Those who think doo-wop died out in the '70s haven't heard Rockapella. The pop vocal quintet picks up where groups such as the Temptations left off, updating the harmony-laced vocal style with new arrangements and "human beat box" vocal percussion.
Rockapella will sing with the Wichita Symphony Orchestra on Saturday. The season-opening pops concert will be led by conductor Michael Krajewski at Century II Convention Hall. Music lovers can expect new takes on classic hits from the early 1970s, including the Temptations' "Papa Was a Rolling Stone."
"A lot of the charm of Rockapella is our ability to take a song you are familiar with and (make) our own unique version," said Scott Leonard, a singer in Rockapella.
"Our show is very interactive. It's not just guys standing around singing and sounding pretty. It's funny. There's a lot of staging and a lot of movement."
Tunes sung by Rockapella with the Wichita Symphony will also include Orleans' "Dance With Me," the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun," Sam Cooke's "Up on the Roof," Elton John's "Philadelphia Freedom" and others.
One unique aspect of Rockapella's performances is vocal percussion, the uncanny ability of the singers to mimic the beat of a drum kit and weave that rhythm track into the tight harmonies and lyrics.
"We used to have to convince people that there were no instruments playing with us," Leonard said. "As busy as the arrangements are and with the vocal percussion, I don't think you miss anything that you get from a rock band. You have the drums and the bass and the backups filling in all the parts and the melody. It's a new approach, definitely."
Rockapella was formed in New York City in 1986; Leonard joined the group in 1991, singing high tenor. The group soared in popularity when it sang the theme song and appeared frequently on the PBS kids' show "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?" Folgers coffee commercials and other TV ads spread the group's fame.
"We are definitely 'New Wop,' " Leonard said. "Our arrangements that I do are much more complex. Doo-wop is kind of simple — simple chords and the melody. Ours is very contrapuntal and very active. The songs we choose to do don't lend themselves to doo-wop. It really is a new take on unaccompanied music."
In addition to Leonard, Rockapella is Jeff Thacher, George Baldi, John Brown and Steven Dorian. Dorian is the newest member; he joined the group just this year. The singers have diverse professional backgrounds. Leonard sang at Disney World in Florida and in Tokyo. The group has released more than 10 CDs worldwide; a new CD is due this month.
Rockapella currently presents about 100 concerts a year all over the world. An extensive tour of the United Kingdom is upcoming.
Symphony pops concerts are relatively new to Rockapella; most of the group's gigs are sung a cappella — just the five guys singing without instrumental backing. Saturday will be Rockapella's first performance with the Wichita Symphony.
"At first we were like, 'We don't need instruments,' " Leonard said. "We took an oath — We will never sing with instruments. That is not our thing. And then the Boston Pops called us up. And we were like, 'Sure we'll sing with the Boston Pops.' "
So Rockapella keeps evolving, taking the nostalgic songs of doo-wop into a new century, and in new musical directions.
If you go
What: The a cappella group will sing with the Wichita Symphony Orchestra in its season-opening pops concert; Michael Krajewski, conductor
Where: Century II Convention Hall, 225 W. Douglas
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
How much: Tickets are $5-$40. For more information, visit www.wso.org or call 316-267-7658.