Acappella Memories: Alvin!

As I mentioned in my last Acappella Memories post, we had a rule: Never stop the song. Most people will never catch the mistake if you just finish the song. At best, if they catch it, they will forget it. Just finish the song. This led to some hilarious outcomes.

I remember one concert where Kevin Schaffer came barreling out of the curtain at the edge of the stage and tripped over the legs of the backstage lights. He spilled onto the floor. Kevin, as only he could do, morphed it into a hilarious pose, laying on his side with his head propped up on his arm. He looked like… well, I probably shouldn’t say what he looked like. But we all thought it was hilarious, and all this while the song continued. Kevin turned a potential disaster into a funny event. The only problem was that we were singing for a somewhat new audience who didn’t know Kevin’s personality yet. So, they didn’t get it.

Oh well. You can’t win them all.

Cincinnati: the Twilight Zone

There were certain areas in the country where our popularity just exploded. I mentioned South Bend, IN in an earlier post. Another area similar to this was the Cincinnati-Dayton area. We sang there annually in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Oftentimes we would do 2 (and sometimes 3) concerts per weekend in the same venue.

Brennan Dean was our promoter for that area and he was very good. We always sang at a church in Middletown, halfway between Cincinnati and Dayton. The place sat about 2700 people packed out, and it was almost always packed out. One particular Sunday afternoon in late 1989 was no different.

We had just released the album Growing Up in the Lord and were performing several songs from that album, most notably Water From the Well where all the kids in the building would join us on stage. But that’s another story. We kicked off the song I Can Walk when it happened.

Backing Tracks

Before I explain what “it” was, let me digress just a moment. Many of the songs we recorded were heavily multi-tracked. For every simple, 4-part, Sweet Fellowship, there was the muitl-voice Well on my Way. We only had 4 voices to recreate all this sound on stage. Therefore, some of the songs we sang used a backing track… our voices, straight from the album, minus what we would sing live. This would give us an accurate reproduction of the song and still allow us to perform it live and not be Milli Vanilli before they vanillied their way to fame.

As the years have progressed, Acappella has come to use less and less back tracking. Any given concert is mostly just what you see (with the exception of, again, Well on my Way). Looking back over the years, the technology of tracks has come a long way. Today, of course, it’s all digital. Before that, we used MP3 players and before that, CD’s. Moving on backward, it was cassettes. At this particular time, the late 80’s in Middletown, OH, we were still using reel-to-reel (see picture above). No one ever questioned why we had a big Fostex B-16 sitting at our mixing board (or it might have been a Tascam34, I’m not sure). They just assumed we were recording the concert, when in actuality we were playing tracks. On this day, it didn’t do a very good job of either.

Alvin and the Chipmunks

If you’ve heard I Can Walk, you know it’s a vocally challenging song. I start out on the lead solo, just me. My intro line is immediately followed by the other guys echoing my line.

The average instrumental accompaniment track starts out with a nice intro or something to give you time to get your bearings and start singing. We did not have that luxury with our a cappella tracks. When it started, we started. We devised a system where a single track was fed into the monitors that had nothing but a count off and key reference… usually just someone singing 1,2,3,4 in the correct key and tempo. We could then hit the song from the start right along with our other voices on the track.

So, because I Can Walk starts on the upbeat of 3, all I ever got was 1,2,3 “I can walk…” After a period time and several performances, you come to know the counts and the tempos and it’s pretty easy to start the song correctly. If something is wrong, you know it immediately.

This day, something was wrong. The count to the song came much faster than anticipated and much higher in pitch. Because we had practiced it quite a bit, I came in at the speed and key the count gave. The reel-to-reel could run at a couple of different speeds, but we were running at 15 ips (inches per second). Apparently something went haywire and this song had kicked off at somewhere around 25 ips. Consequently, the song was too fast and too high. And yes, we sounded like something out of a Chipmunks movie.

Enter rule #1: Never stop the song. Off we went, through 2 verses and choruses and we must have looked ridiculous. The audience just sat there looking stunned. I imagine they were wondering if this was a joke. I was wondering the same thing. I remember looking back at our sound guy and he just shrugged his shoulders, wondering what to do.

As we entered the bridge where Wayburn does his soulful lead, I just stepped forward and said, “Hold on. We’ve got some technical difficulties here.” What an understatement. Over 2 minutes of difficulties.

We thought it was pretty funny. The audience didn’t. Neither did Keith.

Oh well. You can’t win them all.

We finished that concert with no tracks. Just 4-part, pure and simple.

Is there anyone reading this who was at that concert? Chime in and add your memories.

Comments

  1. Ha. Nice.

    I’ve had a recurring nightmare about running sound for Acappella and starting the wrong track for a song. (Random I know.)

    And it came to pass…

    When I was finishing up my stint as Road Manager, it was a weird scheduling situation with a fly date and I was in the area, so my last official act of duty was to mix the concert. I’m ok with running sound, but NOT a pro. So it was a stretch for me to say the least. ACA had tracks on a portable mini-disc. We made it all the way through the concert and the guys raise their stands for “Well On My Way.” WOMW was the ONLY song that was on a separate disc. Long intro for me to switch discs and disc A would not eject. I powered down, did everything I could think of to get it out, to make the swap for one of the group’s most well-known and now introduced and anticipated songs. The guys stood there for a second. Then a few glances were shot toward me by singers and audience members and I make an executive decision to roll on, thereby staring the track for “We Will See Jesus.” The guys dismounted mics from their stands and gave me looks at the desk like, “What are you doing, you idiot?”

    My nightmare came true. And I hate mini-disc players.

    • You were not the only to start the wrong song. I remember that happening several times. And then we would have to figure out how to flow the concert and reintroduce the song we should have sung before. Always fun…

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