The Hippo


May 27, 2020








When: Sunday, May 6, 7 p.m. 
Where:  Tupelo Music Hall, 10 A St., Derry
Tickets: $30-$45 at 

Rock the vox
Vocal group known for Carmen Sandiego hits Tupelo


 By Michael Witthaus
Before Straight No Chaser, Pentatonix and the Pitch Perfect movies, Rockapella was bringing contemporary a cappella into many music fans’ lives. The New York vocal group had forebears, but as the house “band” on the PBS series Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? its brand of human beatbox-driven harmonizing entered the mainstream.
When they were offered the job, Rockapella was virtually unknown, busking on Upper West Side street corners and using word of mouth to land gigs playing parties. Scott Leonard, now the group’s frontman but a new member in those days, recalled jumping at the opportunity but not taking time to appreciate the unique kids show as the experience unfolded.
“At 6 a.m. the limo would pick you up, you’d go and knock it out — it was a lot of work,” he said by phone recently. “I really should have cherished the quality of the art that these people made … the set, the writing and the concept. I don’t see stuff like that on TV now. It was a really good thing we did it, because people still talk about it and love it, and we’re still living off it 25 years later.”
After the show wrapped in 1995, Rockapellas  found  success in Japan, with help from Leonard’s connections in the country. He began his career as a Disney cast member and  worked at Disneyland Tokyo, learning the language along the way. Working for Disney gave him an appreciation for polished entertainment. 
“I’m always striving to match a certain level of pixie dust quality,” he said.
Leonard pitched Rockapella to a Japanese label he’d worked with previously on solo projects, and they were all in right away. 
“I showed the record company [and] they fell in love with the concept,” he said. “It was really big, and it’s been this simultaneous career that’s lasted ever since.”
Today, the group consists of Leonard on high tenor, Jeff Thacher on vocal percussion, tenors Calvin Jones and Mitchell Rains, and Bryant Vance singing bass. The group just returned from another Japan tour. 
“They love the idea,” Leonard said about their popularity over there. “It’s kind of like five Beatles-type personalities.”
They’re popular in America, too. Locally, annual Christmas shows at Londonderry’s Stockbridge Theatre routinely sell out. But a non-holiday performance will be Rockapella’s first at the new Tupelo Music Hall. 
This means fans will hear material like “Rock Around the Clock” mashed up with Rufus’s ’70s soul classic “Tell Me Something Good” and a lush version of the Police hit “Every Breath You Take.”
Leonard notes that the upcoming concert will be a big departure from Rockapella’s holiday events. 
“They are going to get a completely new show,” he said, adding that the group’s been adding new versions of songs at a steady clip via social media. “We make a video like every other week or so, our version of a new hit or something like that ... everything from the Mills Brothers to Bruno Mars and beyond. ‘Despacito’ might be there. It’s a variety hour of genres, Rockapella style.”
Regarding the current interest in singing groups, Leonard has seen the ebbs and flows, recalling a Macy’s Thanksgiving parade in the early 2000s that included N’Sync and 98 Degrees. 
“They were like a cappella, man,” he said, “but it seems more legitimate now. The kids get it; my daughter sings in a group at school, and the quality of singers now is great.”
He credits the high level of performance to, of all things, Auto-Tune. 
“They have never heard an out of tune note … it’s perfect, and they repeat it back,” he said. “It’s my theory that Auto-Tune has greatly enhanced the quality of natural singing. … In a cappella, that’s the hurdle you have to get over, because if you’re not in tune, it’s just not pleasant to listen to.” 

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