Feature: Berklee Singers Take on “Abbey Road” (Boston Globe,

Posted on December 20, 2010


Once upon a time, it was all about a few years’ worth of tunes cooked up by a group of nice English lads and played on turntables in bedrooms. The world’s favorite band, simple as that. Flash-forward a few generations to earlier this month, when Apple called on everyone to stop the presses: longtime digital holdouts the Beatles were finally joining their video game selves in the 21st century and selling songs on iTunes. It didn’t quite change the world — even though the band soon took over eight spots in the Top 20 albums downloads that week — but it proved yet again the group’s immortal ability to make headlines.

From the glorious mayhem of their first visit to the States to the goofy controversy over whether Paul McCartney was alive or dead, the Beatles were never too shoddy at drumming up publicity in their day — and they’ve been downright masterful at it in the decades since their breakup. There were the “Red’’ and “Blue’’ albums (both multi-platinum), the massive anthologies in the ’90s, unearthing of old material. Last year, the band took over PlayStations and X-Boxes with the mythmaking Rock Band: The Beatles game and released a round of deluxe boxed sets of all their old records. All great PR moves for the brand legacy.

It can be easy to forget the band’s real legacy is in the nuts and bolts of pop music, passed on from singers to radio DJs to fans and their kids, until one of them picks up an instrument and starts the cycle all over again. To that end, Berklee’s biannual Singers Showcase is using the 40th anniversary of the band’s studio swan song, “Abbey Road’’ to place some of the school’s brightest on stage at the Berklee Performance Center on Thursday to belt out the hits.

Special programs director Ken Zambello, who’s run the Showcase for 15 years, says it’s the first significant Beatles tribute the group has done in decades. “The last time we did a Beatles show was when George Martin was here in 1989 to get an honorary doctorate,’’ he says. But that doesn’t mean he had to shake the dust off these tunes.

“Those songs are like jazz standards,’’ he says. “They’re rock and pop standards that have been developing under our noses over the years that a lot of people aren’t even aware of.’’

Still, the show’s young performers are finding aspects of the songs a bit foreign. Berklee senior and vocal performance major Mario Jose is spending his fall tackling John Lennon’s gruff bark on opener “Come Together.’’

“I’m a pop and R&B singer,’’ says Jose, who can be seen on the Dec. 6 premiere of NBC’s “The Sing-Off,’’ performing with the comparatively polished vocal group Pitch Slapped. “So I’ve had to study some past singers to get a handle on it. I’ve been listening to a lot of Journey, Freddie Mercury — guys with in-between voices. Of course, they’re rock singers but they have more of a clear tone. It’s not like Steven Tyler, where he has more of that grit to his voice. I just don’t have that.’’

Avowed jazz singer Emily Miller is charged with converting the trippy George Harrison ballad “Something’’ into a duet with fellow singer David Wyatt. Miller, a 20-year-old Florida native and vocal performance junior, says she grew up on Michael Jackson, Manhattan Transfer, and Ella Fitzgerald.

“I came to them later in life,’’ she says, “But of course, I already knew lots of these songs without realizing it. They’re definitely a group that you can learn a lot from in terms of songwriting. I love how you can take something like ‘Let It Be,’ make it a country song without sounding like it didn’t start out that way.’’

The songs have some adapting to do, themselves — while all the singers try on Lennon’s sarcasm and McCartney’s chirpy melodies, a few of the old tunes are getting a workout, thanks to some inventive arrangements, and will be up against a slew of more contemporary songs on the top half of the show. First on Zambello’s list is the vaudeville number “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’’ (a song of McCartney’s that Lennon was fond of calling “granny-style’’ writing), which is getting recast as a funk jam.

“I gave it to one of the student arrangers,’’ says Zambello. “Here’s a song, it’s old-fashioned and kind of hokey — I want you to make it contemporary. I turned him loose on it and we’ll see what he can come up with.’’ He also promises an all-acoustic, chamber setting for the harpsichord ballad, “Because.’’

Miller, Jose, and eight others ended up in the middle of all of this after a tough audition process that whittled down a pool of around 120 singers to a handful who then had to run through a live call-back in front of a packed Berklee Performance Center — a first for the decades-old Showcase. Three teachers formed a panel of judges, whose votes were tossed in “American Idol’’-style, with an avalanche of text message votes from the audience and viewers watching a live stream from their computers.

Zambello, for his part, counts himself lucky to be involved from the start. A die-hard Beatles fan and rock ’n’ roll scholar (he teaches a “History of Rock Music’’ course at the school), Zambello has put years in on the side as a bassist in cover bands doing Elvis, Buddy Holly, and Patsy Cline hits. In the Beatles tribute bands, he squeezes out the high McCartney harmonies.

“It’s a heck of a lot of fun,’’ he says. “Getting paid to work with music I listened to as a kid is a good thing.’’

Original article in the Boston Globe here.