In the wake of the collegiate a cappella explosion of the early 2000s and three seasons of The Sing-Off, it’s not unusual to hear to hear about a group of friends trying to cut it as a professional a cappella group. It’s less ordinary, though, to find someone who’s invested in not only his own group, but a cappella as a medium for moving music and society forward. When I spoke with Scott Henderson in late January, this is exactly what he suggested.
“The Idol shows set people up to judge individual people’s singing abilities,” Henderson said, “and people thought you should only sing if you’re outstanding. That mentality crept into pop culture. Now, with Glee and The Sing-Off and Canada Sings, the whole premise is people who are not professionals performing. That’s a real healthy way of people getting interested in making music.” He went on to explain his view that a cappella has music “becoming what it always should have been—people walking down the street singing; everybody should sing, just like everybody walks and talks.” Henderson went on to discuss the way in which a cappella “inspires any fan of music, inspires people to put their own spin on songs they love, and think about how music can be done in different ways. A cappella [musicians have] known for a long time they can’t just imitate, they need to innovate without instruments—that affects musicians in general and how they look at how they can make music and do covers.”
If anyone has a legitimate claim to seeing the bigger picture of music and how a cappella has evolved, it would be Henderson. His group, The EarthTONES, first recruited him as a member in 1984, when Henderson was a high school student. Before long, he started managing business for the group, securing gigs for every weekend, traveling throughout the remainder of his high school career and his time at university. Though the group’s line up changed over time, Henderson remained a constant. The group saw five songs reach the top twenty chart in Canada, earned awards nominations, and from 1994 to 1998 toured the United States extensively, performing as many as 280 shows in a calendar year, primarily at colleges and universities. Although the group often performed with some instrumentation, a core component of their sets remained truly a cappella.
“We had major labels interested in us,” Henderson recalled, “but at that point it was all grunge and there was no [US] radio to be had for us.” Indeed, the 1990s represented a particularly awkward time for a serious, young all-male vocal group to try to break through to the mainstream. The group faced the stigma of comparisons to groups like New Kids on the Block. Furthermore, the racial diversity of the group proved an obstacle for the time, with members who identified as white, black, half-black and Filipino. “We didn’t see ourselves in racial terms,” Henderson said. “We just thought of ourselves as a group.” While Henderson said the mix of races and cultures were not an issue for the public, they were an issue for the recording industry at the time, as the group was told “we weren’t black enough for R&B radio … or we’re too soulful for white radio.” Despite the group’s setbacks, they still enjoyed remarkable experiences as a group, including the opportunity to record in Prince’s studio.
The group burned out from its break-neck touring schedule and decided to break up in 1998. Group members continued to sing and carve their own niches in music, but never came together as a unit again until April 2010, when the guys reunited for a charity event. The guys put together a Michael Jackson medley, and subsequently entered it into a contest sponsored by The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which was looking for acts to perform on the anniversary of Jackson’s death. “They weren’t really looking for a cappella,” Henderson said, “but they ended up picking us.”
And so, four out of five members of the group’s last incarnation in 1998 came back together, joined with a full-time beat boxer and one new voice to forge the revitalized EarthTONES. “We always wanted to be taken seriously, rather than marketing toward teenage girls. We wanted to be appreciated by a wider cross-section of people, and saw ourselves as song-writers,” Henderson said. “We have songs about racism and HIV.” Henderson talked about how he now feels the group’s collective advanced age is benefit. “Now we can just taken for our music, which is kind of cool.” The group is currently preparing to record a new EP, and put out a Christmas single this past December.
The EarthTONES had reformed mere months after season one of The Sing-Off and expressed an interest in season two. Producers encouraged the guys to audition, but the timing did not work out. Season three allowed for video submissions, so the group did throw its hat in the ring that time around. The group made it deep into the selection process, but ultimately did not make it onto the show. The experience did offer hope , though, as casting representatives told Henderson “they really liked the group, and we have a bright future.”
Meanwhile, Henderson has had his hand in a TV project of his own, working as a coach on Canada Sings. Henderson described the show as two workplace vocal groups (think firefighters, airline workers, restaurant staff, teachers) competing against each other to raise money for the charities of their choice. Henderson preps arrangements and “whips groups into shape over the course of five days” to prepare for the stage, and compete against another group, mentored by another professional. The premise of the show is built on mashups, which plays to Henderson’s strengths as a songwriter so he can take the original pieces and use them to generate a brand new song.
The show clearly matches Henderson’s broader vision: everyone—amateurs, professionals, and all points in between—having a place in making music. Whether he stands in front of a microphone or a coach’s chalkboard, Henderson has a niche all his own in the music world, and looks poised to bring share his vision with the a cappella community and beyond for years to come.