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Dear Abbeys Turn 20

BU’s all-male a cappella group has a loyal fan base, on campus and beyond

| From BU Today | By Amy Laskowski

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In the video, the Dear Abbeys perform “You Can Call Me Al.” Videos by Alan Wong. Photos by Cydney Scott

It’s hard to ignore the yelps and whoops heard at almost every Dear Abbeys concert. Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, BU’s only all-male a cappella group has achieved a loyal fan base, not just on campus, but around the country. Shows are often sold out or standing room only, thanks to the energetic and dynamic talent the ever-changing cast of 13 singers brings to the stage.

Since its inception in February 1992, the singers have performed in venues from Alaska to Hawaii to San Francisco, New Orleans to Texas to New Mexico. Along the way, they’ve released eight albums, making them a growing force in the national a cappella scene.

Their new album, Proclamation, includes covers of songs by Coldplay, Arcade Fire, Lada Gaga, and James Taylor.

“Each collegiate group offers a unique and special spin to a cappella music,” says the group’s current media director Jason Kaplan (COM’12). “For us, whether we’re singing for my mom in her living room or 30,000 people in Fenway Park, we always keep energy levels up and immerse ourselves in the music. And being a group of 13 men, this usually means awkward dance moves, lots of sweat, and a level of audience engagement that lingers long after our shows end.”

The group’s repertoire includes songs as varied as Rihanna’s “S&M,” the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love,” and Mumford and Sons’ “Little Lion Man.” They write all their own musical arrangements. And their schedule is grueling. In addition to performing more than 100 times a year, the group also meets twice weekly for rehearsals.

When the Dear Abbeys were formed in 1992, BU didn’t have an all-male a cappella group. A cappella, which means “in the manner of the chapel,” is a term originally used to describe church music composed for unaccompanied voices, but now is used to refer to any vocal music performed without instruments. Founded by Cooper Olson (COM’93), Jamie Kirkpatrick (COM’93), and Brian Reichelt (COM’95), the Dear Abbeys differed from other a cappella groups by singing just pop music—no show tunes.

In the video above, the Dear Abbeys perform Peter Gabriel’s “Shock the Monkey” in 1994.

Olson, now creative director and copywriter of his own Los Angeles–based PR and advertising agency, says he got the idea for the Dear Abbeys when friends at schools like Columbia University joined popular campus a cappella groups. He enlisted the help of BU friends Kirkpatrick and Reichelt and together they “decided to navigate the waters of forming a group at BU, which was never easy for one minute,” Olson recalls.

They chose the name Dear Abbeys in honor of the person who helped them navigate the process of establishing their group as an official club, Abby Borodach (CAS’86), then the director of the Student Activities Office. Today, she is better known on campus as Abby Elmore, wife of Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore (SED’87).

The Dear Abbeys began to compete in 2002. Just three years later, they won the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCA) competition—the equivalent of winning an a cappella Grammy—and began earning a national reputation.

The Dear Abbeys with Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, after singing at his Boston Homecoming party at the House of Blues in 2011. Photo by Logan Lumm

Here in Boston, the group has sung at Fenway Park, TD Garden, and the House of Blues, where they performed with Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler.

While performing at BU is their priority, Kaplan says, the group regularly engages in community outreach projects. “We have sung at elementary, middle, and high schools, and engage with students in any capacity,” he says. “At high schools we promote BU, and we try to use our craft to spark positive change.”

The Dear Abbeys’ outreach also includes performances to benefit local charities. They recently appeared at A Cappella Palooza, a benefit for the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center, at Agganis Arena. The show featured the Dear Abbeys alongside musician Ben Folds, a celebrity judge on NBC’s hit music show The Sing Off, and a cappella groups that have appeared on the show during the past three seasons.

Olson is not surprised that the Dear Abbeys are still going strong, he says, but its success has exceeded his expectations. “That was the dream exactly, to create an institution, like these other groups I would see then,” he says. “I never dreamed they’d win the ICCA title, or be the first college group to figure out how to have their music on iTunes, or have a live streaming broadcast of their concert on YouTube, or tour New Orleans. They’ve figured out how to do all that on their own. They’re little multimedia moguls, and successful beyond my wildest dreams.”

Kaplan says current members deeply appreciate the many Dear Abbeys alumni who have helped the group get where it is today, either by offering advice, booking gigs, or providing help in recording their CDs.

In the video, the Dear Abbeys perform “Chicago.” Return to the top. Video by Alan Wong.

In the video, the Dear Abbeys perform “You Make My Dreams.” Return to the top. Video by Alan Wong.

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