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Straight No Chaser wishes you an a cappella Christmas

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For more than two years, Dan Ponce has been a reporter for the WLS-Channel 7 news team, doing countless interviews with men and women in the street and the sort of "Well, Ron, the snow is really coming down here on the Edens" live stand-ups so beloved of newscasts.

Now Ponce is the one answering the questions as the founder and driving force behind the 10-piece a cappella group Straight No Chaser. A decade after breaking up because they were convinced vocal music would never make them stars, the group has released its debut album, "Holiday Spirits" (Atlantic Records), and it has a shot to become one of the most unlikely industry success stories since "American Idol" reject Sanjaya Malakar.

"The tables have turned on me for sure," Ponce says, laughing. "It's been interesting not asking the questions for once, and kind of refreshing at the same time. The thing is, we were not looking for this, but we had no choice but to take advantage of it. I'd be an idiot not to try it. I work for the top television station in the city, so I kind of have the best of both worlds going on, with a great television job and now a promising music opportunity."

Part of Chicago's Ponce TV dynasty -- his father, Phil, is the host of "Chicago Tonight" on WTTW-Channel 11, and his brother Anthony is a reporter for WMAQ-Channel 5 -- Dan spent his formative years dreaming of a career in music, not journalism. He studied voice, piano and violin as a kid, and he first became interested in a cappella music when his dad gave him a cassette of the Canadian group the Nylons.

"I really liked the doo-wop kind of stuff, and though I play piano and violin, singing has always been my best instrument, so I was always drawn to singing in ensembles and doing harmonies," Ponce says. In high school, he formed a group called New Trier A Cappella, "just getting my buddies together."

Then came college and Straight No Chaser, which won a devoted following at Indiana University, recorded a few indie albums and branched out far enough to perform at Carnegie Hall and sing the national anthem at a Cubs game before everyone graduated and the group split up.

None of the singers had expected to take the group to the top; delightfully old-fashioned, it was modeled on the long-standing tradition of Ivy League vocal groups, mixing flawless, intricate harmonies and a little comedic shtick and wearing tuxedos onstage when it performed.

In fact, that's exactly what you'll find in a clip that features the group performing "The 12 Days of Christmas" from December 1998, and including snippets of "I Have a Little Dreidel" and "Africa" by Toto along with the lords a-leaping, the partridges and the pear trees.

In April 2006, one of the singers posted the video on YouTube (www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Fe11OlMiz8) as a nostalgic look back at his college days. Since then, it has become a phenomenon to rival "Obama Girl" or "Do You Like Waffles," racking up more than 8 million views, including one by Craig Kallman, the chairman of Atlantic Records. The major label sensed not only a chance to capitalize on an Internet buzz, but also to score one of those rare but perennially lucrative holiday hits a la Josh Groban' s "Noel," the best-selling album of 2007.

"We're at a time when we're entertained by air-guitar video games and reality competitions about hairstyling, dressmaking and grocery bagging," Kallman told the New York Times. "The idea is to develop an act with real resonance for the holiday season and build a brand in the a cappella arena."

After signing a "360 deal" that gives Atlantic a cut of touring revenues and merchandise as well as record sales, Straight No Chaser reunited and recorded a dozen holiday standards ("Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," "Silent Night" and the like) and two new originals written by Ponce. "It came back pretty quickly, even though I had been away from music for about four years or so," he says.

"Sitting down at the piano and writing the notes, it was like I was in college again. A cappella is a very niche music style, and I'm not just writing for any musicians; I'm writing for my close friends. I know their voices better than anyone's, so when I'm actually writing the notes on the page, I'm thinking, 'This guy is gonna sing this part, this guy is gonna sing that part.' Our vocals aren't drowned in campy background instrumentals -- it's all about our voices."

The group is supporting the album's release with a tour of select cities including New York, Toronto, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago. "I figure that's a worthwhile use of vacation time," Ponce says. It's also gearing up to sing for the president-elect on the TNT cable TV special "Christmas in Washington," scheduled for Dec. 17.

For the future, Atlantic has floated the idea of another disc timed for Mother's Day, though the thirtysomething harmonizers are nowhere near quitting their day jobs just yet.

"We're going to take it one recording at a time," Ponce says. "I think the group wants to have as much success as possible, but we are realistic at the same time. There's a reason a cappella hasn't gone mainstream, and the bottom line is that all of our profits are split by 10 --and that's gonna be a tough split to support oneself."

FACTS
STRAIGHT NO CHASER
8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday
Morse Theatre, 1328 W. Morse
Tickets: $20 (312-559-1212; ticketmaster.com)

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2 Comments

Saw a clip from their college days over the weekend on national news. Dan was interviewed and I recognized him from ABC 7 Chicago News. As a former Illinois girl myself, now residing in Southwest Michigan, I watch Channel 7's daily news during lunch time. Dan has such a personable demeanor with the public and makes ABC 7 look good. Well wishes sent and enjoy the road trip, Dan!

I really, really enjoyed watching Straight No Chaser on the White House Christmas program last night. I had never heard of them, but they are awesome. I would love to sing in such a group and the story of their getting back together is so cool.

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This page contains a single entry by Jim DeRogatis published on December 2, 2008 9:14 AM.

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