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.
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.