Straight No Chaser founder Dan Ponce

by Carl Wiser

Dan's headshot for WGNDan's headshot for WGN
Before "Chocolate Rain" and "Charlie Bit My Finger," there was Straight No Chaser, an Indiana University a cappella group that went viral with a wildly entertaining rendition of "Twelve Days Of Christmas" recorded at a school concert in 1998. This was 2006, just a year after YouTube launched and well before the iPhone turned us all into cinematographers. The video was so popular, Atlantic gave them a record deal; rather disruptive for 10 guys several years out of college, but how often do you get the chance to be a professional a cappella singer?

Dan Ponce, who founded the group, had earned a master's degree in journalism at Northwestern University and worked his way to Chicago - the third-largest TV market in America - as a news reporter. Along with seven other original members and two from later versions of the group, he put his career on hold and took the deal. The first Straight No Chaser album was released in 2008 and eventually went Gold, as did their next album, released in 2009. They remain active, especially around Christmas, with a total of eight albums and a hardy tour schedule. Ponce left the group in 2010 and returned to Chicago news, this time with market leader WGN. He is now an anchor on the network, and is occasionally asked to show off his a cappella skills on the air.1

Ponce carved out some time to explain how Straight No Chaser put together that famous version of "Twelve Days Of Christmas" and what happened after it went viral.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): Did Indiana University have an a cappella group when you got there?

Dan Ponce: No. I started it. There might have been little things here and there through the school of music but nothing like what I wanted it to be, which is the traditional men's a cappella group. That's why I started one. Illinois had a lot of them and all up the East Coast, the Ivy League schools, had dozens of them. But not in Indiana.

Songfacts: How did your version of "Twelve Days Of Christmas" come together?

Ponce: That actually was an arrangement that another group did. We added our own spin on it, so I added "Africa" on the end of it, and that's kind of what made it viral. The reason how that came to be was, we had sung "Africa" to death. It was like our signature song on campus - "Straight No Chaser, those are the guys that sing 'Africa.'" So we added "Africa" on to that arrangement as an inside joke to our fans. You know, here's the Christmas song, then the next thing you know, we bust into "Africa" and everyone cracks up.

So it was essentially an inside joke between us and our fans. It wound up being hilarious and went viral on YouTube, which led to us getting signed to the record contract, but it started because literally it was an inside joke between us and our fans, because we sang it, we sang it, we sang it, and finally we were like, "We can't sing this song anymore. We're going to be a one-hit wonder. Everyone just wants to hear 'Africa.'" So we didn't do it at that concert but we added it on to the end of "Twelve Days Of Christmas" just to make everyone laugh.

Songfacts: There's something about the song "Africa" that has some comic value when you put it out of place.

Ponce: Exactly. Yes. And we change the lyrics to it. I'll never forget when we sang, "I had Christmas down in Africa," the laughter from the crowd. The crowd went crazy.

Songfacts: They also go nuts when the guy [Mike Itkoff] comes out and does the dreidel bit.

Ponce: Yes. And that was also an inside joke because he's Jewish and he did this thing during his intro when we all introduce ourselves to the audience. He said, "I see all these Christmas songs here, but I don't see any Hanukkah songs. I'm going to get you guys later - I'm going to get some revenge."

We would rehearse it. We knew he was going to do that, but that was part of the schtick. He set it up so the one Jewish guy in the group was complaining about there being no Hanukkah songs and then jokingly getting back at us.

Songfacts: What were you doing with your life when this thing went viral 10 years later?

Ponce: I was a reporter at ABC 7 in Chicago. The guys were scattered across the country in various professional roles - nothing to do with a cappella, and for most, nothing to do with music. So I was at Channel 7 as a reporter and I quit when the album went to #1 on iTunes. We knew we were sitting on something special and that's when we all decided to quit our jobs and take a stab at it full time.

Songfacts: I can't imagine you started your career in Chicago.

Ponce: No. After grad school I did my master's at Northwestern and my first job was in Lansing, Michigan. I was there for just over a year before I got hired in Chicago, which was a pretty big jump.

Songfacts: That's like going from single A to the majors.

Ponce: Yeah, that is actually a perfect analogy. I worked hard and I was good, and I lucked out. But it was a big risk to leave that job that I had essentially won the lottery in getting to go do a cappella full time.

Ponce's publicity photo circa 2008, when the group signed to AtlanticPonce's publicity photo circa 2008, when the group signed to Atlantic
Songfacts: Then how did it play out when you guys all returned to be Straight No Chaser?

Ponce: We snapped into our old roles pretty quickly. I assumed the role of director. Walter [Chase] was more or less the assistant director - he and I did the bulk of the arrangements. It really did feel like we were back in college. We were just 10 years older.

Songfacts: And at some point you decided to go back into TV.

Ponce: Yeah. From a personal standpoint I didn't really like touring that much. My strength was in the writing and the directing and putting songs and repertoire together in the studio.

I consider myself a really good singer but I was not a star soloist and I didn't love being on tour. I like the live performances but life on the road was not for me. I quickly learned that I was not happy doing that and I legitimately missed television news in Chicago. And I took a bit of a pay cut to go do a cappella music.

Songfacts: Yeah, when you're dividing it with 10 guys, the numbers don't crunch very well.

Ponce: Especially not at the beginning.

Songfacts: Tell me how you put an a cappella song together.

Ponce: The answer to that evolved over the years, but I would always start by asking, "What's a different way we could arrange the song so that people still recognize the music but say, 'That is so cool what they did with it.'"

One of my favorite songs I did was "Like A Prayer" by Madonna. That's a pretty cheesy '80s Madonna song but I completely turned it on its head and made it into this kind of haunting ballad.

People still recognize the song but say, "Listen to what these guys did." That's the biggest compliment of an arrangement is when someone says, "Wait till you see what they did with this song." That was always my goal.

Now, putting it together, I always pretended that I would be singing one of the parts - bass, tenor - and I don't want to be bored. I want to be engaged and into the song. I don't want to just be holding "ooh" or singing a boring part. So I always ask myself, "How can I write these parts so that every guy likes what he is singing and not just filling in the chord?"

And then putting it together, I know all the voices so well - I know who's going to sound good singing what, so I would be able to write the parts and the notes specifically for certain guys.

Songfacts: Straight No Chaser did a wide variety of songs: "Fix You," "Don't Dream It's Over," "The Living Years." How do you know what's going to make a good a cappella version?

Ponce: That's a good question. I don't think you necessarily know. You write the arrangement, maybe put a demo together, and see how it goes. The group actually has the final say as to what's learned and what's not. It starts with the arranger, the guy who's putting the song together. The group tries it out and you know pretty quickly if it's going to work or if it's not.

If the arranger can hear how the song can work for the group, that's how it starts. He'll put the chart together. He'll say, "Here's what I'm hearing, let's gather around the piano and see if this works." That's how I did it. I would write it out and I would gather everyone around and say, "Here is the song I want to do." I was never assigned a song when I was in the group.

SNC's "Twelve Days Of Christmas" isn't the first wacky take on the song to land a hit for Atlantic Records. In 1987, parody master Bob Rivers released "Twelve Pains Of Christmas" as part of his Twisted Christmas album, which went Gold. Atlantic later signed Trans-Siberian Orchestra, whose 1996 debut went triple Platinum and established them as a top touring act for the holiday season. Christmas music was especially popular in 2007; the #1 album that year was Noël by Josh Groban, so offering SNC a contract in 2008 was, in retrospect, a no-brainer.
Songfacts: Why aren't there female a cappella groups?

Ponce: Oh, there are. There are at colleges. A lot of female groups. The one in Indiana is called Ladies First.

Female a cappella is difficult because it's hard to get the low end. It's hard to get the bass, and bass in my opinion is the most important part for a cappella. If you don't have bass, you don't have a cappella, because bass is the foundation. If the bass is weak, the whole thing is out of whack, it's out of tune.

I always thought of a cappella as a triangle where the basses have to be the strongest - the foundation - and you work your way up where the tenors are - the color - which are the least loud. The tenors are going to be fine because they're just so high in the range, but you need to have strong bass. And fortunately with Straight No Chaser we have the best basses in the country.

Songfacts: What are you?

Ponce: I'm a baritone. That's the most boring part.

Songfacts: I'm thinking about Boyz II Men, they had four guys, then they had some beef and their bass singer left the band. Now they're a trio with no bass. How can they do that?

Ponce: Because they perform with instruments, they perform with a full band. I saw them in concert in Waukegan a couple of years ago, they were awesome. But they're not reliant on the bass. When they sing a cappella they can still do some cool things with just three voices, but true a cappella, if you don't have bass, you don't have a cappella. Boyz II Men, they sing with a full band.

The 2021 lineup of Straight No Chaser

Songfacts: I'd like to get your thoughts on some of the famous a cappella songs and singers throughout history, just whatever comes to mind. Starting with Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy."

Ponce: That revolutionized the genre for sure. I think that was the first a cappella song to break through into the mainstream. I think the next group to do that was probably Take Six, and another group called Rockapella. Those are the groups that I heard in high school along with another group called The Nylons - they're out of Toronto. Between Bobby McFerrin, The Nylons and Take Six, I was blown away. I said, "This is what I want to do. I love a cappella music."

And then there's Pentatonix. Straight No Chaser and Pentatonix are probably the two most popular acts right now. Pentatonix completely changed the genre. They revolutionized it and took a cappella music to a completely different place. But Straight No Chaser made mainstream what had been around for years on college campuses. We just took that college a cappella sound and took it mainstream. Pentatonix completely turned the genre on its head.

Songfacts: Pentatonix has hit songwriters writing for them. The same guy who wrote "High Hopes" for Panic At The Disco also wrote "Sing" for Pentatonix.2

Ponce: Right. They have a different creative team for sure. Straight No Chaser pretty much gets all of their arrangements in-house - it's all within the group. Starting out, Walter and I did 90% of the arrangements.

I think Straight No Chaser's sound is so successful because it is very natural. We're not making weird twingy sounds and cartoon sounds. We're just trying to sing.

Songfacts: Is this an innate talent, or is it learned?

Ponce: I think it's innate, but rehearsals and just doing it over and over again, that's how you really learn to blend with your bandmates, I think even more so than with instrumental groups. When you sing together you're breathing together. There's a synergy in a cappella music that I think is unique to the genre. Instrumentalists would argue with me on that point for sure, but I think a cappella requires the most musical synergy of any genre.

Songfacts: When you have 10 guys and you take away two of them, which I know Straight No Chaser has had to do, is that a major issue?

Ponce: Well, you certainly can pull off some repertoire if you don't have two guys. We've done gigs, especially in college, with six guys. We look around and say, "Which songs do we have all the parts covered?"

When you have 10 guys, that doesn't mean that 10 guys are singing 10 different parts. In fact, most of the time two guys are singing a part. So the arrangement might be a four-part arrangement with a soloist and two guys are singing each part. It just depends on the song. We've had songs where there are eight different parts happening at the same time and one bassline and one soloist. We've sung in unison before, which is a really amazing sound with everyone singing the same thing. That's a really powerful moment. But you can pull off songs if you're missing a couple guys.

Songfacts: Another song for you: "If I Ever Fall In Love" by Shai.

Ponce: That's one of those songs that broke through commercially that people recognize, and we certainly have covered that and we've sung that song to death. I like to think that we have our own versions of those types of songs, especially in the Christmas genre, that are like, "Oh, that's a Straight No Chaser song." We haven't had many original songs break through, but my song "Indiana Christmas" is one of the most popular and that's an original song that I wrote.

Songfacts: "It's So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday," the Boyz II Men version is a cappella, but that didn't start out as an a cappella song.

Ponce: I thought it did.

Songfacts: The original version from the '70s has a full arrangement.3 But what are your thoughts on the Boyz II Men version?

Ponce: Oh man, we've sung that version. I love it, it's iconic. When we started out in college, songs like that and "If I Ever Fall In Love," "Don't Worry Be Happy," and "It's All Right" by Huey Lewis & the News - that's an a cappella4 - we just covered those songs with the exact same arrangement note for note. "The Longest Time" by Billy Joel, that's the very first song we learned as a group.

That's kind of how we developed our songs, by taking great a cappella songs that already existed and covering them note for note with our own voices. That was our foundation, and then I said, "OK, let's do our own arrangements."

Songfacts: What do you consider the gold standard of a cappella songs?

Ponce: Well, "If I Ever Fall In Love" by Shai has everything: It's the soloist, it's the background. For Straight No Chaser, my favorite arrangement is Jason Mraz' "I'm Yours" with "Somewhere Over The Rainbow." That just makes everyone happy.

Songfacts: Is there a song you grew up listening to and became determined to learn?

Ponce: Yeah, that would be The Nylons for sure. The Nylons got me started on a cappella when I was in junior high school. I learned all their songs. They had an album called Four On The Floor and they did a song called "Good Old Acappella."

[sings]
There's a light coming from the window
And it shines down on the street
There's some guys standing on the corner
Singin' that good old harmony


It's an upbeat, fun song.

But "Carol Of The Bells" is gold standard to me. That's always just so powerful during Christmas. That's an a cappella standard that we do and a lot of groups have covered.

August 18, 2021

Catch Dan on the WGN Morning News, and on Twitter @DanPonceTV. More on Straight No Chaser (including tour dates) at sncmusic.com.

Further reading:
List of a cappella songs
Modern A Cappella with Peder Karlsson of The Real Group
Jon Oliva of Trans-Siberian Orchestra

Footnotes:

  • 1] Ponce can whistle a melody and hum a harmony at the same time, a party trick he has done on the air at the urging of his WGN co-anchor. (back)
  • 2] Sam Hollander, who also co-wrote a great song called "Acapella" with Karmin. That song is not a cappella, but uses the term as a metaphor for self-reliance after cutting loose from a relationship that isn't working. (back)
  • 3] The original version of "It's So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday" - with instruments - was released in 1975 by G.C. Cameron and used in the movie Cooley High. The 1991 Boyz II Men version is a cappella. (back)
  • 4] "It's All Right" is another song that was originally with instrumentation. It was written by Curtis Mayfield and recorded with his group The Impressions in 1963. The Huey Lewis cover is a rare example of a full band - not a vocal group - belting out an admirable a cappella. Their 1993 cover is not to be confused with their cover of a different song called "But It's Alright" the following year. (back)

More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 1

  • Tom Tobey from Fort WayneHuge fan of Dan Ponce and SNC. I sat and sang next to Dan in Singing Hoosiers. I wish he would have given a better shout out to the inheritance there at I.U. Vida and Monkey Puzzle were there at the time. I was in a group with Walt (Chase). Every time I hear SNC I am gobsmacked by how good it is!
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