When I was in high school and college here in Indianapolis in the late ’80s and early ’90s, show choir was my life. It was my social nucleus — my friends, relationships, and extracurricular schedule centered around the choirs’ activities and membership.
Seriously, the hit TV show Glee was like a documentary for me in more ways than I care to admit.
However, back in the day, this love of vocal harmonies in its purest form was limited to a very select audience.
Today, a cappella music is more mainstream than I could have ever imagined. More and more groups are touring the country and performing in large venues to sold-out audiences. NBC’s show The Sing-off has discovered and made stars of groups like Pentatonix, Street Corner Symphony and Committed.
But the roots of this a cappella wave can be traced by to Indiana University’s own Straight No Chaser, an all-male a cappella group that started on the Bloomington campus in 1996 as just something to do for fun.
Straight No Chaser is celebrating 20 years of existence and a decade of performing professionally this year. The group of 10 IU grads will celebrate the milestone anniversary with a concert at IU Auditorium on Wed. Dec. 14. They'll perform a week later in Indianapolis at Old National Center, too.
NUVO caught up with tenor Jerome Collins, a founding member of Straight No Chaser, to talk about how it all began and the group’s influence in the genre.
NUVO: Twenty years of Straight No Chaser, that’s pretty amazing!
Jerome Collins: One word is longevity. It’s pretty amazing. We literally have to pinch ourselves to make sure this isn’t a dream. But it’s been going well and we’re really enjoying this.
NUVO: How did Straight No Chaser get started at Indiana University?
Jerome: This all came to fruition because we were just 10 guys who were all part of a show choir at Indiana called “the Singing Hoosiers.” One of the guys just came up, Dan Ponce a the time, and said “Hey man, a lot of my other friends go to these other schools and do these a cappella groups and sing for girls and sing for food.” And I said, “That’s enough for me!” Literally, this is what started it all. We wanted to have some fun, sing for some girls, maybe get some food along the way. We started off just by storming the dorms and singing for sororities and moms’ weekends and fathers’ weekends. Then we started selling out some of the smaller places we were going. We had to go to the IU auditorium and sold the auditorium out! [IU Auditorium has over 3,000 seats.] Which was like, 'Wow! Alright, this is getting to be bigger than we imagined.' We let the group continue [at IU] after we left college. It was something we wanted to come back to 20 years down the line and say, “Hey, we were in that group.”
We were coming together for a 10-year reunion in 2006 — we started the group in 1996. One of the guys, Randy Stine, put a video up on YouTube to reminisce and remember how young we were, look how we had hair and all that good stuff. YouTube at the time was in its infancy. It was still fresh and new and we had gathered millions of views from our last concert in 1999 of the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” It was just us making fun of the song and putting a little Straight No Chaser spin on it. We had “Africa” [in the song], which was the very first song we learned as a group. Toto’s “Africa” was sort of a nod to our fans who were with us and we put that at the end of it. That video, lo and behold, got millions and millions of views in a short mount of time. Atlantic Records’ [CEO/Co-chairman] Craig Kallman was trolling the Internet and called Randy Stine on New Year’s Day in 2006 and said, “Hey, I love this!” We flew to New York and quit our jobs and the rest has been history. Traveling the world and country just singing a cappella — still singing for food and girls. [laughs]
NUVO: Since there was a bit of a gap post-college, was it hard putting the group back together?
Collins: We only have six originals left in the group. When we first got the group back together, we had moved on. It had been 10 years since college. Some guys had gotten married, some guys had kids, so they couldn’t really do that. And at the time when we first started, we were only doing a few shows. It wasn’t enough for a few of the guys to think this was going to make enough to raise a family, which is understandable. But as years went on and progressed… everybody in the group now has been in Straight No Chaser at Indiana University at some point. Everybody —this group here — has been together pretty much a majority of the time.
NUVO: Back in the day it was groups like Manhattan Transfer and The Nylons that inspired high school and show choir groups. Now it’s Straight No Chaser and other groups, like Pentatonix, and really, you guys were first. What do you think makes you guys so appealing?
Collins: I think — to me personally — a cappella is the purest form of music. There is nothing to hide behind. We don’t have a drummer on stage or a guitarist or a production to try and hide behind. Every voice is out there in the open. And especially in our shows, we break that fourth wall. You are in on our joke. You are getting to see how we literally are. We are friends. The camaraderie we display on stage and the fun we have with the crowd, it’s one big party and everyone’s invited. The rise in a cappella is great. I think us, groups like Pentatonix and these other groups that are out there… there is an influx of people that feel as though this is their chance to have a voice. A cappella was not something that was really popular.
To be honest, I didn’t know anything about a cappella music while I was in high school. It wasn’t until I got to Indiana that I was introduced to it. It’s just a cool wave, it’s a cool genre and it’s really cool to be at the forefront of it. I think that a cappella has exploded. I mean I’ve never seen it so prevalent. There are so many groups and so many people that come to our shows. It’s amazing. And people say, “I look up to you guys. We do your arrangements.” And it’s an honor to be a part of this. People are finally realizing that a cappella is not the uncool thing anymore. It’s really cool to be apart of a group singing harmonies and singing with your friends on stage. That’s what it’s all about for us.
NUVO: Who does your arrangements?
Collins: We have the beauty of everything that is in this group is pretty much [done] in-house. We have about three or four guys that arrange songs and about three that are the primary guys, but everything is done here. These guys are amazing at it. I’ve got my hand involved in things more as of recently and it’s just cool because we know what we like. It’s amazing to hear these guys’ ideas and how they come up with them and we put it on the table and see what happens and see what sticks.
NUVO: You guys are on an amazing ride and Indiana has certainly embraced you. Singing “Back Home Again in Indiana” at the Indianapolis 500  had to be a trip.
Collins: It’s just amazing — it’s a dream. Like I said before, we just have to pinch ourselves. I mean, the thing that we’ve been apart of… they way that we look at it, we’re just local boys done good. That’s basically what we are. We’re a homegrown group. We aren’t ahead of ourselves. We don’t even consider ourselves famous. We are D-minus listers, but it’s not about the fame. We are the same guys who started this group — we are the same guys today. The world has changed but we are all the same. We are the same 10 crazy guys from college who are just enjoying this ride.
NUVO: How long do you think you’ll ride this wave?
Collins: Look, I don’t foresee this ending anytime soon. I hope to be talking to you 10 years from now asking “How are you going to last another 10 years?” I just think the longevity of the group and what we do is timeless. It’s not something that just runs out. We don’t live off a hit song. We don’t live off a television show. We live off of our fans and as long as they’re coming, we’re coming. Right now I believe we’re just scratching the surface. People say that we might have reached the peak. I don’t think we have. I think people are starting to realize this a cappella, this natural music that’s-as-natural-as-you-can-get vibe that people like, it doesn’t have a timeframe on it. The Temptations, The Four Tops, they’re all still touring. So I would like to be among those types of names — that we’re still touring around. So let’s plan to talk 10 years from now and hopefully I’ll have another story for you.