Straight up a capella fun

You may not know Walt Chase by name, or be able to pick him out of the 10 men who make up the a capella group Straight No Chaser.  But, if you’ve seen them on tour or seen a video of “The Christmas Can-Can,” you just might recognize him as the “dreidel guy.”

Although Walt’s not Jewish, the role was a natural fit. “A lot of people mistake me for being Jewish, all of the time. I used to date a girl back in college for over a year-and-a-half. She told her parents that I was Jewish and the whole time that we dated they never questioned it,” he says.

Walt is one of the original members of SNC, which started in 1996 at Indiana University as a group of friends who liked to sing, and were not afraid to ham it up under the spotlight. When the founders began graduating in 1999 and went on to jobs mostly outside of music, they chose replacements and established SNC as an ongoing group on campus. “I think the greatest idea for us was to keep the group at school as a legacy at Indiana University,” he says.

In 2006, IU hosted a 10th-anniversary reunion show for the original lineup. When they posted clips from a 1998 concert on YouTube, their rendition of “The 12 Days of Christmas” went viral. This inspired the group to reassemble and go pro.

The rest is history – and you can catch their 20th-anniversary tour in Tucson on Oct. 17 at the Fox Tucson Theatre or in Phoenix on Dec. 31 at the Mesa Arts Center.

Their rendition of “The 12 Days of Christmas” is a mash-up of 15 classic Christmas songs that segues into a re-imagined version of Toto’s “Africa.” In the middle of the medley, says Walt, “there’s a guy who steps out as the token Jew and sings ‘Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel,’ and the group stops and gives him a moment of ‘What are you doing man? We’re doing holiday songs.’ It’s a nod to the fact that Hanukkah definitely gets screwed around the holiday seasons with the amount of [Christmas] songs that are played on the radio, that are … sung in schools and such. That works with the comedic aspect. In college, the ‘dreidel guy’ was a guy named Mike Itkoff, a nice Jewish boy from Columbus, OH. He was hysterical doing it. When the group re-formed back in 2008, Mike did the group for a year and then he left, and left a void of the ‘dreidel guy’ and that was passed down to me. I’ve been doing it ever since 2009, so I’m the de facto token Jew in the group now, although I’m not Jewish.”

In “The Christmas Can-Can” (arrangement and lyrics by Walt), the “dreidel guy” role expanded to include a pouting introduction, “It’s not fair if you’re Jewish,” and the line “Oh dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made it out of clay. You realize that Christmas ain’t the only holiday.” Then, as the rest of group sings an ode to Santa, Walt starts to walk off stage, saying, “I’m going to go buy some Chinese food.” The group pulls him back in with “Hava nagila, happy Hannukah to you,” ending with a multi-cultural holiday finale.

This musical melting pot is just one example of their inimitable style, which has garnered the group a diverse fan base from toddlers to centenarians.

“For folks who have not seen Straight No Chaser before, we do a mix of just about every type of music from back in the ’50s doo-wop, through Motown, through stuff you would hear on the radio nowadays and literally everything in between,” says Walt. “A good portion of our show is all of those genres of music. It’s family friendly.” Their signature vocal style appeals to all ages – from kids grooving to their a capella versions of The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face” and the Bruno Mars/Mark Ronson hit “Uptown Funk” to a superfan in New Jersey who has seen more than 50 concerts and will soon celebrate her 100th birthday.

The group is well known for blending old tunes and new together, like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours.” These are all arranged by members of the group or in collaboration with former members. “The hardest part of the job is figuring out what’s going to work in an a capella setting for 10 voices performing live. A lot of that has to do with finding songs that are a capella friendly … that have a lot of harmony,” Walt says.

Six out of the 10 original members still tour with SNC, putting on at least 150 shows a year from coast to coast. The four newer voices were culled from graduates of the legacy group at Indiana, keeping the tradition alive. “The one thing that keeps us centralized and grounded is that we all come from the same thing,” says Walt.

“Many of the guys in the group had musical aspirations … but the majority of us, including myself, really were just singing in college to be able to sing around campus, just do a different type of music and be able to sing a capella like a lot of our friends were on other campuses. … We all went our separate ways after we graduated and were brought back together because of this viral ‘12 Days of Christmas’ video on YouTube. Now it’s become a multi-million dollar business, where we have our own LLC touring group and an album with Atlantic Records every year, and working with artists like Sir Paul McCarthy, Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton and Elton John.

“None of us thought that this would come from not only our group, but from an a capella group. There are a lot of a capella groups out there doing it, but there are not a lot of 10-person a capella groups …  who have made this into a career, … especially not a group that started from a casual, non-auditioned atmosphere out of college, like we were. We’ve defied a lot of odds and have defied a lot of our own beliefs by doing this. … We’ve been blessed with an opportunity and hope that we make people happy.”

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