A Capella Group Brings New Songs To July 20 Chautauqua Institution Show

Straight No Chaser brings its smooth sound to the Chautauqua Institution July 20. Photo by Jimmy Fontaine

“Six Pack: Volume 3,” the third in a series of EPs from the a cappella group Straight No Chaser, may only include six songs. But that doesn’t prevent the group from spanning eras and musical styles, sometimes within the same track.

The variety of “Six Pack: Volume 3” is no accident, and in fact, was meant to reflect what Straight No Chaser tries to achieve any time the group performs or goes into the studio.

“That’s kind of what we try to do in our live shows,” Steve Morgan, one of the group’s nine vocalists, said in a recent phone interview. “It’s what we try to do on our (full-length) albums. We want to have something there for everybody, so something new, something old. We never want to skew too young or too old. We want to give you a spectrum of things because ultimately I think the consistency is that’s it’s a cappella. The consistency is the sound and trying to surprise people with what you can do without instruments.”

In the case of “Six Pack: Volume 3,” there’s something truly retro in the 1962 version of the Sam Cooke, “Twistin’ The Night Away,” something new in the versions of Bruno Mars’ “That’s What I Like,” Jon Bellion’s “All Time Low” and a “Beyonce Medley” featuring Ms. Knowles’ hits “Put a Ring on It” and “Crazy In Love.” In addition to the R&B/hip-hop stylings of those songs, there’s country-tinged pop in the rendition of Bonnie Tyler’s ’70s hit, “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and pure pop in the group’s mashup that brings together the Eurythmics’ ’80s signature song “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” and Fitz and the Tantrums’ recent hit “HandClap.”

“It’s one of the things we definitely consider when we’re putting together a set list and a CD track listing,” Morgan said. “If you look at time, I guess, on spectrum from the ’50s to today, how can you find a few little, neat little footholds, in each genre or decade?”

As with all of the group’s music, the songs on the new EP are rendered entirely with voices, as the nine members of Straight No Chaser harmonize, vocalize percussion and sing signature instrumental parts to the songs.

This trademark ability to use vocal talents to create full-sounding arrangements to a wide range of familiar songs has made Straight No Chaser a leader of the a cappella genre and a key force in helping push what had been a niche form of music into the pop mainstream.

The group began as a college project at Indiana University, with its 10 vocalists banding together under the Straight No Chaser name to perform around campus.

The group caught on, and before long Straight No Chaser was doing performances around the region. With students auditioning to replace members as they graduate, the college version of Straight No Chaser — now renamed Another Round — is still going strong.

As for the original members, they went their separate ways after college, never expecting a professional version of Straight No Chaser to be part of their futures. In Morgan’s case, he took his performing talents down new avenues.

“I was in Atlanta for a couple of years with actually a couple of guys from the original collegiate group,” he said. “We had a brief record deal with RCA Urban. Then 9-11 happened, Napster happened, and we got dropped along with everybody from RCA Urban other than Tyrese. So I moved with (fellow Straight No Chaser member) Charlie Mechling. We moved from Atlanta up to New York, and we both did musical theater things. I did a cruise ship in Europe. I did two national tours, summer stock, regional theater, and then did a couple of Broadway shows. And the last Broadway show I did was ‘Mama Mia,’ which I did for two and a half years.”

In fact, Morgan was still doing that popular play when he was contacted by fellow Straight No Chaser alum Randy Stine, saying he was reuniting Straight No Chaser, and the group had a deal with Atlantic Records.

The unlikely return of the a cappella group stemmed from a 10th anniversary reunion of the collegiate version in 2006. To generate enthusiasm for the occasion Stine made DVDs of a 1998 Straight No Chaser concert and posted a performance of the group’s wacky rendition of “The 12 Days of Christmas” to You Tube.

The clip of “The 12 Days of Christmas” did more than get IU grads stoked for the Straight No Chaser reunion. It went viral and became 2007’s most viewed video.

One person who saw the clip was Craig Kallman, the chairman and CEO of Atlantic Records, who tracked down Stine and eventually signed the group.

Eight of the original members signed on to be part of the reformed Straight No Chaser, and two singers who were part of later editions of Straight No Chaser at Indiana University filled out the lineup. A few singers have left over the years — each replaced by singers from later lineups at Indiana, although the group has yet to decide whether to replace the recently departed Don Nottingham. So today’s lineup has nine members — Stine, Morgan, Dave Roberts, Walter Chase, Jerome Collins, Michael Luginbill, Mechling, Tyler Trepp and Seggie Isho.

Thinking Christmas music was the perfect introduction to the group, Kallman and Atlantic had the group debut with the 2008 Christmas album, “Holiday Spirits.” It was an immediate hit. A second holiday CD, “Christmas Cheers,” followed in 2009 and went gold, while an EP, “Under the Influence: Holiday Edition,” arrived in 2013. A third full-length holiday album, “I’ll Have Another…Christmas Album,” was released last year.

In between those releases have come several non-holiday releases – the trio of six-song Eps, “Six Pack” (2008) and “Six Pack: Volume II” (2011) and now “Six Pack: Volume 3,” and the full-length albums, “With A Twist” (2010), “Under The Influence” (2013) and “The New Old Fashioned” (2015) — all of which have enjoyed similar success.

Morgan has been on board for three phases of Straight No Chaser’s history. He was part of the original ensemble at Indiana University. Then when the group was reformed after signing with Atlantic, Morgan joined up, remaining with the group until August 2009 before leaving in hopes of creating a more stable life for his family.

He returned to Indiana University to get an MBA and went into finance, landing a job at a bank.

But when Ryan Ahlwardt departed Straight No Chaser in 2012, Morgan returned to fill that slot, having figured out that the group’s touring and recording schedule would actually leave him more time to spend with his family than his banking job.

Morgan plans to stay with Straight No Chaser for the long haul.

“We love what we’re doing and we’re hoping to have more time overseas and do many more tours here in the states and just entertain people,” he said. “That’s what we do.”

The immediate future involves a tour that will have the group on the road in America and overseas through summer. Fans can expect a good mix of music from across the group’s career during these shows.

“We definitely want to highlight some of the new songs from ‘Six Pack Volume 3,'” Morgan said. “Then (we’ll) bring back some fan favorites that we’ve maybe had on the shelf for a few years.”

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