While known to many as the house band for the hit ‘90s PBS show, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, Rockapella has become a Christmas mainstay at the Stockbridge Theatre in Derry.
The five-man powerhouse — made up of Scott Leonard, Jeff Thacher, George Baldi, Steven Dorian and Calvin Jones — performs its now annual holiday show Sunday, Dec. 21, at 7 p.m.
“It’s all holiday music, though we can’t get away with not doing ‘Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego,’” said Leonard, who’s been with the group since 1991 and acts as its chief songwriter and arranger. “People like coming to hear the songs they know and love. … They have lots of emotional attachments to those. But then when they hear Rockapella put its Rockapella edge on those songs, it’s a unique experience.”
In some circles, Rockapella is credited as the one that started it all — a cappella (defined “without instrumental accompaniment”) wasn’t mainstream back in the 1980s, when members of a Brown University a cappella group created Rockapella. That smaller group performed in New York City for a number of years until 1991, when Leonard joined the band and the PBS Kids show picked them up. Thacher, who still sings with Rockapella, joined in 1993 and became the band’s permanent voice percussionist — or beatboxer — which was revolutionary to the a cappella scene.
They had no idea their simple change to the medium — adding a beatboxer and performing contemporary tunes rather than traditional barbershop harmony — would be the start of a new craze.
“I thought I’d be doing this maybe for two years,” Leonard said. “When we first started, colleges had a cappella groups, but it was not at all popular. Now, every single college has multiple groups, and it’s wild. It’s all around the world.”
At the beginning, Leonard says, it was hard to break out of the kids’ TV show mold in the States. He used leverage with connections to the Japanese music market to acquire a recording contract. Rockapella was bigger over there.
“We were literally the first contemporary group in Japan, and we had this kind of simultaneous career over there. While we were doing Carmen here, we couldn’t get anyone to take us seriously, and we had to get exposure through the back door,” Leonard said.
Group members have come and gone throughout the years — he and Thatcher have been with Rockapella the longest of the guys — but when they look to replace a member, Rockapella often looks to Disney, who scours the country to get the best talent. Those singers, Leonard said, are used to performing several shows a day for 5 or 500 people and really know how to work an audience.
But Leonard also differentiates Rockapella from singing groups in Glee, The Sing-Off and Pitch Perfect.
“Rockapella is more like a band,” Leonard said. “Most a cappella groups perform popular covers of songs, but Rockapella has always stressed original songs and original music. … If it’s going to be a cover, it really needs to be original. You need to make it earn its right to exist on its own. … I think the things that make Rockapella still viable today are its original arrangements and unmatched talent. This is a group of guys who each in their own right can stand on stage on his own.”
And for a cappella to really become mainstream, Leonard says that’s what needs to happen. There aren’t any original a cappella hits — all the a cappella songs that have made the Top 40 have been covers.
“I want to see an a cappella song besides ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” Leonard said.
For the holiday show, however, Rockapella does sing traditional songs. It’s what audiences want. But these versions have quirkier arrangements than what listeners are used to.
“In the early days, there were three Jewish guys and me. There was not too much of an emotional attachment to the holiday. There were a couple of cute songs, but they were more corny. But we’ve really been able to fill the show up. There are lots of warm and funny ballads going on. It’s not like a regular a cappella show — we’ve added a Chipmunks up-tempo song and some funky stuff that makes it more energetic,” Leonard said.
They look forward to their visits to Derry; Leonard says it’s like revisiting a friend every year.
“This is unusual, that we’ll come to a small town every year,” Leonard said. “We do so many places and venues, but when I step up onstage, it’s very clear in my mind what the Derry experience is. It’s fun to see the same people.”
As seen in the December 18, 2014 issue of the Hippo.