Best of Breed

Bobby McFerrin’s collaboration with Yo-Yo Ma was wonderful, and he did a great video with Robin Williams and the brilliant actor and clown Bill Irwin, but for my money, this song is one of his best:

I adore a cappella music. There’s something about the human voice, naked and unadorned, or at least unaccompanied, that is terribly moving. My first exposure to it was Barbershop music and Doo-Wop. The King’s Singers are credited with promoting interest in small-group a cappella performances in the 1960s. The Swingle Singers took the lead in pop music.

In the ’70s and ’80s, I started singing Renaissance music (Josquin des Prez, Palestrina, John Dowland, Orlando di Lasso) and madrigals (we recreated the court of Henry VIII for a banquet in college; I was Henry, and had all six of my wives alive and at table with me at the same time).

A cappella music attained renewed prominence from the late 1980s onward, spurred by the success of Top 40 recordings by artists such as The Manhattan Transfer, Huey Lewis and the News, All 4 One, The Nylons, and Boyz II Men. Then came Rockapella. Their popular success was primarily due to having done several catchy commercial jingles (Folger’s, Almond Joy) and children’s shows, like PBS’s excellent “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?”:

However, this is perhaps a fairer representation of their style, if you can overlook the late 1980s clothing and hair styles:

The Bobs are, for me, the best of the breed (that’s also how they got their name: the BOBs, a term derived from dog competitions). The original members met while employed as deliverers of singing telegrams. The group is known for humorous original songs and avant-garde arrangement techniques. Instead of covering more traditional doo-wop songs, The Bobs started out with songs like “Helter Skelter” (The Beatles) and “Psycho Killer” (Talking Heads).

Here’s the song that started it all:

Although two of their albums are dominated by covers, the overwhelming majority of their repertoire is original, with songs discussing diverse subjects like lunar cattle farming, sleepy bus drivers, bumper stickers, laundry, hurricane-related flooding, graffiti, Oliver North, shopping-mall security guards, celebrity autographs, synaesthesia, post office violence, heart transplants, Heaven’s Gate, spontaneous human combustion, turtles, rebellious footwear, tattoos, nicknames for genitalia, and felines intent on ruling the world.

Members of the group are always credited with “Bob” as their middle name.

Here they sing everyone’s favorite rock classic, “White Room” by Cream:

From the Bobs website:

Another notable avenue of expression for the Bobs have been in collaboration with dance companies. Their first was the commissioning of a series of songs, “The Laundry Cycle” for the Oberlin Dance Collective. Later that year (1987) after returning from their first European tour they met the dance troupe named Momix, who later changed their name to ISO. Improvising with them was the source of creation for a show. Their continued work with ISO for a number of years was noticed sufficiently that they relieved a commission from Lincoln Center, a one-hour presentation on PBS and a spot in the Smithsonian Institute’s Museum of American History! That’s quite an honor for the only New Wave a cappella group in history. It’s also a testimonial to just how important the Bobs have been to the flourishing world of contemporary a cappella music. They are among the elite handful of totally original creators who blaze the path which so many others follow it becomes a freeway.

You certainly can’t get more original than this Bobs classic, “Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens”:


~ by Craig R. Smith on 25 September 2007.

6 Responses to “Best of Breed”

  1. Ah, the Bobs. Didn’t we go see them at Wolf Trap together?

    Oddly, I just listened to my Random Association CD the other day, on my way to Portland. Probably the only a capella CD I have.

  2. Yes, they were at The Barns rather than at the amphitheater. In fact, we had a beer at intermission with one of the Bobs (I forget which one), who I think was a friend of one of your buddies. He — the Bob in question — was dead cool. Very high energy: if they could bottle and sell him, they’d make a mint.

  3. Debbie and Michael or Artie might have known one of them.

    BTW, I have a pretty big crush on Bill Irwin. I got to see him and Kathleen Turner in Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf? a couple of years ago, for which he won a Tony.

  4. I took Alek to see the traveling Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego show when they were coming to a mall near you. I still have the T-shirt.

    Lynn was great.

    It introduced us to Rockapella. Still, my favorite by them is Zombie Jamboree.

    The Bobs. I heard them on A Prarie Home Companion, I think, singing “Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens”.

    Craig, you gonna teach me to sing? You KNOW I love to sing. I have a book here (rummage rummage). A red book. A red aquare book. NO, not the Communist Manifesto. An incredile square songbook yu gave me. Shall we attempt to use it?

    I think we shall.

  5. Lynne Thigpen was a goddess. I saw her in a one-woman performance at Catholic University. I miss her.

    My favorite Bobs song is “My Shoes”:

    My shoes went out with a pair of red high heels last night
    My girlfriend just won’t understand it
    She thinks that I’m the one to blame, but that’s not right
    My shoes are in control, they planned it
    For years my shoes have been my friends
    I’ve taken them around the world and to its ends
    Now they’re taking me….

    My shoes are
    On top of the world
    My shoes are

  6. Indigo: Yes, I believe it was Artie whose friend was one of the Bobs.

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