Sing It Out Loud

Exhibition at the Tufts Art Gallery highlights 50 years of fun with the Beelzebubs
The Beelzebubs perform at the Tufts Art Gallery
The current batch of Bubs performs at the exhibition opening. Photo: Alonso Nichols
April 12, 2013

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Flash back to the early 1960s and the hit tunes of the doo-wop era. The Marcels’ classic “Blue Moon” (with its famous bom-ba-ba-bom–dang-a-dang-dang vocal lead-in) set the tone for the Platters, the Drifters and even Jan and Dean and the Beach Boys. These were the sounds of the times in 1962, when a handful of Tufts men gathered to sing, without instrumental accompaniment, in the basement of West Hall. They called themselves Jumbo’s Disciples: The Beelzebubs.

College a cappella, and the Beelzebubs, have come a long way in the past half-century, entering the popular culture with such television programs as Glee and The Sing-Off and the 2012 movie Pitch Perfect.

The Bubs, one of the country’s leading male a cappella groups, are celebrating their golden anniversary this year with the exhibition Tufts University Beelzebubs: 50 Years of Fun Through Song, on view through May 27 at the Tufts University Art Gallery’s Remis Sculpture Court.

For Bub-o-philes, the exhibition is a breezy walk through the group’s first five decades in song, images and narrative. A collage of nearly 100 concert promotional posters evokes the retro look of the psychedelic ’60s and the pop chic of the ’80s. At three listening stations, one replete with handwritten sheet music of some of the Bubs’ original arrangements, you can hear their vocal style evolve.

There’s plenty more. You can read a letter from the Palm Beach Co. to actor Peter Gallagher, A77, confirming his order of new Bubs’ blazers and slacks. Or gaze at the blue vinyl disc of the Bubs singing “Tuftonia’s Day,” which was played for astronaut Rick Hauck, A62, in 1983, during his first space shuttle flight aboard the Challenger. And check out the photo of the Bubs with Barack and Michelle Obama at the White House in 2010, when they performed Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.”

The exhibition is curated by Bubs alumnus Danny Lichtenfeld, A94, who performed with the group for five years while he was in the Tufts/New England Conservatory dual-degree program. Those were the years, he says, when the Bubs played a key role in changing the course of a cappella history.

Barbershop, gospel, jazz and doo-wop were standard fare for college a cappella groups back then, and for a while it matched popular taste. But by the late 1980s, Bubs member Deke Sharon, A91, had started composing vocal percussion-heavy arrangements, a revolution in the a cappella world. (Sharon is still a major force in a cappella, and was music director and arranger for Pitch Perfect.)

“I hope this exhibit will shed light on the special history and spirit of innovation that make the Bubs such a treasure,” says Danny Lichtenfeld. Photo: Alonso Nichols“We were traveling around to colleges every weekend in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and many groups were still singing the same songs they’d been singing for years—more choral-oriented glee club kind of stuff,” Lichtenfeld says. “When we’d perform, jaws were just dropping everywhere. It was fun. We were at the vanguard.”

The Bubs were one of the first college a cappella groups to perform the likes of “Rio” by Duran Duran and “Let’s Go Crazy” by Prince. Both are on their groundbreaking 1991 album Foster Street. Other big favorites that grew from the Bubs’ innovative arrangements during Lichtenfeld’s time were Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes,” Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” and the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” One of the Bubs’ lead singers around that time was Adam Gardner, A95, now a member of the popular rock group Guster.

The Bubs have 34 albums to their credit and may be best known as the voices and arrangers for the fictional all-male a cappella glee club the Dalton Academy Warblers on the TV show Glee. They also achieved national fame for their second-place finish on NBC’s The Sing-Off in 2009.

Under the Couch

“The Bubs motto is ‘Fun Through Song,’ and the guys I sang with are among my closest friends in the world. We had the greatest time together,” says Lichtenfeld, who now directs the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center. “It was pretty special to spend all that time with a bunch of guys you love and sing this great music.”

It’s this camaraderie that’s glued the Bubs alumni together for five decades. Intergenerational connections are maintained when they get together once or twice a year—and this made searching out material for the exhibition, scattered across many locations, a bit easier for Lichtenfeld.

“It was just a matter of reaching out to a connected group to find the pieces for the exhibition—just figuring out who had what in their garages or basements,” says Lichtenfeld. And since the Bubs have been based out of same room in Curtis Hall for the past few decades, there was plenty there to sort through, “stuff literally shoved under the couch,” he says.

Lichtenfeld credits his Bubs experience and his Tufts education for his own career path, which has included teaching music and working at several music-focused nonprofits before becoming director of the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center.

“Experiencing art—whether visual art, music, theater or dance—can evoke emotional, intellectual, spiritual and therapeutic responses that are unobtainable in other facets of life,” Lichtenfeld says. “I hope this exhibit will shed light on the special history and spirit of innovation that make the Bubs such a treasure.”

Gail Bambrick can be reached at gail.bambrick@tufts.edu.