied music at Miami of Ohio where they had a couple of these groups that would continually sell out enormous halls,” Johnson explained. “And you realize that every college in the country has one, so there’s a huge built-in audience for it.”
Shields added, “I was at William Morris for several years and worked closely with Clint Mitchell on vocal groups like Celtic Woman that did well in a similar setting. The performing arts center circuit totally embraced them, but they’re going to be much bigger than that.”
Back row: Jerome Collins, Tyler Trepp, Randy Stine, Michael Luginbill, Ryan Ahlwardt, Seggie Isho, Dan Ponce Front row: David Roberts, Charlie Mechling, Walter Chase
Shields isn’t exaggerating. This year, to promote a new holiday album, Christmas Cheers, Straight No Chaser booked a 50-city tour from clubs to opera houses that’s selling just as well as their first outing. Add a PBS special, a well-received non-holiday EP released over the summer and a full-length non-holiday album planned for spring and you’ve got an a cappella juggernaut.
Both Ponce and Stine agree that keeping 10 people – who all live in different cities and have families – moving in the same direction is a challenge, especially on the road, but it’s one they’re up to.
“I’m very much the director of the group, so I make a majority of the decisions,” Ponce said. “But everyone has a say in everything. It’s a fine balance between making sure that everyone is happy and making sure that everyone’s strengths are brought out.”
Now if the guys can just figure out how to live together on a tour bus.
“It is going to be an adjustment getting used to life on the road,” Ponce explained. “We’re counting on the fact that we’re really close friends and that we have great respect for one another to get us through the next three months without killing each other.”