In the summer of 1992, a few friends from Connecticut College, Wesleyan University and Skidmore College who knew each other from high school had the idea to spend the summer on the Vineyard doing what they liked best: singing.
Jody Alford and friends each gathered a couple of members from their respective collegiate a cappella groups and headed to the Island, forming a group they called the Vineyard Sound.
“Getting gigs was tough,” Mr. Alford recalled this week. “We sang on the streets of Edgartown. One night we talked to the Navigator manager and he said, ‘Oh no, we can’t use you.’ So we started singing outside anyway and attracted a big crowd. Then the manager came back out and said, ‘Well, we’ll see what we can do.’ That was our first gig.”
At quite a different gig, Mr. Alford, along with more than 60 other Vineyard Sound alumni, will take the stage on July 28 at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs for the 20th reunion concert of this men’s a cappella group that has become a summer fixture on the Vineyard.
Joining them will be the current Vineyard Sound crew — 10 energetic, colorful young men, both in spirit and style.
On Monday evening the freshly-dressed guys sat on the steps of the United Methodist Church in Oak Bluffs, their ties and shorts matching the yellows and oranges of the Camp Ground cottages.
“I’ve come to expect that this is the best job I will ever have,” said Ethan Underhill, a tenor from Connecticut College.
“It’s wonderful, it’s like a little slice of heaven,” said Peter Oundjian, a first tenor from Skidmore College. “We always say, ‘This isn’t real life.’ I mean, Look at this! People live in these little cookie cutter gingerbread houses?”
It’s not just the beauty of the Vineyard that’s picture-perfect, but the way they make a living, too.
“There’s really something magical about how we can come out here and sing to people and be able to support ourselves,” said Rob Roth, a bass/baritone from Wesleyan University.
Andrew Lefkowits, a veteran of the Vineyard Sound and now a member of the board of directors, said his time with the group from 1999 to 2001 was pretty hard to beat as summer jobs go.
“I fell in love with the Island and the people and the scenery,” he said. “At night you’re with a bunch of great friends who are all talented and committed to singing well, and during the day you’re going to the beach and enjoying Martha’s Vineyard.”
When they aren’t singing on the streets attracting new listeners, the guys definitely enjoy time at the beach. In fact, the group’s music director Rory Diamond, a bass/baritone and Plymouth State graduate, said just the other day a few little girls recognized him while he was relaxing at Great Rock Bight.
Mr. Lefkowits said the Vineyard Sound’s reputation has changed through the years — from singing in the corner of a loud bar to entertaining packed audiences five nights a week.
“In 1992 when the group came to the Island, nobody had any idea who they were. Not only that, but most people didn’t know what a cappella was. It wasn’t widespread at all. There was no Sing Off, there was no Voice, and Boyz II Men had just gotten started,” he said. “People didn’t really understand singing without instruments. In the early days the guys had to work that out in order to make a profitable summer.”
He said when a member decides to leave the group — usually due to a “real world” job — they have the responsibility of picking a replacement who not only is a talented vocalist, both as a soloist and in an ensemble, but easy to get along with, as the 10 boys live together in a house for the summer. Passing the torch to well-known friends keeps the group close-knit and also ensures the necessary skills, said Mr. Alford.
“When we started, a cappella was a fairly obscure thing. We definitely loved to do the 10-part stuff. We’d make the audience stretch their heads. We loved the complex chords and suspension — it would make it interesting for us.”
He said a common reaction from the audience would be — it looks like you’re having so much fun!
“It’s because we are,” he would respond.
The camaraderie in the group can be seen on and offstage. The boys bounce jokes off one another as seamlessly as their voices blend into a wave of sound.
“We do joke around that we live in a musical,” said Mr. Diamond. “Because at random someone will start singing a song and then from upstairs or the bathroom or a corner of the house you’ll hear the harmonies and back-up lines . . . and it’s usually a Celine Dion song or Beyonce,” he added.
“That’s actually not a joke at all,” said Mr. Oundjian.
While there was no Beyonce in the playlist for Monday’s show, the songs varied from Cupid by Sam Cooke to Mysterious Ways by U2 and the group’s take on a barbershop quartet — Chappy Island Baby. The singing was accompanied by jokes, funny faces and a few acrobatics, all with the pink shorts and yellow shirts providing the Vineyard Sound vibe.
“I think there are people who think we will finish a show, go home in these clothes, fall asleep in them and wake up in a different pair of colorful shorts,” said Mr. Underhill.
“Just like the Oompa Loompas we are . . . singing everywhere,” added Mr. Oundijan.
“Walk-arounds are honestly a very surreal experience . . . how weird is it that 10 dudes just bust into song on the street? That doesn’t usually happen,” said Mr. Underhill.
Chiming in, Collin Shepard, a first tenor from Emory University, pointed out that Mr. Underhill is the group’s youngest member.
“He just turned 19. Isn’t that adorable?” he said as they laugh.
Mr. Alford said this marks the first year the group has had a member who is younger than the Vineyard Sound itself.
“It’s special for me thinking there’s a guy in the group who was born after we started,” he said. “I remember one of the first couple of summers there was a little boy who came up to us and said, ‘I’d love to be in the Vineyard Sound some day.’ It didn’t occur to us that it could actually happen.”
Mr. Lefkowits said at the reunion show the audience will be able to see the different eras of the group through song.
“You’ll sort of get a taste of what the group was like in 1992, 1995, back in 1999 and in the middle of the decade,” he said. “It will show the evolution of the group and also how some things have stayed the same.”
He said he looks forward to seeing old friends — many are still his best friends, some were groomsmen at his wedding — and also meeting new Vineyard Sound faces.
“When you spend that much time with a person, you develop a certain bond,” Mr. Alford said. “Rehearsing six hours a night, singing together every night and living together . . . you get to know each other quite well. That’s what I’m excited about at the reunion is getting to see the guys again and meeting the younger guys. Once you’ve had that experience you share something with anyone who’s ever done it. Even if I haven’t met the guys from the current group, we have some sort of shared history.”
The Vineyard Sound 20th Reunion Concert begins at 7 p.m. at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs on Saturday, July 28. Visit vineyardsound.org for ticket information and weekly schedules.