116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Straight No Chaser, now celebrating its 25th anniversary, has one of music’s more unlikely back stories. The 10 original singers formed the a cappella group in 1996 at the University of Indiana in Bloomington.
Once graduation sent them on their separate ways, the singers never expected to perform together again. They had loved their time in the group, but college ends and lives go on. So it was quite a surprise when in 2007, Dan Ponce and Randy Stine, two of the original members, began contacting the other original members about reuniting as a professional ensemble.
The trigger for the unlikely return of Straight No Chaser stemmed from a 10th anniversary reunion of the original group in 2006. To generate enthusiasm for the occasion, Stine made DVDs of a 1998 concert and posted a performance of the group’s wacky rendition of “The 12 Days of Christmas” to YouTube.
To everyone’s surprise, the video went viral. Still, back in 2007, no one from Straight No Chaser thought the video would be anything more than a cool online moment for the alumni members.
But Craig Kallman, chairman and CEO of Atlantic Records, had other ideas after he noticed the still growing number of views of “The 12 Days of Christmas” and decided to check out the video himself. He was impressed enough to contact Ponce and Stine to see if Straight No Chaser would be interested in auditioning for the label.
“It was something that definitely none of us saw coming,” said Steve Morgan, one of the original members of Straight No Chaser, in an early October phone interview. “When Dan and Randy had gone to meet with Craig out in L.A., they still hadn’t told anybody because they kind of wanted to vet all of this before getting anybody excited.”
In the years since graduating from Indiana University, the original members had moved on to various careers. In Morgan’s case, he had gone on to pursue music, first in a group that included a couple of other Straight No Chaser grads that was briefly signed to RCA Records. The label, though, dropped the group after 9/11, and Morgan moved to New York to pursue theater. He eventually landed parts in a couple of Broadway shows, including a two-and-a-half-year stint in “Mamma Mia!”
That’s when he got a call from Stine.
“So I had come home from ‘Mamma Mia!’ and I was still in New York. I get a call, I mean, fairly late at night, probably 11 o’clock at night, saying ‘Hey, Steve-O, got a second? You better sit down for this one.’ ” Morgan recalled. “That’s kind of how it all began. Then when everybody flew in, we sang for them. They said ‘Yeah, let’s do this. Let’s make it happen.’ ”
In all, eight of the 10 original members of Straight No Chaser signed on, with two singers from later editions of the college group being chosen for the remaining open slots. 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 became that season’s top holiday album seller on the iTunes and Amazon charts.
Since that auspicious debut, Straight No Chaser has released three more full-length Christmas albums and one Christmas EP, four full-length non-holiday albums and four non-holiday EPs and toured worldwide, achieving far greater popularity than anyone expected, while being one of a handful of groups that has spearheaded a resurgence in the popularity of a cappella music.
The group has maintained its popularity even as several of the original singers have left (usually because of family commitments). Today, Straight No Chaser includes original members Morgan, Stine and Walter Chase, with Tyler Trepp, Jerome Collins, Michael Luginbill, Seggie Isho, Jasper Smith and Freedom Young — all of whom were part of later editions of the college version of Straight No Chaser — replacing departing singers.
During their college years, the singers developed their vocal blend and grew considerably as performers. And now, as a professional act, Straight No Chaser has taken its game to another level.
“I don’t want to shortchange the experience we had in college because we did get as polished as we could be,” Morgan said. “But we were choreographing things ourselves. We were on 10 wired mikes trying to do a little bit of choreography, which doesn’t lend itself really well.
“So in terms of it being much more of a spectacle, now we’ve got the lights, we’ve got the wireless mikes, we’ve got a choreographer who can vary up the looks of everything.
“When we were in college, we pretty much stood in horseshoe and everything was in a pretty self-contained (format), it was a one-stage picture. I think we’re very cognizant now of changing up that stage picture and making sure that we have variety not just in sound, but in the look and in the lights and all of those things.”
25th anniversary tour
Today’s edition of Straight No Chaser will spend this fall on its “25th Anniversary Celebration” tour, swinging through the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids on Nov. 3. The shows will emphasize non-holiday material until around Thanksgiving, at which point the set list will evolve into more of a Christmas production.
“We’ve got some (songs) that we want to bring back, just some of our favorites over the last, gosh, quarter of a century. Then we’ve actually got a lot of great new material — stuff we’re really, really excited to get out and put on its feet,” Morgan said. “We’ve got some just fun, upbeat songs that are going to get us up and moving, put some funk in our trunk, if you will.”
And along the way, the group will celebrate the 25th anniversary with fans.
“We’re going to have certain shows where we’re going to have some of the alums of the group come back and be a part of it, which will be a lot of fun,” Morgan said. “Definitely with our opening video we’ve tried to bring back some of those moments as well, telling some of our fun stories and also including some of the guys who have been part of the group in their time.
“So we’re trying to definitely give everybody who’s been a part of it a little shine.”