Artist of the Year
Winner: Michael Callen, The Flirtations
Michael Callen founded the Flirtations after he was diagnosed with AIDS over 10 years ago. A cappella music hasn't been the same since. His vision and message gave contemporary a cappella a soul. Michael understood the power of the human voice and harmony, and chose it as the vehicle to say the many things he had to say. His death this year wasn't unexpected, but the following unsolicited letter eloquently sums up how many of us feel...
FOR MICHAEL CALLEN
by Dan Woog
I never met Michael Callen. But I feel I knew him well. I don't have AIDS. Both through his books, magazine articles and television appearances, he made the disease frighteningly real for me--and contributed to my knowledge of safe sex. In that sense, Michael Callen may well have saved my life. I cannot sing a note (though I attempt to, rather futilely, in the privacy of my home). But that has not prevented me from appreciating--luxuriating in-- Michael Callen's masterful music. The Los Angeles Times said he had "an upper register that Joan Sutherland would surely envy," and though he might have put it differently-- "a diva to die for," perhaps--the fact remains: whether singing solo or with the Flirtations, Michael Callen was a star. That he did so much more with his life beyond music makes this man I never met an even greater hero to me.
Because I took so long to crawl out of the closet, I never even heard of the Flirts until a couple of years ago. Their harmonies were wonderful, sure, but it was their lyrics that really grabbed me, that, and their uncontainable pride in who they were. The Flirts played a major role in making me much more comfortable with who I am, and the Flirts were in large measure the creation of Michael Callen. So by the time I was out of the closet, Michael Callen was out of the group. The only time I heard him perform was last April, in Washington. He looked horrible; the ghost of AIDS filled his frail body. But if you closed your eyes and just listened, you never would have known. He sang lustily, brilliantly; he sang proudly. It was clear to everyone that Washington would be his final concert. I knew then that I would never get the chance to meet Michael Callen. I wanted to, desperately, and as a journalist I might have been able to pull some strings and score an interview, but what would have been the point? For the last few months Michael Callen's life has been filled with the business of dying - the kind of thing he successfully avoided for nearly a dozen years - and there was no room in it for strangers. He had earned the right to die surrounded by the familiar faces of his many, many friends. I thought about writing a letter, maybe just a card, something that would say "thanks" for all he'd done with his talents. He touched the lives of so many people, I'd write, gay men and women, our families and friends, AIDS sufferers, their families and friends. I wrote the letter in my head many times, but never put the words on paper. Now I never will.
I learned of Michael Callen's death through the New York Times. They ran a nice, healthy looking photo, but the obit was so, so focusing, in dry Times-speak, on his political advocacy while barely mentioning his music. It painted a decent picture of the man for those who didn't know him, but I was much more impressed with the paid tributes that ran in agate type beneath the regular obituary. Those were filled with passion and love; those were penned by men and women who knew him, and those were the words that made me cry.
That day I mentioned Michael Callen's death to a straight friend. He had never heard of him-never heard of this man I will never forget. So I lent him my "Purple Heart" CD. A couple of hours later he called back. He was crying, but through his tears he said, "Thank you. Now I understand." "How come I never heard of him before?" I don't know. But his words made me feel good. Now, I realize, as long as I and his many, many friends - those who knew him well, and those who knew him only through his words and music - keep remembering him, Michael Callen will surely never die.
Runner up: Sweet Honey in the Rock
Celebrating 20 years of standing ovations, a tenth album and an autobiography, Sweet Honey in the Rock continues to be the mother of all a cappella groups. They give us strength, hope, and power. They undauntingly pursue their goals. They inspire us, and they bring new listeners to a cappella every day.
Best Signed Professional Album
Winner: Adventures in Afropea - Zap Mama
Late last year, it seemed every record store I entered was playing this album. Like "Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares," this female quartet was all the rage, drawing fans from classical idioms to alternative rock and from everything in between. Besides being exciting to listen to, Adventures In Afropea is a groundbreaking album, and not only from an a cappella perspective. It pushes the envelope. It's imaginative, complex, challenging, emotional, lighthearted, and multicultural. So much lip service has been given to blending musics from other cultures, but rarely is so definitive an amalgam forged. This album is a manifesto of the universality of possibilities of the human voice, and a breath of fresh air on the a cappella scene. Everyone reading this newsletter should own this record.
Runner up: Still on the Journey - Sweet Honey in the Rock
Listening to a new Sweet Honey album is a lot like a phone call to close friend you haven't seen in a while - there's an immediate rapport, and a warm comfortable feeling as you find out what's been going on. Sweet Honey always knows what's going on, and they tell you, and somehow, no matter how bleak the news, they deliver it with an understanding and an empathy that gives you faith and hope. Maybe the hope comes merely from the fact that you know that there are other people who understand, but sometimes that's all there is. And when it's time to rejoice, nothing can bring light from behind the clouds like their vibrant voices. Still on the Journey isn't their best album, but it's a wonderful chapter in a book that everyone should read.
Signed Professional Best Song
Winner: Only Truth - Acappella
Contemporary Christian a cappella is not your father's Oldsmobile. Keith Lancaster has proven his songs belong with the best of them, and "Only Truth" is one of his very best. Not only is it a good song, but the production and performances are also beyond flawless. It's perfect ear candy: catchy, with a fresh, modern sound.
Runner up: Wanting Memories - Sweet Honey in the Rock
"I am sitting here wanting
Memories to teach me -
To see the beauty in the world
through my own eyes..."
Poignant, affecting, honest, beautiful.
Signed Professional Best Arrangement
Winner: Plekete - Zap Mama
Trying to explain a vocal texture of a Zap Mama song is like trying to explain Take 6 harmony - it has to be heard to be believed. The arrangement is ingenious, complex and challenging. Words don't do it justice, and besides, everyone should own it. So go on! Buy this album and be taken on a wild ride.
Runner up: Long Journey Home - Sweet Honey in the Rock
Transcribing a Sweet Honey arrangement is as futile a task as notating a Billie Holiday solo: every note is above, below, around, moving, crying, out of time. Bernice Johnson Reagon's voice lays the foundation for the Sweet Honey sound, and her arrangements come from the soul, not the brain. Their complexity is emotional and ineffable. Their effect is haunting. The droning bass is especially effective in conveying the song's message of death, hope and eternal rebirth.
Signed Professional Best Soloist
Winner: Bernice Johnson Reagan - Sweet Honey in the Rock
Someday some jazz columnist for a major metropolitan newspaper is going to wake up and realize what's been going on. Just as Thelonius Monk has gone from the brink of obscurity to national acclaim in the past five years, so will Bernice get her proper due. She's one of the most moving singers alive, and for now I guess it just has to be our little secret.
Runner up (tie): David Hurley and Alastair Hume - The King's Singers
We couldn't decide, so why should we? The chilling accuracy of a classically trained countertenor is usually the kiss of death for a pop solo, yet somehow both of these guys choose to let their emotion drive their tone and not the other way around. Though their sound is very different from that of the original soloist throughout the Good Vibrations disc, in every case they find a new meaning in the lines and lyrics.
Unsigned Best Professional Album
Winner: Vox One - Vox One
Talent in jazz, unlike pop, takes a while to develop. Years of practice, gigging, and lessons begin to pay off if there's potential underneath the technique. Vox One has that talent. All graduates of the Berklee College of Music in Boston, they've slowly been accumulating a following and honing their chops on a batch of fine charts. They have a couple of fabulous lead vocalists, an exquisite blend, a great vocal percussion sound, and lots of class. This album is a very solid debut from a group that is going places.
Runner up: Simplicity - 17th Avenue All-Stars
It wasn't until the third listen through that my over-trained ears were able to settle into the zen groove that the All-Stars created. There couldn't possibly be a more perfect title for this album, and since I've heard more complex music from them I know it was a conscious decision to lay back and let voices be heard and chords ring. And what voices they have! The addition of a saxophone on a couple of tracks actually works quite well, weaving in and out as a sixth voice. If your radio format is adult contemporary, then this album is a must-have.
Unsigned Professional Best Song
Winner: Move On - Vox One
Rarely do jazz and pop meet on good terms. Usually the chords get in the way of the hook, or the pop sensibilities destroy the asymmetry of jazz. But not here - taking a cue from great jazz-influenced pop groups like Toto and Steely Dan, Vox One has served up a winner.
Runner up: Last Kiss - The Blenders
I wish all of the originals on this album (Totally Whipped) were half as good as this one. Beautifully sung and recorded, it's a ballad in the tradition of the Nylons' great slow songs - simple, tight and unpretentious.
Unsigned Professional Best Arrangement
Winner: Stay With Me Tonight - 17th Avenue All-Stars
Sometimes simple is perfect, and I can't think of a better example than this arrangement. Robert Anderson's work is always great, but this one is a gem. It doesn't hurt that the song choice and solo are perfect, but hey - those choices are two thirds of an arranger's job...
Runner up: Straighten Up and Fly Right - Beachfront Property
Of course I'm biased, but someone should talk Beachfront Property into dropping the band and becoming a cappella full time. The better half of their album is a cappella, not the least of which is their whirlwind rendition of this Nat Cole classic. They get bonus points for somehow managing to have their 8 voices sound like a single man and woman. The only exception is when the soloists come forward and impress with a wide variety of vocal styles and colors.
Unsigned Professional Best Soloist
Winner: LaTanya Hall - 17th Avenue All-Stars
It's easy to get caught up in vocal extravagances when you've got a voice like LaTanya's, but she tastefully refrains. She lets fly when the time comes, but isn't afraid to hold a note. Especially excellent is her styling of Sting's "Set Them Free."
Runner up: Jodi Jenkens - Vox One
Jodi has got one of those voices that sounds more resonant than anyone else her age, and yet still maintains a bright, youthful quality. She almost has too pleasant a voice to sing jazz, as her tone is so gorgeous that it would be hard to imagine it conveying pain. Almost. Ella Fitzgerald has made a 50-year career without relying on pathos. There are plenty of people singing the blues. Jodi has a long career ahead of her singing and making us smile.
Female Collegiate Best Album
Winner: Legacy - Duke Out Of The Blue
Out of the Blue is one of the most consistent female groups, with a history of solid albums and a file full of great arrangements. Producer John Santa did an excellent job of turning 18 tracks from a two-year period into an album. A comfortable balance between old and new, recent pop and classics, ballads and up-tempo tunes, Legacy has something for everybody.
Runner up: Upside Down - Princeton Tigerlilies
The Tigerlilies, along with the Tigressions, have pioneered their own unique sound. Take a tight blend of mostly classically trained voices singing sultry standards with a few recent songs thrown in. Add four-part arrangements almost exclusively in chest voice and precisely delivered solos that resonate above, and you have the Princeton women's sound. It's somewhat homogenous, yet still very appealing, as is this album.
Female Collegiate Best Song
Winner: Love of the Common People - Wash. U Greenleafs
An excellent performance and recording that begs the question "Why couldn't the rest of the album have been this fantastic?" It's not that the rest of the album is terrible, but rather that this track is so great. Whatever you guys did to make this song, do it again and again!
Runner up: Nick of Time - Duke Out Of The Blue
This excellent rendition of the Bonnie Raitt classic captures the nuance and pathos of the original. The solo is clear and completely unpretentious, and the background voices never overpower or get in the way of the soloist or the mood.
Female Collegiate Best Arrangement
Winner: You Won't See Me Cry - Duke Out of The Blue
Maybe one day we'll offer a kind of "career achievement award" for exemplary collegiate performers, directors and arrangers who leave their mark on their group, campus, and sometimes the entire collegiate scene. Liz Ford was one of the finest collegiate arrangers, and there are several excellent arrangements of hers on this and past albums. We hope she continues to arrange.
Runner up: Under African Skies - Viginia Sil'Houettes
After hearing this track I will never again, ever, accept the excuse that "women are just not as good as guys at vocal percussion." The arrangement is solid, but the vocal percussion arrangement and performance are completely over the top. There's a lot to be done with rich, complex vocal percussion textures made by a few people at once, and this song is a perfect example of what's possible.
Female Collegiate Best Soloist
Winner: Angela Howell - Duke Out of the Blue
Sometimes I feel that we shouldn't award a best soloist award to collegiate singers, because, well, it isn't really fair. Most of the people in these groups have never had training, and go on to non-musical careers afterwards. But then we always manage to come across one or two voices per category that have more than just a raw gift. There's a great deal of blood, sweat and tears in a great solo performance, and Angela's work on this album is above and beyond the call of duty for someone with a pretty voice.
Runner up Lelenja Giddens - Princeton Tigerlilies
With a depth and vibrato that convey both age and maturity, this is a voice that belongs in light opera, not a cappella. Luckily the Tigerlilies have a sound that has room for her in the background parts, and that serves as a perfect frame for her exquisite solo lines.
Mixed Collegiate Best Album
Winner: ...Where's the Band? - U. Penn Off the Beat
With a collection of songs that rivals any college student's favorite mix tape, and a battery of excellent arrangers, Off The Beat is poised to cause quite a stir in collegiate circles in the next few years. They approach their music with ferocious intensity, striving for complexity, rather than shying away from it. They aren't just one of the best mixed groups, they're one of the best collegiate groups in general, if this album is any indication. Taken from the best tracks recorded over the previous three years, you can hear a progression that points to a very bright future.
Runner up: Plugged - Harvard-Radcliffe Opportunes
There's a healthy balance between traditional quality and creative exploration on the Opportunes disc. The first half is their more interesting song choices, while the second half has the "Zombie Jamborees" and "Heavenlys" for those of you who like your a cappella tastefully and sensitively recycled. A very well-made recording all around, it's the kind of album that your siblings would like, and so would your grandparents. Don't misunderstand - that's actually a good thing.
Mixed Collegiate Best Song
Winner: Boys of Summer - U. Penn Off the Beat
"Best song" is the nexus of an excellent performance of an excellent arrangement with an excellent soloist. It doesn't hurt if the song is excellent either. "Boys of Summer" is all this and more. Well, maybe not more, but what more is there?
Runner up: Breath - Harvard-Radcliffe Opportunes
This is one of those cool eerie slow songs with open fifths all over the place. The nice thing is it opens into a very satisfying chorus. Everything about it is exactly the way it should be.
Mixed Collegiate Best Arrangement
Winner: In Your Eyes - Harvard-Radcliffe Opportunes
With a song this great you either fall flat on your face while trying to arrange it, or reinvent the entire way you have thought about arranging and come up with your best arrangement ever. This is an example of the latter. The vocal percussion and sung parts weave together into a tapestry of sounds and textures that almost upstage the lead. But just when they seem like there's no room for the solo, they subside, letting every word be savored.
Runner up: Boys of Summer - U. Penn Off The Beat
Usually we like to award best arrangement to a song that hasn't won Best Song. In this case, however, we felt that this arrangement was just better than all the others. It captures all of the subtlety of texture in the Don Henly original.
Mixed Collegiate Best Soloist
Winner: Shawna Cornelius - Harvard-Radcliffe Opportunes
Ballads are not easy to navigate. They're much more exposing, leaving the soloist nowhere to hide. They also demand sincere emotion not to sound stale. Shawna successfully maneuvered between the Scylla of technique and the Charybdis of emotion to deliver a beautiful solo that she somehow managed to make sound effortless at the same time.
Runner up: Sean White - Stanford Everyday People
"Grandma's Hands" is not an easy song to sing, and it's even harder to convey properly. Bill Withers songs are often performed by a cappella groups , but usually the solo is lacking his depth and richness. Sean takes this solo and makes it his own, which is no small feat, and the result is very satisfying.
Male Collegiate Best Album
Winner: Vince - Tufts Beelzebubs
Vince is an album with a great deal of variety and character. There are a couple of tracks that just don't measure up to the others, but they're always followed by a song that's so strong that you can't help but forgive and forget. Most notable are a couple of unusually impassioned solo performances, and some very complex arrangements. The group's sound is full, the production is clean and clever, and the vocal percussion is extraordinary.
Runner up: Jacket Off - U. Penn Six-5000
The Six-5000 have made quite a name for themselves lately for their bawdy humor. It tends to polarize audiences; some love it, some hate it. We're not ashamed to say that we love it. Yes, it's sophomoric, base, and tasteless at times, but so are Beavis and Butthead. This album is not for everyone. Repeat: This album is not for everyone. But it is certainly for some of you...
Male Collegiate Best Song
Winner: Mercy St. - Tufts Beelzebubs
Mood. This entire song can be distilled to that one word. Every element gives itself over to the greater cause, from the breathy sometimes strident solo to the background that manages to be both full and sparse at the same time. "Mercy St." is a great 3-minute-trip.
Runner up: Conrad Bain - U. Penn Six-5000
Usually altered lyrics don't work. Sometimes they're somewhat clever, but get old quickly. I don't know why this track is so incredibly funny, but it is. It would be going overboard to call it genius, but it's the funniest college recording I've ever heard. Sung to the tune of the Police's "King of Pain," it describes from the first person point of view the living hell that it must be to have no career other than Mr. Drummond on "Different Strokes." It's performed with such earnest sincerity that it stays funny, even after repeated listenings.
Male Collegiate Best Arrangement
Winner: I Want You Back - U. Maryland Generics
This song has been ruined so many times by a cappella groups that I'd begun to lose hope. This version is perfect, however, and restored my faith in the saying "there are no songs that are impossible to arrange - only impossible arrangers."
Runner up: Sympathy for the Devil - Tufts Beelzebubs
This arrangement builds slowly and steadily in intensity without drawing attention to itself. From the first percussive utterances through the last chorus, it's like a classic rock fan's Bolero. The success of the arrangement, like the Silhouettes version of "Under African Skies," is largely based upon the fantastic interplay of the vocal drums.
Male Collegiate Best Soloist
Winner: Todd Herzog - Tufts Beelzebubs
What a voice. "Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," "Red Rain," and "Still Crazy After All These Years," are all difficult solos to sing. They demand a blindingly high voice and a healthy dose of passion. Todd has ample quantities of both.
Runner up: Terry Mullane - Skidmore Bandersnatchers
Two years ago Todd won Best Soloist, and Terry won Runner up. Two years and two albums later, they're still the two best soloists on the collegiate scene. Terry's "Boy From NYC" is sung with such incredible falsetto finesse that he could shave his legs and make a great living as a female impersonator. Then he'll turn around and sing with a resonant tenor that makes you shake your head in disbelief that both sounds could have come from the same guy.