The Beelzebubs, stars who changed the voice of college a cappella, turn 50
Over their half-century of musicmaking, the Beelzebubs have been heard everywhere from the White House, where they sang for President Obama’s 2011 holiday party, to outer space, where their recording of “Tuftonia’s Day” was played aboard the space shuttle captained by a Tufts alumnus, Rick Hauck, A62, in 1988.
They’ve performed on TV—as the voices for an a cappella group on the Fox show Glee and as contestants on NBC’s The Sing-Off, where they finished second in the 2009 season—and been portrayed on movie screens, as partial inspiration for the 2012 musical comedy Pitch Perfect. Throw in notable alumni such as the actor Peter Gallagher, A77, and Adam Gardner, A95, guitarist with the band Guster, and that’s as impressive a résumé as any group in the college a cappella universe.
But maybe the Bubs’ most enduring achievement is this: no group has been more influential in defining and expanding a cappella’s sound and style over the past two decades. That goes back to a moment in the spring of 1989, when their music director at the time, Deke Sharon, A91, went to Tower Records to check out the latest singles chart. Sharon had just seen the movie Say Anything, with its memorable scene of John Cusack courting his estranged girlfriend by serenading her with Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” on a boom box, and a light bulb went off when he saw “In Your Eyes” on the chart.
“I just knew we had to do this,” says Sharon—a musician who has become one of a cappella’s most active proponents. “I thought, ‘This is gonna be huge and make women’s hearts melt.’ Which is what you’re always trying to do with a cappella singing—it’s all in the service of wooing women.” Of course, don’t tell that to the Jackson Jills, the all-female a cappella group that’s also marking 50 years at Tufts. “But,” Sharon continues, “it would be especially, impossibly great if we could arrange and sing it by the following weekend.”
Current popular songs had been part of the Bubs’ repertoire since the 1970s—mostly Billy Joel or other tunes that translated to a cappella arrangements without too much of a stretch. But “In Your Eyes,” with its synthesized textures and complex rhythms, stood apart. So Sharon undertook “a total experiment,” arranging the group’s voices to mimic different sounds, beats and instruments. And at the next weekend’s show, the crowd went wild, and the Bubs made history as they went on to tackle Duran Duran’s “Rio” and Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” with a similar voice-as-instruments approach.
“The Beelzebubs were crucial in bringing collegiate a cappella out of the barbershop and doo-wop game and making the genre, dare we say it, cool,” says Mickey Rapkin, author of the 2008 book on which the Pitch Perfect film was based. “Deke Sharon’s innovative arrangements were key. Suddenly students weren’t singing four-part harmony so much as reimagining guitar riffs. And the Bubs’ sometimes absurd travel schedules meant their new style could be heard and then imitated far away from Medford.”
From Chestnuts to Katy Perry
Early on, the Bubs sang the same repertoire as every other a cappella group—“Autumn Leaves,” “Summertime” and other chestnuts. As arranged by music directors Gene Blake, E73, and Andy Cranin, A79, songs like “Happy Together,” “Summer Breeze” and the Steve Martin novelty hit “King Tut” brought the Bubs up to date for the 1970s. By the 1980s, the practice of covering current songs as soon as they hit the radio—like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” arranged by Marty Fernandi, A85—was well established.
“When we’d go to other schools, we would wow audiences with these contemporary songs, and it was very clear that other groups were not doing that,” says Fernandi. “Those other groups would immediately take notice. By their very next show they were into the same thing we were doing.” Fernandi is now a music publishing executive at Sony/ATV.
Given the Bubs’ pop savvy, they were the obvious college a cappella group for The Sing-Off, wowing TV audiences with offbeat selections like Flo Rida’s hypnotic, bass-heavy hip-hop number “Right Round.” That raised the group’s profile enough to get the attention of the Glee producers. With Sharon and his fellow Bubs alumnus Ed Boyer, A04, handling arrangements, the Bubs did the singing for the show’s a cappella group the Warblers, who lip-synced. After it aired on the show, the Bubs’ cover of Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” hit number one on the iTunes chart.
In recent years, the Bubs have remained one with the spirit of the age. Vincent Amaru, A15, last year’s president and this year’s business manager, reports that selections from Muse, Local Native and John Legend are in the current set. But with so many other groups doing new songs nowadays, the Bubs are also digging up old obscurities. Their latest album, Helix, which was released in the fall, includes Simon & Garfunkel’s “Keep the Customer Satisfied,” a song from their 1970 album Bridge Over Troubled Water. As Amaru observes, keeping customers satisfied is still job one, whether the audience is “a 75-year-old Harvard grad or an elementary school kid.”
Of course, the group has tradition to uphold, too. There is a cult-like aspect to the Bubs, an organization that its members never really leave. Three-quarters of all living alumni came to the 50-year reunion weekend in May of this year, and numerous alumni stay involved in the group’s philanthropic endeavors through the Bubs Foundation, which makes grants to underfunded music programs in middle and high schools. And if any of them could time-travel back and relive their time onstage, they all say they’d do it in a shot.
Amaru acquired memories for a lifetime on the Bubs’ 2012 overseas tour, which was more than worth the irritation of professors whose classes he missed to do it. The highlight came after a concert in Hong Kong. “We were signing autographs and taking pictures with people for 30 minutes, until these two security guards grabbed us and threw us out because they thought it was getting out of hand,” Amaru says. He adds: “If that doesn’t sum up what it’s like being a college rock star, I don’t know what does.”
A Bubs Timeline
1962: (October) Three Tufts undergrads form an a cappella group called Jumbo’s Disciples: The Beelzebubs. (December) First campus performance (“Winter Wonderland”) at Christmas Sing, Cousens Gym.
June 1964: First college a cappella group to perform with Boston Pops, Symphony Hall.
1972: Bubs wow listeners with new pop a cappella style at an intercollegiate sing, challenging the preeminence of Yale’s Whiffenpoofs.
Spring 1988: Beelzebub Silver Anniversary Fund established to finance scholarships, aid to Tufts and Bubs capital purchases.
1989–1990s: Bubs pioneer new arranging techniques and vocal percussion, leading to today’s contemporary a cappella sound.
Spring 1991: The Bubs’ Deke Sharon, A91, founds Contemporary A Cappella Society of America. Bubs Foundation created to support music programs in Boston schools.
March 1993: Co-winners, with Tufts’ Jackson Jills, of first-ever national a cappella championship, Carnegie Hall.
2002: Bubs Foundation starts Be the Music, a program to teach a cappella in area high schools.
February 2007: Bubs fund the new Granoff Music Building’s Beelzebubs Box Office.
December 2009: Second-place win on NBC’s The Sing-Off.
2010: Backup music on Glee leads to gold record for “Teenage Dream.”
May 2013: Bubs’ golden-anniversary emblem, inlaid in granite in front of Ballou Hall, celebrates “fun through song.”
The Beelzebubs will next perform in the 11th Annual Collegiate A Cappella Concert in Brattleboro, Vt., a benefit for the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, on Feb. 1. Tickets are available exclusively through www.brattleborotix.com.
This article first appeared in the fall 2013 issue of Tufts Magazine.
David Menconi is the music critic at the News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina.