Singing Their Way to Success
How persistence and a YouTube upload of a college video led to an unexpected career
A decade ago, Naperville’s Randy Stine received a phone call so unexpected, he thought it must be a practical joke. “I kept wondering, ‘Who is pranking me?’ I figured it was one of my friends.”
It was someone he’d never heard of — Atlantic Records’ CEO had seen a video online of Stine’s old Indiana University a capella group, Straight No Chaser. That group had broken up 10 years before the call, when they graduated from college.
“He wanted to know if I could get the guys back together and tour. I’m thinking ‘Who is this?’ This was so pie in the sky!” Still, the guys had kept in touch, gone to each others’ weddings. Stine called one local friend, Dan Ponce, and the two flew to LA for dinner with Craig Kallman.
“He said, ‘Can you meet in New York so we can talk with all of you?’ We figured, if nothing else, it would be a great reunion.” In New York, the nine guys had one shot to sing. During the second song, Kallman walked out of the room.
“So we are still singing in front of 10-15 of the top staff, but the CEO had walked out, so I thought, ‘we blew it.’ But he walks back in . . . with attorneys. He says he’s green-lighting us. That was pretty shocking. And here we are, a decade later, still doing it.” And how! Straight No Chaser’s fun, energetic shows are enhanced by the personalities that shine through their performances. At their “One Shot” holiday show in Chicago this past December, SNC celebrated 10 years of touring with vignettes about their unlikely past.
The father of a 1-year-old (the “hardest thing about being gone”), Stine is the median-aged SNC member at 41. Each is married with children — a fact that enhances camaraderie during months-long road trips. SNC stages about 100 shows a year across the U.S., Europe and Australia. Though they jokingly moan how often people ask about their “real jobs,” Stine says “We feel very lucky to do what we do . . . it’s ‘pinch me’ moments every day, we feel like we’re leading a charmed life.”Stine has loved singing since crooning into a Fisher-Price tape recorder as a toddler and as a student at Mill Street Elementary. At Naperville North High School, it became his “thing,” as a member of the concert and chamber choirs and the jazz ensemble.
In a nice bit of foreshadowing, he even sang a four-part a capella with three guys at his graduation on North’s football field.He chose IU after visiting other Big Ten campuses. “It just felt like home,” despite the fact his dad played quarterback at Purdue. Originally a voice major, Stine realized he didn’t want a career in opera or teaching. He switched to telecommunications/business.
“My dad never discouraged my passion for music, but said, ‘remember, you need to have a backup.’”
Stine continued voice lessons, though. In October 1996, a few guys from the Singing Hoosiers show choir started the a cappella gig. “We figured we’d get free food, meet girls. We got together after our regular rehearsals and came up with songs.”
Stine’s dad’s response? “How’s your GPA?” “He didn’t think much of it until he saw us perform. My parents snuck in behind a bunch of sorority moms and the wheels started turning for him. I give him a lot of credit, he encouraged us and made sure we stuck to it — that germinated things for us.”
His dad, a college athlete, noted that sports teams practice year-round. Stine talked the guys into coming to Chicago that summer. “We played all over the city, including Ribfest and Frankie’s Blue Room in Naperville, singing the national anthem at Cubs and Sox games, on the outdoor stage at Navy Pier, at Daley Plaza — whoever would have us.”
After daily practice that summer, they recorded their first album back at IU in the fall of 1997. The next summer, they performed at private parties and on NBC in Chicago. They got gigs the old-fashioned way — sending out demo tapes. “No YouTube back then,” Stine says.
After graduation, they left to find “real” jobs. Stine worked in the Chicago suburbs, in telecommunications.
Years passed. Stine posted an old video of Straight No Chaser on the then-young YouTube. When it reached 100,000 views, the guys joked, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if it got to a million?”