August 1996 marked the beginning of the SoCal VoCals’ first full school year together as a group. The eight remaining members from the group’s inaugural year held auditions for new members in early September. Over 80 people auditioned and the VoCals agonized over the abundance of amazing singers (especially women) who couldn’t possibly fit into one a cappella group. They decided that maybe someday, a women’s a cappella group should form at USC.
With 8 returning veterans, the VoCals decided to accept 12 new members, making it easier to cover 6-part arrangements plus vocal percussion. The larger group also compensated for the fact that not every person could make every gig. In order of audition, the new members were: April Jones, Hylon John Heaton IV, Christopher Robin Hebert, Geoff Leung, David Higgins, Christina deMille, Sarah Hagstrom, Amy Throckmorton, Eleni Gianulis, Michael Villegas, Christopher Williams and Adrian Staton. With such a large group, there were few times available for rehearsal. Sunday evenings still worked, but the VoCals were forced to rehearse Wednesdays from 10pm to midnight, for lack of any better option. The VoCals continued to meet in the living room of Marks Hall.
After rehearsing several weeks with the group, but never performing in a concert, bass Chris Williams decided he didn’t have time to continue singing with the VoCals, but remained a friend and honorary alumnus of the group. This left the VoCals with 19 members, and one fewer bass than they would have liked.
Officers for the 1996-1997 academic year were Brock Harris (president and musical director), Geoff Leung (Business Manager), Audra Levi (Secretary), David Higgins (Treasurer), and in retrospect, Matt MacPhail (who didn’t have an official title but referred to himself as the “Minister Without Portfolio”).
With a majority of new members, the 1996-97 SoCal VoCals were faced with a challenge: how to build upon the SoCal VoCals’ prior musical growth without having to “start over from scratch.” But this concern went unrealized, as the new group quickly picked up where the old group had left off, learning (or re-learning) almost all of the group’s existing repertoire in a matter of weeks. This allowed the VoCals to begin working on all-new music by early October.
During the first semester of the 1996-97 school year, the VoCals made some 27 concert appearances, including the inaugural 1996 Southern California A Cappella Music Festival (SCAMFest) at Pomona in November. The first SCAMFest ended with a special performance by Gabe Rutman and other members of “This Side Up,” a professional a cappella group. Other fall shows for the Vocals included bi-weekly lunchtime appearances at Commons, the Weekender rally in San Francisco, Faculty Dinners at EVK, several shows on Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, a number of holiday appearances at the USC Bookstore and Faculty Center, the USC end-of-season football banquet, plus appearances before University President Steven Sample and his guests before the Homecoming game against Washington, and holiday parties. But the VoCals’ Christmas repertoire was limited to traditional four-part hymns — the easiest arrangements to find. As the USC Trustees arrived for a holiday party at the President’s Mansion, President Sample’s assistant asked the VoCals if they could please sing Christmas songs that were “a little less churchy”. Finally, at their end-of semester concert at Ground Zero Coffeehouse, the SoCal VoCals closed out the year by hosting their cross-town mixed a cappella counterparts, UCLA’s Awaken. While the two schools may be rivals in sports, the two a cappella groups found themselves to be strong allies in the battle to bring college a cappella more fully into the Los Angeles area.
From the group’s inception in February 1996 until November of that year, the VoCals had no specific “uniform.” Members performed in several different guises–jeans plus different colored shirts, black and white, and black and denim–each version being assembled from the group’s own ever-so-stylish wardrobe. In November, however, the group finally got uniforms–distinctive grey and black baseball jerseys embroidered with the group’s logo. The group premiered them at a performance at USC’s Faculty Center on November 20th, 1996, and wore them for most performances through the Spring of 2000.
During that same month of November, 1996, the SoCal VoCals met at Shadow Studios–more commonly known as Apartment 217, John Heaton’s apartment, to record their first demo tape, called “Preview”. These recordings were the precursor to a full-fledged album to be recorded later in the year.
With the loss of one bass, and Brock covering most of the vocal percussion, The VoCals made a spontaneous move between semesters: they held auditions for men only, in the hopes of finding another bass. Despite a competitive audition with callbacks, the group decided they just couldn’t find the right fit, and agreed not to take anyone.
They kicked off the new semester in early January by hosting two groups from Stanford, the all-male Mendicants and all-female Counterpoint at Ground Zero Coffeehouse. Two weeks later, they traveled to Stanford to appear in the Western Regional quarterfinal of the 1997 National Championship of College A Cappella. The SoCal VoCals were by far the newest group to appear at the 1997 Western Regional. While they did not place in the competition, the VoCals earned high praise for their performance from the CASA president and founder, Deke Sharon, who was amazed at the group’s musicality given its relative youth.
By the way, this was the year the SoCal VoCals debuted “Hooked On A Feeling” which included the line, “Lips as sweet as candy, its taste is on my mind”. Some of the most popular television commercials of the time were for Mentos candy, known for their silly story lines where sassy but innovative heroes escaped from difficult situations while popping Mentos into their mouths. Of course, Matt MacPhail couldn’t resist putting a piece of the Mentos jingle into his arrangement, so the VoCals began every performance with hidden packs of Mentos ready to pull out at the appropriate moment in “Hooked On A Feeling”.
February 1997 was a busy month for the VoCals. To raise some cash, they offered “Singing Valentines” to anyone who wanted to pay for a musical serenade over the phone. The SoCal VoCals also celebrated their first anniversary in February, 1997.
That same month, the group began recording (in a real studio on campus) their first album, This Ain’t No Choir, Babe. The name wasn’t hard to choose, and most agreed that This, Too, Shall Rock sounded like a better second album title. The album features twelve favorites from the VoCals’ 1996-97 repertoire, including such crowd-pleasers as Tusk, Total Eclipse of the Heart, and Come On Eileen. Working with Recording Arts majors Steve Kaplan and Dustin Jones as their engineers, the group assembled at 11 PM on four consecutive Wednesday nights in February and March to record the background parts for the album, with sessions going as late as 8:00 AM the next morning. Recording that late at night presented a real challenge to keep the material energetic and fresh, but the group was generally up to the task. Gabe Rutman dropped into a few recording sessions to lend his production expertise and provide encouragement.
Being in the entertainment capital of the world, law student Matt MacPhail convinced the rest of the group that it was in their best interest to obtain permission to record and produce copies of all the songs on their CD. These “mechanical licenses” made it legal for the VoCals to record songs and duplicate CD’s by paying the songwriters for each copy produced. After all, the VoCals frequently performed and sold CD’s at events attended by entertainment industry executives. Matt researched the process, and handled all the details to ensure that the VoCals weren’t doing anything that could reflect poorly on the group or the University. At the time, clearing mechanical rights was unheard of among poor college a cappella groups who assumed that the rules didn’t apply to student organizations or that no one would ever notice. Many groups confused the performance rights on university campuses with the right to produce recorded copies. Even CASA wasn’t clearing the rights on BOCA albums yet, and it was a full year before Napster appeared and familiarized the public with the legalities of copying music.
Once the background parts were “in the can,” work began on recording the percussion and solo parts. These sessions took somewhat longer than expected, so it is perhaps fitting that Brock Harris, the group’s graduating music director and “principal percussionist,” wrapped up the final recording session for the album at 7:15 AM on May 9th, less than an hour before he was scheduled to arrive for USC’s graduation ceremony.
Over Spring Break 1997, the VoCals were hired to sing for the USC Board of Trustees Retreat in Palm Dessert. The compensation was a generous $800, but many members would be gone. At the last minute, the dwindling numbers left the group in an embarrassing position, and several friends and relatives were called in to wear jerseys, and quickly learn parts so the VoCals could meet their obligation. Fill-ins included Audra’s boyfriend (and future husband) Jason Priluck, Ann’s sister Jennifer Lyles, and two of Eleni’s younger cousins. The trustees provided transportation to the retreat, so the “scrubs” learned the words and music on the bus between L.A. and Palm Desert. While the performance got off to a shaky start, the trustees loved it and President Sample treated the group to a free dinner (and two bottles of Grgich Hills Napa Valley Chardonnay) in the hotel restaurant. On the way home, during a game of “I Never,” most of the VoCals learned that Ann and Matt had been secretly dating for ten months. They were stunned, except for Kelda, who had been suspecting it since SCAMFest. Accomplished trumpet player Stacy Burcham asked, “If you guys ever get married, can I play at your wedding?” And so she did.
On April 11, 1997, after less than a year and a half together as a group, the VoCals achieved another milestone when they won the 1997 USC Songfest competition. The VoCals’ entry, “Great Moments In USC History,” combined a mix of humor, great singing and musicality, a stomp routine and other exciting choreography, and some serious drumstick rhythms. Performing in front of the largest crowd the VoCals had seen to date–more than 1,000 people in USC’s Bovard Auditorium–the SoCal VoCals brought home the trophy–and put the group on the USC map in a very big way. The VoCal win was a stunning upset because the competition had been dominated by fraternities and sororities for years. By the following year, the entry requirements for Songfest had mysteriously changed: the minimum number of participants for each group had been raised from 15 to 25, leaving the VoCals ineligible for the competition. Was this change intended to keep the VoCals out? Hmmm. What do you think?
In May of 1997, the VoCals said goodbye to their graduates: Chris Hebert, founding members Audra Levi and Gib Wallis, and founder Brock Harris.
Years later, Audra Levi would be remembered by VoCals for exclaiming, “Oh, fight on!” to show her approval for any cool idea or great performance. Of course, when she was really excited, she might add, “…f*ck, yeah!” To indicate enthusiasm for the VoCals in general, continuing members combined and politely abbreviated the phrases, and often used “FOFY” as a closing salutation in emails and web posts.
With recording sessions complete, Steve, Dustin and Brock spent the summer mixing in preparation for the album release on CD and cassette in November. Matt MacPhail used his summer break getting a perfect cover photograph of the SoCal VoCals embroidered logo, obtaining mechanical rights clearances and designing the album layout.