While some East Coast schools had more than ten a cappella groups in 1995, singing anything from barbershop to vocal jazz, a cappella music was not as widely known or as popular on the West Coast. Here at USC, there had not been a singing group dedicated to a cappella music in recent memory. That all changed in November 1995 when SoCal VoCals group founder and former musical director Brock Harris posted a simple flyer around the USC campus looking for singers to start a new mixed a cappella group at USC. Expecting only a handful of responses, Brock was somewhat overwhelmed when his phone rang continuously for several days with over 80 phone calls from people interested in joining USC’s new a cappella group.
Needless to say, it was going to be necessary to hold auditions. To hold auditions and get the group started, Brock accepted help from Audra Levi and an experienced a cappella guru and USC Film Scoring student named Gabe Rutman [now known as Gabriel Mann to his fans]. Brock, Gabe and Audra had a two-hour lunch at Upstairs Commons to make a plan. They decided to fashion auditions after the Georgia Music Educator’s Association auditions that Audra had been through every year. They included tonal memory, scales, and singing a rock song a cappella. Gabe said he didn’t have time to be a member of the group, but agreed to provide a few arrangements and serve in an advisory role, teaching cutting-edge techniques like vocal percussion. Only a handful of college groups were trying vocal percussion at the time, and no one on the West Coast used it regularly.
In January 1996, ads were placed in the Daily Trojan campus newspaper advertising tryouts. More than 60 people auditioned for the eighteen initial spots in the group.
The group rehearsed for the first time on February 11, 1996 in a classroom at VKC. Rehearsals were held on Sunday and Wednesday nights, and they soon moved to the living room of Marks Hall. Over the first few weeks, Brock Harris explained his vision to the new members. They were not going to be just like other a cappella groups…they would be a rock a cappella group. The fact that many members had no a cappella experience was going to be an asset because there were fewer preconceived notions about what an a cappella group was supposed to be. While its size finally settled at 14 members (6 men, 8 women) for the duration of the semester, the group still had no name. Indeed, some of the group’s earliest arrangements bear witness to this fact: the sheet music for Blondie’s “The Tide Is High,” the VoCals’ first commissioned arrangement by Gabe Rutman, simply notes that it was written for “The USC ________,” with a blank where the name was supposed to be.
The founding SoCal VoCals were: Brock Harris, Audra Levi, Stacy Burcham, Katie Bush, Trudy Davies, Nne Ebong, Jamie Fougerousse, Matt Green, Julianne Hanson, Vince Johnson, Ann Lyles, Matt MacPhail, Kelda Nelson, and Wayne “Gib” Wallis. A few others attended the first rehearsal, but decided not to continue.
The group spent a considerable amount of time over several rehearsals trying to come up with a name that was unique but also clearly associated with both music and USC. After going around and around about possible names, it was Nne Ebong who blurted out, “how about the SoCal VoCals?” After a few groans and laughs, the rhyming name (the “a” in “VoCals” is a short vowel, like the “a” in “SoCal”) was overwhelmingly approved by the group’s members, and the SoCal VoCals were born. Incidentally, rejected names included “The US-C-Notes”, “Trojan Hoarse” and “Brock Doggy Dog”.
After about a month and a half of rehearsals to build up their repertoire, the VoCals made their first public performance on March 22, 1996 in front of Tommy Trojan on the campus of USC. Their five-song set included The Tide Is High, Loch Lomond, Come On Eileen, Only You and Come Go With Me. Arrangements were hard to come by at the time, and despite the VoCals’ determination to be a rock a cappella group, they sang any good arrangement they could get their hands on. Within a year, their repertoire expanded to over fifteen “feature” pieces, plus a wide assortment of seasonal and other audience-specific music.
About the same time as their first performance, the VoCals decided they needed a logo. After several weeks of discussions between Brock Harris, Matt Green and Matt MacPhail, and over 20 different renderings, the group’s current logo was finally agreed upon. The logo has grown to become the group’s “corporate identity.”
A group motto emerged as each new arrangement was learned: “This, too, shall rock”. Matt Green took it upon himself to loosely translate the phrase into Latin so it sounded more official: “Hoc Etiam Petrabit”. Of course, he had to improvise by inventing a future tense for the verb “to rock,” which wasn’t a common expression among ancient Romans.
On a flyer advertising a VoCals concert, Brock included the phrase, “This ain’t no choir, babe”. He explained that friends frequently asked if he was headed to “choir practice” or inquired how things were going with “the choir”. He felt it necessary to point out that this wasn’t a typical choir. Who knew that phrase would stick around long enough to wind up on an album and tour jackets?
By April, the VoCals were ready to hit the street, making their first non-USC performance at Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade. The thrill of performing for small audiences in the bustling environment of Santa Monica’s shopping district has made Third Street a favorite VoCals gig, and the group continued to perform there periodically over the next few years.
The VoCals made their final USC appearance of the 1996 school year with a performance at USC’s Ground Zero Coffeehouse on April 28th. The following weekend, the VoCals traveled to Pomona College for the first time to sing with The Claremont Shades, the VoCals’ mixed a cappella counterparts from the five Claremont colleges. Gabe Rutman sat in with the VoCals that night, providing inspiring percussion for the whole set. In what was widely agreed to be the VoCals greatest performance to date, the group closed out its first semester together by becoming part of the greatest tradition of college a cappella: performing at other schools. Over the next few years, the Shades and the VoCals became good friends, singing with each other on a number of occasions.