Friday, October 3, 2008

Who is Dick Gregory?

I’ve got a piece in Sunday’s New York Times about an a cappella group, Straight No Chaser from Indiana University, with a unique story. See, ten years after graduation, this group suddenly scored a major label record deal when one of their old video's became a surprise hit on—where else?—YouTube. (Read that story here.)

The song was a comedic take on “The 12 Days of Christmas" (incorporating Toto's "Africa!") and it was viewed nearly eight million times. In case you missed it, I'll embed that video here:

Atlantic Records is talking about sending these boys (or rather, these men) out on the road with the likes of Josh Groban. But what about this arrangement of “The 12 Days of Christmas?” Where did it come from? As I reported in the Times piece, though the arrangement has evolved over the years, it began as the handiwork of one Richard Gregory, now 76, an alum of the Yale Whiffenpoofs and a retired music educator from the Williston Northampton School. I tracked down Mr. Gregory to get the story behind the music. He speaks:

What inspired you to write this arrangement of “The 12 Days of Christmas?”
I was in the Navy in the 1950s, stationed on the Island of Guam. I had a singing group of Naval officers, and we needed something fun for Christmas. I was diddling around one night writing music. These Christmas songs—a lot of these songs have the same chord structure. They’re easy to play together in counterpoint, and I’m fascinated by counterpoint. I wrote a primitive version of the arrangement. It wasn’t as long and it wasn’t as good. I came to the Williston Northampton School in the ‘60s and began an a cappella group of students, the Caterwaulers. I polished up the arrangement and taught it to the boys. We sang it and people liked it.

Why the Caterwaulers?
Caterwaul is what cats do on the back of the fence when there is a female cat in heat. That’s the name we adopted.

One of the Caterwaulers—the person who was the so-called music leader, the one who blew the pitch pipe—went to Princeton and joined the Nassoons. And he took that song with him. And the Nassoons have been calling it their arrangement ever since. They put it on a phonograph as their arrangement. It was strange for them to learn that I had written it.

How did they come to find out that you’d written the arrangement?
One of the graduates of the Nassoons was auditioning at Williston Northampton for a teaching job. Someone at the school knew I’d written that song and made a point of us meeting. I said to him, Do you know who wrote the arrangement? I did. That’s how they got the news. By that time, the song had been given from hand-to-hand to groups around the country.

I heard from one of the Nassoons. He tells me they credited you on their 1976 recording of "12 Days..." He points out that your name wasn't taken off, really. Rather, the song was subsequently taught by ear. That's where the disassociation happened. Anyway, now the song's going to be on a major label.
So it’s not dead yet...

When did you get a sense that “The 12 Days of Christmas” was such a phenomenon?
It was after Chrsitmas last year. I hadn’t heard of YouTube. I don’t have a computer. In fact, today I’m writing a letter on a manual typewriter. But my friends began to talk about it. And some people would call me—including a father whose son sings in the Indiana University a cappella group. He tracked me down.

Where did you see the video?
I went to a friend’s house. And it was good fun listening to it. Then that other song came on.

Yes, that’s Toto’s “Africa.”
It’s a good song, but one I’ve never heard of. The Indiana group cut off the last—and best!—third of my arrangement and stuck on this other thing. They lost “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and “Chestnuts Roasting.”

Is there money to be made here?
I’ve been glad to have anyone sing it who wants to. The University of Michigan glee club put it on a CD. It’s beautifully sung. The choir director called and asked me and I said it was fine. But really, no one cares very much about rights and so on. A publisher called me after the YouTube success and showed some interest in selling the arrangement, but I think they realized that they won’t make much money off of it. Everyone who wants the arrangement already has it.

As an undergrad at Yale, you sang with the Whiffenpooffs. What do you remember about those days?
I graduated from Yale in 1954. But I was pitch pipe of the ’56 Whiffenpoofs as a graduate student. We went around the country. I sang solo on the stage of the San Francisco Opera House. It was a song called, “Slow Motion.” It’s in the Yale Songbook, I think. It was something I wouldn’t have the nerve to do now, but being young and fearless I did it and I got through it. As part of the glee club, we sang with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood. Back then, the Whiffs traveled with the glee club. The Whiffs of ‘56 still sing together—all twelve of us.

Really? Where?
Different parts of the country—California, Wisconsin. Only four of us are on the East Coast. And yet we all get together, along with our wives. We still sing pretty well for guys in our 70s. But by now the fun is more important than the singing.

Did the Whiffs perform at Williston while you were teaching?
Yes. It was an ego trip. They’d call upon me to join them for the “Whiffenpoof Song.” It was good for two or three days. Then everyone would forget about it.

How has a cappella changed?
During the ‘70s, it was not cool that kind of music. And now there has been a big revival of it. Things have changed.

Did you ever think you’d be talking about “The 12 Days of Christmas” fifty years after leaving Guam?
I’m grateful for some notoriety. But I would have preferred other works of mine to become notorious. I’ve written three operas and a lot of choral music and chamber music—which is not fashionable.


Anonymous said...

Dick Gregory is the BOMB! Great to see him garner national attention. He is a legend and a dear friend.
Tony Becker, Caterwauler '76-'77.

Tim Murphy said...

Wow. It's really amazing to learn the backstory of this piece. I am proud to have been a Caterwauler in Dick's final year of directing the group, 1995. That was my junior year at Williston. Tony Lechner and James Wu rang the group during my senior year. Tony had come from the UMASS music dept. and James had been a Zumbye at Amherst College. Dick is an inspiration to all of us, and I'm thrilled to see his hard work gaining some much deserved attention!
Tim Murphy, Caterwauler '95-'96.

Michael said...

I was a member of Dick Gregory's Caterwaulers from 1970-1972. We were a closeknit bunch, and we still are. Over the years, at reunions, I've gotten to know some of the other singers from the Caterwauler groups of the 60's, 80's, and 90's. Thanks to the success of Straight, No Chaser, I think every singer in every group that ever sang Dick's arrangement of "The 12 Days of Christmas" just realized that we're all connected. That's some powerful stuff. Thank you, Mr. Gregory, for trusting me with the pitchpipe, providing me with many wonderful memories, and for giving a capella groups a song that "brings down the house" every time!
Michael Wills, Caterwauler '70-'72.

John Anz said...

An incredible, long-awaited, but JUSTLY deserved acknoweldgement of a great and talented man. I think we all knew we were very lucky to be led in high-school by the likes of a Dick Gregory, let along THE DICK GREGORY! We heard and knew well of the many Dick "Whiff" and "Baker's Dozen" stories (heck - being of similar stature, I even wore Dick's '56 Whiffs Tie & Tails to my Senior Prom!).

But he was ours - and he still is. And we were Caterwaulers, and we still are! It wasn't just a moment in time long ago - the legend continues...

Wum, bum, bum...

John Anz '82

Anonymous said...

I was the scrawny kid who, at Williston in the late 60's, never managed to make the grade at Caterwauler auditions but attended rehearsals anyway -- sitting way back in the shadows -- just to hear those dozen guys sing. What a thrill the day the group, with Dick's (I'm guessing) reluctant nod, invited me to sing with them. Looking back, I number those two years as among the very few highlights of my high school experience. Dick's generosity, heart, and straight-shooting probably saved my wee life. Thank you and congratulations, Dick!
Brad Davis, Caterwauler 69-71

Anonymous said...

Dick Gregory is indeed the BOMB. I was fortunate enough to be in the Caterwaulers when he dusted off the 12 days of Christmas for one of its many resurrections. I was great fun and very inventive. The fun we had and all the music we produced still lives in my memory.
Richard P Goss III, Caterwauler '68-'70

Steve Trudel said...

Singing with the Caterwaulers introduced me to a tradition that just keeps unfolding year after year.When I listen to the tape of one of our concerts in 1968, my amazement is renewed.Thanks Dick. I shared this link with my current a cappella group with pride and they were duly impressed! Heck, if I'm lucky I may even get Dick to be a guest director and teach us the song.

Tom Pieragostini said...

Mr. Gregory is a humble gentleman. A patient teacher & friend to many of us at Williston who met in the Dodge Room before dinner to sing. This recognition for Dick is long overdue. You know, I think I wore Dick's '56 Whiffs Tails too, to our "White Tie & Tails" formal concert at the Chapel. I posted the picture on facebook. I'm still trying to memorize those crazy lyrics to "The Twelve Days of Christmas". We'll have to practice at Mory's!!
Tom Pieragostini, Caterwauler '77-'80

Anonymous said...

I was a Caterwauler and a Whiff. Dick Gregory chose me for the first and made me want to aspire to the second. Other than my parents, I'm not sure that any single individual has meant as much to me and given me so much(and so much to think about) as he has. I am fortunate to have been among those whose lives he has touched.

Geoff Burns

Peter Kostos said...

When we all look back on our formative years in HS we remember the fun events - proms, first kisses, athletic events, getting into our first choice for college, etc. - but in the borading school world you operate in a different realm. You are away from home and Mom and Dad and people expect you to have a firmer grasp on your geeky teen years better than your peers who live at home. Our memories are shaped by the adult's who enter our lives at that time because they show us a different set of adult figures and expose us to new advantures and experiences. Mr. Gregory is one of those special individuals for me. I remember my first time auditioning for the Caterwaulers and how nervous I was to be singing scales in front of my friends not to mention standing there in a sweaty t-shirt, socks and football pants (no cleats in our beloved Dodge Room, please). I was asked to leave after and it was not until an hour later at dinner that I was informed of my acceptance into the group. For the next three years it was a whirlwind of rehersals, auditioning new members, trips around western mass. and a Senior trip to Bermuda as our reward for our hard work. We recorded a tape (which I still have) and developed our own stage show of goofs and gags for when we sang with the Widdigers. All the while Mr. Gregory let us go because man, we were really good! And when we busted out 12 Days and really let it go, especially the great 3rd verse, it was an instant crowd favorite. The best part of the song though was that it was not sung every year, it was only done when Mr. Gregory deemd the group worthy and that made it even more special. It's great to see some attenton coming to the song, it's great to think about those times and everything else, but one thing will always remain the 'waulers did it first and did it right by him. And it is because of that song, and those memories that we will always be thankful for Mr. Gregory's presence in our lives. Wum bum bum is right....
Peter Kostos, Caterwauler 1984-87

Anonymous said...

Over 40 years ago when Dick decided to create the Caterwaulers at Williston, those of us in that first group had no idea where this would go. We were breaking new ground. But that was not unusual for those of us who got involved with Dick's creations. From his Music Theory class, to a minor role in his musical 'Artemis Undone', a starup school marching? band with Dick's new school fight song, and finally to the Caterwalers - Dick was always sharing his love for music. He taught an appreciation for music to many of us that will last our lifetimes. Many thanks, Dick!
Russell Sherman, '66

Anonymous said...

Dick Gregory is not a large man, but somehow his body is able to contain a huge heart and an enormous talent, as documented by his Caterwaulers' testimonies. He is also an incredible diplomat and politician. If it weren't for his abilities in these areas, Downey's and Kingsbury's opposition to my inclusion would never have been overruled, and I wouldn't have become Dick's successor with the Whiff's the next year. Thanks, Dick! Williston was very lucky to have you, as were your students, particularly.

One of the many people fortunate to have met you.

Anonymous said...

Dick Gregory is not a large man, but somehow his body is able to contain a huge heart and an enormous talent, as documented by his Caterwaulers' testimonies. He is also an incredible diplomat and politician. If it weren't for his abilities in these areas, Downey's and Kingsbury's opposition to my inclusion would never have been overruled, and I wouldn't have become Dick's successor with the Whiff's the next year. Thanks, Dick! Williston was very lucky to have you, as were your students, particularly.

One of the many people fortunate to have met you.

Carlyle Alford III said...

Mr. Gregory (I still recall him confiding in me his disdain for all those college kids returning to Williston and calling him "Dick"), is truly an unforgettable figure. Just this week, before John Anz directed me to this article, I was laughing about a comment he made on one of my music papers. It was original, insightful, understatedly hilarious, and, obviously, memorable, much like the man.

A short while ago, my house was destroyed by fire. I made a point of digging out the remnants of my Caterwauler tie from the debris. I will always cherish the moments I spent with the group and its founder. I hope to see all of them at the reunion at Williston next year.

Carl Alford, Caterwauler '72-'74

P.S., Mike Wills DEFINITELY did not wear those Tie & Tails!

Rex Solomon said...

Dick Gregory's work at Williston with the Caterwaulers and Widigers in many ways has directly lead to the revival of a cappella. I was first exposed to the genre at Williston, and when I was at Brandeis some friends heard a tape of mine of the Caterwaulers and decided that it would be fun to start a singing tradition at Brandeis. Not knowing a thing about how to do such a thing they asked me to call Dick Gregory for advice. In response, He wrote essentially a short "How to start and a cappella group for dummies" manual for them [in an exam blue book no less!] and sent an number of arrangements along as well. That was in the early spring of 1988. I graduated that year and returned to Houston, yet another a cappella void, and in the effort to get new a cappella thing lead to another and I started "The List" the first collegiate a cappella directory [pre net days mind you...] with in a few months Deke Sharon, then a Beelzebub at Tufts, called me with an idea to transform my freely distributed list into a subscription based a cappella newsletter and directory to be called "The CAN" [The Contemporary A Cappella Newsletter] and an a cappella arrangement lending library which would be the benefits of membership in a new Contemporary A Cappella Society of America, now CASA []

The core of the arrangement library were those very arrangements that Dick Gregory had given me to help get that new Brandeis group off the ground. So in a very real way with out Dick Gregory there would be no CASA of the last 20 years! The material he provided created the real foundation on which my minimal work was done, and carried much, much farther by Deke Sharon who had the real vision to create this world wide organization and musical movement. So with out Dick Gregory much of this a cappella world of today would not exist.

Rex Solomon Williston '84

PS I heard the Stanford Fleet Street Singers perform the 12 Days of Christmas [which they called Christmas Soup]at a Veritones Jam at Harvard in 1987, they had no idea who had arranged the song, however when their next album came out it was credited arr. R.C. Gregory.

Anonymous said...

Is it possible to get a copy of Mr. Gregory's original arrangement? I would love to use it for a Holiday Show I'm working on....

Anonymous said...

Dick Gregory was a big part of my positive experience at Williston. Like he did most of his students, Dick inspired me to continue singing (and improving-I had many an iffy moment in my Caterwauler career!) through college, and even to help resurrect a capella singing at Bates College, where there are now at least 5 groups. (There was 1/2 a group that never performed when I arrived.) It is great to see Dick receive such recognition for dedicating his life to music and to us, his students. Way to go!

Andy Viles, Caterwauler '80-'81

Josh Freilich said...

Let me guess, he wrote the part where the end goes: "Four calling birds, three french hens, and a DUCK! Quack!" That was hilarious.

Anonymous said...

When I was accepted into the Widigers, I new part of my life began. I have always loved singing and harmonies - singing in an a cappella group was such a thrill. I went on to sing with the Skidmore Sonneteers, and later in a chapter of Harmony International. I still love to sing today. Thank you, Mr. Gregory, for accepting me into the Widigers, for your encouragement and expertise. The 12 Days of Christmas has always been one of my favorites. I just heard this new version from Straight No Chaser and very much enjoyed it. However, I do miss the version I heard the Caterwaulers sing. It had the parts of I'm dreaming of a partridge a laying, I'll be home for Christmas... and ending with a duck. Where can I find that version to hear again? I think of it almost every Christmas. Congratulations, Mr. Gregory! You highly deserve it!
Emily Belt, Widiger '79-'81.

Michael said...


The Caterwaulers of 1971-1972 recorded an album which has the version of The 12 Days of Christmas that you remember. Roger Bourdeau, a member of that group, has the original master tape. I have a copy of the album, but I don't have the technical where-with-all to make a CD of it.

Suggestions, anyone?

Michael Wills, Caterwauler '70-'72

P.S. Dan Becker, don't forget to bring your guitar in June. I still have those two one-dollar bills that we earned playing the blues a few years ago. I keep leaving them alone in the case at night, hoping that they'd multiply, but no such luck!

P.P.S. Carl Alford, I don't know what you meant by your comment, but I'll take it as a compliment! It is great to hear from you again. My suit of choice is black tuxedo, straight, no tails!

Rex Solomon said...

I do have a pdf of the original arrangement that Mr. Gregory sent me those many years ago! Email me

Rex Solomon '84 said...

FYI there is a Caterwauler's Facebook page

With images, and a scan of the first page of the 12 Days of Xmas Arrangement.

carlyle alford iii said...

Hi Mike! Having been about half a head taller than Mr. Gregory and always looking up to you, both literally and figuratively, neither of us would have fit in his tails (or filled his shoes). If you want to digitize that landmark recording, they now make a turntable to facilitate this. Check out Best Buy, Circuit City, etc. Sadly, I lost my copy of that record in the fire. I've always considered your group the best of the 'Waulers and was honored to have them bring me into the fold. I look forward to seeing you in June.

Carl Alford, Caterwauler '72-'74

Steve Gregory said...

Dick Gregory is my Uncle, my Dad's brother. I brag about him from time to time to my friends. "My Uncle wrote 3 Opera's" - "My Uncle had 8 zillion hits on YouTube" - stuff like that. When Dick and my Dad were kids, they would do concerts on Sunday's for their parent's (my grandparent's) friends. My Dad played Cello, Dick on Violin and my grandmother on Piano. Dick would improvise melodies based on the guests phone numbers. Dick also talked me OUT of playing the violin, I think he had mercy on his brother.
He's always been completely devoted to his art(s) and Williston. Cool guy.
Best to you all.
Steve Gregory / Cape Cod

Christina said...

Thank you! I finally know who sings this song!

Rex said...

Caterwauler Alums & Friends check out the Williston Caterwauler's Facebook page!

Rex said...

Williston has posted mp3s of the 12 Days of Christmas & learning Caterwauler alum Craig Ferri '84 at for the Caterwauler Reunion 2009...enjoy!

Anonymous said...


Doug said...

I was in Caterwaulers in '67 and '68. My memory isn't as good as others' around here - but I'd swear that the arrangement of "12 Days" was different back then. Can anybody remember?

doug kelner '68

David Harris said...

Does anyone have access to the original 12 Days score, the one before Toto was added? Thanks!